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Feature: With Passage of Medical Marijuana Bill Pending, New Jersey Patient Faces 20 Years for Growing His Medicine

Update: Wilson was convicted of some charges Thursday, but not the most serious one.

Just weeks before the New Jersey Assembly votes on pending medical marijuana legislation, a trial is set to take place that demonstrates precisely why such a law is needed. A sick Somerset County resident, John Ray Wilson, is looking at up to 20 years in prison for growing his own medicine.

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courthouse demo supporting John Ray Wilson, 2009
In the summer of 2008, Wilson, a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferer, was broke, had no health insurance, and was desperate for relief from the debilitating symptoms of his disease. Unable to afford pharmaceutical medications and having already resorted to alternative healing practices, when Wilson saw fellow MS victim Montel Williams talk on TV about how medical marijuana had helped him, he decided to try it for himself.

Wilson had even resorted to bee-sting therapy in a bid to relieve his symptoms, but it was marijuana that worked best, he said. "I was diagnosed with MS in 2002," he said. "I suffer from blurred vision, pain in my joints, and muscle spasms. I didn't have any medical benefits, so I tried to get some financial assistance to actually get some MS medicine, but that didn't succeed. I even tried getting stung by bees. Then I saw Montel Williams on TV saying he had MS and smoked marijuana and it helped. So I tried it, too, and it definitely helped, especially in relieving the pain and the muscle spasms."

Lacking access to medical marijuana, Wilson decided to try his hand at growing his own in the backyard of his Franklin Township home, and that's when his life took a real turn for the worse. A National Guard helicopter on a training flight spotted Wilson's garden and reported him to state authorities, who promptly seized his 17 plants, arrested him, and charged him with a number of drug possession and drug manufacturing offenses that could get him 20 years in prison. If convicted on the most serious charge -- maintaining a drug production facility -- Wilson would be ineligible for pre-trial diversion and would have to go to prison.

Wilson and his attorney explored plea bargain negotiations with prosecutors, to no avail. "We were prepared to settle for a reasonable deal, but the best they offered was five years in prison," he said.

Now, Wilson is going on trial. Jury selection is set to begin Monday.

It will be tough for Wilson to prevail. In October, Superior Court Judge Robert Reed ruled that his medical condition, and the fact that he had been taking marijuana to treat his condition, could not be revealed to the jury during the course of the trial.

"By striking my medical history from the trial, they've pretty much tied my hands behind my back," said Wilson. "Hopefully, we can get a jury that can see through what they're doing to me, but it's more than a little scary. The consequences of what they're doing would be horrendous for me. My health would definitely deteriorate in prison. Stress makes all the symptoms worse, and going to prison would definitely be stressful."

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Wilson with Jim Miller and Ken Wolski
"Wilson tried marijuana and found it does in fact help," said Ken Wolski, head of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, which has lobbied hard to pass a medical marijuana bill in the Garden State to protect patients. "Interestingly enough, a National MS Society expert opinion paper recently acknowledged that conventional therapies don't adequately control MS symptoms and marijuana does. But he will not be able to tell the jury he has MS, and that's the only reason he was using marijuana in the first place," said Wolski. "He's got no job, no health insurance, no access to medicine that might bring him some relief. He tries to eke out a living on eBay."

"This is exactly why New Jersey needs a medical marijuana law," said Roseanne Scotti, head of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, who has been walking the statehouse corridors in Trenton for years trying to get medical marijuana passed. "John Ray Wilson's case is every medical marijuana patient's worst nightmare," she added.

"He was using for medical purposes, but is precluded by the courts from introducing evidence as to why, and the court is correct -- this is the law in New Jersey," Scotti continued. "But that's exactly why we need to change the law -- so people like Mr. Wilson can get safe and legal access to medical marijuana, and we don't go around arresting and prosecuting someone patients seeking some relief."

"John Ray Wilson is a poster child for the legalization of medical marijuana," said Wolski. "So many people are outraged that he is facing 20 years for trying to treat himself and will not even be able to tell the truth during the course of his trial."

In a cruel twist of fate, Wilson is being prosecuted just weeks before New Jersey is likely to adopt a medical marijuana law. The state Senate has already passed it, and the Assembly will vote on it early next month. Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has indicated he will sign it. Two of the bill's sponsors, Sens. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), have highlighted Wilson's plight as indicative of why New Jersey needs a medical marijuana law.

