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Medical Marijuana: Minnesota Bill Passes Another Senate Hurdle, Wins First House Vote

The Minnesota medical marijuana bill has survived a third state Senate committee vote and won its first House vote. The Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division passed the measure Tuesday on a divided voice vote. The following day, the House version of the bill passed the House Civil Justice Committee on a voice vote with no dissenting votes.

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Minnesota State Capitol
The bill, SF 97, would allow qualified patients or their caregivers to possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of usable marijuana and 12 plants. People suffering from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Hep C, or Tourette's Syndrome or a chronic or debilitating disease or its treatment that produces wasting syndrome, intractable pain, severe nausea, seizures, or spasms whose doctors approve of their use would qualify.

A previous version of the bill passed the Senate and every House committee vote during the 2007-2008 session, but died without a House floor vote. It faced the strong opposition of law enforcement and a veto threat from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty's position has not changed, but bill supporters are hoping it will.

"I am increasingly confident that this will be the year that Minnesota joins the 13 other states that have acted to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest," said bill sponsor Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing). "This is an issue where science, compassion and simple common sense come together."

Now the bill goes to the Senate Finance Committee. Its companion bill is awaiting further action in the House.

Feature: Citing Startling Research on False Positive Drug Tests, Researchers Call for Moratorium on Field Drug Test Kit Testing

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from left: Ron Obadia, Nadine Artemis, John Kelly, Adam Eidinger, Rob Kampia, Omar Bagasra
The National Press Club in Washington, DC took on the aspect of a chemistry lab for a short while Tuesday afternoon as scientists and researchers sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project gave a startling demonstration of false positive drug test results obtained using some of the most widely used field testing kits employed by law enforcement to detect the presence of marijuana and other drugs.

As a lab-coated and rubber glove wearing researcher from the South Carolina Center for Biotechnology dumped a sample of oregano into a field test kit, Mintwood Media's Adam Eidinger produced a positive test result for cocaine with another kit simply by exposing it to the atmosphere. "This is just air," Eidinger said, opening up a test and waving it as the reagent turned orange, indicating a positive result. (See the YouTube video here.)

The testing done at the press conference replicated that done earlier by the researchers, who found that a surprisingly large number of common substances generated false positive results for the presence of drugs. "While testing the specificity of the KN Reagent test kits with 42 non-marijuana substances, I observed that 70% of these tests rendered a false positive," said Dr. Omar Bagasra, director of the Center for Biotechnology, who conducted the experiments.

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field test generating false positive from mere air
""That's just outrageous," exclaimed Eidinger.

That research came as part of new report, False Positives Equal False Justice, by forensics expert John Kelly in collaboration with former FBI chief scientist and narcotics officer Dr. Frederick Whitehurst. In the report, the pair uncovered "a drug testing regime of fraudulent forensics used by police, prosecutors, and judges which abrogates every American's constitutional rights," as Kelly wrote in the executive summary.

"Law enforcement officials, forensic drug analysts, and prosecutors knowingly employ the flawed Duquenois-Levine and KN Reagent tests as well as mere conclusory police reports to wrongfully prosecute and convict millions of individuals for anti-marijuana law violations," Kelly wrote. "These wrongful prosecutions and convictions violate Supreme Court rulings which prohibit the use of inaccurate, nonspecific tests and/or conclusory reports because they do not prove the presence of marijuana in a seized substance. In other words, millions of people have been, and continue to be, prosecuted and convicted of marijuana charges without proof that they possessed marijuana."

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Dr. Bagasra testing the field test on chocolate
Both Kelly and MPP executive director Rob Kampia used the report's findings to call for a moratorium on the use of field drug testing kits. "It is imperative that law enforcement agencies take notice and voluntarily end the use of these flawed drug tests. The essential need of protecting the innocent must outweigh the convenience of a field drug test that only gives accurate information some of the time," wrote Kelly.

"In terms of policy recommendations, it's real simple, no one should be using these faulty field tests, they should be thrown out and the company that's making them should probably be put out of business," Kampia told the press conference. "Natural soap, chocolate and newspaper, among other household items, all will test positive for marijuana and other drugs such as GHB, yet these kits continue to be used in both arrests and prosecutions nationwide. In our society we have the principle that you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. These tests turn that on its head."

