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Law Enforcement: Federal Judge Slams NYPD for Widespread Lying in Drug Cases

The federal judge hearing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the NYPD by two men who claim they were busted on bogus drug charges has blasted the department as plagued by "widespread falsification by arresting officers."

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Judge Weinstein
The comments from Brooklyn Federal Judge Jack Weinstein came in his decision refusing to throw out the lawsuit by Maximo and Jose Colon, who claim that Queens narcs arrested them last year on false cocaine sales charges. A surveillance tape of the bust exonerated the brothers and led to the charges against them being dropped and the indictment of arresting Detectives Henry Tavarez and Stephen Anderson.

"Informal inquiry by [myself] and among the judges of this court, as well as knowledge of cases in other federal and state courts... has revealed anecdotal evidence of repeated, widespread falsification by arresting officers of the New York City Police Department," Weinstein wrote. "There is some evidence of an attitude among officers that is sufficiently widespread to constitute a custom or policy by the city approving illegal conduct."

Weinstein's attack came after he gave Afsaan Saleem, the attorney representing the city, a chance to document steps the department and prosecutors have taken to address false testimony -- often called "testilying" -- and fabrication of criminal charges by NYPD officers. Saleem couldn't come up with enough to satisfy the judge.

The Colon case is only the most recent of a number of scandals that have left the department's credibility tattered. This year alone, hundreds of drug cases have been dismissed because of corruption in the Brooklyn South narc squad, three officers have been arresting for covering up the sodomizing of a pot smoker in a Brooklyn subway station, and a Bronx detective was convicted of perjury.

As New York Civil Liberties Union president Donna Lieberman told the New York Daily News: "The NYPD has a serious credibility issue if federal judges are convinced the department puts officers on the stand who lie."

Medical Marijuana: San Diego Dispensary Operator Found Not Guilty

In a blow to hard-line San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who has yet to find a medical marijuana dispensary she considers legal and who has coordinated a series of raids on dispensaries in recent years, a jury in San Diego Tuesday acquitted the manager of a local dispensary of marijuana possession and distribution charges. Jovan Jackson, 31, a Navy veteran, cried as the not guilty verdicts were read. He was, however, convicted on possession of Ecstasy and Xanax, small quantities of which were found in his home during an August 2008 raid. Still, Jackson expressed relief outside the courthouse. "I was very thankful," Jackson said. "This has been a long road. It hasn't been easy. I felt like a lot of weight was on my shoulders." Jackson's was the first medical marijuana case to go to trial since a series of Dumanis-orchestrated raids on dispensaries in September that resulted in 31 arrests and the closing of 14 San Diego-area dispensaries. Dumanis led other mass raids in 2006 and in February of this year. Jackson operated the Answerdam Alternative Care Collective, which was twice approached by undercover officers who had fraudulently obtained medical marijuana recommendations. Since the narcs had proper documentation under California law, and once they joined the collective by paying a $20 fee, Jackson let them purchase medical marijuana. Prosecutors presented evidence of $150,000 in credit card receipts and five pounds of marijuana seized during raids at the dispensary as evidence that, "This case is about making money, plain and simple," as Deputy District Attorney Chris Lindberg put it to the jury. But a large-scale operation is not out of line for a collective that boasted 1,649 members, as defense attorney K. Lance Rogers told the jury. He also reminded jurors that the narcs had signed up for the collective under false pretenses and that state law allows medical marijuana patients to legally buy marijuana from a collective that grows it. Jurors agreed, acquitting Jackson on the marijuana charges. Jurors told reporters after the trial that they found Jackson innocent because the state laws regarding medical marijuana sales from collectives were vague. "On a personal level, if you're going to hold somebody to a law, you have to define that law," said juror Perry Wright. It's not the end for Jackson. He faces up to three years in prison on the Ecstasty and Xanax possession charges, although he will most likely receive probation. And he faces another round of marijuana distribution charges from a similar undercover buy made this year. Given the verdict in this case, DA Dumanis might want to consider whether a re-run trial is worth the taxpayers' money and whether any of her pending dispensary prosecutions should go forward. But she probably won't.
Location: 
San Diego, CA
United States

