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CA Medical Marijuana Dispensary Numbers Shrink in Two-Pronged War of Attrition [FEATURE]

California medical marijuana dispensaries -- and their patients -- are under a sustained, two-pronged attack, and that is having a dramatic impact on patient access across the state. Under pressure from the federal government on one hand and newly-emboldened local officials on the other, dispensary numbers are shrinking and ever larger swathes of the state that legalized medical marijuana nearly 17 years ago are without anywhere to get medical marijuana.

Anyone who is following the situation in the Golden State at all closely has seen a numbing litany of reports of dispensaries forced out of business, including from some of the most venerable, respected, and law-abiding operations in the state. What had been the occasional raid or prosecution by the DEA or federal prosecutors during the early years of the Obama administration has turned into a heightened onslaught since the issuance of the notorious Cole memo, written by Assistant Attorney General James Cole, two years ago next week and the announcement by California's four US Attorneys that fall that they were declaring open season on dispensaries.

And while recalcitrant city and county law enforcement and elected officials had managed to make access to medical marijuana a patchwork affair across the state through moratoria and bans, pressure from local officials has only escalated since the state Supreme Court's decision in City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center early last month. In that case, the court ruled unanimously that localities could indeed use their zoning powers to ban dispensaries, not just regulate them. Since that ruling, localities that had hesitated to impose or enforce existing bans have responded with alacrity.

Reading the writing on the wall, Inland Empire closed its doors the day after the ruling. In other places, officials weren't waiting for dispensaries to shut down -- they were ordering them to. In May, Stockton took its first steps toward a dispensary ban, San Bernardino bragged that it had shut down 18 dispensaries and was working to close the remaining 15, Palm Springs was working to shut down five, a Thousand Palms dispensary closed its doors with the owner saying he didn't want Riverside County deputies to do it for him, Garden Grove ordered all 62 dispensaries there to shut down or face prosecution (and reported days later that they had), Los Angeles voted to shrink its number of dispensaries from 500 or more to 135, and Anaheim ordered its last 11 dispensaries (down from 143 in 2007) to close.

The big chill continued this month, with Bakersfield moving to ban dispensaries, Riverside County threatening to arrest the owner of one of its three remaining dispensaries (down from 77 in 2009) until he closed his doors, and Santa Ana reporting it had shut down 42 dispensaries (bringing the total closed there to 109) and was siccing the DEA on the remaining 17.

"We think the Inland Empire decision just maintains the status quo -- more than 200 local governments had banned distribution outright in their jurisdictions -- but now, you're seeing local government wielding a bigger stick to shut down dispensaries operating in defiance of existing bans," said Kris Hermes, communications director for Americans for Safe Access (ASA)."Anaheim, San Bernardino, Long Beach, Riverside, mostly in Southern California, where dispensaries were flouting those bans, they are now being forced to shut down."

"Cities that weren't moving forward are now," said Lanny Swerdlow, founder of Inland Empire and member of the Patient Advocacy Network. "A number of cities in Riverside have been closing collectives real fast, with San Bernardino being the most aggressive at the present time. Palm Springs is the only city in the Inland Empire that actually has zoning for collectives, and they have three operating there. The county is moving more slowly -- most collectives have not even been served notices yet -- but it's just a matter of time," he predicted.

Steve DeAngelo and his Harborside Health Center are still open for business, but under federal assault (ssdp.org)
Meanwhile, according to ASA, federal prosecutors have sent out more than 600 "threat letters" since their offensive began, including 103 sent to Los Angeles dispensaries earlier this month. The letters warn either dispensary operators or landlords or both with asset forfeiture and/or criminal prosecution, with the threat of lengthy federal prison sentences hanging over their heads. Not surprisingly, they have been quite effective.

"Before the 103 letters sent out this month, we estimated that about 500 letters had been sent out and about as many closures had occurred as a result of the US Attorneys' efforts to threaten dispensary operators and landlords, said Hermes. "With the combined momentum of the federal attacks and the state Supreme Court decision, I think we've seen more than 700 dispensaries shut down over the past couple of years."

Some of the iconic operations that helped define the dispensary movement are gone, such as the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana, scared out of business by federal threats, or Richard Lee's Coffee Shop Blue Sky, shuttered by DEA raiders. Others like San Francisco's Shambala are under attack, while it seems that only the biggest players, such as the Berkeley Patients Group and Harborside Health Care Centers in Oakland and San Jose, have the wherewithal to fight the feds in court. Those latter dispensaries are both contesting federal asset forfeiture actions right now.

Sometimes it's the federal government; sometimes it is recalcitrant local officials. Sometimes, the two work hand in hand.

"The city of Riverside sent letters to the Justice Department requesting they come in and close collectives down, and they've gone to a couple in San Bernardino and closed them down, too," said Swerdlow.

Many dispensaries remain open for business -- ASA's Hermes estimated their number at a thousand or more -- some because local authorities have embraced them instead of trying to run them out on a rail, others because the US Attorneys simply don't have the resources to devote all their time to shutting them down. But the unquestioned reduction in dispensaries numbers, perhaps a decline of as much as 40% over the past couple of years, means that patients are having a more difficult time getting access to their medicine.

