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Bipartisan Hemp, Medical Marijuana Bills Introduced in Congress [FEATURE]

It's a marijuana policy trifecta on Capitol Hill now: recreational marijuana, medical marijuana, and hemp. Earlier this month, reformist House members filed bills to end federal pot prohibition and tax the trade and last week to legalize hemp. Now, some of those same legislators -- joined by more -- have filed bills that would protect medical marijuana patients and providers and some senators have filed their companion bill to legalize industrial hemp.

Kentucky Republicans McConnell and Paul are supporting hemp legislation in the Senate
Phase II took place Thursday, when Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), sponsor of the above-mentioned marijuana tax bill, rolled out House Resolution 689, the States' Medical Marijuana Protection Act; Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) introduced House Resolution 710, the Truth in Trials Act; and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and three co-sponsors filed the Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013, the companion to House Resolution 525.

Blumenauer's bill would grant federal recognition to the use of medical marijuana and remove it from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Regulating medical marijuana would be left to the states, and people complying with state medical marijuana laws would be exempt from federal arrest and prosecution.

It was introduced with bipartisan co-sponsorship, including Reps. Steve Cohen (D-TN), Sam Farr (D-CA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Alcee Hastings (D-FL), Michael Honda (D-CA), Jared Huffman (D-CA) ), Barbara Lee (D-CA), James Moran (D-VA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).

"The States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act will allow medical marijuana patients and businesses -- who are complying with state law -- the ability to access and distribute marijuana free from federal interference," Blumenauer said. "Nineteen jurisdictions have passed laws recognizing the importance of providing access to medical marijuana for the hundreds of thousands of patients who rely on it. It is time for the federal government to respect these decisions, and stop inhibiting safe access."

"There is a plethora of scientific evidence establishing marijuana’s medical safety and efficacy and public polling for marijuana law reform is skyrocketing," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "However, when it comes to marijuana and the federal government, old fashioned politics routinely trumps modern science. The States' Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act offers us hope we will see significant change with its passage. Congress should move swiftly to acknowledge what patients, doctors, researchers and scientists have been telling us for years: marijuana has therapeutic and medicinal benefits," said Tyler.

Farr's Truth in Trials Act is an attempt to restore fairness in federal medical marijuana prosecutions. Because the federal government refuses to recognize marijuana as anything other than a proscribed controlled substance, medical marijuana defendants and their attorneys are barred from even mentioning it or their state laws allowing its use in federal court. That has repeatedly resulted in state law-abiding medical marijuana growers and providers being convicted as drug dealers in federal courts, and sentenced accordingly.

Similar legislation has been introduced in previous years, but made little progress. Now, however, as the Obama administration keeps up the pressure on medical marijuana providers and in the wake of November's election results, supporters hope the bill can gain some traction.

This year's bill is cosponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Barbara Lee (D-CA), James Moran (D-VA), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jared Polis (D-Co), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Henry Waxman (D-CA).

"The federal government for too long has denied due process to defendants who can demonstrate that they were using medical marijuana legally under local or state law," Farr said. "This bill would ensure that all the evidence is heard in a case and not just the evidence that favors conviction."

"Congress has the opportunity to establish a sensible public health policy on medical marijuana, and do what the Obama Administration has been afraid or unwilling to do," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which has been working with members of Congress to advance this legislation. "Patient advocates intend to push Congress to take heed of the abundant scientific evidence showing marijuana's medical value, and act in accordance with the overwhelming popular support this issue receives."

ASA is holding its first ever National Medical Cannabis Unity Conference this month in Washington, in part to do a big lobbying push for the bills. Attendees will convene in Washington on Friday, with the four-day conference culminating with a press conference and lobby day on Capitol Hill on Monday.

And then there was hemp. With Sen. Wyden's introduction of a Senate bill, there are now hemp bills in both houses. In addition to Wyden and Democratic and fellow Oregonian Sen. Jeff Merkley (D), the Senate hemp bill has the support of Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Senate party leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), both of whom have also endorsed hemp legislation back home in Kentucky.

"I am proud to introduce legislation with my friend Rand Paul and Senate colleagues, that will allow Kentucky farmers to harness the economic potential that industrial hemp can provide," McConnell said. "During these tough economic times, this legislation has the potential to create jobs and provide a boost to Kentucky's economy and to our farmers and their families."

"The Industrial Hemp Farming Act paves the way to creating jobs across the country -- from Kentucky to Oregon and everywhere else," Paul said. "Allowing American farmers to cultivate industrial hemp and benefit from its many uses will boost our states' economies and bring much-needed jobs in the agriculture community."

The House version of the bill was introduced earlier by Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and has 28 cosponsors: Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), Dan Benishek (R-MI), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), John Campbell (R-CA), Lacy Clay (D-MO), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Keith Ellison (D-MN), Sam Farr (D-CA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Richard Hanna (D-NY), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Tom McClintock (R-CA), Jim McDermott (D-WA), George Miller (D-CA), James Moran (D-VA), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Eleanor Norton (D-DC), Collin Peterson (D-MN), Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Mark Pocan (D-WI), Jared Polis (D-CO), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Kurt Schrader (D-OR), John Yarmuth (D-KY), and Ted Yoho (R-FL).

The hemp bills would remove federal restrictions on the domestic cultivation of industrial hemp. Specifically, the bill would remove hemp from the Schedule I controlled substance list under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, and would define it as a non-drug so long as it contained less than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

Eight states, including Oregon, have already passed bills providing for legal hemp production, but action in those states is on hold because the DEA refuses to recognize any difference between hemp and marijuana. That means US hemp product manufacturers must import hemp from countries that do recognize the difference between hemp and marijuana.

"Unfortunately, there are some dumb regulations that are hurting economic growth and job creation, and the ban on growing industrial hemp is certainly among them," Wyden said. "The opportunities for American farmers and businesses are obvious here. It's time to boost revenues for farmers and reduce the costs for the businesses around the country that use hemp."

Congress now has a full-blown marijuana agenda on its plate, from pot legalization to industrial hemp to medical marijuana, if it chooses to address it. And, given the overlapping cosponsorships on the various bills, it now appears to have developed a cannabis caucus. We've already come a long way from the days when it was all up to Barney Frank and Ron Paul, and they've just been gone a few weeks.

Washington, DC
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a key case on whether localities can ban dispensaries, and medical marijuana bills died in two Midwest states, and there's more news, too. Let's get to it:

California

Last Thursday, the Obama administration sought to dismiss a lawsuit by the city of Oakland defending its ability to issue permits for dispensaries. Oakland had sued the feds after US prosecutors moved against the Harborside Health Center, seeking to shut it down. The Justice Department argued that the city was using the wrong legal remedy, but Oakland argued that shutting down Harborside would send tens of thousands of patients into the streets seeking medicine, posing a threat to public safety in a city with crime problems. No ruling was made.

Also last Thursday, the LAPD raided a massive grow up that supplied dispensaries. LAPD officers and US Homeland Security gang agents found 1,500 pounds of marijuana and several firearms. Police said the warehouse grow did about $7.6 million in business every 60 days, and supplied numerous dispensaries in Southern California. Authorities also allege it was shipping marijuana to the Midwest and East Coast. Four people were arrested; their names have not been released.

On Monday, San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis dropped the charges against two medical marijuana patients. The move came in the cases of Clint Guidry and Cameron Mitchell, and represented a setback for the staunchly anti-medical marijuana Dumanis.

