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Marijuana: Initiative to Legalize Marijuana in Nevada Filed, Vote Will Come in 2012

Organizers of an initiative that would tax and regulate marijuana in Nevada filed it with the secretary of state's office in Carson City Wednesday. That is the first formal step in getting it before voters in the November 2012 elections.

The initiative would:

  • Legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults;
  • Provide for up to 120 licensed retail outlets statewide; and
  • Provide for up to 50 licensed growers to supply licensed retailers.

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Retailers would have to pay a $2,500 licensing fee, and would collect sales tax on retail sales. Growers would have to pay a $5,000 licensing fee and would collect a wholesale tax of $50 an ounce from retailers.

The initiative has no provision for growing your own.

Backers will need to gather 97,002 valid signatures to send the measure to the 2011 Legislature. If lawmakers fail to act, it would be placed on the 2012 ballot.

The initiative is sponsored by Nevadans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, which is backed by the Washington, DC-based Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). MPP and local affiliates have tried three other times in the past decade to legalize marijuana in Nevada. In 2002, voters rejected a proposal to legalize up to three ounces; in 2004, a second attempt failed to make the ballot; and in 2006, a proposal to legalize up to one ounce lost with 44% of the vote.

Backers are counting on changing public attitudes toward marijuana to take them over the top this time. "The environment we feel has changed," said campaign manager David Schwartz at a press conference before filing the papers. "The discussion has become nationwide."

The campaign will hammer away at the increasingly popular "marijuana is safer than alcohol" argument, Schwartz said. "We will encourage voters to consider this fact and decide for themselves whether it makes sense to allow adults to use alcohol freely, but punish them if they choose to use a less harmful substance, marijuana."

That makes five states where marijuana legalization is on the agenda. California is a two-fer, with both a pending legalization bill (which will get a hearing and a committee vote next week) and at least one legalization initiative with a number of signatures gathered that virtually guarantee its qualifying for the ballot. Meanwhile, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Washington state have legalization bills pending or about to be filed too.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Dorm Room Dealers: Drugs and the Privileges of Race and Class," by A. Rafik Mohamed and Erik D. Fritsvold (2010, Lynne Reinner Publishers, 197 pp., $49.95 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

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Whom do you picture when you read the phrase "drug dealer"? It's probably not the subjects of this book. They're white, upper-middle class and beyond, upwardly mobile college students blithely enmeshed in a web of criminality -- drug use and sales -- that, for them at least, goes unnoticed, and even when noticed, largely unpunished.

And that really irks Mohamed and Fritsvold, a pair of Southern California sociologists who gained entrée into a network of drug sellers and users centered on a private college in San Diego and then spent six years interviewing and observing them as they partied hearty, gobbled and swapped pills, and peddled dope with reckless abandon. It's not, as the authors make clear, that they wish their student subjects were punished with the same heavy hand awaiting a poor black kid slinging crack in on an inner city street corner.

In fact, Mohamed and Fritsvold make equally clear that they view US drug policies as harsh and counterproductive, in no small part because of the race and class biases they so inarguably exhibit. Healthy chunks of "Dorm Room Dealers" are devoted to delineating in detail just how racially skewed and cleaved by class the application of American drug laws are. That's what really irks the authors.

And that partially answers the questions the authors posed at the beginning of the book. Why do privileged college students -- who have everything to lose and little to gain -- choose to sell drugs? Well, because they can do so with almost total impunity. They are not the target of the drug war. They're the wrong color and the wrong class. They essentially get a free pass -- from police, who ignore them; from college administrators, who don't want to upset their parents; from doctors, who are happy to prescribe them whatever pills they desire... because they are the children of "good people," i.e. white and wealthy people.

Mohamed and Fritsvold show repeatedly the reckless abandon with which their subjects went about their business: Dope deals over the phone with uncoded messages, driving around high with pounds of pot in the car, doing drug transactions visible from the street, selling to strangers, smuggling hundreds of pills across the Mexican border. These campus dealers lacked even the basics of drug dealer security measures, yet they flew under the radar of the drug warriors.

Even when the rare encounter with police occurred, these well-connected students skated. In one instance, a dealer got too wasted and attacked someone's car. He persuaded a police officer to take him home in handcuffs to get cash to pay for the damages. The cop ignored the scales, the pot, the evidence of drug dealing, and happily took a hundred dollar bill for his efforts. In another instance, a beach front dealer was the victim of an armed robbery. He had no qualms about calling the police, who once again couldn't see the evidence of dealing staring them in the face and who managed to catch the robbers. The dealer wisely didn't claim the pounds of pot police recovered and didn't face any consequences.