Law Enforcement: Man Trying to Snuff Joint at Checkpoint Ends Up Dead; Attorney Accuses Police

A Worcester, Massachusetts, man who died after being taken into at a sobriety checkpoint near Andover last Wednesday as he tried to snuff out a marijuana joint was beaten by as many as 20 police officers, an attorney for his family said today. Kenneth Howe, 45, died at the Andover State Police Barracks when police noticed he "became unresponsive" during booking. The official version of the story, promulgated to the local media by Essex County District Attorney's Office spokesman Steven O'Connell is that Howe, a passenger in a vehicle stopped at the checkpoint, made "furtive movement," then "jumped out of the vehicle, struck the trooper, and fled." After a brief chase on foot and an "ensuing struggle," Howe was handcuffed and charged with assault and battery on a police officer. O'Connell said that Howe was taken to the Andover barracks, and, while being booked "slumped over and became unresponsive." He was taken to Lawrence General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:45 a.m. last Thursday. But today, attorney Francis King, hired by Howe's widow to represent her and her three young children, painted a starkly different picture of the events leading to Howe's death. Citing the testimony of the driver of the vehicle Howe was a passenger in, King said Howe was pulled out of the truck, beaten by police, and dragged before he collapsed next to a police cruiser. The driver has made a taped statement about what he saw that night, King said. The "furtive movements" were Howe attempting to snuff out a marijuana joint and put on his seat belt, King said. A female state trooper approached the truck, and Howe held up his hands and tried to explain that all he had in his hand was the joint. The trooper then reached into the truck, pulled Howe out, and screamed that he had assaulted her, King continued. "Our position is that he never assaulted her, "King said. Quite the contrary, se maintained: "It appears there were at least 10 to 20 officers all over the deceased, hands flailing." Howe was also "seen handcuffing and slumping to the ground, dragged over to the cruiser," she said. The sobriety checkpoint was staffed by Massachusetts State Police, North Andover police and the Essex County Sheriff's Department. It was stopping every vehicle for a "threshold observation" to check for impaired drivers, a practice upheld by the US Supreme Court. The Essex County District Attorney's Office is investigating, said O'Connell. An initial autopsy has been performed, but the cause of death has not been determined. Toxicology results are also pending. Police said they found one oxycodone tablet on Howe, for which he had a prescription. “At this point, we’re confident the Essex County DA’s office is conducting a thorough investigation and that they are taking the case very seriously,” King said. “I think it’s only fair to allow the DA to conduct an investigation.” You don't need a crystal ball to see the lawsuit waiting to be filed here. But that won't come until after the Essex County District Attorney's Office investigates and exonerates the officers involved.
Location: 
Andover, MA
United States

Will Foster is Free! He Walked Out of Prison in Oklahoma Today

Medical marijuana patient Will Foster is a free man. According to a phone call I just received from his partner, Susan Mueller, Foster was released on parole and walked out of prison in Oklahoma today. As you who have followed the Will Foster saga know, he became a poster boy for drug war injustice when he was sentenced to a mind-blowing 93 years in prison in Oklahoma back in the 1990s for growing a closet-full of medical marijuana. Thanks in part to the efforts of Stopthedrugwar.org (then known as DRCNet), Foster eventually got his sentence cut to a mere 20 years--for growing plants!--and was eventually paroled to the care of Guru of Ganja Ed Rosenthal in California, who had taken up his case. Last year, Foster was raided and charged with an illegal marijuana grow in California, although his grow was perfectly legal under the state's medical marijuana law. He spent a year in jail in Sonoma County before prosecutors dropped all charges, but by then, Oklahoma parole authorities demanded he return to the state to finish his sentence. Foster dropped his fight against extradition and returned in September. A good sign occurred a few weeks ago, when the parole board decided he had not violated his parole and should be released. This week, Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry must have agreed--he had the final say in the matter. Right now, Foster is making his way to parole offices in Oklahoma City to sign the paperwork. He should be back with his loved ones in California in a matter of days. Thanks to everyone who agitated for his release. Every once in awhile, we win one.
Location: 
Oklahoma City, OK
United States

Budget Crunch: Tennessee Could Free 4,000 Prisoners in Bid to Cut Costs

Faced with a demand from Gov. Phil Bredesen (R) that all state agencies slash their budgets by 9%, the Tennessee Department of Corrections has responded with a plan to free somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 prisoners before they have finished serving their sentences. Those eligible for release under the plan would be nonviolent offenders, including drug offenders.