On Tuesday, LA City Attorney Carmen Trutanich said dispensaries should be allowed to operate in the city. Up for reelection, the formerly anti-dispensary Trutanich said he was endorsing a city council initiative that would allow the 100 to 180 retailers that existed before a fall 2007 city moratorium on dispensaries to essentially carry on so long as they follow certain rules. A second initiative also set for the ballot would allow virtually all of the city's hundreds--possibly up to a thousand--dispensaries to stay open.

Also on Tuesday, the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a key dispensary ban case. The issue is whether the city of Riverside's ban on dispensaries violates the state's medical marijuana laws. Questioning by the justices suggested that they were prepared to agree with the city that the state constitution gives cities wide policing power over land use and suggested that the state's medical marijuana laws have not undercut that authority.

On Wednesday, DEA agents and San Bernardino police raided a chain of dispensaries and a private residence. The raiders hit Kush Concepts at three locations, where they marched patients out of the dispensaries. City officials said there are 41 dispensaries in San Bernardino.

Also on Wednesday, an appeals court upheld Tehama County's cultivation ordinance. A group of medical marijuana patients sued over the ordinance in 2010, arguing it was unconstitutional and conflicted with the Compassionate Use Act. The county prevailed in Superior Court, and that decision was appealed. Now that appeal has been lost.

Colorado

Last Tuesday, the first applications for Fort Collins dispensary licenses were submitted. The city had had 21 dispensaries that were forced to close when voters chose to impose a ban in 2011. The ban was overturned by voters in November, and now the dispensaries are coming back.

Iowa

Last Thursday, legislators killed a medical marijuana bill. House Public Safety Committee Chair Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield) call it one of the "stupidest" bills he had ever seen. He was joined by the other Republican on the three-member panel in voting to kill it.

Massachusetts

On Sunday, state officials said they may not make the deadline to come up with medical marijuana regulations. They are required to have them in place by May 1, but health officials said the complexity of the issues was such that they were unlikely to be able to comply. Medical marijuana advocates responded that any delay is unjustified and would cause patients to suffer.

Michigan

On Tuesday, a report said the state had collected $10 million in revenues from medical marijuana program applicants. The report covered the period through the end of the state's budget year on September 30. It says the revenue intake was nearly double that needed to run the program.

Montana

Last Friday, Chris Williams was sentenced to a mandatory minimum five years in prison for his role in Montana Cannabis, the state's largest dispensary during its short-lived medical marijuana boom. He had been facing more than 90 years in federal prison after refusing plea agreements and then being convicted of marijuana cultivation and firearms offenses in federal court (they had a shotgun at their grow op), but in the face of a public outcry, prosecutors sought and got an unusual post-conviction plea bargain limiting his prison exposure.

South Dakota

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana bill was killed in the legislature. It went down on a 7-6 vote in the House Health and Human Services Committee. Medical marijuana bills have been repeatedly introduced since 2001, only to die. South Dakota voters have also twice rejected medical marijuana initiatives.

Federal Marijuana Reform Bills Introduced [FEATURE]

Two Democratic congressmen announced Tuesday that they are introducing legislation to reform federal marijuana policy. In a joint press conference that also included representatives of drug reform groups, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Jared Polis (D-CO) announced two separate bills aimed at addressing the looming clash between intransigent federal marijuana policies and states that have or likely will legalize marijuana. And more bills are pending, they said.

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Earl Blumenauer and Jared Polis
Blumenauer and Polis also released a report entitled "The Path Forward: Rethinking Federal Marijuana Policy," which outlines their perspective on marijuana policy and provides some background on regulation and opportunities for action. The congressmen have also established the Sensible Drug Policy Working Group, which will provide a forum for members of Congress who are working on related issues and hope to advance legislation.

Polis's Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act would remove the DEA's authority over marijuana, end federal marijuana prohibition, and leave it to the states to decide whether to prohibit marijuana or not. Blumenauer's Marijuana Tax Equity Act, House Bill 501, would create a federal excise tax on marijuana similar to those imposed on alcohol and tobacco. Taken together, the two bills would provide for a system of marijuana regulation and taxation in states where it is legal.

More specifically, Polis's bill would:

  • Remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act;
  • Transfer the Drug Enforcement Administration’s authority to regulate marijuana to a newly renamed Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Marijuana and Firearms, which will be tasked with regulating marijuana as it currently does alcohol;
  • Require marijuana producers to purchase a permit, as commercial alcohol producers do, of which the proceeds would offset the cost of federal oversight; and
  • Ensure federal law distinguishes between individuals who grow marijuana for personal use and those involved in commercial sale and distribution.

Blumenauer's bill would:

  • Impose a 50% excise tax on the first sale of marijuana, from the producer to the next stage of production, usually the processor;
  • Impose an occupational tax similar to those in the tobacco and alcohol industries on those operating in marijuana, with producers, importers and manufacturers facing an occupation tax of $1,000 per year and any other person engaged in the business facing an annual tax of $500 per year;
  • Impose civil penalties for failure to comply with taxing duties. Criminal penalties will be assessed for intentional efforts to defraud the taxing authorities; and
  • Require the IRS to produce a study of the industry after two years, and every five years after that, and to issue recommendations to Congress to continue improving the administration of the tax.

The time has come for marijuana law reform at the federal level, the two congressmen said.

"There has been an enormous evolution of American opinion on marijuana. Americans are sick and tired of the costs of marijuana prohibition, whether it’s the financial costs or the human costs. Americans are saying enough is enough, let's try a new policy. We need to address drug use as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one," said Polis.

"My bill doesn't affect the legal status of marijuana where it is currently illegal," the Colorado congressman explained, "but it does allow states that have created either a legalized and regulated scheme for sales or that have medical marijuana laws to operate, without the constant fear that the federal government and the DEA and the other agencies will prosecute patients or businesses that are fully legal under state law. This is an idea whose time has come."

"Forty years ago, as a freshman member of the Oregon legislature, I was able to vote to make Oregon the first state to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana," said Blumenauer. "Since then, 14 states have joined Oregon, and after California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, we now have 19 jurisdictions that have authorized it, and we now have the first two states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use."

The Oregon congressman added that he and Polis are working with a bipartisan group of representatives and that up to eight or 10 marijuana reform bills could be introduced this session.

"We're looking at antiquated and sometimes nonsensical federal laws and policies to try to get us on a path that is less expensive, more productive, more fair, and more in tune with where America is going," Blumenauer said. "We arrested two-thirds of a million people in 2011 for a substance most people think should be legal. The president said he has bigger fish to fry, but there are still people further down the federal food chain frying those fish."

"This is a very exciting day," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Last November, voters in Colorado and Washington made history, and the polling shows that a majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. There is no doubt more states will legalize in the years to come. This is the beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition."

"We were a primary backer of Amendment 64 in Colorado, which directed the state to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol," said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "That's how we believe it should be treated, and we look forward to working with Reps. Polis and Blumenauer to see that this legislation is eventually passed by Congress."

If not this year, then soon, the congressmen said.

"There is growing support for this bill," Polis argued. "There has really been a sea change; we saw test votes in the last Congress for defunding the DEA and other things, and saw very strong support, and that will only increase over time. Congress is frequently a lagging indicator for public opinion; it’s a question of Congress catching up."

"This is the beginning, not the end," said Blumenauer. "My bill is a first step and we anticipate some give and take, but this will be gaining momentum.  We've got legislation here today to get the ball rolling, but there will be more that you will be hearing about in the days ahead."

"It's clear that we've reached a tipping point," said Piper. "Major changes are going to happen and are happening now. The American people are demanding reform, and members of Congress are starting to give it to them."