"It seems cruel and unusual to treat New Jersey's sick and dying as if they were drug cartel kingpins. Moreover, it is a complete waste of taxpayer money having to house and treat an MS patient in a jail at the public's expense," said Scutari. "Specifically, in the case of John Ray Wilson, the state is taking a fiscally irresponsible hard-line approach against a man who's simply seeking what little relief could be found from the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis. Governor Corzine should step in immediately and end this perversion of criminal drug statutes in the Garden State."

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But Corzine hasn't stepped in or stepped up. Instead, his office said it would wait until Wilson was convicted to consider a pardon.

"The attorney general and the governor didn't want to take any action, but they could make this case go away by exercising prosecutorial discretion," said Wolski. "They chose to let it move forward, and now its getting a lot of regional and national attention, and rightfully so, because it shocks the conscience of the community."

"The only way we're going see fewer of these cases come before the court is if the 'New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act' becomes the law of the land," said Lesniak. "This has been an issue that has taken years to resolve in New Jersey, and legislative approval and enactment into law are long past overdue. It's time that the Assembly posts this bill for a vote, so we can focus our attention on putting real criminals behind bars, and not piling on the suffering for terminal patients simply seeking a little relief from the symptoms of their diseases."

But while an Assembly vote is now set for next month, John Ray Wilson's trial will be over by then. Barring a miracle of jury nullification, Wilson will be drug felon. And in the meantime, he's going without his medicine. "I'm not going to buy marijuana on the street," he said. "That would get me thrown back in jail."

At the Statehouse: Sentencing, Drug Testing, Good Samaritan, Hemp, and SWAT Bills

As 2009 winds up, we present the last installment in our series of articles on drug reform in state legislatures. This week, we look at Good Samaritan bills, sentencing bills, drug testing bills, and a hemp bill and a SWAT bill.

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Rhode Island Senate chamber
Although we have tried to be comprehensive, we might have missed something. If we have, please write to us here.

Good Samaritan Bills

Connecticut: A bill that would protect overdose victims and the people seeking help for them from prosecution, HB 5445, was introduced in January and referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, where it got a hearing in March. It has not moved since.

Hawaii: A bill providing limited immunity from prosecution for overdose victims and those seeking to help them, HB 532, was introduced in January, passed the Health Committee on an 8-0 vote in February, and was assigned to the Judiciary Committee. It has now been held over for the 2010 session.

Maryland: A bill that would protect overdose victims and the people seeking help for them from prosecution, HB 1273, passed the House on a 135-0 vote in March, passed the Senate on a 47-0 vote in April, and was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley in May.

Nebraska: A bill protecting drug overdose victims and those seeking to assist them from prosecution, LB 383, was introduced in January and got a hearing before the Judiciary Committee in March, but has not moved since.

New York: A bill that would provide protection to drug overdose victims and those seeking to help them, A 8147, was introduced in May and referred to the Assembly Rules Committee in June, where it has sat ever since. A companion measure, S 5191, was introduced in April and has sat before the Senate Codes Committee ever since.

Rhode Island: A bill that would provide limited immunity from prosecution for drug overdose victims and those trying to help them, S 194, was introduced in February and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has been stalled ever since.

Washington: A bill that would protect overdose victims and those trying to help them from prosecution, HB 1796, was introduced in January and approved by the Committee on Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in February. It was then referred to the House Rules Committee, where it died for lack of action.

Drug Testing

Kansas: A bill that would have required people who seek public assistance to undergo drug testing, HB 2275, passed the House on a 99-26 vote in March. It was referred to the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee at that time, but has not moved since.

Louisiana: A bill that would have required welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, HB 137, died in June on an 11-5 vote in the House Appropriations Committee.

Missouri: A bill that would have made it a crime to falsify a drug test or to sell or transport drug test adulterants, HB 446, was introduced in May and promptly went nowhere. It is currently "not on the calendar." A bill that would require drug testing of welfare recipients upon "reasonable suspicion," SB 73, won a hearing before the Senate Progress and Development Committee in February, but has been dormant ever since.

West Virginia: A bill that would have mandated random drug tests for people who receive food stamps or unemployment benefits, HB 3007, was blocked in committee. A last ditch effort to revive it via a House floor vote was defeated 70-30 on a straight party line vote. Republicans voted for it.

Sentencing

Louisiana: A bill, HB 630, which would grant parole eligibility to people sentenced to life without parole for heroin offenses, passed the House and Senate in the spring and became law without the governor's signature in July. It became effective August 15.

Massachusetts: The state Senate last month approved SB 2210, which grants parole eligibility to nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences. But the House recessed without taking action on the measure.

New Jersey: A bill that would give judges discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, SB 1866, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 23 and passed Senate yesterday. Its companion measure, A2762, passed the Assembly last year, and Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has said he will sign the bill.

