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Sentencing: Texas Judges Call for Reducing Drug Possession Penalties

Two years ago, Houston State District Court Judge Michael McSpadden stood alone when he called on Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to support lowering simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Last year, he was still alone. But this year, McSpadden is making the same call, and this time, he has the support of 15 more judges.

As the state legislature got underway last week, McSpadden and his colleagues sent a letter to top state officials and Houston's state representatives urging them to change what he called the state's "draconian" drug laws. The judges want to see possession of less than one gram of a controlled substance reduced from a state jail felony to a misdemeanor.

"Sixteen of us feel that it's just unfair to be convicted for a residue amount and be labeled a felon, which changes your whole life," McSpadden said. "We're not talking about legalizing it; we're talking about making it a misdemeanor."

In addition to calling for a downgrading of drug possession charges, McSpadden's letter urged mandating drug treatment for offenders and funding misdemeanor drug courts. He said simple possession drug felonies account for 25% to 30% of Harris County's 22 criminal district court dockets and that Harris County prosecutors routinely charge as felonies offenses that are charged as misdemeanors in other parts of the state, leading to disparate treatment among counties.

"The 'War on Drugs' isn't working, and we as judges realize it, and the public realizes it," wrote McSpadden, along with fellow Republican judge cosigners Debbie Mantooth Stricklin, Jeannine Barr, Vanessa Velasquez, Denise Collins, Marc Carter, Belinda Hill, Joan Campbell and Jim Wallace, and Democratic judge cosigners Ruben Guerrero, Shawna Reagin, Kevin Fine, David Mendoza, Randy Roll, Hazel Jones and Maria Jackson.

But will the legislature listen? Last year, McSpadden's efforts never made it out of the House crime committee. But now, the budget squeeze is on, and McSpadden has come up with some reinforcements, so perhaps the proposal will get a little further down the legislative road.

Feature: Narcs Cheer -- House Economic Stimulus Bill Would Give Byrne Grant Program $3 Billion Over Three Years

As part of the $825 billion economic stimulus bill passed by the House last week, the Democratic Party leadership and the Obama administration included $3 billion for the controversial Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, which funds multi-agency drug task forces across the country, and $1 billion for the Community Oriented Policing (COPS) program, which will pay for thousands of additional police officers to hit the streets. Drug enforcement lobby groups are pleased, particularly about the Byrne funding, but others predict that any "stimulus" more Byrne grants might provide will be followed long-term drag on state budgets in ways going beyond the federal dollars.

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Sen. Harkin and Iowa law enforcement officials at 2004 press conference
In one of the few drug policy-related decisions made by the Bush administration that reformers could cheer, the Bush administration tried throughout its second term to reduce or eliminate funding for the Byrne grants. In so doing, it was heeding the concerns of conservative and taxpayer groups, who called the program "an ineffective and inefficient use of resources." But while the Bush administration tried to gut the program, Congress, still tied to the "tough on drugs" mentality, kept trying to restore funding, albeit at reduced levels.

The Byrne grant program, and especially its funding of the scandal-ridden multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces, also came in for harsh criticism from drug reform, civil rights and criminal justice groups. For these critics, the program was in dire need of reform because of incidents like the Tulia, Texas, scandal, where a Byrne-funded task force police officer managed to get 10% of the black population of the town locked up on bogus cocaine distribution charges. Scandals like Tulia showed the Byrne grant program "did more harm than good," the critics wrote in a 2006 letter demanding reform.

Of course, Tulia wasn't the only Byrne-related scandal. A 2002 report from the ACLU of Texas found 16 more scandals involving Byrne grant-funded task forces in Texas, including cases of witness tampering, falsifying of government records, fabricating evidence, false imprisonment, racial profiling, and sexual harassment. Byrne-related scandals have also occurred in other states, including the misuse of millions of dollars of grant money in Kentucky and Massachusetts, false convictions because of police perjury in Missouri, and making deals with drug offenders to drop or lower charges in exchange for cash or vehicles in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

In accord with its own budget-cutting imperatives, and in response to critics on the right and left, the Bush administration again tried to zero out the Byrne grant program in FY 2008. While the program was indeed cut from $520 million in 2007, Congress still funded it at $170 million for 2008. Now, it has folded the Byrne program and the Clinton-era COPS program into the emergency economic stimulus bill, leading to loud cheers from the law enforcement community.