According to a TDC statistical report, drug offenders make up 19% of all Tennessee prisoners and serve an average of 10 years. The state prison population has increased by 80% since 1993, with some 28,000 people now behind bars in the Volunteer State. This year, the TDC's budget is $700 million.

The department would have no recourse but releasing prisoners early if it were to implement the cuts called for by Gov. Bredesen, said Corrections Commissioner George Little. The department has scaled back spending and has 400 positions it is leaving unfilled he said. "This isn't scare tactics," he said. "We've got to make ends meet... We would not propose these sorts of very serious and weighty options if we were not in such dire circumstances. We've, frankly, exhausted all of our options other than, frankly, prison population management," Little said.

Little's remarks came on the first day of state budget hearings and were intended to show how the TDC would proceed if Bredesen went ahead with his plan to slice 9% from all state department budgets. Bredesen has said that declining tax revenues and the end of the federal stimulus program may force the state to reduce spending by up to $1.5 billion by the end of the next fiscal year.

Before the hearing, Bredesen told reporters he would try to avoid letting prisoners out early. "I obviously am not interested in returning hardened criminals back to the streets," he said. "But I've told each of them (departments) to come in and tell me, if I say you've got to have 9%, tell me how you can get it... The best thing to do is to get all the possibilities on the table and sort through it."

To achieve a 9% reduction, the TDC could simply release about 3,300 prisoners held in local jails at a cost of $35 to $42 a day. Or it could close one or two of the state's 14 prisons, which would result in the release of about 4,000 prisoners.

Medical Marijuana: Battle Over Regulating Los Angeles Dispensaries Drags On, But Council Rejects Prosecutor's Advice

For four years, the Los Angeles City Council has been wrestling with how to regulate the city's rapidly growing number of medical marijuana dispensaries. When the council started, there were four dispensaries in the city. When it initiated a moratorium on new dispensaries in 2007, there were 186. Now, there are close to a thousand.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
This week the council came closer to adopting regulations, but it isn't there yet, and a vote is now set for next week. But this week, medical marijuana advocates fended off what would have been a fatal blow when two council committees rejected language that would have barred the sale of medical marijuana.

That language came from the office of City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who, along with LA County District Attorney Steve Cooley, maintains that California's medical marijuana only allows collectives to grow marijuana -- not to sell it. That is not a widely shared interpretation of the law, and it was not a popular one, either with the city council or with the hundreds of medical marijuana supporters who jammed the council chambers during hearings this week.

Councilman Ed Reyes expressed frustration with the city attorney's office, saying, "I think they are very, very narrow in that they're taking their prosecutorial perspective."

Councilman Dennis Zine urged his colleagues to interpret state law in way that would not disrupt the way dispensaries currently operate. "Why don't we push the envelope to the edge and see what we can do?" he said.

After the council rejected the prosecutors' advice, DA Cooley reacted angrily and threatened to prosecute dispensaries regardless of what the council decides. "Undermining those laws via their ordinance powers is counterproductive, and, quite frankly, we're ignoring them. They are absolutely so irrelevant it's not funny," Cooley said, adding that state law and court decisions made it clear that collectives cannot sell marijuana. Most, if not all, dispensaries in the county were operating illegally, he said. "We don't know of one that's not engaging in just over-the-counter sales," he said.

Medical marijuana advocates beg to differ. The Union of Medical Marijuana Patients delivered a 23-page legal analysis of the issue to the city council that unsurprisingly came to a quite different conclusion from the prosecutors. "We're really disappointed because we have been thinking that the district attorney would have respect for what the City Council would come up with," said James Shaw, the group's director. "We're taking his threats as real."

Properly organized collectives can indeed sell marijuana, said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest medical marijuana advocacy group. "The idea that a nonprofit collective can't sell things is just a bizarre interpretation of the law," he said.