ODV, a subsidiary of Forensic Source, manufactures the NIK Narco Pouch 908 and 909 tested by the researchers. The company did not respond to requests for comment by day's end on Thursday. The tests' packaging warns that they can produce false positives, but does not mention that most of their positives are false.

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common items that generate false positives (Katie Schuler, bellvisuals.com)
False positive field drug tests can ruin your day. Ask Don Bolles, drummer for the punk band The Germs. He was arrested and jailed for three days in April 2007 because a field test said the Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap he had with him tested positive for GHB. That field test was done with the NarcoPouch 928, another in the ODV line. Later testing revealed the 928 would generate false positives with a wide variety of natural soaps, as well as soy milk.

Bryn Mawr honor student Janet Lee was another victim of inaccurate field drug test kits. As she prepared to fly home for Christmas break in 2003, she was arrested at the Philadelphia airport after three condoms filled with flour (she said she squeezed them for stress relief) came up as cocaine on a cobalt thiocyanate (C-T) field test. She spent three weeks in jail facing charges that could net her 20 years in prison before an attorney demanded the drug be retested. Lee collected $180,000 from the city two years later to settle a lawsuit, but still suffered the Kafkaesque nightmare of being jailed.

Lee was lucky. A jail guard recognized her as a volunteer and beat the bushes for a good attorney. It is unknown how many others like her there are who, lacking such resources, either were found guilty or plea bargained to crimes of which they were innocent because of deceptive field drug tests.

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the fraudulent field test packets
Another widely publicized incident of bad field drug tests occurred in August, when Ron Obadia and Nadine Artemis were arrested, handcuffed to a chair, and interrogated for hours at the Toronto Airport after their raw chocolate tested positive for hashish with the Duquenois-Levine color chemical test. They were placed in separate rooms and were told that they faced "life in prison" unless they confessed. Each of them was also told that the other already had confessed.

Later lab testing proved it was indeed chocolate, not hash, and the pair were sent on their way. They also accumulated a $20,000 legal bill. To add insult to injury, when the couple tried again to fly to the US three weeks later with their raw chocolate, it again tested positive on the field test kit. This time, Obadia was arrested and charged with hash possession.

Incarceration: Too Many Americans Behind Bars at Too High a Cost, Says Pew Study

American states spent about $52 billion on corrections last year, the vast majority of it on prisons, and that's not smart, the Pew Center on the States said in a report released Monday. As a cost saving measure in a time of fiscal crisis at the statehouses, states should instead emphasize spending on community corrections.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (cdcr.ca.gov)
The study, 1 in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections, reported that one in every 31 Americans is in jail or prison or on probation or parole. That's more than 7 million people under state supervision, and that's more than double the rate 25 years ago. The report adds that the real figure may be closer to 8 million because the numbers don't include people under state supervision in pre-trial diversion programs, such as drug courts.

The rates of correctional control vary by race and geography. One in eleven black adults (9.2%) are enjoying the tender mercies of the state, compared to one in 27 Hispanics (3.7%) and one in 45 whites (2.2%). With one of every 13 adults behind bars or on probation or parole, Georgia has the highest percentage of its population under surveillance, followed by Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio, and the District of Columbia.

"Violent and career criminals need to be locked up, and for a long time. But our research shows that prisons are housing too many people who can be managed safely and held accountable in the community at far lower cost," said Adam Gelb, director of the Center's Public Safety Performance Project, which produced the report.

But while prisons account for about 90% of the overall correction budget in the states, two-thirds of offenders are on probation or parole, not behind bars. Pressures to cut community corrections spending in the current crisis are penny wise but pound foolish, said the report.

"New community supervision strategies and technologies need to be strengthened and expanded, not scaled back," Gelb argued. "Cutting them may appear to save a few dollars, but it doesn't. It will fuel the cycle of more crime, more victims, more arrests, more prosecutions, and still more imprisonment."