"We've been hearing from patients about access problems," said Ellen Komp, deputy director for California NORML, who added that it's not just dispensaries. "More and more places are passing cultivation ordinances, people are having their gardens torn up or being visited by code enforcement. We're reeling from it," she said.

"Patients should not have to drive hundreds of miles to get their medicine, and the tragedy of it is that there are still dozens of localities that have regulatory ordinances that are functioning quite well," said Hermes. "Those facilities are not going away unless they are shut down by the federal government, which has usually stayed away from those places. There is a community of dispensaries across the state, but the access is haphazard."

And there are broad areas of the state with no effective access.

Sorry, Riverside patients. This menu is now null and void. (norml.org)
"It is unacceptable that dispensaries are located only where local governments are tolerant enough to allow them," said Hermes. "The entire county of San Diego has been rid of dispensaries because of intolerance at the local and federal level. The entire Central Valley is virtually devoid of dispensaries, so is almost all the San Francisco peninsula from San Mateo down. Sacramento County is devoid of dispensaries thanks to the federal crackdown."

"What's going on now is absolutely horrid," said Swerdlow. "The only people benefiting from this are the criminals and the police. Patients are having to drive hundreds of miles to cities with collectives, or get their medicine the old-fashioned way, on the black market."

To change the situation is going to require battling at the state, local, and federal level. One immediate response has been an explosion of medical marijuana delivery services, but one immediate reaction has been to move to ban them, too, as Riverside County is considering.

"We've been getting lots of inquiries about starting delivery services," said CANORML's Komp.

Another, ongoing, response is to attempt to pass statewide legislation to regulate dispensaries. That effort in Sacramento is dead for this year, but could be revived next year.

Another possible response is a statewide initiative that would regulate and emphatically legalize dispensaries, but no one is ready to go on the record about that yet.

Ultimately, it's about getting the federal government off California's back. While bills have been filed in Congress, no one is holding their breath on that score. And the Obama administration appears content to maintain its status quo war of attrition.

If the California dispensary industry wants to survive and thrive, it might want to look in the mirror -- part of the problem for California dispensaries, said Swerdlow, was the industry's failure to organize effectively.

"If the DEA sent out letters to gun stores saying they were going to shut them down, there would be a couple of thousand people demonstrating," he argued. "We've done a piss poor job of doing the things that need to be done to protect our rights. Money-grubbing collective owners never formed any useful or meaningful trade associations to protect their rights. Those jerks got what was coming to them," he said bitterly.

If dispensary operators were short-sighted, Swerdlow said, patients have not been much better, despite the efforts of groups like ASA and CANORML to organize them.

"Most patients don't do anything," he said. "They just want to get the marijuana."

Protecting patients and collectives requires effective political action at the local level, Swerdlow said. He has pioneered -- for the medical marijuana movement, at least -- the creation of groups within the Democratic Party to press the party at the local level, known as Brownie Mary Clubs.

"We were the first medical marijuana affinity group ever chartered here, and we've made progress here. We're working for political candidates, and I was a delegate to the state Democratic convention. That's the kind of thing that can make a difference," he said.

But medical marijuana advocates need to understand that this isn't everybody's issue, even if others are sympathetic.

"Everyone is sympathetic, most Democrats get it, at least all the ones I meet," he explained, "but this isn't their issue. They're about health care or the environment or schools. They will support us, but we have to be there to get that support."

There is work to be done to protect patient access to medical marijuana in California. There are various options. It is up to medical marijuana patients and dispensary operators, as well as those ancillary businesses profiting from them, to more effectively take up the cudgel.

But it is ultimately a fight for federal recognition of medical marijuana, or at least, of states' rights to experiment with marijuana policy. That's not just up to California patients and dispensary operators, but all of us.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

CA
United States

Juries Must Find Facts on Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Supreme Court Rules

The US Supreme Court Monday dealt a blow to mandatory minimum sentencing, ruling that any facts used to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence are "elements" of the crime and must be proven by a jury, not left to a judge. The 5-4 ruling came in Alleyne v. United States.

Until Monday's ruling, judges had been able to find certain facts that would trigger mandatory minimum sentences, such as quantities of drugs involved in an offense, based on a "preponderance of evidence" in post-conviction sentencing hearings. Now, those facts will have to established by juries in the course of the trial using the higher standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt."

The case is the latest in a line of cases that began with the groundbreaking 2000 Supreme Court decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that any fact that increases the range of punishments is an "element" of the crime and must be presented to a jury and proved beyond reasonable doubt.

Sentencing reform advocates were pleased by the ruling.

"Mandatory minimums for drug offenders will lessen, but it's difficult to say to what extent," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes mandatory minimum sentences. "It's also likely that this will have beneficial effects in reducing racial disparity, because so many mandatory minimums are imposed for drug offenses, and because African-Americans in particular are on the receiving end of those penalties."