Washington, DC
United States

Caswell Motel Case Marks a Victory Against Federal Forfeiture Abuse [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

In a major victory for property rights advocates, a federal judge in Massachusetts last week struck down a scheme by federal prosecutors to seize a motel owned by the Caswell family on rundown Main Street in Tewksbury. The ruling in US v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Massachusetts should make it more difficult for the government to seize a person's property if third parties committed criminal offenses on that property without the property owner's knowledge.

The ruling reinforced longstanding complaints that the use of asset forfeiture statutes -- both federal and state -- is so broad as to be tantamount to an abuse of power. Under such laws, prosecutors file civil actions seeking to seize the property of accused criminals as the fruits of crime, but they often result in citizens being deprived of their property without ever being convicted of a crime, sometimes even without ever having been arrested.

"People better wake up to what's going on with the government taking property under this federal civil forfeiture law," said Russ Caswell, 69, longtime owner of the Caswell Motel. "I was never charged with a crime and I never participated in no drug crimes on my property," he told the Chronicle Sunday. "Neither did the police tell me that my business was a problem, plus we often reported to police about criminal activity on the premises, but they still tried to take my property. I am thankful to God and my attorneys that this nightmare is over."

The Caswell Motel isn't the Hilton -- like countless thousands of other low-end motels on gritty streets across the country, it offers rooms by the week, and its clientele includes itinerant construction workers, traveling salesmen, the just-up-from-homeless, and, yes, the occasional drug user or peddler.

US Attorney Carmen Ortiz had sought to seize the Motel Caswell from the Caswell family under the theory that the motel allegedly facilitated drug crimes. The government provided evidence of 15 drug-related incidents between 1994 and 2008, rousing US Magistrate Judith Dein to note tartly in her opinion that "it should be noted that during this 14 year period, the Motel Caswell rented out approximately 196,000 rooms."

Dein found that Caswell "did not know the guests involved in the drug crimes, did not know of their anticipated criminal behavior at the time they registered as guests, and did not know of the drug crimes while they were occurring."

The government argued that the Caswells had failed to cooperate with police to alleviate drug problems at the property, but Dein cited numerous examples of the motel's cooperation with Tewksbury Police, and also noted that "there is no contention in this case that anyone from the Caswell family has been involved in any criminal activity either at the Motel or elsewhere. It is undisputed that they are a law-abiding family. Mr. Caswell testified that he had never been charged with any crime in his life."

Then Dein blistered the prosecution.

"It is rather remarkable," she wrote, "in this court's view, for the Government to argue in this case that the Property owner should lose his property for failure to undertake some undefined steps in an effort to prevent crime, while putting on evidence that the police drove through the Property routinely, knew the Property owner's identity and that he lived next door to the Motel, and never contacted him in an effort to work together to control crime at the Property. No comparable cases have been cited by the parties, and none have been found. Having failed to notify Mr. Caswell that he had a significant problem, and having failed to take any steps to advise him on what to do, the Government's resolution of the crime problem should not be to simply take his Property."

The federal magistrate then flatly dismissed the government's case. "The Government has failed to meet its burden of establishing that the Motel is subject to forfeiture," Dein found. "In addition, this Court concludes that the Claimant has met his burden of proving that he is the innocent owner of the Property."

Attorneys and asset forfeiture critics applauded the decision. Darpana Sheth, a Virginia-based pro-bono attorney who assisted with the defense of the Caswell Motel called the verdict "very important" and said it could have wider implications if other judicial districts and lawyers pick up on it.

"This decision will make it tougher for the government to initiate forfeiture proceedings or file complaints based on the actions of third parties," she said.

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Scott Bullock (ij.org)
"This is a complete victory for the Caswell family and for the protection of private property rights," said attorney Scott Bullock, after Dein's ruling. Bullock, who represented the family, is a senior attorney for the Institute for Justice (IJ), a Virginia-based public interest law firm specializing in fighting federal and state forfeiture abuse nationwide.

Caswell definitely needed the Institute's help, his family's limited resources having been eaten up in earlier stages of their battle with a relentless federal prosecutor.
 

"After running out of money after spending over $100,000, my local attorney discovered the Institute for Justice on the Internet," said Caswell."Had it not been for the Institute representing me pro-bono, I would have lost the motel and my livelihood."

While the Institute is a bulwark of the fight against asset forfeiture abuses, it is perhaps best known for its David vs. Goliath victory over billionaire Donald Trump in an Atlantic City eminent domain case in the 1990s. In that case, the Institute successfully represented a property owner whose land Trump wanted for a parking lot for his casino and hotel, blocking Trump's plan and saving the property.

The Caswell Motel case also opened a window on unsavory practices around asset forfeiture and raised questions of "policing for profit." Although Caswell attorneys argued -- and the court agreed -- that the family had cooperated with police to alleviate the drug problem, someone tipped the DEA to a potential target. The property had an estimated value of between $1.5 million and $1.8 million. Through the federal asset forfeiture "Equitable Sharing Program," state and local law enforcement agencies involved would have received 80% of the value of the Caswell property, with the feds reaping the other 20%.

"What the government did amounted to a grab for quick cash under the guise of civil forfeiture," said attorney Larry Salzman, another IJ attorney.

The workings of the asset forfeiture machine were partially revealed in the deposition of Vincent Kelly, DEA Special Agent in the New England office asset forfeiture unit. He testified under oath that his job was to look for high-dollar property with no mortgage to be forfeited. Kelly explained clearly how he checked the Registry of Deeds "to find out who owns the property and how much equity is on the property." Then, the DEA would contact local police to see how many drug arrests or other serious crimes been committed on the property.

Kelly said it was DEA policy to deal only with property worth at least $50,000.00. With Caswell Motel's worth between $1.5 and $1.8 million dollars, it was ripe for forfeiture since many drug arrests had occurred there.

In another sign that the motel had been the target of selective prosecution, defense attorneys and the Lowell Sun also uncovered evidence that at one point, narcotic officers and police made more arrests on the premises of Walmart, IHop, and Home Depot, nearby businesses also located off I-95 on Main Street. From 2010-2012, the attorneys said 19 drug arrests were made at Caswell Motel, with 24 drug arrests on Walmart's premises, 14 at Home Depot and five each at Applebee's and Burger King. But those are all deep-pocketed corporations with legions of lawyers; the Caswell family and its motel was not.

The Caswell Motel case is only an especially egregious example of asset forfeiture abuses. For years, attorneys, community activists, and advocacy groups, such as Forfeiture Endangers Americans Rights (FEAR) and Americans for Forfeiture Reform have been fighting to reign in such prosecutorial misconduct, and some progress has been made.

Some states implemented higher burdens of proof for police to seize property or acted to reduce the incentive to police for profit by directing that all or some seized funds go to the state general fund or education fund -- not straight into police coffers. And some states require an actual conviction before civil asset forfeiture can proceed.

But facing increasingly tougher standards and regulations, state and local law enforcement have learned to hand their cases over to the feds, ensuring that the cops get their cut under the equitable sharing program, but in effect robbing state governments of funds that should have gone to them. According to a Cato Institute study, as of 2008, the Justice Department's forfeiture fund reached $3.1 billion, with less than 20% of property seized coming from cases where the owners were prosecuted.

At the federal level, things are a bit better than they used to be, but it clear that room for abuse still exists, as the Caswell case demonstrates. Prior to federal asset forfeiture reform legislation passed in 2000, seizures could be made on mere suspicion that the property was involved in a crime. Once that happened, the property owner had to prove by a "preponderance of evidence" that the property was not involved in a crime.