The study recommended that states:

  • Sort offenders by risk to public safety to determine appropriate levels of supervision;
  • Base intervention programs on sound research about what works to reduce recidivism;
  • Harness advances in supervision technology such as electronic monitoring and rapid-result alcohol and drug tests;
  • Impose swift and certain sanctions for offenders who break the rules of their release but who do not commit new crimes; and
  • Create incentives for offenders and supervision agencies to succeed, and monitor their performance.

The report did not address the role of drug prohibition in swelling the nation's prison population, nor did it question whether drug offenders should be arrested in the first place, let alone placed under state surveillance or imprisoned.

Medical Marijuana: On the Move in Minnesota as Second Senate Committee Gives Okay

A bill that would legalize the medicinal use of marijuana in Minnesota has cleared a second committee in the state Senate, with the Judiciary Committee approving it on a narrow 4-3 vote. A hearing on the companion House bill before the House Civil Justice Committee is expected shortly.

The bill, SF 97, would allow qualified patients or their caregivers to possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of usable marijuana and 12 plants. People suffering from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Hep C, or Tourette's Syndrome or a chronic or debilitating disease or its treatment that produces wasting syndrome, intractable pain, severe nausea, seizures, or spasms whose doctors approve of their use would qualify.

A previous version of the bill passed the Senate and every House committee vote during the 2007-2008 session, but died without a House floor vote. It faced the strong opposition of law enforcement and a veto threat from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty's position has not changed, but bill supporters are hoping it will.

"I am increasingly confident that this will be the year that Minnesota joins the 13 other states that have acted to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest," said bill sponsor Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing). "This is an issue where science, compassion and simple common sense come together."

Before voting, the Senate committee heard testimony from opponents and proponents of the bill. "Two puffs, two minutes, and the violent sickness was totally gone," said Kathy Rippentrop, who described her mother's use of marijuana to alleviate the symptoms of cancer chemotherapy. "An hour later, Mom was able to have a good meal. The stomach problems from the chemo were totally gone. It also helped her regain a quality of life that allowed her to continue to fight."

And while some worried that allowing for the use of medical marijuana would make law enforcement's job more difficult, Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon (DFL-Duluth), whose husband died of colon cancer, was not one of them. "We're not talking about getting people hooked on drugs and then going out in the street and, you know, destroying their lives and passing it on to other people," said Prettner Solon. "We're talking about end of life issues -- a last resort for people's suffering."

Feature: New York Assembly Passes Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Bill -- Fight Moves to the Senate

The New York Assembly Wednesday passed a bill that would repeal much of the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Enacted in 1973 under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R), the laws are some of the toughest in the nation and have served as a model for "tough on crime" legislation across the country in the years since then.

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June 2003 ''Countdown to Fairness'' rally against the Rockefeller drug laws, NYC (courtesy 15yearstolife.com)
By a vote of 96-46, the Assembly approved A 6085, which restores judges' discretion in sentencing low level drug offenders by gutting provisions in the law that require prosecutors to approve a judge's decision to divert someone from prison to drug treatment. The bill would also expand the state's drug court system by authorizing one for each county in the state. The bill contains provisions denying probation or local jail sentences to adults selling drugs to minors, dealers who deal while armed, and "drug kingpins."

Now, all eyes turn to the state Senate, where an identical bill has been introduced. Complicating matters is that the New York State Sentencing Commission last month released its own, much less reformist recommendations, which are supposed to be Gov. David Paterson's (D) guide to reform legislation. The governor is not bound by the commission majority's recommendations, but it is not clear yet just what Paterson will do.

Thanks to the Rockefeller laws -- and despite reforms in 2004 and 2005 that had no impact on less serious offenders imprisoned under them -- nearly 12,000 people are currently behind bars for drugs in New York. Even after the 2004-2005 tinkering, the state prison system continues to be flooded with new Rockefeller law victims. More than 5,000 people were sent to prison for nonviolent drug offenses last year.

More than 42% of Rockefeller law prisoners -- more than 5,000 people -- are doing hard time for simple drug possession, many of them convicted of the lowest level drug felonies, which involve only small amounts of drugs. For instance, a half-gram of cocaine can earn a Class D felony charge. As of last month, 1,098 people were imprisoned for that offense.