"No defendant should have to face a mandatory minimum sentence because of facts that are not considered -- or worse, considered and rejected -- by a jury," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which submitted a friend of the court brief in the case. "As Justice Thomas noted in Monday's opinion, 'mandatory minimums heighten the loss of liberty.' Today, those who face mandatory minimums do so with the Constitution more firmly at their backs."

Drug offenders are those most likely to be hit with mandatory minimum sentences.

Washington, DC
United States

Iowa Federal Judge Criticizes Harsh Methamphetamine Sentences

A Sioux City-based US district court judge has criticized harsh tough methamphetamine sentencing guidelines, writing in a recent opinion that he considers them "fundamentally flawed," not based on empirical evidence, and too harsh for low-level offenders.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/judge-mark-bennett.jpg
Judge Mark Bennett (iand.uscourts.gov)
US District Judge Mark Bennett of the Northern District of Iowa cut the sentence of a convicted Sioux City methamphetamine dealer from nearly 16 years to just more than six years, saying in his 44-page ruling that he has a "fundamental policy disagreement" with the meth portion of the federal sentencing guidelines.

"The methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed because they fail to consider additional factors beyond quantity," Bennett wrote in his Friday ruling in US v. Willie Hayes. "The system is too severe in the indiscriminate way it treats offenders… Since the methamphetamine guidelines are fundamentally flawed, I find that they fail to promote the purposes of sentencing" outlined in federal law.

Bennett has been a long-time critic of federal mandatory minimum sentencing, and in his ruling, he argued that meth sentencing guidelines seemed more based on politics than science and lacked the depth of other portions of the guidelines. Meth dealers are getting much harsher sentences than people convicted of selling heroin or cocaine, he noted.

Iowa defense attorneys consulted by the Des Moines Register said Bennett's ruling was "a very big deal."

"It is a very big deal, and it's also something that's been coming for awhile," said Des Moines defense attorney Angela Campbell. "And he's right. The guidelines are so high, you can have a runner or a very low-level pseudoephedrine (purchaser) who gets life very easily… If you're buying pseudoephedrine for a large-scale drug operation, you don't get hit just on what you buy, you’re responsible for the same thing as the entire conspiracy."

"He's not a lone voice in the wilderness," said Iowa defense attorney F. Montgomery Brown, who added that defense lawyers need to cite Bennett's opinion in meth cases. "It's an argument that defense lawyers in both the Northern and Southern districts of Iowa need to make," Brown said. "It's malpractice not to."

At least two other federal judges, Joseph Bataillon in Nebraska and John Gleeson in New York have issued similar criticisms of meth guidelines. Bennett's ruling drew on their reasoning.

Bennett, for his part, said reducing meth guideline sentences by a third was "a good starting point and a reasonable way to express my policy disagreement." But, he added, he "will reserve the ability to adjust the figure upwards and downwards as I weigh" other "important factors the guidelines do not contemplate."

Prosecutors could appeal Bennett's ruling in the Yates case. If they do, that could open the door to a decision by the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, which in turn could open the door to a US Supreme Court review of sentencing procedure in the world of now-advisory guidelines, or even of the fairness of meth sentences.

Sioux City, IA
United States

Federal Appeals Court Panel Extends Crack Sentencing Retroactivity

In a Friday decision, a three-judge panel of the US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati held that the provisions of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act that reduced the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses should apply to people convicted even before the law was passed. If upheld, the ruling could reduce the sentences of thousands of inmates, mostly black, who were sentenced under the draconian old laws.

The case was US v. Cornelius and Jarreous Blewitt, in which the Blewitt cousins were convicted in 2005 of federal crack cocaine charges and sentenced to mandatory minimum prison sentences. The Blewitts appealed their sentences, citing the Fair Sentencing Act's impact on crack cocaine sentencing, and seeking retroactive sentencing in line with the act.

Even though the Fair Sentencing Act had reduced the 100:1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine for sentencing purposes to 18:1, "thousands of inmates, most black, languish in prison under the old, discredited ratio because the Fair Sentencing Act was not made explicitly retroactive by Congress," the court noted.

"In this case, we hold that the federal judicial perpetuation of the racially discriminatory mandatory minimum crack sentences for those defendants sentenced under the old crack sentencing law, as the government advocates, would violate the Equal Protection Clause, as incorporated into the Fifth Amendment," the court wrote, noting that the Fifth Amendment forbids federal racial discrimination in the same way as the Fourteenth Amendment forbids state racial discrimination.

The US Supreme Court had already approved sentencing retroactivity for crack offenders who were charged before the Fair Sentencing Act went into effect but sentenced after it in Dorsey v. US, but this decision from the 6th Circuit dramatically expands the impact of the Fair Sentencing Act's sentencing reductions by applying it to all federal crack cocaine offenders.

[Ed: Whether the ruling will survive the scrutiny of the 6th Circuit en banc or the US Supreme Court, if it gets that far, remains to be seen.]