The council was supposed to vote on the ordinance Wednesday, but postponed the vote until next week, saying they needed to study late amendments to it. One such amendment, from Councilman Jose Huizar, would cap the number of dispensaries at 70. Another, from Councilman Reyes would create a system to audit dispensaries. Reyes also proposed reducing the required distance between dispensaries and schools, parks, and other places where children gather from 1,000 feet to 500 feet. Councilman Paul Koretz introduced a series of amendments based on the ordinance in West Hollywood, in effect for four years.

Perhaps the city council will get it all sorted out and actually pass an ordinance next week. But if the rejectionist attitudes of city and county prosecutors are any indication, the battle over medical marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles is nowhere near over.

Feature: Medical Marijuana in State Legislatures -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Medical marijuana has gone mainstream. It routinely receives above 70% in public opinion polls, it has been legalized in 13 states, and this year 18 more states either tried or are still trying to pass medical marijuana laws. It was also the subject of legislative activity in four states that already have medical marijuana laws.

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march in Madison, Wisconsin last month by the group ''Is My Medicine Legal Yet?''
But just because it's mainstream doesn't mean it's easy. The legislative process is notoriously slow, arduous, and fickle. At the beginning of the year, movement leaders thought we would see perhaps four or five states pass medical marijuana laws this year. That hasn't happened. This year, no state that didn't have a medical marijuana law has managed to get one passed, and in a pair of medical marijuana states that did pass additional legislation, recalcitrant governors proved to be obstacles.

Nevertheless, progress has been made, with prospects for more, whether this year or later. As 2009 enters its final weeks, here's where we stand:

PASSED BUT VETOED:

Minnesota: In May, the Minnesota legislature approved a restrictive medical marijuana bill, SF 97. The House version of the bill won on a 70-64 vote. The Senate, which had approved its version of the bill a month earlier, accepted the House version, passing it on a 38-28 vote. The vote was largely along party lines, with most Republicans opposing and most Democratic Farm Labor (DFL) members supporting the bill. In neither chamber was the margin of victory large enough to overcome a veto. Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) quickly vetoed the bill. Blocked by a recalcitrant governor, Minnesota medical marijuana proponents are considering an end run around him next year. Under Minnesota law, the legislature can bypass the governor by voting for a constitutional amendment to allow medical marijuana use. If such a measure passes the legislature, it would then go directly to a popular vote. With support for medical marijuana at high levels in Minnesota, proponents believe the measure would pass.

New Hampshire: The legislature passed HB 648, which would have created three nonprofit medical marijuana dispensaries for patients, but Gov. John Lynch (D) vetoed it. In October, the House voted to override the veto on a vote of 240-115, but the Senate fell two votes short on a 14-10 vote.

DEAD OR DORMANT:

Alabama: The Alabama medical marijuana bill, HB 434, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) was referred to the House Judiciary Committee and died there without a vote when the session adjourned in May.

Connecticut: Two medical marijuana bills were introduced this year, HB 6156, introduced by Rep. Penny Bacchiochi (R-Sommers), and HB 5175, introduced by Rep. Mary Mushinsky (D-Wallingford). Neither bill received a public hearing. No medical marijuana legislation is likely to move in Connecticut until Gov. Jodi Rell (R) is gone. In 2007, medical marijuana bills passed both the House and the Senate, only to be vetoed by Rell.

Iowa: Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) introduced a medical marijuana bill, SF 293, in March. That same month it got a hearing before the Senate Human Resources Subcommittee, but has had no action since.

Maryland: Maryland enacted an affirmative defense law for medical marijuana patients in 2003, but that doesn't protect them from arrest. HB 1339, sponsored by Delegate Henry Heller (D-Montgomery County), introduced this year, would have created a task force to make recommendations about changing the state's medical marijuana law. The bill received a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, but died when committee Chairman Joseph Vallario (D-Calvert County) refused to schedule a vote on it.

Massachusetts: A medical marijuana bill, HB 2160, was filed in January and referred to the Joint Committee on Public Health, which held a hearing in May. Since then, no action.

Missouri: For the third year in a row, a medical marijuana bill was filed, but went nowhere. HB 277, introduced by Rep. Kate Meiners, was stalled by the House leadership and assigned to the Health Care Policy Committee too late to be scheduled for a hearing this year.