The mass imprisonment of drug offenders comes at a substantial cost to Empire State taxpayers. According to the Correctional Association of New York, the state spends $525 million a year to incarcerate drug offenders and has spent $1.5 billion on building prisons to house them.

"More than 35 years after the Rockefeller drug laws were enacted, it is clear that these laws mandating imprisonment for even lower-level offenders have failed to effectively combat drug abuse or reduce the incidence of violent crime," said Assembly leader Rep. Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) before the vote Wednesday. "This legislation restores humanity to drug policy here in New York. It expands the sentencing options available to judges, without endangering the public. Judges are in the best position to know who is deserving of prison and who is not. State prison and mandatory prison sentences are not the magic bullets to address drug abuse and its attendant problems; restoring judicial discretion is the solution."

"These reforms are long overdue," said Rep. Jeffrion Aubrey (D-Queens), the primary sponsor of the bill. "This legislation provides for a more sensible, comprehensive and cost-effective approach for dealing with lower-level drug offenders and addicts. Think of all the resources that have been spent on locking-up nonviolent drug offenders that could have been invested in the education, rehabilitation and job training that can save lives. Treatment programs in New York City have a ten percent recidivism rate for participants one year after completion, compared to 60 to 70% for those not in programs. Treatment works."

Activists who have spent years trying to make the legislature pay heed to calls for Rockefeller law reform -- or outright repeal -- pronounced themselves pleased with the Assembly vote. But while there was agreement that the bill contained significant reforms, some said it did not go far enough.

"With everyone from the Sentencing Commission to the governor talking about reforming the Rockefeller drug laws, it's critical to examine any proposal and make sure it constitutes real reform," said Gabriel Sayegh, project director with the Drug Policy Alliance. "To be real, meaningful reform, any proposal must include restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases; expansion of alternative-to-incarceration programs and community based drug treatment; fair and equitable sentencing reforms; and retroactive sentencing relief for people serving unjust sentences under the Rockefeller drug laws. The Assembly has included these provisions, and their proposal constitutes real reform."

"New York State is closer to justice today than we were yesterday," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "By passing this bill, our state's Assembly is letting go of 36 years of failure and moving toward meaningful reform of the Rockefeller drug laws."

"The Rockefeller drug laws have failed by every measure -- cost, drug use, public safety," added the group's legislative director, Robert Perry. "With the passage of Jeff Aubrey's bill, the Assembly has acted on Governor Paterson's directive to fundamentally reform the state's failed drug policy. The bill shifts the paradigm, away from mass incarceration and toward a public health model."

But the NYCLU also said that "in certain essential respects, the Assembly proposal does not fully realize the reform principles on which the legislation is based." It listed several examples:

  • The bill leaves in place a sentencing scheme that permits unreasonably harsh maximum sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses;
  • The bill disqualifies from eligibility for treatment and rehabilitation individuals who may be most in need of such programs; and
  • The bill creates an unnecessarily burdensome procedure for sealing a criminal record after someone has completed a substance abuse program.

"This is an essential first step, but we encourage Governor Paterson and the state Senate to authorize judicial discretion to divert individuals from prison in all appropriate cases; to expand and improve the quality of alternative to incarceration programs; and to provide long-sought justice to the thousands of families that have been torn apart by the Rockefeller drug laws," Lieberman said.

Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which has been part of the Rockefeller reform movement for years, offered a more radical critique. "It's not just the Rockefeller drug laws -- we need to completely overhaul the criminal justice system, from sentencing to the appointment of judges to judge-shopping by prosecutors to racial profiling to banning stop and frisk searches. People need to focus on the overall criminal justice system, or just as many people will be going to prison as we have now," he told the Chronicle last month.

But right now, the focus is on getting Rockefeller reform legislation to the governor's desk. DPA's Sayegh said there were good signs in the Senate. "The Senate bill introduced by Sen. Eric Schneiderman (D-Bronx) is the same bill as was introduced in the Assembly," he pointed out. "We're very hopeful about that."