Cincinnati, OH
United States

California Supreme Court Rules Localities Can Ban Medical Marijuana Dispensaries [FEATURE]

In a ruling that will leave California's patchwork approach to medical marijuana dispensary regulation in place, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday that local governments can ban dispensaries from operating within their jurisdictions. For patients, that means access to medical marijuana at dispensaries will depend on the political currents in their city or county.

The decision likely means that cities and counties that had been holding off on banning dispensaries will now take steps to do so. It will also increase pressure on the state legislature to come up with a means of statewide medical marijuana regulation, something it is working on right now.

The case was City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, Inc., in which Inland Empire sued the city after Riverside using its zoning power to declare that dispensaries were nuisances and ordered them shut down. Inland Empire went to court to block the city from forcing it to close.

The decision was eagerly -- and anxiously -- awaited by all sides. Cases on local bans had been percolating through the state court system for several years, with state appeals courts splitting on the issue. An appeals court had earlier sided with the city of Riverside, but a trial court last summer held that Riverside County could not ban dispensaries, and an appeals court in Southern California had struck down Los Angeles County's ban on dispensaries.

The move by the city of Riverside was part of a broader counter-offensive against the proliferation of dispensaries after the Obama administration signaled in 2009 that it would take a largely hands-off approach. According to the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access, more than 200 cities or counties in the state have since moved to ban dispensaries. That move toward local bans has since slowed, in part because of uncertainty over their legality and in part because the federal offensive since the Obama administration shifted gears in the fall of 2011 has driven hundreds of dispensaries out of business.

Patient and industry advocates had argued that allowing localities to ban dispensaries ran counter to the intent of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. The law called for making medical marijuana accessible to people with doctors' recommendations for its use. But the state's high court sided with the localities.

"The issue in this case is whether California's medical marijuana statutes preempt a local ban on facilities that distribute medical marijuana. We conclude they do not," wrote Justice Marvin Baxter for a unanimous court. "The CUA and the MMP [state medical marijuana laws] do not expressly or impliedly preempt Riverside's zoning provisions declaring a medical marijuana dispensary, as therein defined, to be a prohibited use, and a public nuisance, anywhere within the city limits."

"While the California Supreme Court ruling ignores the needs of thousands of patients across the state, it simply maintains the status quo," said Joe Elford, chief counsel with Americans for Safe Access, which filed an amicus 'friend of the court' brief in the case. "Notably, the high court deferred to the state legislature to establish a clearer regulatory system for the distribution of medical marijuana, which advocates and state officials are currently working on."

"There is nothing surprising about this; it affirms the status quo," said Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML. "I've been following the court cases and reading the state constitution, and it seems pretty clear that local governments have broad authority under California law."

"Today's decision allowing localities to ban will likely lead to reduced patient access in California unless the state finally steps up to provide regulatory oversight and guidance," said Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The good news though is that this problem is fixable. It is time for the state legislature to enact state-wide medical marijuana oversight and regulation that both protects patient access and eases the burden on localities to deal with this issue on their own. Localities will stop enacting bans once the state has stepped up and assumed its responsibility to regulate."

"We're hoping that we can fix this by having some sort of state regulation system where people have access wherever they live in the state, if not by local dispensaries, then at least by some sort of delivery service," Gieringer said. "I think they're trying very hard to do something this year. Remember, last year, the Assembly passed a regulation bill and the Senate came very close, and now we have the leader of the state Senate supporting the same concept, so I think the prospects are pretty good for action."

The statewide medical marijuana regulation bills this year are Assembly Bill 473, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), and Senate Bill 439, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Both bills have passed their first committee votes and are supported by a broad coalition of patients, dispensaries, and law enforcement groups.

But until and unless statewide regulation is passed in Sacramento, the battle over patient access to dispensaries is now going to be fought in city council chambers and county supervisor meeting rooms in cities and counties across the state. That is going to mean differential access to medical marijuana depending on the political complexion of the localities where patients reside.

San Francisco, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Lots of action in California this past week, including more raids and more threat letters, plus action in various state legislatures and elsewhere. Let's get to it:

California

Last Wednesday, local law enforcement raided three San Bernardino dispensaries. City Attorney's office officials, and police, fire, and code enforcement officers served search warrants and issued demands that they cease and desist from allegedly unlawful activities. The dispensaries hit were Trio Holistic Center, Berdo Medical Center, and THC First Time Patients. San Bernardino authorities banned dispensaries last year. In February, they raided three other dispensaries.

Last Tuesday, the Vallejo city council approved a 45-day moratorium on new dispensary applications. A number of dispensaries already operate in Vallejo without the city's permission, although voters last year approved a 10% tax on their sales. The city quit accepting business license tax applications for dispensaries in January. City officials said they need time to sort out the confusion. Now, the city must move forward to either regulate or ban dispensaries, although the moratorium could be extended another two years.

On Wednesday, Vallejo police returned marijuana to two dispensaries raided last year. Nearly 60 pounds of medical marijuana and hundreds of dead plants were returned to Better Health Group and the LES collective. Police gave the property back after a judge dismissed the criminal cases against the two dispensaries. Police last year raided numerous Vallejo dispensaries, but have lost every criminal case they have brought, and prosecutors have dropped the charges in others.