Even when the rare arrest for drug dealing occurred, these folks emerged relatively unscathed. With daddy's money and daddy's lawyers, serious felony charges evaporate. One dealer who could have gone to prison for years ended up with probation for a misdemeanor, which was subsequently wiped from his record. Ah, privilege -- ain't it sweet?

The lack of consequences for breaking drug laws may help explain the students' almost universal lack of interest in drug law reform. These student dope-slingers were not SSDP types. Only one of the two dozen or so dealers watched by Mohamed and Fritsvold expressed any interest in changing the laws. Why should these folks care about reforming the drug laws? They appear to be irrelevant to their lives. Perhaps if these privileged students were subjected to the wrath of the drug war the same way their poorer, darker-skinned counterparts were, they and their powerful parents might begin to feel compelled to address the drug laws. Until then, not so much.

These student dealers were mostly vending pot, with a few offering cocaine and ecstasy as sidelines. There was no mention of heroin or methamphetamines. One finding that surprised the authors was the prevalence of the pill culture. Students were gobbling down Valium, Xanax, Oxycontin, Lorcet, Vicodin, Adderall and Ritalin like crazy, swapping or selling excess pills, lying to doctors to get prescriptions, even smuggling in loads obtained in Tijuana strip joints.

The pill-poppers felt even less like criminals than the illicit drug dealers did. All of the students were able to rationalize their lawbreaking, in part, the authors suggest, because they never really self-identified as dope dealers. After all, dope dealers live in the inner city, are poor, and are a different color. For the subjects of "Dorm Room Dealers," collegiate dope-dealing was incidental, a passing phase on their road to mainstream success as realtors, upper management types, and business owners. They were invested in conventional lives and careers, and, as follow up interviews suggest, as a group they are now doing quite well.

"Dorm Room Dealers" is a valuable contribution to the ethnography of drug use and drug selling and is an interesting read, too. But at $50 for the hardback, you'll probably want to check it out of your campus library or wait for the paperback.

States Don't Need Federal Permission to Legalize Medical Marijuana

We've been over this before, but apparently it still hasn’t sunk in. This time, we have the Attorney General of Arkansas trying to claim that federal law prevents his state from protecting medical marijuana patients:
LITTLE ROCK — The state attorney general today rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize marijuana for medical use.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel cited numerous problems with the proposal submitted by Little Rock attorney John Wesley Hall, Jr., including that federal law would supersede a state drug amendment.

"I note as an initial matter that this description fails to acknowledge that your proposed measure cannot completely legalize marijuana in Arkansas for medical purposes because the drug remains illegal under federal law," the opinion said. [Arkansas News]
Really? Then what's all this I keep hearing about 13 states having these laws and the President telling DOJ not to raid the dispensaries? I'm pretty sure everyone knows how this works by now.

What a waste of breath it is to continue insisting that there's some sort of impregnable federal barrier that makes medical marijuana impossible. It's plainly wrong, and not even worthy of being debated. Anyone who says that is just a stubborn and desperate obstructionist who can't even come up with a single real reason to continue criminalizing patients.

I wonder how long it will take to bury this nonsense once and for all. What if Arkansas was the last state in the country with no legal protection for patients? Would their top prosecutor still insist that it can't be done? Come on. At some point you're gonna have to learn to live with medical marijuana, and fighting back against it is both cruel and pointless.

Europe: Dutch Delay Plan to Make Border Cannabis Cafes Members Only

A plan to make Dutch border town cannabis cafes members only in a bid to thwart "drug tourism" is on indefinite hold, a Dutch official said Monday. The plan, which was supposed to go into effect January 1, needs further study, the official said. "We need to finalize our preparations before we can put the project into operation," said Petro Hermans, a project officer for the southeastern city of Maastricht. "We are studying the legal feasibility of the project," he said, adding the date of January 1 "was not practicable". Maastricht is one of eight municipalities in southern Limburg province that announced jointly last May they would make the 30 coffee shops in their jurisdictions members only. The plan would also reduce the daily limit on marijuana purchases from five grams to three and require that payment be made with a Dutch debit card. The measures are a bid to reduce the estimated four million visitors to Limburg each year who come from more repressive neighboring countries—France, Germany, and Belgium—to buy marijuana. Limburgers have complained that the drug tourists cause problems ranging from traffic congestion to public urination to hard drug dealing. The Dutch government decriminalized the possession of up to five grams of marijuana in 1976 and allows for retail sales through licensed coffee shops. There are about 700 coffee shops throughout the country. Back in Limburg, Hermans said that a report on the feasibility of the members only plan was due by mid-month. "We will then decide how to proceed," he said.
Location: 
Maastricht, LI
Netherlands