"Safe communities are the foundation of a growing economy, and increased Byrne JAG funding will help state and local governments hire officers, add prosecutors and fund critical treatment and crime prevention programs," said National Criminal Justice Association President David Steingraber, executive director of the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance. "I applaud the stimulus bill proposed by the House Democrats and press Congress for its quick approval."

"This is very encouraging," said Bob Bushman, vice-president of the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition and a 35-year veteran of drug law enforcement in Minnesota. "We think it's a very good sign that this was included in the House bill. The House side was where we struggled in past years. Maybe now the House has listened to us and is taking our concerns more seriously," he said. "We built a broad coalition of law enforcement and drug treatment and prevention people."

Byrne money doesn't just fund the task forces, Bushman pointed out, although he conceded that's where much of the money has gone. "Byrne money goes to all 50 states, and most of them used it for the multi-jurisdictional task forces. Here in Minnesota, we split it between task forces and offender reentry programs and drug courts."

While a answer to just how much Byrne money has gone to the task forces remains buried deep in the bowels of the Justice Department -- part of the problem is that the 50 states are awarded block grants and then decide at the state level how to allocate the funds, and some states are better than others at reporting back to Justice -- observers put a low-ball figure of at least 25% going to fund them, and possibly much higher.

The task forces are needed, said Bowman. "While we are never going to arrest our way out of this, I've seen too much of the damage done by drug abuse, and we need all the help we can get," he said. "Not just for policing, but also for treatment and prevention and drug courts. We need all three pillars, and the Byrne program helps with all three."

If law enforcement was pleased, that wasn't the case with civil rights, taxpayer, and drug reform groups. They said they were disappointed in the restoration of funding under the auspices of the economic stimulus bill, and vowed to continue to try to either cut or reform the program.

"We're working on a letter to Congress about the Byrne grants right now," said Lawanda Johnson, communications director for the Justice Policy Institute, one of the organizations that had signed on to the 2006 DPA letter. "The Byrne grant program is not an effective use of funds for preserving public safety or stimulating the economy. The only way you will get an economic boost from this is if you own stock in Corrections Corporation of America," she laughed, grimly.

"With so many smart people working on the budget and the stimulus package, you would think they would understand that the states are looking to reduce their prison populations and change those policies that have jailed so many people," said Johnson. "To then turn around and have the federal government invest $4 billion in more police and more grants seems paradoxical. It's just going to jack up the spending for states and localities, and they are already struggling."

"We oppose the wasteful economic stimulus bill and we oppose the inclusion of the Byrne grants in it," said Leslie Paige, spokesperson for Citizens Against Government Waste, one of the conservative taxpayer groups that has opposed the grants for the past several years. "If there is going to be government spending, the least you can do is make sure the money is going to have a long term positive impact on the economy."

"This is disappointing, but not surprising," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This reverses Bush's cuts in the program and restores funding at even higher levels. At the same time Congress and the Obama administration are expressing great concern about racial disparities and over-incarceration, they keep trying to fund this program, which will only stimulate more arrests of more nonviolent drug offenders," Piper noted.

"The Democrats are framing this as helping in these tough economic times, but the people who will be arrested will end up in state prison, and the states will have to pay for that," Piper pointed out. "The states may well end up paying more in the long run. It's far from clear that this will stimulate the economy, but what is clear is that it will stimulate the breaking up of families and decreasing productivity and tax revenues, especially in communities already devastated by the impact of over-incarceration."

Killing funding outright is unlikely, said Piper. "I don't think there's any way we can stop this from being included because the support for it is strong and bipartisan," he said. "No one wants to go up against the police. Our real hope is that later in the year we can put some restrictions on the program, which is what we've been working on. Instead of trying to cut it, we can try to use it to encourage state and local law enforcement to change how they operate. They're so addicted to federal funding that they may do just about anything, such as documenting arrests or having performance measures."

Bushman and the rest of law enforcement aren't resting easy just yet. "The funding has to survive hearings and make it into the final appropriation," he noted. "This is not a done deal yet."

But it looks like Congress is well on the way to funding three more years of Byrne grants at $1 billion a year, the highest level of funding in years. And don't forget the 13,000 new police officers to be funded for the next three years by the COPS program. If Congress and the cops have their way, we can look forward to more drug busts, more prosecutions, more people sentenced to prison, and a greater burden on already deficit-ridden state budgets.