Ironically, it was the attempted seizure of another motel, the Red Carpet Inn in Houston, Texas, that helped lead the way to passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. In that case, the feds seized the motel in 1998, claiming it was a "drug haven."

Like Caswell, Red Carpet owner Jason Brice had complied with police by hiring security and allowing police to patrol his property, and had spent thousands of dollars to comply with law enforcement demands that the motel discourage drug dealing. But when Brice balked at raising room rates and then revoked permission for police to patrol the property, the feds moved in with a civil forfeiture claim. Brice won in court, but only after years of stress and hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees.

Led by then Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) and inspired by cases like that of the Red Carpet Inn, Congress finally acted in 2000, passing the first effort to rein in asset forfeiture abuse at the federal level. The reforms include the "innocent owner" defense that Caswell successfully used in its trial.

But the civil asset forfeiture machine that grew out of Ronald Reagan's 1980s drug war keeps on humming. When the Department of Justice's Asset Forfeiture Fund to split seized goods with local and state law enforcement started in 1986, it took in $93.7 million. Last year, it took in $1.5 billion. That is a real and continuing incentive to pervert policing in pursuit of profits.

"It's like stealing your property in a hold-up without a gun," summed up Russ Caswell. "It goes back to our founding fathers. What happened to me was so un-American."

Someone needs to tell US Attorney Ortiz, who has not yet given up the fight for the Caswell Motel. On Tuesday, her office said "we are weighing our options with respect to appeal." They have until March 15 to file, and until then, Russ Caswell and his motel still aren't in the clear.

FDA Panel Wants Tighter Control over Pain Pills

A US Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted last Friday to recommend that popular pain relievers containing the opioid hydrocodone be moved from Schedule III to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. Popular prescription drugs containing hydrocodone include Vicodin and Lortab.

That would put Lortab and Vicodin in the same schedule as morphine and Oyxcontin, which contains oxycodone.

If the FDA agrees with its advisory panel and reschedules hydrocodone, pain patients using the drug will have to go the doctor's office to get prescriptions written twice as frequently as now. Schedule III drugs can be prescribed for up to six months at a time, while Schedule II drugs can only be prescribed for three months without another visit to the doctor.

The FDA has for years resisted efforts to tighten controls over hydrocodone, saying it could limit patients' access to pain medicine, but as overdose deaths and addiction rates from prescription pain relievers have jumped in recent years, pressure has been mounting on the agency. The agency is acting now after receiving a request from the DEA to consider rescheduling.

The advisory panel's 19-10 vote received mixed reviews from experts consulted by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Andrew Kolodny, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist who heads Physicians for Responsible Opiate Prescribing lauded the vote, saying it will lead to fewer people getting addicted to opiates.

"Doctors have had a false sense of security (about prescribing the drugs)," said Kolodny. "This is a clear message that hydrocodone is addictive," he told the Wisconsin newspaper.

"It seemed pretty clear to me that the preponderance of the evidence supported rescheduling," said Peter Kaboli, associate professor at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.

But Jan Chambers, president of the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association, said she voted against the proposal because she has heard so much from family members of people who have committed suicide because they are in such pain.

"Millions of people don't have access to the pain specialist or the doctors who can prescribe these Schedule III drugs," she said.

And Lynn Webster, president-elect of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, said putting tighter controls on hydrocodone will reduce prescribing and abuse, but worried about the impact on pain patients.

"I hope chronic pain patients and acute pain patients don't suffer as a result," said Webster, who spoke at the panel hearing but was not a panel member.

The FDA has not said when it will make a final decision on the issue. Now, the FDA and the National Institutes of Health must make a recommendation to the assistant secretary for health, who will make a final recommendation to the DEA.

Washington, DC
United States

DC Appeals Court Denies Marijuana Rescheduling [FEATURE]

In a ruling Tuesday, the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit denied a petition seeking to reschedule marijuana. The court held that while petitioners had presented some evidence of marijuana's medical efficacy, there was not enough to override the federal government's decision to place marijuana on Schedule I, the most restrictive classification.

E. Barrett Prettyman US Courthouse and William B. Bryant Annex
Schedule I drugs, which also include heroin, LSD, and ecstasy, are those that are considered to have no medical use and a high potential for abuse. Marijuana was placed in Schedule I when Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act in 1970, and the DEA and FDA have consistently refused efforts to reschedule it.

The ruling came in Americans for Safe Access v. Drug Enforcement Administration. It comes more than 10 years after the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis, led by Jon Gettman, originally filed its petition in October 2002 and 40 years after NORML first filed a petition seeking to reschedule the herb. The Coalition petition was denied in 2011, after ASA sued the Obama administration for delaying its response. The current appeal was the first time in two decades that a federal court has reviewed the issue of whether there exists adequate scientific evidence to reschedule marijuana.

The first challenge for petitioners was that of standing to sue. The presence of disabled Air Force veteran and Veterans for Medical Cannabis Access member Michael Krawitz among the petitioners provided that standing. Krawitz, who has tussled with the Department of Veterans Affairs over his use of medical marijuana, "has suffered injury-in-fact because he must shoulder a financial cost for services he would otherwise obtain for free of charge from the VA" and thus has standing to sue, the court held.

But that was just the threshold question. On the substantive issue of rescheduling marijuana, the court came down squarely on the side of the federal government.

"The question before the court is not whether marijuana could have some medical benefits," wrote Senior Circuit Court Judge Harry Edwards for the majority. "Rather, the limited question that we address is whether the DEA’s decision declining to initiate proceedings to reschedule marijuana under the CSA was arbitrary and capricious… On the record before us, we hold that the DEA’s denial of the rescheduling petition survives review under the deferential arbitrary and capricious standard. The petition asks the DEA to reclassify marijuana as a Schedule III, IV, or V drug, which, under the terms of the CSA, requires a 'currently accepted medical use.' The DEA's regulations… define 'currently accepted medical use' to require, inter alia, 'adequate and well-controlled studies proving efficacy.' … We defer to the agency’s interpretation of these regulations and find that substantial evidence supports its determination that such studies do not exist."

"The court says the DEA didn't act arbitrarily and capriciously, but if that wasn't arbitrary and capricious, I'm going back to the dictionary," said a frustrated Krawitz. "This is an issue with 70% supporting change, yet nothing happens. We have a handful of champions in Congress, but where is one person in the federal government who represents us? How can there be so little integrity at the National Institutes for Health and the FDA, where they are supposed to be there to protect our interests?"

"We're stuck in a Catch-22 -- the DEA is saying that marijuana needs FDA approval to be removed from Schedule I, but at the same time they are obstructing that very research," said Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "While there is a plethora of scientific evidence establishing marijuana's safety and efficacy, the specific clinical trials necessary to gain FDA approval have long been obstructed by the federal government itself."

"It's more of the same from the federal courts. I'm disappointed, but not surprised," said Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML. "There has been a long line of court decisions affirming the federal government's dictatorial power to make arbitrary decisions about drugs. Ironically, this decision comes on the same day as the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Women in this country have the right to terminate the live of their fetuses, but not to smoke a joint."

"To deny that sufficient evidence is lacking on the medical efficacy of marijuana is to ignore a mountain of well-documented studies that conclude otherwise," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which appealed the denial of the rescheduling petition in January of last year. "The Court has unfortunately agreed with the Obama Administration's unreasonably raised bar on what qualifies as an 'adequate and well-controlled' study, thereby continuing their game of 'Gotcha.'"