NV: Press Conference for NSML’s 2012 Ballot Initiative for Taxed and Regulated Marijuana

Dave Schwartz, the campaign manager for Nevadans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, will discuss the details of a 2012 ballot initiative to establish a taxed and regulated marijuana market for adults 21 years of age and older in the state of Nevada. The press conference will occur immediately after Schwartz submits the initiative petition to the Secretary of State. Submission to the Secretary of State is a prerequisite to circulating the petition throughout the state. The campaign will need to collect 97,002 signatures by November 2010 in order to qualify for the November 2012 ballot. Schwartz will also unveil the campaign’s Web site, which will serve as a key educational and organizing tool over coming years. “We are excited to be launching this historic campaign...We have literally spent months drafting this initiative and believe it is the best marijuana-related initiative ever proposed. We are fully confident that we will qualify for the ballot and will garner majority support in 2012. As we embark on our signature drive, we are determined to use every interaction with Nevada residents to educate them about one simple fact: Marijuana, by every objective measure, is a safer substance than alcohol. We will encourage voters to consider this fact and decide for themselves whether it makes sense to allow adults to use alcohol freely, but punish them if they choose to use a less harmful substance, marijuana.”
Date: 
Wed, 01/06/2010 - 1:00pm
Location: 
101 N. Carson Street
Carson City, NV
United States

Canada: Mandatory Minimum Bill for Pot Growing Dies Sudden Death When Prime Minister Shuts Down Parliament

In a political maneuver designed to shield his embattled Conservative government from criticism during the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper Wednesday "prorogued," or shut down, parliament until a new session begins in March. The move kills all pending legislation, including a Tory "tough on crime" bill, C-15, that included mandatory minimum nine-month prison sentences for growing as much as a single marijuana plant. Prorouging parliament is not a routine move, but this is the second time Harper has done it in a year. Last December, he did it to head off a looming vote of no-confidence, with a coalition of New Democrats, Liberals, and Bloc Quebecois looking to replace his Conservative government. Now, he says he is doing it to introduce a new budget, but the maneuver also kills all parliamentary committees, including one looking into allegations Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan turned detainees over to Afghan authorities who abused them. That inquiry has raised embarrassing questions about Canada's policies in Afghanistan. To the relief of drug reform advocates and Canada's cannabis culture, the move kills a bill that was very harsh and very near to passage. Under the provisions of C-15 as passed by the House, people growing between one and 200 marijuana plants faced a minimum of six months if the "offense is committed for the purpose of trafficking." That would rise to nine months if it were a rental property, if children were endangered, or if the grow presented a public safety threat, i.e. was stealing electricity. The bill mandated a one-year minimum for between 201 and 500 plants or for producing hashish and two years for more than 500 plants. It also had one-year minimums for importing or exporting marijuana and for trafficking more than three kilograms if it was for the benefit of "organized crime," there was threat or use of violence or weapons, or if the offender had a serious previous drug offense. The trafficking minimum jumped to two years if it occurred in a prison, if the trafficking was to a minor, or if it was "in or near a school, in or near an area normally frequented by youth or in the presence of youth." The bill had been amended earlier this month by the Senate Constitutional Affairs and Legal Committee to remove the mandatory minimum provisions for under 201 plants, but only if the grows were not in residential areas and owned by the grower. That meant anyone growing in a residential neighborhood or in a rental property still faced a nine-month minimum, limiting relief to rural home-owners. The bill awaited only a final vote in the Senate. Now, Harper has sacrificed it on the altar of his political calculations. But like a vampire, C-15 is likely to rise from the grave. It has been a central plank in Harper's appeals to his law-and-order constituencies, and his government is almost certain to reintroduce it when the new session begins in March, or after he calls snap elections, which the Conservatives seem well-positioned to win as their main rivals, the Liberals, flounder. Don't put away those wooden stakes just yet.
Location: 
Ottawa, ON
Canada

Romantic Comedy "It's Complicated" Gets R Rating for Depicting Casual Marijuana Use

I try really hard to avoid name-calling on this blog, but the morons at MPAA just broke my streak:

When it comes to the MPAA, Universal is finding that things aren't simple.