Feature: After Decriminalization Victory, Massachusetts Activists Fight Rear-Guard Action Against Recriminalizers

Massachusetts voters supported marijuana decriminalization by a margin of nearly two-to-one in November, despite the horrified protestations of the Bay State's law enforcement community. Now, thanks to the inclusion of a sentence in the ballot initiative and guidance from state Attorney General Martha Coakley, decriminalization foes see an opening to keep fighting their lost battle by seeking to pass municipal ordinances that would fine, or in some cases, subject to criminal penalties, people who consume marijuana in public.

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''Gutterheads'' and ''Girls 4 Ganja'' pre-lobbying party, week of Quincy hearing
Under the initiative passed in November and in effect since early this month, the maximum penalty for marijuana possession (up to one ounce) is a $100 fine. But as the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security noted in law enforcement guidelines issued earlier this month: "Question 2 permits the cities and towns to pass ordinances or by-laws prohibiting public use of marijuana or THC and to provide for additional penalties for public use. EOPSS recommends that municipalities enact such by-laws or ordinances and provide police with the option of treating public use as a misdemeanor offense. "

Attorney General Coakley was happy to help out. Her office drafted and distributed a model ordinance for banning the public use of marijuana, which could include either criminal or civil sanctions, or both. A number of Massachusetts towns and cities have expressed interest in passing such ordinances, which does not sit well with decriminalization advocates, and now battles over the ordinances are breaking out all across the state.

It hasn't gone as well for the recriminalizers as they might have expected. The first municipality to vote on an ordinance, Worchester, voted it down last week. West Newbury Police Chief Lisa Holmes asked for a public pot smoking ordinance, but the council there unanimously said no. In Methuen and Quincy, Bay State activists have managed to put local elected officials on alert that they can expect trouble if they pass such ordinances.

But those battles aren't over yet, and there are many more to be fought. In Framingham, the town board of health passed a measure amending the smoking ban to include marijuana, but state law already prohibits the lighting of tobacco or other combustible products in public buildings. In Braintree, an ordinance proposing a $500 fine for public consumption will be discussed in coming weeks. In Auburn, where the police chief said the decriminalization law was unenforceable, he is expected to draft an ordinance fining public smokers. Ordinance fights will also take place in Danvers, Everett, Haverhill, Melrose, Milford, Newburyport, North Andover, Plymouth, Revere, Wakefield, and Watertown, according to Massachusetts activists. And there are probably more to come -- or perhaps not, if a string of defeats occurs.

And if activists can mobilize in those towns like they did Tuesday night in Quincy, they might just have the recriminalizers on the run. In Quincy, more than 60 people showed up outside city hall with signs and banners to express opposition to any ordinance. Mobilized by cell phone, Facebook, MySpace, and the BostonFreedomRally.com web site, about two-thirds of the ralliers were young people, said BostonFreedomRally.com's Scott Gacek.

"Many of our people had just voted for the first time, for Obama and for decriminalization, and now they feel like their votes are being ignored," said Gacek in explaining the youth turn-out. Although the ordinance was on the agenda, the city council dithered for hours over a zoning issue, but the crowd lingered into the night, sending the council a strong message of opposition.

"The council introduced the measure and, with no discussion whatsoever, voted to send it to the public safety and ordinance committees, but it doesn't exactly look like it's on a fast track," said Gacek.

Citizen action is a good thing, affirmed Bill Downing, president of the MassCann, the Bay State NORML affiliate. "If people want to participate in these protests in places like Quincy, that's a significant thing. If people are reading this in Maine or New Hampshire or Rhode Island, they can get on our e-mail list as well as read the news on the MassCann web site and join in. Please."

For Downing, the ordinance moves are a last gasp of the anti-decrim dinosaurs. "I see this as sour grapes by the folks who lost the vote," he said. "Hopefully, people throughout the state who voted for this would see actions like that as an insult, as they well should. It may end up helping us progress toward better marijuana laws because these people are only vilifying themselves."

"Attorney General Coakley was hostile toward us from the beginning, and after the election she sent out a model ordinance," said John Leonard, a former MassCann chair and currently a board member with the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts (DPFMA). "Now, they're jumping on this all over the place. We are in the process of formulating an action plan here at DPFMA," he said. "We're fighting these things left and right, and we need some help. We're happy that the Marijuana Policy Project came here and did the initiative, but now we're left with the aftermath."