New York: The legislature and Gov. David Paterson (D) came to an agreement in March on a second round of reforms to the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The reforms, which went into effect in October, included returning judicial discretion in low-level drug cases, expanding treatment and reentry services, expanding drug courts, and allowing some 1,500 people imprisoned for low-level drug offenses to apply for resentencing.

Hemp

Oregon: Oregon became the 17th state to pass legislation favorable to hemp farming and the ninth state to remove legal barriers to farming the potentially lucrative crop as Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) in August signed into law SB 676, an industrial hemp act sponsored by state Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D). The bill removes all state legal obstacles to growing hemp for food, fiber, and other industrial purposes. It passed the House 46-11 and the Senate 27-2. Industrial hemp production remains prohibited under federal law.

SWAT

Maryland: Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a bill that will require law enforcement SWAT teams to regularly report on their activities. The bill was largely a response to a misbegotten drug raid last July in Prince Georges County in which Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and his family were doubly victimized -- first by drug traffickers who used their address for a marijuana delivery, then by Prince Georges County police, who killed the family's two pet dogs and mistreated Calvo and his mother-in-law for several hours. The bill, the SWAT Team Activation and Reporting Act (HB 1267), requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

Prosecution: No More Crack Pipe Felonies for Houston

Prosecution: No More Crack Pipe Felonies for Houston Beginning January 1, prosecutors in Harris County, Texas, will no longer file felony drug charges against people found with less than one one-hundreth of a gram of illegal drugs. Currently in Houston, people caught with trace amounts of drug or holding crack pipes with drug traces are routinely charged with felonies. But under a new policy promulgated by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, police are instructed to instead issue Class C misdemeanor tickets to people caught in possession of crack pipes or trace amounts of drugs. That means arrestees will face only a $500 fine, not the up to two years in state jail mandated by the felony charge. The cops are not happy. “It ties the hands of the officers who are making crack pipe cases against burglars and thieves,” said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union. “A crack pipe is not used for anything but smoking crack by a crack head. Crack heads, by and large, are also thieves and burglars. They're out there committing crimes,” he told the Houston Chronicle. But Lykos told the Chronicle there were good reasons to change the policy. Less than one-hundreth of a gram of a drug is not enough for more than one drug test, and defense attorneys often want to run their own tests, she said. The policy change also “gives us more of an ability to focus on the violent offenses and the complex offenses,” she added. “When you have finite resources, you have to make decisions, and this decision is a plus all around.” Last year, Harris County prosecutors filed 46,000 felony cases, with 13,713, or nearly 30%, for possession of less than a gram of controlled substances. It is difficult to say how many of those would not have been charged as felonies under the new policy because most were charged only as possession of less than a gram. While police are grumbling, defense attorneys are beaming. “It's a smart move and it's an efficient move and it lets us get down to the business of handling criminal cases of a more serious magnitude,” Nicole Deborde, president-elect of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, told the Chronicle.
Location: 
Houston, TX
United States

Medical Marijuana: In Slap to DA, Jury Acquits San Diego Medical Marijuana Dispensary Operator

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.

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California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
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 since 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 Ecstasy 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.

Law Enforcement: Utah "Meth Cops" Lose Out on Health Claims

More than 50 Utah law enforcement officers have filed workers compensation claims over ailments they believe were caused by exposure to methamphetamine labs, but none have been approved, and most have been dismissed for lack of evidence or because officers sought dismissal in a bid to come up with evidence. Only five cases are still pending.

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meth lab
"They have to have enough evidence to justify the claims," said Carla Rush, adjudication manager for the Utah Labor Commission, which handles the claims. "Preferably a doctor saying they have been injured in a work-related exposure to meth. That would be the best evidence."

Scores of Utah police officers participated in breaking down clandestine meth labs in the 1980s and 1990s, wearing only standard police-issue uniforms. That was before they understood the caustic nature of some of the chemicals involved in cooking meth. Now, officers on meth lab duty wear air tanks and hazmat suits.

Those officers from the old days began filing claims asserting that a variety of physical ailments they were suffering were the result of meth lab exposure. By 2006, the Utah legislature commissioned a half-million dollar study to explore the issue. But that study, which was meant to establish a causal link between meth exposure and everything from cancer to nerve damage, was inconclusive.

The state has also paid out tens of thousands of dollars to the Utah Meth Cops Project for a scientifically unsupported detox regime backed by the Church of Scientology. But toxicologists say that toxins would have left the officers' bodies long ago, and the detox program is little more than quackery.

How about a study of legalization, to eliminate the meth lab problem once and for all -- followed by a detox from the consequences of prohibition?

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.

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