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana regulation bill passed the Senate Public Safety Committee. Senate Bill 439 is described by its sponsor, Sen. Steinberg, as a placeholder, "a vehicle to engage stakeholders" in the process of legislating statewide regulations. Steinberg said he is in close contact with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who has introduced companion legislation, Assembly Bill 473, and that it could take one to two years to complete the process.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Public Safety Committee refused to pass a drugged driving bill that could impact medical marijuana patients. The bill, Senate Bill 289, would create a zero-tolerance drugged driving offense, but the committee was skeptical. It did, however, leave the door open for the bill to be amended.

Also on Tuesday, word emerged that federal prosecutors have sent out more dispensary threat letters. They were issued by the office of US Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag and target the landlords of dispensaries in San Jose, San Francisco, and Ukiah. The letters warn landlords that the facilities are operating too close to a school or park. In addition, the letters warn landlords that they are liable for forfeiture under USC Title 21, Section 881(a) 7. Unlike some previous letters, they do not threaten immediate prosecution or set a deadline for compliance.

Colorado

Last Thursday, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that employers can fire medical marijuana users who fail a drug test. The ruling came in the case of a quadriplegic telephone operator for the Dish Network, who was fired after failing a drug test. He argued that he shouldn't have been fired because his actions were legal under state law, but the court held that because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the state law he cited did not apply.

Hawaii

On Wednesday, two medical marijuana bills were approved by the state legislature. House Bill 668 transfers control of the medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Public Health, while Senate Bill 642 increases the amount of medicine a patient can possess from three to four ounces and allows patients to have up to seven plants, but also amends the law so that only a patient's primary care physician can recommend marijuana.

Idaho

On Monday, Idaho medical marijuana activists fought back after authorities seized their children. The children were taken from a Boise couple and a Boise single mom who are leading Idaho activists after a child at the school their children attended fell ill and marijuana was blamed. Police and child protective services workers went to the home while the parents were on a retreat and took the kids, as well as some marijuana and paraphernalia. One set of kids has been returned, the other two remain in foster care.

Maryland

On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley confirmed he will sign a medical marijuana bill. The formal signing is set for Thursday. The bill allows academic medical research centers to establish programs to dispense marijuana to sick patients.

New Hampshire

 

On Tuesday, Gov. Maggie Hassan said she wants home cultivation stricken from a pending medical marijuana bill. Bill supporters said they were disappointed and that patients with terminal conditions couldn't wait the 18 months to two years it could take for dispensaries to get up and running. The governor "shares the concerns of law enforcement about the state's ability to effectively regulate a home-grow option," spokesman Marc Goldberg said in a statement. Hassan voted for a medical marijuana bill in 2009 that included a home-grow option. The proposal is now being rewritten in a Senate committee.

New Mexico

On Tuesday, the state Department of Health agreed that PTSD should remain a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. The move upheld a recommendation by the Medical Cannabis Program's Medical Advisory Board, which had faced an effort to withdraw PTSD as a qualifying condition.

 

Colorado Appeals Court Rules Employers Can Fire Marijuana Users

Colorado employers can legally fire marijuana users from their jobs, the state Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in a 2-1 decision. Although the case was brought by a medical marijuana user, the ruling will have any even broader impact given that the state has now legalized marijuana for all adults.

The case was Coats v. Dish Network LLC, in which Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic telephone operator for Dish Network and registered medical marijuana patient, was fired by Dish Network after testing positive for marijuana during a drug test. Paralyzed by a car crash as a teen, Coats had been a registered patient since 2009. Dish Network cited no other reason for firing Coats other than his positive drug test result.

Coats challenged his firing, citing Colorado's Lawful Activities statute, which prohibits employers from firing workers for "engaging in any legal activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours." But both the trial court and now the appeals court rejected his challenge, holding that because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the Lawful Activities statute does not apply.

"For an activity to be lawful in Colorado, it must be permitted by, and not contrary to, both state and federal law," the appeals court said.

Judge John Webb dissented, saying he could not find a case addressing whether Colorado judges must consider federal law in determining the meaning of the Colorado statute.

Coats' attorney, Michael Evans, said in a statement that the ruling will have a broad impact in the state.

"This case not only impacts Mr. Coats, but also some 127,816 medical marijuana patient-employees in Colorado who could be summarily terminated even if they are in legal compliance with Colorado state law," Evans said.

And with adult marijuana legalization now in place in the state, it is not just medical marijuana users who stand to be affected.

The ruling is expected to be appealed.

Similar rulings allowing employers to fire medical marijuana users have been upheld by courts in other states, including California, Michigan, and Montana.

Denver, CO
United States

Supreme Court Rules No Automatic Deportation for Minor Marijuana Possession

A 26-year-old Jamaican who has resided in the US since he was three should not automatically be deported for being caught with a small amount of marijuana, the US Supreme Court ruled Tuesday. The case was Moncrieffe v. Holder.