MPP largely dictated November's initiative language and funded the campaign. Local activists had issues with some of the initiative's language, but papered over them to unite behind the campaign. In the sometimes rancorous debate in the run-up to the initiative, the language about ordinances was not an issue.

Perhaps it should have been, Leonard suggested in hindsight. "It is a shame that Question 2 allowed for public consumption laws," said Leonard. "Those are traditionally used for legal substances, like alcohol and tobacco. Marijuana is already illegal in public."

Downing also blamed the wording of Question 2 for some of the current problems. "The question itself said it didn't prevent towns from passing local ordinances. If they hadn't put that in there, this whole thing could have been avoided. Don't get me wrong," Downing continued. "We're thankful for MPP for all they did, but now we have to deal with this."

DPFMA is mobilizing to fend off the ordinances, Leonard said. "We are going to buy advertising in Quincy, which is the largest city where this is an issue, and we're going to be asking all the national organizations to chip in by adopting a town and lending their support. We want to stop this now," he said.

MPP is a bit more sanguine about the ordinances than Bay State activists. "The bottom line is really whether specific proposals are an attempt to subvert the intent of Question 2 or whether it is just a reasonable public nuisance ordinance," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "If they are going to use this as a pretext to give people criminal records, then that becomes a problem." But it's Massachusetts voters who can stop the ordinances, or not, Mirken said. "It is up to local folks to decide what they're willing to tolerate and how organized they're going to get to stop something they don't like."

It's not that big a problem, said another national reform leader. "We're not worried that there will be serious damage from this," said Keith Stroup of national NORML. "It sounds like most of this is just chest-beating from the losers. They didn't like the initiative, so they run out and say 'in my town we're going to be tough,' but they are going to find that not many elected officials will want to go up against the expressed will of the voters."

"We want to make sure this law works well, and if it doesn't, we are going to need to work with people to fix it," said Stroup. "But we're not going back to arresting marijuana smokers. I think the people of Massachusetts appreciate their new law and having police pay more attention to serious crimes."

The ordinance battles will continue. At best, they will result in a resounding defeat of the recriminalizers. But even if decrim foes are able to get ordinances passed in some municipalities, it may be a pyrrhic victory: In the process of trying to do so, they are waking up a whole new generation of Bay State marijuana activists. Perhaps the local ordinance clause will turn out to be a Trojan Horse for building the drug policy reform movement.

Drug Truth 01/22/09

The Unvarnished Truth About the Drug War From the Drug Truth Network: (To downlad these 29:00 files, click on links below. To simply listen, go to www.drugtruth.net and select the arrow below the shows description.) Cultural Baggage for 01/21/09 Ed Rosenthal & Dale Gieringer, Co-Authors of "Medical Marijuana Handbook" + Terry Nelson of LEAP & a visit from Ray Hill of the Prison Show MP3 LINK: http://www.drugtruth.net/cms/?q=audio/download/2266/FDBCB_012109.mp3 TRANSCRIPT: TBD Century of Lies for 01/20/09 Beto O'Rourke, El Paso city councilman re call to consider legalization & AMF Bush! :Keith Olberman + DTN Editorial MP3 LINK: http://www.drugtruth.net/cms/?q=audio/download/2265/COL_012009.mp3 TRANSCRIPT: TBD PLEASE NOTE: We now have transcripts, potcasts, searchability, CMS, XML, sorts by guest name and by organization. Next - Century of Lies on Tues, Cutural Baggage on Wed, listen online at www.kpft.org: - Cultural Baggage 12:30 PM ET, 11:30 AM CT, 10:30 AM MT & 9:30 AM PT: "Tulia, Texas" movie producer Cassandra Herman - Century of Lies 12:30 PM ET, 11:30 AM CT, 10:30 AM MT & 9:30 AM PT: Kathleen Staudt, UTEP Pol. Science Prof Hundreds of our programs are available online at www.drugtruth.net, www.audioport.org We provide the "unvarnished truth about the drug war" to scores of broadcast affiliates in the US, Canada and Now Australia!!! Programs produced at Pacifica Radio Station KPFT in Houston. www.kpft.org Check out our latest videos via www.youtube.com/fdbecker: More than 55 Drug Policy Videos online) Please become part of the solution, visit our website: www.endprohibition.org for links to the best of reform. "Prohibition is evil." - Reverend Dean Becker, Drug Truth Network Producer Dean Becker 713-849-6869 www.drugtruth.net

Marijuana: Washington State Decriminalization Bill Filed

Three Democratic legislators -- state Reps. Jim Moeller, Dave Upthegrove, and Brendan Williams -- Wednesday introduced a bill to decriminalize possession of less than 40 grams of marijuana in the state of Washington. By day's end, the bill had additional nine cosponsors.