North Carolina: The North Carolina medical marijuana bill, HB 1380 was introduced in April by Rep. Earl Jones (D-Guilford). It got a public hearing before the House Health Committee in June, but has not moved since.

South Dakota: A South Dakota medical marijuana bill, HB 1127, sponsored by Rep. Gerald Lange (D-Madison), managed to survive three restrictive amendments in the House Health and Human Services Committee before the committee voted to kill it on a 9-4 vote in February. The legislature will have one more chance to pass a medical marijuana bill early next year. If it doesn't, medical marijuana backers will place an initiative on the November 2010 ballot.
HB 1128, also sponsored by Lang, would have provided a medical necessity defense for medical marijuana patients. In February, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously killed it by referring it "to the 41st day." The session only has 40 days.

Tennessee: The Tennessee Medical Marijuana Act of 2009, SB 209, sponsored by Sen. Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis), and its companion measure, HB 368, sponsored by Rep. Jeanne Richardson (D-Memphis) were assigned to their respective Health and Human Services Committees, where they were ignored and died a quiet death.

Texas: A Texas medical marijuana bill, HB 164, introduced by Rep. Elliot Naishtat (D-Austin) was introduced in November 2008 and referred to the House Public Health Committee in February. No action has occurred since then.

STILL ALIVE:

Delaware: A medical marijuana bill, SB 94, sponsored by Sen. Margaret Rose Henley (D-Wilmington) passed the Senate Health and Social Services on a 4-0 vote in June. It awaits a Senate floor vote when the legislature reconvenes for the second year of its two-year session in January.

Illinois: The Compassionate Use of Cannabis Pilot Program Act, SB 1381, passed the state Senate by a 30-28 vote in May. It passed the House Human Services Committee on a 4-3 vote the next day, but has had no further action in the House. The bill may move when the House returns for the second half of its session in January. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) will give "serious consideration" to a medical marijuana bill that reaches his desk.

New Jersey: The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, which had already passed the Senate, was approved by the Assembly Health Committee on a 7-1 vote, but only after making it dramatically different from and more restrictive than the Senate version. At the behest of committee chair Herb Conaway (D-Burlington), who was responding to criticism that the bill's distribution and oversight provisions weren't tight enough, the bill was amended so that only "alternative treatment centers" could grow, process, and distribute medical marijuana. In the version passed by the Senate, patients could also grow their own or have caretakers grow it for them. In this latest version, there is no role for caretakers, because it also provides that only patients may pick up medical marijuana at a dispensary, or have a courier deliver it to them.The bill now heads for a floor vote in the Assembly. It also must go back to the Senate, which must approve the amended version.

New York: In New York, a medical marijuana bill, S4041, passed the Senate Health Committee in May, marking the first time a medical marijuana had ever passed the previously GOP-controlled state Senate. It must now pass the Senate Codes Committee before proceeding to a Senate floor vote. The identical House version of the bill, A7542, has been passed from the House Health Committee to the House Codes Committee. The bills are sponsored by Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) and Senate Health Committee Chair Tom Duane (D-Manhattan) and would create state-registered dispensaries for patients. Patients could not grow their own. The legislature is expected to return for a special session later this year, and proponents are pushing for a vote.

Pennsylvania: For the first time in memory, Pennsylvania legislators have a medical marijuana bill, HB 1393 before them. Introduced in April by Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia), the bill has been in the Assembly Health and Human Services Committee ever since. Just last week, however, the committee chair, Rep. Frank Oliver (D-Philadelphia), scheduled a December 2 hearing on the bill.

Wisconsin: The Wisconsin medical marijuana bill, SB 368 was introduced late last month. Gov. Jim Doyle supports it. The bill is set for a December 15 hearing and could move quickly after that.

VOTES IN MEDICAL MARIJUANA STATES:

Hawaii: In July, the Hawaii legislature overrode Gov. Linda Lingle's (R) veto of SB 1058, which establishes a task force to examine problems and critical issues surrounding the state's medical marijuana law. The vote was 25-0 in the Senate and 38-9 in the House. Gov. Lingle has since refused to fund the task force, forcing interested legislators to create the informal Medical Cannabis Working Group to hear testimony.