In that case, Adrien Moncrieffe was caught with 1.3 grams of marijuana when police in Georgia pulled him over for a traffic stop. He pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute in a plea bargain in which the state of Georgia agreed to expunge the charges after he served five years' probation.

But a federal immigration judge ruled that the plea bargain made Moncrieffe deportable as an "aggravated felon." While federal law considers possession of small amounts of weed a misdemeanor, federal officials argued that his plea was to an offense analogous to a federal felony and thus calling for automatic deportation under federal immigration law. With the lesser offense, Moncrieffe might potentially face deportation, but the government would not have to seek it and Moncrieffe could make his case before a judge if it did.

The US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans upheld the immigration judge's ruling, but the Supreme Court accepted the case for review last year. On Tuesday, seven justices agreed that Moncrieffe's conviction did not rise to the level of a drug trafficking offense that triggered the aggravated felony classification for deportation under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

"Moncrieffe's conviction could correspond to either the CSA [Controlled Substances Act] felony or the CSA misdemeanor," Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority. "Ambiguity on this point means that the conviction did not 'necessarily' involve facts that correspond to an offense punishable as a felony under the CSA. Under the categorical approach, then, Moncrieffe was not convicted of an aggravated felony."

Although federal prosecutors had argued that any marijuana distribution conviction (even intending to distribute one gram) is "presumptively" a felony, Sotomayor and the other six justices weren't buying that.

"That is simply incorrect, and the government's argument collapses as a result," Sotomayor wrote. "Marijuana distribution is neither a felony nor a misdemeanor until we know whether the conditions in paragraph (4) attach."

That paragraph lists exceptions to the offense of marijuana distribution that allow defendants to be considered misdemeanor "simple drug possessors."

To follow prosecutors' logic, Sotomayor argued, "would render even an undisputed misdemeanor an aggravated felony. Recognizing that its approach leads to consequences Congress could not have intended, the government hedges its argument by proposing a remedy: Non-citizens should be given an opportunity during immigration proceedings to demonstrate that their predicate marijuana distribution convictions involved only a small amount of marijuana and no remuneration, just as a federal criminal defendant could do at sentencing," she wrote.

But that approach was "entirely inconsistent with both the INA's text and the categorical approach," Sotomayor stressed. "The government cites no statutory authority for such case-specific fact finding in immigration court, and none is apparent in the INA. Indeed, the government's main categorical argument would seem to preclude this inquiry: If the government were correct that 'the fact of a marijuana-distribution conviction alone constitutes a CSA felony,' then all marijuana distribution convictions would categorically be convictions of the drug trafficking aggravated felony, mandatory deportation would follow under the statute, and there would be no room for the government's follow-on fact finding procedure. The government cannot have it both ways."

And the government's approach would lead to a litany of "absurd consequences that would flow from" immigration investigations into such offenses. "That the only cure is worse than the disease suggests the government is simply wrong," she wrote.

Only Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented, with Thomas arguing that since Georgia punished Moncrieffe's offense as a felony, he should be deportable under the CSA, and Alito warning that the majority had just given a free ride to "drug traffickers in about half the states."

"In those states," Alito wrote in his dissent, "even if an alien is convicted of possessing tons of marijuana with the intent to distribute, the alien is eligible to remain in this country. Large-scale marijuana distribution is a major source of income for some of the world's most dangerous drug cartels, but the court now holds that an alien convicted of participating in such activity may petition to remain in this country."

Of course, Moncrieffe was not convicted of "large-scale marijuana trafficking" and was not a member of one of "the world's most dangerous drug cartels;" he was a guy busted with a couple of joints worth of weed. And the government may still be able to deport people in Moncrieffe's situation, but now they will have to make the case for deportation before a judge.

Washington, DC
United States

Federal Appeals Court Rejects Researcher's Bid to Grow Medical Marijuana

The US First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston Monday sided with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in rejecting University of Massachusetts-Amherst scientist Dr. Lyle Craker's appeal of the agency's decision to deny him a license to grow medical marijuana for research purposes.

Professor Lyle Craker (maps.org)
Craker sought to break the federal government's monopoly on the production of marijuana for research purposes. Because of hostility to research on the possible benefits of marijuana in the federal drug control and research bureaucracies, the federal monopoly on marijuana for research purposes created a bottleneck, blocking potential valuable research efforts.

The decision in Craker v. DEA caps a 12-year odyssey through federal regulatory purgatory for Craker and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which had backed the UMass-Amherst scientist's bid to develop a source of marijuana independent of that produced under the auspices of NIDA.

"After such a long struggle, I'm disappointed that the Court failed to recognize the need for an independent source of plant material for use in research on the medical uses of marijuana," said Prof. Craker. "In doing so, they have failed the American people, especially those for whom marijuana as a medicine could help."

Craker first applied for a license from the DEA in 2001; it took the agency three years to initially deny his request. In 2007, the DEA's own administrative law judge recommended that the agency grant his application, but two years later, then DEA Deputy Administrator (and current Adminstrator) Michele Leonhart rejected that recommendation. Craker sought a formal reconsideration, which Leonhart denied in 2011.