Under current Washington law, possession of up to 40 grams is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail. The penalty for pot possession also includes a mandatory minimum one-day jail sentence and $250 fine.

Although the city of Seattle pioneered the lowest law enforcement priority approach to adult marijuana possession offenses, the rest of the state has not followed suit. According to figures provided in a Seattle Stranger article by activist turned journalist Dominic Holden, there were some 11,553 people arrested on pot possession charges in 2007.

Holden quoted cosponsor Williams as saying he will make a budgetary argument for the bill. The state faces a $6 billion budget shortfall, and arresting, prosecuting, and jailing penny ante pot offenders costs the state nearly $7.5 million a year, he said, citing a study from the Washington Institute for Public Policy.

"We will frame it in terms of the tradeoff in the budget discussion and set a square alternative," Williams said. "Do you choose to provide health care for X number of children or fund criminalizing marijuana possession?"

If Washington were to pass a decriminalization bill, it would become the 13th state to do so. Most of the existing decrim states changed their laws in the 1970s, but Nevada voters chose decriminalization in 2002 and Massachusetts overwhelmingly supported it in November.

Free Speech: Cop Smeared and Fired Over Decriminalization Advocacy Wins Big Settlement from Small Town

A former Mountlake Terrace, Washington, police officer who was vilified and fired because he supports the decriminalization of marijuana has won a massive settlement from the city and Snohomish County. The two entities will pay Sgt. Jonathan Wender $815,000, in addition to three years of back pay. But wait -- there's more: The city will also pay him his $90,000 a year salary for the next two years while he stays on administrative leave and then retires with full benefits.

Wender is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a professor at the University of Washington, where he writes and lectures about police work and drug policy. While a police officer, he had repeatedly and publicly criticized the department and its commanders over a number of issues, including drug law enforcement. That public dissent irked commanders and led to the department and the Snohomish County prosecutors office ultimately firing him on a pretext.

In July 2005, Wender received a call from a woman who reported a marijuana plant growing at her ex-husband's house. Under the couple's divorce settlement, drug use was forbidden because of the presence of children. Wender responded by telephoning the man and telling him he was "foolish and irresponsible" to be growing a pot plant and to "do what he needed to do" immediately. But the woman entered the house the next day, saw marijuana plants still there, photographed them and gave the photos to narcotics detectives, who raided the house.

Both department commanders and Snohomish County prosecutors used the incident to begin investigations of Wender, with prosecutors labeling him a "Brady cop," or a police officer whose integrity or honesty is so in doubt that prosecutors must tell defense attorneys about the allegations. That was enough to get Wender fired, even though he was never charged with a crime.

He sued, alleging the department and the county violated his free speech rights and fired him because of his political beliefs. He also claimed that prosecutors and the department gave him no opportunity to challenge the "Brady cop" finding, thus violating his right to due process.

That the city and the county settled the case instead of going to trial showed that Wender was targeted for his political views, his attorney, Andrea Brenneke, told the Seattle Times after the settlement was announced. "He was enforcing the law," Brenneke said. "The department and prosecutors made an assumption that because of his beliefs about the war on drugs that Sgt. Wender wasn't doing his job. That's not true."

Depositions from several other local police officers taken in the case showed that, while they might have handled the 2005 case differently, they all thought his response was within his discretion as a police officer. But his commanders and county prosecutors saw an opportunity to get rid of someone whose views challenged theirs. Now, the good citizens of Mountlake Terrace and Snohomish County will pay.

The Border: El Paso City Council Folds in Face of Threats, Reverses Call for National Debate on Drug Legalization

Cowed by a US congressman and Texas state legislators who warned of funding cut-offs, the El Paso City Council has reversed last week's unanimous vote to call for a national debate on drug legalization as part of a resolution supporting its sister city, Ciudad Juárez, which has been plagued by prohibition-related violence. A motion to override Mayor John Cook's veto of that resolution last week failed Tuesday, with the council voting 4-4. Six votes were needed to override the veto.