Maine: In April, when faced with a citizen petition to amend the state's medical marijuana law, the Maine legislature punted, taking no action and leaving it to the voters in this month's election. The voters approved the measure allowing for the creation of dispensaries.

Montana: Montana already has a medical marijuana law, but several bills seeking to change it -- for better or worse -- saw action this year. SB 326, sponsored by Sen. Ron Erickson would have increased allowable amounts, added several illnesses to the list of qualifying conditions, and added child custody protections for patients. It passed the Senate 28-22, but failed on a tie vote to get out of the House Human Services Committee. Sponsors then tried a House floor vote to get the bill out of committee, but they needed 60 votes and only got 47. Similarly, HB 73, which would have allowed nurse practitioners and physician assistants to recommend marijuana to patients, died in the House Human Services Committee on a tie vote.

Two bad bills also died. HB 473, sponsored by Rep. Tom Berry (R-Roundup) would have barred anyone with a drug felony from ever becoming a registered patient. It died on a tie vote in the House Judiciary Committee. And SB 212, introduced by Sen. Verdell Jackson (R-Kalispell), attempted to force patients with more than a specific amount of THC in their system to prove their innocence if accused of driving under the influence. It was killed by a unanimous vote of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Rhode Island: In the only medical marijuana victory at the statehouse so far this year, the Rhode Island legislature in June overrode Gov. Donald Carcieri's veto of a bill to create a system of state-licensed medical marijuana dispensaries. The override vote was a unanimous 68-0 in the House and a punishing 35-3 in the Senate. Rhode Island thus became the first state to expand an existing medical marijuana program to allow for state-licensed dispensaries.

Statehouse legislation is only one measure of progress in the drive to fully legalize medical marijuana use. Initiative victories, such as Maine's mentioned above, is another, as is the expansion of the dispensary supply infrastructure to states like Colorado or Montana is another. Increased mainstream support, such as last week's bombshell from the American Medical Association certainly bodes well for the future, as does the Obama administration's formalized policy of not targeting medical marijuana providers that are obeying their states' laws. But statehouses make state law -- for better or for worse -- and they are a place where reforms need to be taken, as well as an opportunity for them. By that measure 2009 has been a slower year than hoped -- but not a bad one.

Sentencing: Era of Mandatory Minimums for Drugs Comes to an End in Rhode Island

As of last week, Rhode Island sentencing reforms that eliminate mandatory minimums for drug offenses have taken effect. The sentencing reforms were embodied in H 5007 and its companion bill, S 039, which were passed by the General Assembly on October 29 and went into effect two weeks later without the signature of Gov. Donald Carcieri.

The new law strikes previous language mandating 10-year mandatory minimums for possession, manufacture or sale of between an ounce and a kilogram of heroin or cocaine, between one and five kilos of marijuana, and between 100 and 1,000 tablets of LSD. It also strikes 20-year mandatory minimums for quantities greater than those just listed.

It's not like it'll be a drug dealers' holiday, though. While it eliminates the old law's mandatory minimums, it keeps its maximums of up to 50 years in the first instance and up to life in prison in the second. And while it also eliminates minimum fines of $10,000 and $25,000, it raises maximum fines to $500,000 and $1 million.

Still, legislators and reform advocates were enjoying a hard-fought and long-sought victory. "I am thrilled that our hard work has finally paid off," said Rep. Joseph Almeida, sponsor of the House bill. "These sentences were enacted in a different era, at a time when policymakers around the nation believed that long sentences would act as a deterrent against drug use and drug dealing. Twenty years down the road we have seen that these policies are a failure. They have devastated our communities and driven up the prison population, costing tax-payers millions of dollars."

"It's a shame it took a disastrous economy and horrific state budget deficits for the evidence to finally sink in, but politicians at last are realizing that we as a society can no longer afford to pay for our prejudices," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's nice to see elected officials providing real leadership in rolling back the excesses of 1980s drug war hysteria."