But Sayegh worried about what Gov. Paterson will propose. "The governor has apparently distributed a proposal to legislative leaders that has not been made public," he said. "We hope it is not a cut and paste from the Sentencing Commission, given that its recommendations do not constitute real reform."

Still, Sayegh predicted fast action in Albany. "This is moving along quickly. We think we may see a negotiated Senate bill within a week or two," he said. "Given the fiscal crisis we're facing, these reforms will save the state millions and millions of dollars. The time is right."

If and when substantial repeal of the Rockefeller drug laws is passed, then perhaps people will start asking why and whether drug users and sellers should be arrested in the first place absent harm to others. Drug treatment and drug courts may be an improvement over years in prison, but in a society that treated its citizens as adults, such authoritarian institutions would be reserved for people who have demonstrated their drug use is harming others.

Salvia Divinorum: Possession -- But Not Sale -- Now Banned in South Dakota

South Dakota has become the latest state to ban salvia divinorum, the hallucinogenic plant used for centuries by Mexican shamans whose recreational use has become noticeable in the US in recent years. Oddly enough, as the bill was amended in back and forth between the state House and Senate, legislators forgot to specifically make it a crime to distribute the herb.

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Google ads for salvia on web page reporting salvia arrest
The bill does not go into effect until it is signed by Gov. Michael Rounds (R), who has indicated he will sign it. Once he does, the salvia ban goes into effect immediately because the bill declared an "emergency" regarding use of the fast-acting, short-duration psychedelic.

The bill creates two salvia possession offenses -- a misdemeanor for possession of less than two ounces of the plant or its active substance, Salvinorin A, and a felony for possession of more than two ounces. A misdemeanor charge can earn you up to a year in jail, while the Class 6 felony would be worth up to two years in the state penitentiary.

Rep. Lance Russell (R-Hot Springs) urged the House to reject the Senate version of the bill because it did not specifically outlaw distribution of salvia. But other lawmakers, eager to move ahead, said banning possession was a good enough start.

As the Chronicle noted last week, South Dakota is only the latest state to fall prey to salvia mania. Nebraska banned it a week ago, and similar measures are before legislatures in Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas.

Thirteen states -- Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Virginia -- have classified salvia as Schedule I under state drug laws. Make that 14 now that South Dakota has joined the list. Three more -- Louisiana, Maine, and Tennessee -- restrict the sale of the plant. Maine and California ban it only for minors.

Heroin Maintenance: Study Suggests Baltimore Could Be Ripe for a Pilot Program

Baltimore is home to one of the nation's most intractable heroin-using populations, and now a study done for the city's Abell Foundation is suggesting it could be time to try something new, at least in this country: heroin maintenance. The idea is not so much to push for such a program now, but to open the door for discussion -- a worthy idea given that decades of repression and, more recently, conventional drug treatment have done little to stem the tide of addicts.

Authored by University of Maryland drug policy expert Peter Reuter, the study, Can Heroin Maintenance Help Baltimore?, examined existing heroin maintenance programs in Switzerland and Germany as well as the now-ended North American Opiate Maintenance Initiative (NAOMI) program in Vancouver, and examined the Baltimore heroin scene. His review of results so far found decreases in criminality, increases in employment, and health improvements for participants.

But Reuter also noted that those existing programs are expensive (more expensive than methadone treatment), serve relatively small numbers, and would be politically controversial in the US setting. In fact, the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, offered a chance to participate in the NAOMI program, declined. In addition, Reuter wrote that significant differences between hard core heroin users in Baltimore and in European cities made predictions of success difficult.

Can heroin maintenance help Baltimore? Here's how Reuter answered his own question:

At best there is a case only for an experiment. There are too many potential differences between Baltimore City and the other sites in which HAT [heroin-assisted therapy] has been tried to allow confident predictions of the outcomes. Visits to facilities in other countries hardly provide an inspiring model. The client population in Baltimore City is highly troubled so even if HAT leads to better outcomes for the group as a whole, many of the clients will remain unemployed, marginalized, and in poor health conditions. There will be some poster children but not many.