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Beto O'Rourke
Last week's resolution had called on the federal government to take a number of non-controversial steps to aid Ciudad Juárez and Mexico in dealing with violence, such as clamping down on gun-running and money-laundering. But as the council debated the resolution, South-West Rep. Beto O'Rourke introduced an amendment calling for an "honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." The council then voted unanimously to approve the amended resolution.

And stepped into a firestorm as the vote drew national attention. O'Rourke appeared on CNN's Lou Dobbs program, only to be pilloried by the pseudo-populist demagogue. Mayor Cook, meanwhile, was mobilizing support for his veto, and denigrating anyone who supported the resolution as "pot heads."

The resolution also came under fire from Congressman Silvestre Reyes (D), who represents the city in Washington. In a Tuesday letter to the council, Reyes warned that the city could lose federal funding if it passed the resolution.

"While this resolution is well-intentioned, I believe its passage would be counterproductive to our efforts to enact an ambitious legislative agenda at the federal level," wrote the former Border Patrol supervisor. "As our nation faces one of the worst economic crises since the Great Depression, Congress is currently drafting an economic stimulus package in which El Paso stands to benefit. This is where our focus must be at this critical time, and it is important that our message reflect priorities that will provide real gains for the community."

The city's state legislative delegation also spoke out against the resolution. In a Monday letter to the council, the five state House members who represent El Paso in Austin issued the same sort of extortionate warning that Reyes did a day later.

"There will be state agencies, state legislators, and others in state government who will see this resolution as the City of El Paso supporting the legalization of drugs," the letter read. "Funding for local law enforcement efforts and other important programs to our community are likely being put in jeopardy, especially during a time when state revenues are scarce. We understand your stated goal is to bring attention to the problems that illegal drugs cause in our community and society. However, the position to ask the federal government to legalize narcotics does not bring the right attention to El Paso. It says 'we give up and we don't care.'"

The message from Reyes and the state legislators was clear: Shut up about even thinking about debating drug legalization or it will cost you. On Tuesday, the El Paso city council showed it could not stand up to that sort of political hardball, but it was quite a session. (Thanks to El Paso's NewspaperTree web site for all quotes below.)

While the council members were careful to be diplomatic toward each other and the mayor, it was clear that some of them mightily resented being blackmailed. "I personally don't support the legalization of narcotics, but I also don't support limiting debate," city Rep. Eddie Holguin said. "Debate is healthy, I feel. I believe that self-censoring ourselves is wrong, and we shouldn't trample on the Constitution and the people's right to free speech."

"I want to commend Rep. O'Rourke for being so courageous," said city Rep. Rachel Quintana. "That is the only word that I can think of because the ridicule that you have faced." Quintana said that while her constituents appeared split on the matter, the letters from Reyes and the state delegation "absolutely pushed me over."

"If we had voted yesterday, I would have voted in favor of it," said Rep. Emma Acosta, who also cited the threatening letters as her reason for changing her vote.

Rep. Holguin said the threatened price was too high. "When you receive calls and you have both members of the state and federal level telling you that you might lose funding for projects that are of vital importance for El Paso then you know you have to stop and think," he said. But he congratulated O'Rourke for getting national attention and getting the conversation started. "In that respect, I think you were successful, and I don't regret supporting the resolution the way that it passed. It's just unfortunate the way that it was portrayed, and at this point, I can't jeopardize funding from the state or the federal level."

Rep. Steve Ortega, who voted to override the veto, was angered by the heavy-handed interventions and said the resolution was necessary. "We've had 50 patients at Thomason (Hospital), and had a handful of kidnappings in this past year related to drugs," he said. "We've had local business that have been threatened and extorted for money based on some events in Mexico... You have possibility of a failed state and failed city and more death and destruction along this business community. That to me, you can't put a cost on, whether it is federal funding or state funding. I ask us to ask ourselves what is the cost of that."

Turning to the intervention of Reyes and the state legislators, Ortega issued a challenge: "I also want to ask our state legislators and our US congressman to openly name anybody who is threatening the city of El Paso with withholding funding for having dialogue," Ortega said. "That is un-American, and that is in contravention to our First Amendment. So I'm going to stand with the action that we took last Tuesday. There is to me nothing wrong with having a debate and a dialogue. If we are silent on this matter, the prospects for the future of this community are placed in danger. And I'm not going to stand here idly and listen to unnamed legislators threaten us for having a dialogue over the future of this community."