For Rhode Island nonprofit Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE), victory was sweet, but there are more battles to be fought. "We have always looked at this legislation as a starting point," said DARE's Executive Director Fred Ordonez. "Our hope is that this will help spark a trend among Rhode Island decision-makers to shift away from a tough-on-crime approach and towards a smart-on-crime approach."

Reform proponents led by DARE grafted together an impressive coalition of state and national organizations, including the Rhode Island ACLU, the Rhode Island Public Defender's Office, the Rhode Island Family Life Center, RICARES, the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island, the Roger Williams Law School, the Drug Policy Alliance, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM).

Medical Marijuana: Colorado Judge Blocks Restrictions on Caregivers

A judge in Denver Tuesday overturned a state Board of Health decision last week that medical marijuana caregivers must do more than simply provide marijuana to qualify as caregivers. Denver District Judge Larry Naves voided the decision, saying the board had violated state open meeting laws and ignored the needs of patients.

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Colorado medical marijuana certificate (courtesy cannabisculture.com)
The board held an emergency meeting last week with less than one day's notice to respond to a state Court of Appeals ruling that a woman who provided marijuana to a registered patient did not qualify as a caregiver under the law. That move outraged medical marijuana supporters, who immediately filed suit to block the move.

Attorney Richard Corry filed the lawsuit. He argued that the board failed to provide adequate public notice of the meeting and that the Court of Appeals ruling applied only to the criminal case in question. Naves agreed.

Naves was harshly critical of the Board of Health and let first assistant attorney general Anne Holton, who was representing the board, know it. "Did this board ever think about the impact on the health of people like these people here?" he asked, referring to a medical marijuana user and provider in the courtroom who had challenged the new requirements.

Holton replied that the board was merely trying to clarify restrictions for providers, and that the action was only temporary while the board came up with permanent standards.

"It's not temporary if you're trying to down 30 pills," Naves retorted, referring to testimony by a patient in an older, related case who said he couldn't keep his numerous medications down without marijuana.

Holton said she did not know if the Board of Health would appeal the decision. It has a December 15 hearing scheduled on the issue.

The dispute comes as medical marijuana is taking off in Colorado. The state now has more than 11,000 registered patients, and this year, dozens of dispensaries have sprung up, first in Denver, but now across the state.

Feature: 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conferences Opens Amid Optimism in Albuquerque

Hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, people poured into the Convention Center in downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, as the Drug Policy Alliance's 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference got underway yesterday. Set to go on through Saturday, the conference is drawing attendees from around the country and the world to discuss dozens of different drug reform topics. (See the link above for a look at the program.)

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screening of near-final version of the next Flex Your Rights film, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police
This is the second time DPA has brought the conference to the distant deserts of the Southwest. In 2001, DPA rewarded libertarian-leaning New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (R) for becoming the highest ranking elected official in the US to call for ending drug prohibition by bringing the conference to his home state. Since then, the ties between DPA and New Mexico have only deepened.

As DPA New Mexico office head Reena Szczepanski explained at the opening plenary session, the Land of Enchantment is fertile ground for drug reform. "Back in 1997, when drug policy reform was little more than a twinkle in the eye, New Mexico passed a harm reduction act mandating the Department of Health to give out clean syringes for people with HIV/AIDS," she noted. "Then, when Gov. Johnson said it was time to end the war on drugs, DPA very wisely immediately opened an office here. In 2001, we passed the overdose prevention act, allowing for the distribution of naloxone. Then we passed opting out on the federal welfare ban, we passed asset forfeiture reform, we passed the 911 Good Samaritan Act -- saving somebody's life is more important than busting them for small amounts of drugs."

But wait, there's more. "Thanks to Gov. Bill Richardson, we became the 12th state to have legal access to medical marijuana for seriously ill people," Szczepanski continued. "We're working on treatment instead of incarceration, we're working to end the war on drugs in New Mexico and this country. This is a very special place for drug policy reform."

New Mexico is also right next store to one of the drug war's bloodiest battlegrounds: the mean streets of Ciudad Juarez, just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso, Texas, which in turn in borders New Mexico. More than 2,200 people have died in prohibition-related violence in Juarez this year alone.