ASA said it will seek an en banc review of the decision by the full DC Circuit and will go to the Supreme Court if necessary. The group said it will argue that the Obama administration has acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" by shifting its definition of what constitutes "medical efficacy." The administration now argues that Stage II and III clinical trials are necessary to show efficacy, while ASA contends that the more than 200 peer-reviewed studies it cited in legal briefs in the case meet the standard.

"The Obama Administration's legal efforts will keep marijuana out of reach for millions of qualified patients who would benefit from its use," said Elford. "It's time for President Obama to change his harmful policy with regard to medical marijuana and treat this as a public health issue, something entirely within the capability and authority of the executive office."

While ASA pursues its appeals in the courts, it is also trying to turn up the heat on Congress and the administration. With rescheduling through the courts blocked -- at least pending a favorable ruling on appeal -- that is where the action will be.

"I'm not optimistic that the courts are going to change their position," said Gieringer. "That means we will have to put pressure on the administration or Congress to do it."

But it's important to see that rescheduling is not an end in itself, but a means, said Gieringer.

"Rescheduling in itself would accomplish very little in the real world," he pointed out. "It would not end the federal-state conflict on marijuana, and even if it were rescheduled, there is still no FDA-approved supply. All of the marijuana out there today would still be an illegal controlled substance without FDA approval."

Marijuana policy reform is not just about real world effects; it is also about perceptions, and rescheduling marijuana would have been something of a game changer, as Gieringer noted.

"Symbolically, of course, it would have been huge," he said. "It would open the way for prescriptions and help unblock research -- the controls on Schedule II drugs are not nearly as fearsome. Still, rescheduling would have been a baby step, but a lot of other stuff has to happen, and that requires an act of Congress, and I haven't seen any sign of that."

But the federal courts have so far made clear that they will defer to Congress and the executive branch on these issues. That means that's where the battle will have to be won.

Washington, DC
United States

DEA Raids Three LA Medical Marijuana Dispensaries

DEA agents raided three Los Angeles medical marijuana dispensaries Wednesday afternoon, according to a preliminary report from Americans for Safe Access California director Don Duncan. More details were not forthcoming by press time.

According to Duncan, the DEA struck LA Wonderland on West Pico Boulevard, the Downtown Collective on South Hill St. near downtown, and the Iron Works in Venice.

The federal government has unleashed the DEA on dispensaries under both the Bush and the Obama administrations, although there was a respite between 2009 and late 2011, when the Justice Department had a policy of generally leaving them alone. But that policy shifted again in 2011, and both the DEA and federal prosecutors have been busy going after dispensaries since then. One Southern California dispensary operator, Aaron Sandusky, was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison just this Monday.

The policy has not been limited to California. While hundreds of California dispensaries have been forced out of business by raids, asset forfeiture threats and/or prosecutions, so have dozens of dispensaries in Colorado, and a series of statewide raids in Montana in the spring of 2011 virtually wiped out that state's dispensary scene.

The LA DEA raids come as the city grapples over what to do about dispensaries. An effort by the city council to shut them all down was blocked by popular opposition. Now, the council, and perhaps city voters, will have to consider two different municipal initiatives, one of which would limit the number of dispensaries in the city to about 100, the other of which would allow most existing dispensaries to stay open.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

The Top Ten Drug Policy Stories of 2012 [FEATURE]

In some ways, 2012 has been a year of dramatic, exciting change in drug policy, as the edifice of global drug prohibition appears to crumble before our eyes. In other ways it is still business as usual in the drug war. Marijuana prohibition is now mortally wounded, but there were still three-quarters of a million pot arrests last year. The American incarceration mania appears to be running its course, but drug arrests continue to outnumber any other category of criminal offense. There is a rising international clamor for a new drug paradigm, but up until now, it's just talk.

The drug prohibition paradigm is trembling, but it hasn't collapsed yet -- we are on the cusp of even more interesting times. Below, we look at the biggest drug policy stories of 2012 and peer a bit into the future:

1. Colorado and Washington Legalize Marijuana!

Voters in Colorado and Washington punched an enormous and historic hole in the wall of marijuana prohibition in November. While Alaska has for some years allowed limited legal possession in the privacy of one's home, thanks to the privacy provisions of the state constitution, the November elections marked the first time voters in any state have chosen to legalize marijuana. This is an event that has made headlines around the world, and for good reason -- it marks the repudiation of pot prohibition in the very belly of the beast.

And it isn't going away. The federal government may or may not be able to snarl efforts by the two states to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce, but few observers think it can force them to recriminalize marijuana possession. It's now legal to possess up to an ounce in both states and to grow up to six plants in Colorado and -- barring a sudden reversal of political will in Washington or another constitutional amendment in Colorado -- it's going to stay that way. The votes in Colorado and Washington mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition.

2. Nationally, Support for Marijuana Legalization Hits the Tipping Point

If Colorado and Washington are the harbingers of change, the country taken as a whole is not far behind, at least when it comes to public opinion. All year, public opinion polls have showed support for marijuana legalization hovering right around 50%, in line with last fall's Gallup poll that showed steadily climbing support for legalization and support at 50% for the first time. A Gallup poll this month showed a 2% drop in support, down to 48%, but that's within the margin of error for the poll, and it's now a downside outlier.

Four other polls released this month
demonstrate a post-election bump for legalization sentiment. Support for legalization came in at 47%, 51%, 54%, and 57%, including solid majority support in the West and Northeast. The polls also consistently find opposition to legalization strongest among older voters, while younger voters are more inclined to free the weed.

As Quinnipiac pollster Peter Brown put it after his survey came up with 51% support for legalization, "This is the first time Quinnipiac University asked this question in its national poll so there is no comparison from earlier years. It seems likely, however, that given the better than 2-1 majority among younger voters, legalization is just a matter of time."

Caravan for Peace vigil, Brownsville, Texas, August 2012
3. Global Rejection of the Drug War

International calls for alternatives to drug prohibition continued to grow ever louder this year. Building on the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, the voices for reform took to the stage at global venues such as the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April, the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July, and at the United Nations General Assembly in September.

While calls for a new paradigm came from across the globe, including commissions in Australia and the United Kingdom, this was the year of the Latin American dissidents. With first-hand experience with the high costs of enforcing drug prohibition, regional leaders including Colombian President Santos, Guatemalan President Perez Molina, Costa Rican President Chinchilla, and even then-Mexican President Calderon all called this spring for serious discussion of alternatives to the drug war, if not outright legalization. No longer was the critique limited to former presidents.

That forced US President Obama to address the topic at the Summit of the Americas and at least acknowledge that "it is entirely legitimate to have a conversation about whether the laws in place are doing more harm than good in certain places" before dismissing legalization as a policy option. But the clamor hasn't gone away -- instead, it has only grown louder -- both at the UN in the fall and especially since two US states legalized marijuana in November.

While not involved in the regional calls for an alternative paradigm, Uruguayan President Mujica made waves with his announcement of plans to legalize the marijuana commerce there (possession was never criminalized). That effort appears at this writing to have hit a bump in the road, but the proposal and the reaction to it only added to the clamor for change.

4. Mexico's Drug War: The Poster Child for Drug Legalization

Mexico's orgy of prohibition-related violence continues unabated with its monstrous death toll somewhere north of 50,000 and perhaps as high as 100,000 during the Calderon sexenio, which ended this month. Despite all the killings, despite Calderon's strategy of targeting cartel capos, despite the massive deployment of the military, and despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid for the military campaign, the flow of drugs north and guns and money south continues largely unimpeded and Mexico -- and now parts of Central America, as well -- remain in the grip of armed criminals who vie for power with the state itself.