"I think it's unfortunate how this came about, but that's life and that's politics," said Rep. O'Rourke. "I will also say that the threat from Congressman Reyes, then articulated again by our House delegation at the state level is unfortunate, but it's having its desired effect, which is to chill discussion. And I want to be clear, I have not heard a specific funding amount that is being threatened to be withheld. I haven't heard a specific congressman or senator who has threatened to withhold that money, just vague, unspecific threats that should we have the courage of our convictions, money will be withheld from this community."

O'Rourke reminded the council that the city is suing the federal government over its proposed border wall. "If the federal government had come back and said we'll withhold funding from your community if you continue with this lawsuit, would this council fold on this lawsuit?" he said. "If our very principled position on undocumented immigration and on the Minutemen were challenged by the federal government, and we were told we were going to lose our funding if we continued with our position, would we fold? It's not just this issue. It sets a precedent that when debate is to be chilled, when positions are to be changed, people higher up will threaten us that we'll lose our money, and you have to ask yourselves if you can live with that."

As the council prepared to vote, O'Rourke concluded his remarks. "All we're asking for is a conversation, and no important issue in the history of the United States, social, criminal legal or otherwise has ever been harmed by having an open discussion. That's all we're asking for today. I hope the original resolution and the mayor's veto is overridden."

This time it wasn't. But the forces of suppression and intolerance have shown their true colors, and national attention has been drawn to the issue despite them.

The Drug Czar: Harm Reductionists, Treatment and Recovery Advocates Come Down on Different Sides of Rumored Ramstad Nomination

Former Minnesota congressman, self-acknowledged recovered alcoholic, and treatment and recovery advocate Jim Ramstad is widely rumored to be in the running for head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and he is garnering both support and opposition from within the drug reform community, broadly defined.

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Jim Ramstad
It may all be for naught. Ramstad himself has asked the Obama transition team to consider him to head SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a post where his appointment would arguably be less controversial. And President Bush's last-minute appointment Monday of current acting ONDCP deputy director Patrick Ward to replace outgoing drug czar John Walters only muddies the waters further.

While Ramstad has serious credentials on treatment and recovery, his opposition to needle exchange programs spurred drug policy analyst and author Maia Szalavitz to oppose his nomination in an article in the Huffington Post. "Ramstad may be a drug warrior in recovering person's clothing," she wrote, noting that he also opposes medical marijuana.

"While Ramstad has opposed some interdiction efforts and called for more treatment funding, someone who doesn't even believe that addicts have a right to life if they aren't in treatment is not the kind of recovering person that I want representing me as drug czar," Szalavitz, a former injection drug user herself, continued. "That's not change, President Obama -- that's more of the same. Don't make the mistake that Bill Clinton did and install a drug czar who will ignore science and push dogma. While it's great to have a recovering person as an example, just having a disease and talking with others who've recovered the same way you did does not make you an expert. We need someone who knows the science, recognizes that there are many paths to recovery -- and understands that dead addicts can't recover."

Szalavitz wasn't the only alarmed harm reductionist. Psychologist Andrew Tatarsky authored an open letter signed by more than 450 substance use and mental health treatment professionals warning that both SAMHSA and the drug czar's office need leadership that "supports evidence-based policies and that will make decisions based on science, not politics or ideology" and "we have reason to believe that Congressman Ramstad is not that person." In addition to Ramstad's opposition to harm reduction measures, Tatarsky noted that throughout his congressional tenure, Ramstad had failed to take any action on sentencing reform.

A Ramstad nomination also drew concern from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which noted in a blog post that Ramstad had voted against medical marijuana at every opportunity, voted against needle exchange, and had been appointed to the board of directors of Joe Califano's anti-drug reform propaganda organization, the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

But while drug reformers and advocates of science-based policies raised concerns, parts of the treatment community are supporting Ramstad. In a January 11 letter to the Obama transition team, the treatment advocacy organization Faces and Voices of Recovery, a stalwart in many drug policy reform efforts, supported the Ramstad nomination.