The group's Classification and Ratings Appeals Board on Wednesday denied the studio's appeal of an R rating for its new Nancy Meyers romantic comedy "It's Complicated," throwing a potential marketing hurdle in the film's path.

The MPAA's ruling cited "some drug content and sexuality" for the film about a love triangle among upper-middle-class suburbanites. Those familiar with the board hearing said the inclusion of a scene featuring "pot-smoking with no bad consequences" was key to the decision. [LA Times]

So what do they want to see? Meryl Streep's hair catching fire? Steve Martin choking on a taco? Maybe the reason nothing bad happened to the pot-smoking characters in the movie is because bad things almost never happen to people who smoke pot (except getting arrested or otherwise stigmatized by self-righteous nutjobs like the MPAA).

Seriously, you can show these people 90 minutes of machine-gun fire and they'll give you a PG-13 any day of the week as long as the people killing each other don't get naked or use excessively foul language. Fortunately, MPAA's panic at the site of a little recreational marijuana use is so wildly out of proportion that it's generating an incredulous response from the press. Indeed, the story wouldn’t even be in the news if it weren't widely regarded as transparently stupid and crazy.

I think 2009 will likely go down as the year when it finally became impossible to vilify casual marijuana use without getting laughed at by almost everyone.

Medical Marijuana: Rhode Island Releases Draft of Proposed Dispensary Rules

Last spring, the Rhode Island legislature approved a bill to allow for the creation of dispensaries for medical marijuana patients. Last week, in response to that legislation, the state Department of Health issued its proposed dispensary rules. A public hearing on the draft is set for February.

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Rhode Island patient activist Rhonda O'Donnell, at DC protest
Rhode Island approved the use of medical marijuana in 2007, but that law had no provision for dispensaries for patients unable to grow their own or find caregivers to grow it for them. This year's law allows for up to three nonprofit dispensaries to operate in the state. There are currently about 900 registered patients in the state and about 775 registered caregivers.

State health officials told the Providence Journal that if, after the public hearing, no revisions in the draft were necessary, the new rules could be enacted within 45 days. Then, the licensing process allows for up to 60 days to approve the applications. That brings the timeline to mid-2010, and that's if there are no additional public hearings and no major revisions demanded.

Even after dispensary operators are approved, it will take time to find financing and suitable locations. Once the facility is set up, it will take at least an additional three months before the first medicinal crop can be harvested. It could well be a year before Rhode Island sees a dispensary.

Under the proposed rules, a dispensary is defined as nonprofit entity that "acquires, possesses, cultivates, manufactures, delivers, transfers, transports, supplies, or dispenses marijuana... to registered qualifying patients and their registered primary caregivers."

Patients are limited to 12 plants and 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana. Dispensaries would be able to provide for multiple patients and would be allowed to keep on hand only 12 plants and 2.5 ounces per patient. The dispensaries could not provide a patient with more than 2.5 ounces in any 15-day period.

The proposed regulations do not address what prices dispensaries could charge. Instead, they say only that as licensed caregivers, they would be allowed to be reimbursed for the costs associated with helping a patient.

People complying with the Rhode Island medical marijuana law would be protected from arrest or prosecution, and they could not be penalized by schools, employers, and landlords. Dispensaries could not operate within 500 feet of a school and must have an alarm system.

The proposed rules bar people with drug felonies -- but not other felonies! -- from operating or working for a dispensary, unless their offenses would not be offenses under the Rhode Island medical marijuana law. It also allows the Department of Health to waive that requirement if it wishes.

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

Medical Marijuana Cable Show "It's the Law"

Two local lawyers will take a closer look at medical marijuana in Maine -- Roger Katz and Walter McKee will host "It's the Law" on Time Warner Cable channel 9. The episode will focus on legal issues surrounding medical marijuana and the law recently passed by Mainers to allow pot dispensaries. The show first airs January 12th and January 14th, and will run various days throughout the month. Check your cable listings for times and other air dates.
Date: 
Tue, 01/12/2010 - 12:01am - 11:59pm
Location: 
ME
United States

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