With casualty figures now in the range of the Iraq or Afghanistan wars and public safety and security in tatters, Calderon's misbegotten drug war has become a lightning rod for critics of drug prohibition, both at home and around the world. In the international discussion of alternatives to the status quo -- and why we need them -- Mexico is exhibit #1.

And there's no sign things are going to get better any time soon. While Calderon's drug war may well have cost him and his party the presidency (and stunningly returned it to the old ruling party, the PRI, only two elections after it was driven out of office in disgrace), neither incoming Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto nor the Obama administration are showing many signs they are willing to take the bold, decisive actions -- like ending drug prohibition -- that many serious observers on all sides of the spectrum say will be necessary to tame the cartels.

The Mexican drug wars have also sparked a vibrant and dynamic civil society movement, the Caravan for Peace and Justice, led by poet and grieving father Javier Sicilia. After crisscrossing Mexico last year, Sicilia and his fellow Mexican activists crossed the border this summer for a three-week trek across the US, where their presence drew even more attention to the terrible goings on south of the border.

5. Medical Marijuana Continues to Spread, Though the Feds Fight Back

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and while there was only one new one this year, this has been a year of back-filling. Medical marijuana dispensaries have either opened or are about to open in a number of states where it has been legal for years but delayed by slow or obstinate elected officials (Arizona, New Jersey, Washington, DC) or in states that more recently legalized it (Massachusetts).

None of the newer medical marijuana states are as wide open as California, Colorado, or Montana (until virtual repeal last year), as with each new state, the restrictions seem to grow tighter and the regulation and oversight more onerous and constricting. Perhaps that will protect them from the tender mercies of the Justice Department, which, after two years of benign neglect, changed course last year, undertaking concerted attacks on dispensaries and growers in all three states. That offensive was ongoing throughout 2012, marked by federal prosecutions and medical marijuana providers heading to federal prison in Montana. While federal prosecutions have been less resorted to in California and Colorado, federal raids and asset forfeiture threat campaigns have continued, resulting in the shuttering of dozens of dispensaries in Colorado and hundreds in California. There is no sign of a change of heart at the Justice Department, either.

6. The Number of Drug War Prisoners is Decreasing

The Bureau of Justice Statistics announced recently that the number of people in America's state and federal prisons had declined for the second year in a row at year's end 2011. The number and percentage of drug war prisoners is declining, too. A decade ago, the US had nearly half a million people behind bars on drug charges; now that number has declined to a still horrific 330,000 (not including people doing local jail time). And while a decade ago, the percentage of people imprisoned for drug charges was somewhere between 20% and 25% of all prisoners, that percentage has now dropped to 17%.

That decline is mostly attributable to sentencing reforms in the states, which, unlike the federal government, actually have to balance their budgets. Especially as economic hard times kicked in in 2008, spending scarce taxpayer resources on imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders became fiscally and politically less tenable. The passage of the Proposition 36 "three strikes" sentencing reform in California in November, which will keep people from being sentenced to up to life in prison for trivial third offenses, including drug possession, is but the latest example of the trend away from mass incarceration for drug offenses.

The federal government is the exception. While state prison populations declined last year (again), the federal prison population actually increased by 3.1%. With nearly 95,000 drug offenders doing federal time, the feds alone account for almost one-third of all drug war prisoners.

President Obama could exercise his pardon power by granting clemency to drug war prisoners, but it is so far a power he has been loathe to exercise. An excellent first candidate for presidential clemency would be Clarence Aaron, the now middle-aged black man who has spent the past two decades behind bars for his peripheral role in a cocaine deal, but activists in California and elsewhere are also calling for Obama to free some of the medical marijuana providers now languishing in federal prisons. The next few days would be the time for him to act, if he is going to act this year.

7. But the Drug War Juggernaut Keeps On Rolling, Even if Slightly Out of Breath

NYC "stop and frisk" protest of mass marijuana arrests
According to annual arrest data released this summer by the FBI, more than 1.53 million people were arrested on drug charges last year, nearly nine out of ten of them for simple possession, and nearly half of them on marijuana charges. The good news is that is a decline in drug arrests from 2010. That year, 1.64 million people were arrested on drug charges, meaning the number of overall drug arrests declined by about 110,000 last year. The number of marijuana arrests is also down, from about 850,000 in 2010 to about 750,000 last year.

But that still comes out to a drug arrest every 21 seconds and a marijuana arrest every 42 seconds, and no other single crime category generated as many arrests as drug law violations. The closest challengers were larceny (1.24 million arrests), non-aggravated assaults (1.21 million), and DWIs (1.21 million). All violent crime arrests combined totaled 535,000, or slightly more than one-third the number of drug arrests.

The war on drugs remains big business for law enforcement and prosecutors.

8. And So Does the Call to Drug Test Public Benefits Recipients

Oblivious to constitutional considerations or cost-benefit analyses, legislators (almost always Republican) in as many as 30 states introduced bills that would have mandated drug testing for welfare recipients, people receiving unemployment benefits, or, in a few cases, anyone receiving any public benefit, including Medicaid recipients. Most would have called for suspicionless drug testing, which runs into problems with that pesky Fourth Amendment requirement for a search warrant or probable cause to undertake a search, while some attempted to get around that obstacle by only requiring drug testing upon suspicion. But that suspicion could be as little as a prior drug record or admitting to drug use during intake screening.

Still, when all the dust had settled, only three states -- Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- actually passed drug testing bills, and only Georgia's called for mandatory suspicionless drug testing of welfare recipients. Bill sponsors may have been oblivious, but other legislators and stakeholders were not. And the Georgia bill is on hold, while the state waits to see whether the federal courts will strike down the Florida welfare drug testing bill on which it is modeled. That law is currently blocked by a federal judge's temporary injunction.

It wasn't just Republicans. In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Roy Tomblin used an executive order to impose drug testing on applicants to the state's worker training program. (This week came reports that only five of more than 500 worker tests came back positive.) And the Democratic leadership in the Congress bowed before Republican pressures and okayed giving states the right to impose drug testing requirements on some unemployment recipients in return for getting an extension of unemployment benefits.

This issue isn't going away. Legislators in several states, including Indiana, Ohio, Texas, and West Virginia have already signaled they will introduce similar bills next year, and that number is likely to increase as solons around the country return to work.

9. The US Bans New Synthetic Drugs

In July, President Obama signed a bill banning the synthetic drugs known popularly as "bath salts" and "fake weed." The bill targeted 31 specific synthetic stimulant, cannabinoid, and hallucinogenic compounds. Marketed under brand names like K2 and Spice for synthetic cannabinoids and under names like Ivory Wave, among others, for synthetic stimulants, the drugs have become increasingly popular in recent years. The drugs had previously been banned under emergency action by the DEA.

The federal ban came after more than half the states moved against the new synthetics, which have been linked to a number of side effects ranging from the inconvenient (panic attacks) to the life-threatening. States and localities continue to move against the new drugs, too.

While the federal ban demonstrates that the prohibitionist reflex is still strong, what is significant is the difficulty sponsors had in getting the bill passed. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put a personal hold on the bill until mandatory minimum sentencing requirements were removed and also argued that such efforts were the proper purview of the states, not Washington. And for the first time, there were a substantial number of Congress members voting "no" on a bill to create a new drug ban.