The potential for gain, however, is substantial. Even in the aging heroin-addict population, there are many who are heavily involved in crime and return frequently to the criminal justice system. Their continued involvement in street markets imposes a large burden on the community in the form of civil disorder that helps keep investment and jobs out. If heroin maintenance could remove 10 percent of Baltimore's most troubled heroin addicts from the streets, the result could be substantial reductions in crime and various other problems that greatly trouble the city. That is enough to make a debate on the matter worthwhile.

"It is a sensible innovation to consider," Reuter told the Baltimore Sun. "I am not a passionate advocate for it, but I do think someone should try it in the US. It has enough plausibility that it's worth trying."

But Baltimore officials are not convinced. "I think it would be a mistake to pursue an expensive and unproven idea when we need more resources for effective drug treatment," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, who apparently did not actually read the report. "There's nothing that persuades me to invest in something that is so expensive and without evidence."

Former Baltimore health commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson worried that the notion was too radical to fly in the US and could undercut more plausible reforms. "It's not like everything has been tried and everything has failed and you just throw up your hands," said Beilenson, who is now Howard County's top health official. "The problem is if you are going to do any reasonable drug policy reform, this heroin thing is such a red flag that it takes all the attention away. It makes it look like anyone who is interested in drug policy reform is crazy." [Ed: Beilenson should know -- he tried it in 1998.]

But some addiction specialists said there should at least be a clinical trial. "Do I think it would be interesting? In a controlled clinical trial setting, yes," said Susan Sherman, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health "To me, it's also important to have a public dialogue, regardless of the outcome. It forces people to deal with really hard issues about drug use and drug users."

"Most studies clearly show they help," said Dr. Christopher Welsh, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland medical school. "But using public funds to fund something like this would be a whole other level of politics, especially in this economy."

Law Enforcement: Belated Justice for Kathryn Johnston as Judge Sentences Atlanta Narcs Who Killed Her to Prison

A federal judge in Atlanta Tuesday sent three former Atlanta narcotics officers to prison for their roles in a misbegotten drug raid that ended in the death of a 92-year-old woman and shone a disturbing light on police practices in the Atlanta police drug squad. The victim, Kathryn Johnston, was killed when the three officers fired 39 rounds at her after she fired one shot at them as they were breaking down her door on a bogus drug raid.

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Kathryn Johnston
US District Court Judge Julie Carnes sentenced former officer Arthur Tesler to five years in prison, Gregg Junnier to six years, and Jason Smith to 10 years. All three sentences were less than those called for by federal sentencing guidelines.

Johnston was killed about 7 p.m. on November 21, 2006. Three hours earlier, Tesler arrested and roughed-up a small-time drug dealer named Fabian Sheats and threatened to send him to prison unless he gave up another drug dealer. Sheats eventually pointed out Johnston's home, apparently at random, telling Tesler and his partners he saw a dealer named "Sam" with a kilo of cocaine there.

The three officers wanted to make a buy, but didn't consider Sheats reliable, so they called an informant named Alex White to come make the buy. But White was unavailable, so the trio simply wrote a false affidavit saying they had watched White make a cocaine buy at Johnston's home. Shortly before 6:00 p.m., they had their no-knock search warrant. An hour later, Johnston was dead after firing upon the intruders she apparently thought were robbers.

Then the cover-up kicked in, with the trio creating more false documents to hide the truth. But their cover-up fell apart when their informant, Alex White, grew frightened and went to the FBI.

In her sentencing statement, Judge Carnes criticized the Atlanta Police Department for its performance quotas for search warrants and arrests, saying the "pressures brought to bear did have an impact on these and other officers on the force." If anything good came from Johnston's death, it will be "a renewed effort by the Atlanta Police Department to prevent something like this from ever happening again," Carnes said. "It is my fervent hope the APD will take to heart what has happened here," the judge said.

Prohibition: Salvia Mania Sweeps State Legislatures as Bans Spread Across County

After more than five years of examination, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has yet to find that salvia divinorum is dangerous or addictive enough to merit placement as a scheduled drug under the Controlled Substances Act, but that isn't stopping legislators across the land from moving to criminalize it or restrict its sales despite the lack of any real evidence that it does anything more than take its users on a psychedelic journey of a no more than a few minutes duration.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
Since the plant was first banned in Delaware in 2004, a handful of states each year have made efforts to prohibit the increasingly popular psychedelic. This year, the trickle is turning into a tide despite a rising chorus of opposition from scientists, researchers, public health experts, and people who believe they should be able to control their own consciousness.