Craker then appealed to the First Circuit, with oral arguments taking place in May 2012. In its decision Monday, the First Circuit upheld Leonhart's denial. In so doing, it dismissed Craker's claims that the DEA had changed the rules in the middle of the game and that the supply of marijuana from the NIDA facility was inadequate and uncompetitive. Leonhart's interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act was permissible and her findings were "reasonable and supported by the evidence," the court held.

"This ruling will result in sick people continuing to be denied the medicine they desperately need, and which 18 states and the District of Columbia recognize as legitimate," said Allen Hopper, criminal justice and drug policy director for the ACLU of California and one of the lawyers representing Prof. Craker. "The Obama administration must stop blocking the research necessary to take marijuana through the FDA approval process."

Boston, MA
United States

Feds' New Cell Phone Spying Device Raising Privacy Concerns [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by independent investigative journalist Clarence Walker, freelancewriter82@gmail.com

Blocked by a Supreme Court decision from using GPS tracking devices without a warrant, federal investigators and other law enforcement agencies are turning to a new, more powerful and more threatening technology in their bid to spy more freely on those they suspect of drug crimes. That's leading civil libertarians, electronic privacy advocates, and even some federal judges to raise the alarm about a new surveillance technology whose use has yet to be taken up definitively by the federal courts.

StingRay cell phone spying device (US Patent photo)
The new surveillance technology is the StingRay (also marketed as Triggerfish, IMSI Catcher, Cell-site Simulator or Digital Analyzer), a sophisticated, portable spy device able to track cell phone signals inside vehicles, homes and insulated buildings. StingRay trackers act as fake cell towers, allowing police investigators to pinpoint location of a targeted wireless mobile by sucking up phone data such as text messages, emails and cell-site information.

When a suspect makes a phone call, the StingRay tricks the cell into sending its signal back to the police, thus preventing the signal from traveling back to the suspect's wireless carrier. But not only does StingRay track the targeted cell phone, it also extracts data off potentially thousands of other cell phone users in the area.

Although manufactured by a Germany and Britain-based firm, the StingRay devices are sold in the US by the Harris Corporation, an international telecommunications equipment company. It gets between $60,000 and $175,000 for each Stingray it sells to US law enforcement agencies.

[While the US courts are only beginning to grapple with StingRay, the high tech cat-and-mouse game between cops and criminals continues afoot. Foreign hackers reportedly sell an underground IMSI tracker to counter the Stingray to anyone who asks for $1000. And in December 2011, noted German security expert Karsten Nohl released "Catcher Catcher," powerful software that monitors a network's traffic to seek out the StingRay in use.]

Originally intended for terrorism investigations, the feds and local law enforcement agencies are now using the James Bond-type surveillance to track cell phones in drug war cases across the nation without a warrant. Federal officials say that is fine -- responding to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) and the First Amendment Coalition, the Justice Department argued that no warrant was needed to use StingRay technology.

"If a device is not capturing the contents of a particular dialogue call, the device does not require a warrant, but only a court order under the Pen Register Statute showing the material obtained is relevant to an ongoing investigation," the department wrote.

The FBI claims that it is adhering to lawful standards in using StingRay. "The bureau advises field officers to work closely with the US Attorney's Office in their districts to comply with legal requirements," FBI spokesman Chris Allen told the Washington Post last week, but the agency has refused to fully disclose whether or not its agents obtain probable cause warrants to track phones using the controversial device.

And the federal government's response to the EFF's FOIA about Stingray wasn't exactly responsive. While the FOIA request generated over 20,000 records related to StingRay, the Justice Department released only a pair of court orders and a handful of heavily redacted documents that didn't explain when and how the technology was used.

The LA Weekly reported in January that the StingRay "intended to fight terrorism was used in far more routine Los Angeles Police criminal investigations," apparently without the courts' knowledge that it probes the lives of non-suspects living in the same neighborhood with a suspect.

Critics say the technology wrongfully invades technology and that its uncontrolled use by law enforcement raised constitutional questions. "It is the biggest threat to cell phone privacy you don't know about," EFF said in a statement.

ACLU privacy researcher Christopher Soghoian told a Yale Law School Location Tracking and Biometrics Conference panel last month that "the government uses the device either when a target is routinely and quickly changing phones to thwart a wiretap or when police don't have sufficient cause for a warrant."

"The government is hiding information about new surveillance technology not only from the public, but even from the courts," ACLU staff attorney Linda Lye wrote in a legal brief in the first pending federal StingRay case (see below). "By keeping courts in the dark about new technologies, the government is essentially seeking to write its own search warrants, and that's not how the Constitution works."

Lye further expressed concern over the StingRay's ability to interfere with cell phone signals in violation of Federal Communication Act. "We haven't seen documents suggesting the LAPD or any other agency have sought or obtained FCC authorization," she wrote.