10. Harm Reduction Advances by Fits and Starts, At Home and Abroad

Harm reduction practices -- needle exchanges, safer injection sites, and the like -- continued to expand, albeit fitfully, in both the US and around the globe. Faced with a rising number of prescription pain pill overdoses in the US -- they now outnumber auto accident fatalities -- lawmakers in a number of states have embraced "911 Good Samaritan" laws granting immunity from prosecution. Since New Mexico passed the first such law in 2007, nine others have followed. Sadly, Republican Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the New Jersey bill this year.

Similarly, the use of the opioid antagonist naloxone, which can reverse overdoses and restore normal breathing in minutes, also expanded this year. A CDC report this year that estimated it had saved 10,000 lives will only help spread the word.

There has been movement internationally as well this year, including in some unlikely places. Kenya announced in June that it was handing out 50,000 syringes to injection drug users in a bid to reduce the spread of AIDS, and Colombia announced in the fall plans to open safe consumption rooms for cocaine users in Bogota. That's still a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs unanimously supported a resolution calling on the World Health Organization and other international bodies to promote measures to reduce overdose deaths, including the expanded use of naloxone; Greece announced it was embracing harm reduction measures, including handing out needles and condoms, to fight AIDS; long-awaited Canadian research called for an expansion of safe injection sites to Toronto and Ottawa; and Denmark first okayed safe injection sites in June, then announced it is proposing that heroin in pill form be made available to addicts. Denmark is one of a handful of European countries that provide maintenance doses of heroin to addicts, but to this point, the drug was only available for injection. France, too, announced it was going ahead with safe injection sites, which could be open by the time you read this.  

This has been another year of slogging through the mire, with some inspiring victories and some oh-so-hard-fought battles, not all of which we won. But after a century of global drug prohibition, the tide appears to be turning, not least here in the US, prohibition's most powerful proponent. There is a long way to go, but activists and advocates can be forgiven if they feel like they've turned a corner. Now, we can put 2012 to bed and turn our eyes to the year ahead.

Chronicle DVD Review: Code of the West

DVD Review: Code of the West, directed by Rebecca Richman Cohen (2012, Racing Horse Films, 71 minutes)

In Code of the West, Emmy nominated filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen brilliantly tells the story of Montana's late medical marijuana wars. And now the film is itself part of the story; excerpts from it were played by the defense during the sentencing of Tom Daubert, a central figure in the film, and undoubtedly helped him escape the clutches of the federal Bureau of Prisons with an unanticipated sentence of five years' probation.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Montana's voter-approved medical marijuana program was small-scale and operating quietly for its first five years, but in 2009, when the Obama administration indicated it was not going to go after medical marijuana providers in states where it was legal, the scene exploded. Dispensaries blossomed across Big Sky County, and caravans crisscrossed the state signing up patients after, shall we say, sometimes less than adequate examinations by physicians.

Within two years, the backlash against medical marijuana and its excesses resulted first in a bill passed by the radical Republican legislature to totally repeal the 2004 voter initiative -- vetoed by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer -- and then in a second bill that was as close to outright repeal as you could come without calling it that. Schweitzer let that one stand, effectively wiping out the state's booming industry.

Then, as the legislature was deliberating that spring, the feds struck. In a series of coordinated raids, DEA and FBI agents raided 26 Montana medical marijuana operations in one fell swoop, sending an even clearer signal that the state's medical marijuana glory days had come and gone.

Code of the West takes you behind the scenes during that contentious year at the state house, featuring interviews with medical marijuana patients and providers, state law enforcement and legislative officials, and concerned citizens convinced that medical marijuana was going to turn their children into stoners and their state into a laughing stock.

Two of the central figures in the film are long-time state house lobbyist Tom Daubert, who ran the 2004 medical marijuana initiative and later formed Montana Cannabis, one of the state's larger providers, and Daubert's partner in Montana Cannabis, Chris Williams. Both ended up being indicted on federal marijuana trafficking charges -- this came after the period covered by the film -- and while Daubert copped a plea to earn probation, Williams refused to bend, was convicted on marijuana and weapons charges (because they had shotguns at their grows) and is now facing an 80-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence.

"Even now, the DEA could come kick our door in and arrest us all," Williams says presciently in the film.

Cohen succeeds at portraying the opposition to medical marijuana. But while Daubert may diplomatically
praise opponents' sincerity and while Cohen takes pains to portray them with a certain degree of sympathy, they don't come off well in my book. Rock-ribbed Republicans like House Speaker Mike Milburn come off as earnest culture warriors, while the conservative Billings church ladies of Safe Kids Safe Communities, the main backlash group, come off as, well, conservative church ladies.

And not only do the Republicans and the church ladies come off as mean and pinched, they lie through their teeth about medical marijuana. (Not to mention having allies who worry about marijuana demons.)

"We stand to lose a whole generation of kids to medical marijuana," declaimed Safe Kids Safe Communities' Cherrie Brady, trumpeting a favorite opposition theme that medical marijuana was leading to skyrocketing teen pot use. The numbers actually show a slight decline.

Speaker Milburn, while attempting to appear earnest and statesmanlike, was also capable of throwing Reefer Madness-style rhetorical bombs.

"Children are prostituting themselves to gain access to drugs and this problem happened because of medical marijuana," he dared say with a straight face "These people who are medicating, they're hippies and the children of hippies."

And one final example of what we're up against. When the 2011 repeal bill passed the state Senate, the Safe Kids Safe Communities ladies were overjoyed. How overjoyed?

"All of the angels are flying up to the ceiling singing hosannas for this repeal," one gushed.

Code of the West is both a civics lesson -- this is how laws get made and unmade -- and a cinematographic pleasure. Scenes of state capital hallway lobbying and floor speechifying are intercut with glorious Montana landscapes. The film is a pleasure to watch and an important intervention in a still-running battle.

While the film ends with the federal raids of spring 2011 and the legislative follies that resulted in repeal-in-all-but name, the story doesn't end there. The worries Williams and Daubert expressed in the film about possible federal prosecution after the raids were all too true. Both were indicted on marijuana cultivation and trafficking charges by the feds, and while Daubert walked away with only probation, Williams now looks likely to become another medical marijuana martyr.

Cohen knows she stopped filming in the middle of the story, and is now working on a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $30,000 she needs to do an update. And it's not just the trials. An effort to undo last year's gutting of the program failed at the polls in November, and some medical marijuana activists have now decided to quit screwing around and just go for out and out legalization. They've already filed a ballot initiative for 2014.

There's likely to be an updated version of Code of the West in a few months.  But the current version is powerful, enlightening, and beautiful. Watch it now.

MT
United States

Marijuana Legalization: What Can/Will the Feds Do? [FEATURE]

In the wake of last week's victories for marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington, everyone is waiting to see how the federal government will respond. But early indications are that we may be waiting for awhile, and that the federal options are limited.

How will the feds respond to legalization? (justice.gov)
While the legal possession -- and in the case of Colorado, cultivation -- provisions of the respective initiatives will go into effect in a matter of weeks (December 6 in Washington and no later than January 5 in Colorado), officials in both states have about a year to come up with regulations for commercial cultivation, processing, and distribution. That means the federal government also has some time to craft its response, and it sounds like it's going to need it.

So far, the federal response has been muted. The White House has not commented, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has not commented, and the Department of Justice has limited its comments to observing that it will continue to enforce the federal Controlled Substances Act.