The Nebraska legislature voted 44-0 last Friday to add salvia and its active ingredient, Salvinorin A, to Schedule I of its controlled substance list, the same as LSD and psychedelic mushrooms. The state of Nebraska is going to save its youth from themselves by sending them to prison for up to five years for having some leaf or extract, and up to 20 years for selling it.

The man behind the campaign to ban the plant, Attorney General Jon Bruning, pronounced himself satisfied. "I'm pleased with the legislature's vote today to ban salvia," Bruning said. "I think it is important that salvia not be allowed to be used by members of the public."

Nebraska's northern neighbor, South Dakota, is on the verge of doing the same. A bill pronouncing the salvia "threat" an emergency easily passed the House two weeks ago and a Senate committee this week. Under the emergency legislation, a ban would go into effect immediately upon the governor's signature of the bill.

And the Kentucky House Tuesday voted 99-0 to make it illegal to possess, buy, sell, or cultivate salvia. The sponsor of that bill, Rep. Will Coursey (R-Benton) told his colleagues the plant was a safety risk.

Meanwhile, similar bills have been filed or proposed in Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Texas.

Thirteen states -- Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Virginia -- have classified salvia as Schedule I under state drug laws. Three more -- Louisiana, Maine, and Tennessee -- restrict the sale of the plant. Maine and California ban it only for minors.

Medical Marijuana: New Jersey Bill Passes State Senate

The New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (S119) passed the state Senate Monday on a 22-16 vote. Gov. Jon Corzine (D) said Wednesday he would "absolutely" sign the bill, but it must first get through the Assembly, where it faces votes in the health committee and by the Assembly as a whole.

The day was also notable for what happened right after the bill passed. Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex), a well-known jokester, pretended to answer a phone on the podium, then yelled out to bill sponsor Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden): "Excuse me, Sen. Scutari, I just what you to know that was congratulating you, and it was from Michael Phelps," to groans and embarrassed laughter from the chamber, which, not surprisingly, contained several seriously ill medical marijuana patients but no college-aged bong-hitters.

And that could be a sign of changing times, too. The joke went over like a lead balloon, a local TV station made an evening news feature of Codey's joke and the unamused reactions of medical marijuana patients and supporters, and the Asbury Park Press even editorialized that Codey should apologize for his "tasteless gag." The days of cheap laughs from comparing seriously, even terminally ill patients with Cheech & Chong may be coming to an end.

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Jim Miller, husband of well-known patient/activist the late Cheryl Miller, at CMMNJ press conference introducing Sen. Scutari's first medical marijuana bill
Under the bill, there would be no penalties for the possession, use and cultivation of a small amount of marijuana when a licensed physician recommends it for a patient with a debilitating medical condition. Qualifying medical conditions include chronic pain, cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn's disease. Patients would be issued ID cards in a program run by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and permitted to grow up to six plants and possess one ounce of marijuana, or have a registered caregiver grow it for them.

"The bill is very conservative," said Ken Wolski, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey. "No medical marijuana state has a smaller plant limit or possession amount. Still, it will help a tremendous number of patients here. We applaud the senators who supported this bill."

Still, bill sponsor Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden) was understandably proud. "If medical marijuana can ease some of the suffering of a patient who's dying from a chronic, severe or terminal disease, state government should not stand in the way of that relief," Scutari said after the vote.

"For the sake of our most vulnerable, our sick and dying patients struggling for relief, now is the time for New Jersey to join the growing list of states allowing compassionate use of medical marijuana," said Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office.

On Wednesday, Gov. Corzine reiterated his previously articulated support for medical marijuana legislation. Appearing on WNYC radio's "Brian Lehrer Show," he responded to a question about whether he would sign this bill by saying "absolutely."

Now, it's on to the state Assembly. If the bill makes it to the governor's desk, New Jersey would become the 14th medical marijuana state, joining Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Drug War Issues

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