StingRay pricing chart (publicintelligence.net)
"If the government shows up in your neighborhood, essentially every phone is going to check in with the government," said the ACLU's Soghoian. "The government is sending signals through people's walls and clothes and capturing information about innocent people. That's not much different than using invasive technology to search every house on a block," Soghoian said during interviews with reporters covering the StingRay story.

Advocates also raised alarms over another troubling issue: Using the StingRay allows investigators to bypass the routine process of obtaining fee-based location data from cell service providers like Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Comcast. Unlike buying location data fro service providers, using StingRay leaves no paper trail for defense attorneys.

Crack defense attorney Stephen Leckar who scored a victory in a landmark Supreme Court decision over the feds' warrantless use of a GPS tracker in US v. Jones, a cocaine trafficking case where the government tracked Jones' vehicle for weeks without a warrant, also has concerns.

"Anytime the government refuses to disclose the ambit of its investigatory device, one has to wonder, what's really happening," he told the Chronicle. "If without a warrant the feds use this sophisticated device for entry into people's homes, accessing private information, they may run afoul of a concurring opinion by Justice Alito, who ruled in US v Jones whether people would view unwarranted monitoring of their home or property as Constitutionally repugnant."

Leckar cited Supreme Court precedent in Katz v. US (privacy) and US v. Kyllo (thermal imaging), where the Supreme Court prohibited searches conducted by police from outside the home to obtain information behind closed doors. Similar legal thinking marked February's Supreme Court decision in a case where it prohibited the warrantless use of drug dogs to sniff a residence, Florida v. Jardines.

The EFF FOIA lawsuit shed light on how the US government sold StingRay devices to state and local law enforcement agencies for use specifically in drug cases. The Los Angeles and Fort Worth police departments have publicly acknowledged buying the devices, and records show that they are using them for drug investigations.

"Out of 155 cell phone investigations conducted by LAPD between June and September 2012, none of these cases involved terrorism, but primarily involved drugs and other felonies," said Peter Scheer, director of the First Amendment Center.

The StingRay technology is so new and so powerful that it not only raises Fourth Amendment concerns, it also raises questions about whether police and federal agents are withholding information about it from judges to win approval to monitor suspects without meeting the probable cause standard required by the Fourth. At least one federal judge thinks they are. Magistrate Judge Brian Owsley of the Southern District of Texas in Corpus Christi told the Yale conference federal prosecutors are using clever techniques to fool judges into allowing use of StingRay. They will draft surveillance requests to appear as Pen Register applications, which don't need to meet the probable cause standards.

"After receiving a second StingRay request," Owsley told the panel, "I emailed every magistrate judge in the country telling them about the device. And hardly anyone understood them."

In a earlier decision related to a Cell-site Simulator, Judge Owsley denied a DEA request to obtain data information to identify where the cell phone belonging to a drug trafficker was located. DEA wanted to use the suspect's E911 emergency tracking system that is operated by the wireless carrier. E911 trackers reads signals sent to satellites from a cell phone's GPS chip or by triangulation of radio transmitted signal. Owsley told the panel that federal agents and US attorneys often apply for a court order to show that any information obtained with a StingRay falls under the Stored Communication Act and the Pen Register statute.

DEA later petitioned Judge Owsley to issue an order allowing the agent to track a known drug dealer with the StingRay. DEA emphasized to Owsley how urgently they needed approval because the dealer had repeatedly changed cell phones while they spied on him. Owsley flatly denied the request, indicating the StingRay was not covered under federal statute and that DEA and prosecutors had failed to disclose what they expected to obtain through the use of the stored data inside the drug dealer's phone, protected by the Fourth Amendment.

"There was no affidavit attached to demonstrate probable cause as required by law under rule 41 of federal criminal procedures," Owsley pointed out. The swiping of data off wireless phones is "cell tower dumps on steroids," Owsley concluded.

But judges in other districts have ruled favorably for the government. A federal magistrate judge in Houston approved DEA request for cell tower data without probable cause. More recently, New York Southern District Federal Magistrate Judge Gabriel Gorenstein approved warrantless cell-site data.

"The government did not install the tracking device -- and the cell user chose to carry the phone that permitted transmission of its information to a carrier," Gorenstein held in that opinion. "Therefore no warrant is needed."

In a related case, US District Court Judge Liam O'Grady of the Northern District of Virginia ruled that the government could obtain data from Twitter accounts of three Wikileakers without a warrant. Because they had turned over their IP addresses when they opened their Twitter accounts, they had no expectation of privacy, he ruled.

"Petitioners knew or should have known that their IP information was subject to examination by Twitter, so they had a lessened expectation of privacy in that information, particularly in light of their apparent consent to the Twitter terms of service and privacy policy," Judge O'Grady wrote.

A federal judge in Arizona is now set to render a decision in the nation's first StingRay case. After a hearing last week, the court in US v. Rigmaiden is expected to issue a ruling that could set privacy limits on how law enforcement uses the new technology. Just as the issue of GPS tracking technology eventually ended up before the Supreme Court, this latest iteration of the ongoing balancing act between enabling law enforcement to do its job and protecting the privacy and Fourth Amendment rights of citizens could well be headed there, too.

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