"My understanding is that Justice was completely taken aback by this and by the wide margin of passage," said Eric Sterling, former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee and currently the executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "They believed this would be a repeat of 2010, and they are really kind of astonished because they understand that this is a big thing politically and a complicated problem legally. People are writing memos, thinking about the relationship between federal and state law, doctrines of preemption, and what might be permitted under the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs."

What is clear is that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. In theory an army of DEA agents could swoop down on every joint-smoker in Washington or pot-grower in Colorado and haul them off to federal court and thence to federal prison. But that would require either a huge shift in Justice Department resources or a huge increase in federal marijuana enforcement funding, or both, and neither seems likely. More likely is selective, exemplary enforcement aimed at commercial operations, said one former White House anti-drug official.

"There will be a mixture of enforcement and silence, and let's not forget that federal law continues to trump state law," said Robert Weiner, former spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). "The Justice Department will decide if and at what point they will enforce the law, that's a prosecutorial decision the department will make."

Weiner pointed to the federal response to medical marijuana dispensaries in California and other states as a guide, noting that the feds don't have to arrest everybody in order to put a chill on the industry.

"Not every clinic in California has been raided, but Justice has successfully made the point that federal law trumps," he said. "They will have to decide where to place their resources, but if violations of federal law become blatant and people are using state laws as an excuse to flaunt federal drug laws, then the feds will have no choice but to come in."

Less clear is what else, exactly, the federal government can do. While federal drug laws may "trump" state laws, it is not at all certain that they preempt them. Preemption has a precise legal meaning, signifying that federal law supersedes state law and that the conflicting state law is null and void.

"Opponents of these laws would love nothing more than to be able to preempt them, but there is not a viable legal theory to do that," said Alex Kreit, a constitutional law expert at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego who co-authored an amicus brief on preemption in a now mooted California medical marijuana case. "Under the anti-commandeering principle, the federal government can't force a state to make something illegal. It can provide incentives to do so, but it can't outright force a state to criminalize marijuana."

An example of negative incentives used to force states to buckle under to federal demands is the battle over raising the drinking age in the 1980s and 1990s. In that case, Congress withheld federal highway funds from states that failed to raise the drinking age to 21. Now, all of them have complied.

Like Weiner, Kreit pointed to the record in California, where the federal government has gone up against the medical marijuana industry for more than 15 years now. The feds never tried to play the preemption card there, he noted.

"They know they can't force a state to criminalize a given behavior, which is why the federal government has never tried to push a preemption argument on these medical marijuana laws," he argued. "The federal government recognizes that's a losing battle. I would be surprised if they filed suit against Colorado or Washington saying their state laws are preempted. It would be purely a political maneuver, because they would know they would lose in court."

The federal government most certainly can enforce the Controlled Substances Act, Kreit said, but will be unlikely to be able to do so effectively.

"The Supreme Court said in Raich and in the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club cases that the federal government has all the power in the world to enforce the Controlled Substances Act," Kreit said, "and if they wanted to interfere in that way, they could. They could wait for a retail business or manufacturer to apply for a license, and as soon as they do, they could prosecute them for conspiracy -- they wouldn't even have to wait for them to open -- or they could sue to enjoin them from opening," he explained.

"But you can only stop the dam from bursting for so long," Kreit continued. "In California, they were able to stop the dispensaries at the outset by suing OCBC and other dispensaries, and that was effective in part because there were so few targets, but at a certain point, once you've reached critical mass, the federal government doesn’t have the resources to shut down and prosecute everybody. It's like whack-a-mole. The feds have all the authority they could want to prosecute any dispensary or even any patients, but they haven't been effective in shutting down medical marijuana. They can interfere, but they can't close everybody down."

As with medical marijuana in California, so with legal marijuana in Colorado and Washington, Kreit said.

"My guess is that if the feds decided to prosecute in Colorado and Washington, it would go similarly," he opined. "At first, they could keep people from opening by going after them, either enjoining or prosecuting them, but that strategy only works so long."

"I think the career people in Justice will seek to block Colorado and Washington from carrying out the state regulatory regime of licensing cultivation and sales," Sterling predicted. "A lower court judge could look at Raich and conclude that interstate commerce is implicated and that the issue is thus settled, but the states could be serious about vindicating this, especially because of the potential tax revenue and even more so because of the looming fiscal cliff, where the states are looking cuts in federal spending. The states, as defenders of their power, will be very different from Angel Raich and Diane Monson in making their arguments to the court. I would not venture to guess how the Supreme Court would decide this when you have a well-argued state's 10th Amendment power being brought in a case like this."

"Enjoining state governments is unlikely to succeed," said Kreit. "Again, the federal government has taken as many different avenues as they can in trying to shut down medical marijuana, and yet, they've never argued that state laws are preempted. They know they're almost certain to lose in court. The federal government can't require states to make conduct illegal."

At ground zero, there is hope that the federal government will cooperate, not complicate things.

"We're in a wait and see mode," said Brian Vicente, executive director of Sensible Colorado and co-director of the Amendment 64 campaign. "It's our hope that the federal government will work with Colorado to implement this new regulatory structure with adequate safeguards that make them comfortable the law will be followed."

While that may seem unlikely to most observers, there is a "decent chance" that could happen, Vicente said. "Two mainstream states have overturned marijuana prohibition," he said. "The federal government can read the polls as well as we can. I think they realize public opinion has shifted and it may be time to allow different policies to develop at the state level."

The feds have time to come to a reasonable position, said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"There is no need for a knee-jerk federal response, since the states are not required to create a regulatory scheme quickly," he said. "And while anti-marijuana forces more or less captured the drug czar's office early in Obama's first term, they're at odds with other people in the White House and the Obama administration whose views may be closer to our own. I think the White House will be the key. It's very likely that the fact that Attorney General Holder said nothing about the initiatives this fall, unlike two years ago, was because of the White House. I don't mean the drug czar's office; I mean the people who operate with respect to national politics and public policy."

Sterling disagreed about who is running drug policy in the Obama administration, but agreed that the feds have the chance to do the right thing.

"Given the large indifference to drugs as an issue by the Obama administration, its studious neglect of the issue, its toleration of an insipid director of ONDCP, its uncreative appointment of Bush's DEA administrator, it's clear that nobody of any seniority in the Obama White House is given this any attention. Unless Sasha and Malia come home from school and begin talking about this, it won't be on the presidential agenda, which means it will be driven by career bureaucrats in the DEA and DOJ," he argued.

That's too bad, he suggested, because the issue is an opportunity for bold action.

"They should respond in a vein of realism, which is that this is the future, the future is now," he advised. "They have an opportunity with these two different approaches to work with the states, letting them go forward in some way to see how they work and providing guidance in the establishment of regulations that would let the states do this and ideally minimize the interstate spillover of cultivation and sales."

"As part of that, they should ideally move to rewrite the Controlled Substances Act and begin working in the UN with other countries to revise the Single Convention on Narcotics. Our 100-year-old approach is now being rejected, not simply by the behavior of drug users, but by the voters, many of whom are not drug users," Sterling said. "That would be a way that a wise, forward-thinking, statesman-like public official should respond."

That would indeed be forward-thinking, but is probably more than can be reasonably expected from the Obama White House. Still, the administration has the opportunity to not pick a fight with little political upside, and it has time to decide what to do before the sky falls. Marijuana legalization has already happened in two states, and is an increasingly popular position. The federal government clearly hasn't been in the lead and it's not going to be able to effectively stop it; now, if it's not ready to follow, it can least get out of the way.

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