"Clearly, the appointment of a person in long-term recovery from addiction to this important position would inspire the millions of Americans and their families who have battled addictions," wrote the group's executive director, Pat Taylor. "Even if Congressman Ramstad were not in recovery, he would be an excellent candidate for the Director of ONDCP. A Member of Congress for 18 years, he is a highly experienced and respected legislator who led the successful battle to require health insurers to cover addiction treatment at parity with other medical conditions. He founded and co-chaired the bi-partisan Addiction Treatment and Recovery Caucus and the Law Enforcement Caucus on Capitol Hill and has been influential in shaping drug policy in countries around the globe. He was a practicing criminal justice attorney for five years and has served on numerous non-profit boards; all of whom have the reduction of the global demand for drugs as part of their mission."

And Ramstad has picked up support from progressive groups like his home state Wellstone Action, the legacy of progressive Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. In a January 9 letter, the group argued that despite Ramstad's misguided stands on needle exchange and medical marijuana, he still deserved the nomination. "Congressman Ramstad's leadership on policies and programs within the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy will serve President-elect Obama's administration and millions of Americans well," Wellstone Action said.

The reform movement is split on Ramstad, with treatment advocates coming down in favor and harm reductionists and drug law reformers opposed. As addiction skeptic Dr. Stanton Peele noted in the Huffington Post Tuesday: "For Wellstone, the Kennedy's, and many other progressives, the idea of treating substance abusers as disease sufferers is tremendously appealing -- indeed, one thrust of the drug policy reform movement is to shift from incarcerating addicts to treating them! But, for reformers, courting treatment advocates has come a cropper as addiction-as-disease proponents back a man who stands against drug policy reform's basic value of finding new, pragmatic approaches to drugs in America."

The drug reform movement is broad and encompasses many diverse actors. Where they come down on the Ramstad issue reflect philosophical differences as well as institutional interests. Just because we're part of a broader movement doesn't mean we're always going to agree.

If You Think Alcohol Should be Legal, You’re an Alcoholic

Amidst the hysteria surrounding this week’s events in El Paso, I neglected to mention that Mayor John Cook got caught calling us all "potheads" because we oppose the drug war:

ABC-7 obtained an excerpt from the mayor's e-mail, which was sent to Margie Velez, the former office manager for former Senator Phil Gramm in El Paso.

It states: "I can tell you that all the pot heads have sent their e-mails and they are encouraging the reps to stand by their decision. But why does the silent majority remain silent? We have certainly attracted attention to our city, but I don't think the attention is positive." [ABC7]

It’s hilarious on multiple levels, beginning with the delightfully bad press it earned him. He’s literally calling people potheads for supporting a city council resolution that advocates "an honest, open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." With few exceptions, it’s gonna reflect poorly on you if you resort to name-calling against people who asked for an honest and open discussion.

But the best part is when he asks for the "silent majority" to come save him from the stoners. Leaving aside the question of whether that "silent majority" even exists anymore (which is doubtful), the mayor’s agenda from day one has been to prevent discussion. If Mayor Cook wanted to give drug war supporters a voice, why the hell did he veto a debate on our drug policy? He torpedoed the discussion, only to then complain that certain views weren’t being heard. That is just classic.

Salvia Divinorum: Banned in Ohio in 90 Days

Salvia divinorum will become a Schedule I controlled substance in Ohio 90 days from Wednesday. That's the day Gov. Ted Strickland (D) signed a bill banning the plant that passed the legislature late last year. It is unclear how salvia possession defendants will be charged, but a fifth degree felony, the least serious in Ohio, merits a jail sentence of up to a year.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/salvialeaves.jpg
salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
Ohio now joins at least nine other states that have banned the use, possession, or distribution of salvia. In California, minors are barred from possessing the plant or its extracts.

Although used for centuries by Masatec shamans in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, salvia has in recent years become popular among recreational drug users here. Smoking extracts of the plants causes a powerful, disorienting, five-to-10 minute hallucinogenic experience.

Young people posting videos on YouTube of themselves under the influence of salvia have aroused anxious parents, politicians, and policemen across the land, who, seeing someone get high, can only come up with a reflex response to ban the new "threat." But salvia is not addictive and has not been linked to overdose deaths.

In Ohio, the sponsor of the ban bill, former state Rep. Thom Collier (R), seized on the killing of a Loudonville boy by a friend who had earlier used salvia. But even Collier has admitted there is no evidence the salvia use was directly involved in the killing.

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