That violence just across the river inspired El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke to turn a motion expressing sympathy for El Paso's sister city into one that also asked for an open and honest debate on ending drug prohibition. The resolution passed the city council by a unanimous vote, only to be vetoed by the mayor. Then, as the council scheduled an override vote, the pressure came down.

"Each of us on the council got a call from Rep. Silvestre Reyes, our congressman and a very powerful figure," O'Rourke told the crowd Thursday. "He told us if we went forward with this, it will be very hard to get your district the federal funding you need. That's a powerful threat, since we rely on federal funding to deliver basic services. It was enough to get four members to change their votes."

While the resolution was defeated, the debacle opened the door for serious debate on drug policy in El Paso and generated support for ending prohibition as well, O'Rourke said. "Our local Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter came out very strongly and helped organize a global policy forum in El Paso. I received hundreds of calls, letters, and emails of support from around the country and the world," O'Rourke related to sustained applause.

If Councilman O'Rourke was a new face, Ira Glasser is a familiar one. Former executive director of the ACLU and president of the DPA board of directors, Glasser told the crowd he was more optimistic about the prospects for change than ever before.

"Today we stand on the brink of transformative progress," he said. "I have never said that before. We can almost touch the goals we have sought, the unraveling of the so-called war on drugs, which is really a war on fundamental freedoms and constitutional rights, on personal autonomy, on our sovereignty over our minds and bodies, a war against people of darker skin color."

Just as Jim Crow laws were the successor to the system of slavery, said Glasser, so the drug war has been the successor to Jim Crow. "It's no accident that after the civil rights revolution ended with the passage of the last federal civil right law in 1968, Richard Nixon was elected on the southern strategy against progress on civil rights," he noted. "Within months of taking office, Nixon declared the modern war on drugs."

Glasser wasn't the only one feeling uplifted. "I am feeling good, better than ever before," said DPA executive director and plenary keynote speaker Ethan Nadelmann. "The wind is at our back. We are making progress like never before. We have to move hard and fast. Historically speaking, there are moments when everything comes together," drawing a pointed comparison with the successful temperance movement that managed to get alcohol banned during Prohibition. But Prohibition generated its own counter-movement, he said, again drawing a pointed parallel.

"Now, we're in another moment," Nadelmann said. "We're hurting with the recession, state budgets are hemorrhaging. More and more people are realizing we can't afford to pay for our prejudices, we can't continue to be the world's largest incarcerator."

But it's not just the economy that is opening the window, he continued. "What's happening in Mexico and Afghanistan, where illicit drugs are ready sources of revenues for criminals and political terrorists, that has people thinking. We have two major national security problems causing people to think afresh."

Nadelmann had a suggestion: "Ending marijuana prohibition is a highly effective way of undermining that violence," he said. "Until we end it, buy American."

Just after the opening plenary session ended, reporters and other interested parties repaired to a Convention Center conference room to see the US unveiling of the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation publication, After the War on Drugs: A Blueprint for Regulation, a how-to manual on how to get to drug reform's promised land. Transform executive director Danny Kushlick was joined by Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, Deborah Small of Break the Chains, and DPA's Nadelmann as he laid out the case for moving beyond "what would it look like."

"There's never been a clear vision of a post-prohibition world," said Kushlick. "With this, we've tried to reclaim drug policy from the drug warriors. We want to make drug policy boring," he said. "We want not only harm reduction, but drama reduction," he added, envisioning debates about restrictions on sales hours, zoning, and other dreary topics instead of bloody drug wars and mass incarceration.

"As a movement, we have failed to articulate the alternative," said Tree. "And that leaves us vulnerable to the fear of the unknown. This report restores order to the anarchy. Prohibition means we have given up on regulating drugs; this report outlines some of the options for regulation."

That wasn't the only unveiling Thursday. Later in the evening, Flex Your Rights held the first public showing of its new video, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. The screening of the self-explanatory successor to Flex Your Right's 2003 "Busted" played to a packed and enthusiastic house. This highly useful examination of how not to get yourself busted is bound to equal if not exceed the break-out success of "Busted."

The conference, of course, continued Thursday afternoon and will go through Saturday, but your reporter was busy getting this week's Drug War Chronicle ready to go. Come back next week for fuller reports on the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference.

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