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Canada: BC Local Elections Bring Another Drug Reform Mayor to Vancouver, A Drug Reform Mayor Back to Grand Forks, and a Drug Reformer to Victoria's City Council

Municipal elections in British Columbia Saturday saw Vancouver get another in a string of pro-drug reform mayors, while a marijuana reformer was returned to the mayor's office in Grand Forks in the interior, and another prominent reform advocate was elected to the city council in Victoria.

In Vancouver, the civic electoral coalition Vision Vancouver succeeded in placing its candidate, Gregor Robertson in the mayor's seat as well as sweeping eight of 11 council seats. Robertson and Vision Vancouver are strong supporters of the city's pioneering Four Pillars drug policy.

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Philippe Lucas (from vicgreens.com)
As Vision Vancouver notes in its platform, it will: "Focus on the Four Pillars to deal with drugs in our communities. Prevention, treatment, harm reduction, and enforcement are the most effective tools to make our communities safer. This includes support for InSite, a focus on access to treatment, and expanding prevention education programs."

Meanwhile, in the small interior border town of Grand Forks (pop. 5,000), former mayor and leader in Marc Emery's BC Marijuana Party Bryan Taylor was reelected. Taylor came to drug reform initially around industrial hemp but soon emerged as a leading BC Marijuana Party campaigner in the 2001 elections. He is barred from entering the US, which he can see from his hillside home outside Grand Forks, originally because he was arrested for hemp cultivation ("drug trafficking," in official US-speak). But even after the Canadian government dropped charges against him, US border control authorities continue to deny him entry, accusing him of "fraud and misrepresentation" if he fails to admit he smokes marijuana and deeming him ineligible to enter the country if he does admit it.

And on Vancouver Island, one of the Canadian drug reformers most familiar to his American counterparts, Philippe Lucas, won a seat on the Victoria city council running as a Green Party candidate. Lucas will be joined by Mayor-elect Dean Fortin, who also supports harm reduction and has vowed to find a permanent location for the city's needle exchange program.

In a Victoria radio interview after the election, Fortin said Lucas "is going to challenge the council a lot" and "will be pushing the harm reduction model."

That's no surprise. In addition to running the Vancouver Island Compassion Society, Lucas also authored the BC Green Party drug policy and substance abuse platform planks, which include calls for a legal, regulated market in marijuana. The soft-spoken but keenly focused Lucas will no doubt be a strong force for reform in Victoria.

All in all, a good day for drug reform and its advocates in British Columbia. It looks like BC will retain its position in the vanguard of drug reform in the Western hemisphere.

Feature: Obama's Appointees Raise Questions in the Drug Reform Community

Like other interest groups, the drug reform movement has the Obama transition under a microscope, searching for clues on the new administration's intentions as it scrutinizes those appointments for positions that are going to be key to advancing the cause. Some of the Obama transition team's early moves have some drug reformers sounding alarm bells, but other reformers -- not so much.

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Eric Holder -- not the reformer's dream pick
Drug reformers were not particularly enthralled with Obama's vice-president selection, Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), who made a career authoring drug war legislation. Biden can rightfully claim to be the father of the drug czar's office, he was a big fan of harsh sentencing laws, he crafted the horrid RAVE Act. Never encountering a "drug problem" that couldn't be fixed with another federal criminal law, Biden most recently authored a bill that would criminalize being on board a home-made submarine carrying drugs.

While Biden may have begun to see the light in recent years -- he is author of one of the best bills seeking to address the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity (which he helped create) -- drug reformers remain deeply suspicious of a man who built a political power base on the shoulders of the assembled ranks of law enforcement.

Nor did the appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) as White House chief of staff alleviate concerns. While the sharp-elbowed political operative has not been a leading drug warrior, neither has he shied from using drug war discourse as a weapon against his political foes.

One oft-cited example of Emanuel's penchant for drug war rhetoric came a decade ago, when he defended the Clinton administration's unconstitutional effort to punish physicians who recommended medical marijuana to patients. "We are going to continue to find ways within the administration to fight legalization and the notion of legalization," he said in an interview. "We're against the message that [California's medical marijuana initiative] sends to children," Emanuel demagogued. (Emanuel, now a member of Congress, did vote for the pro-medical marijuana Hinchey amendment in July of last year.)

This week's announcement that former Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder would be nominated for the Attorney General post did little to allay mounting fears that Obama was filling key positions for drug policy with Clinton-era drug war holdovers. Some were quick to point to Holder's time as US Attorney for the District of Columbia, when he pushed through changes in DC's marijuana laws that made sales a felony instead of a misdemeanor.

As the Washington Post reported:

In addition, US Attorney Eric H. Holder Jr. said in an interview that he is considering not only prosecuting more marijuana cases but also asking the DC Council to enact stiffer penalties for the sale and use of marijuana. "We have too long taken the view that what we would term to be minor crimes are not important," Holder said, referring to current attitudes toward marijuana use and other offenses such as panhandling.

Holder said he hopes to discourage some of that activity by being tougher on marijuana crimes. New guidelines should be in place by the end of the month, he said, noting that the District could learn from New York's "zero-tolerance" policy. There, crime plummeted when police aggressively enforced quality-of-life crimes, including panhandling and public drinking, which gave officers an opportunity to check for drugs, guns and outstanding warrants.

That same year, he told the Washington Times he was considering proposing a mandatory-minimum 18-month sentence for any marijuana sales. That, at least, didn't happen.

Drug reformers took some small solace, however, from Holder's comments on mandatory minimum sentencing in a 1999 interview. Responding to a question about whether it was time to review mandatory minimums, Holder said:

I do not think that we should ever foreclose the possibility that we take a look at how the laws that we have passed are working. I tend to think that mandatory minimum sentences that deal with people who commit violent crimes are almost always good things. I think the concerns are generally raised about mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. And I think there are some questions that we ought to ask.

I do not go into it with a presumption that they're necessarily bad, but we ought to look at the statistics and see, are we putting in prison, are we using our limited prison space for the kind of people that we want to have there? Are the sentences commensurate with the kind of conduct that puts people in jail for these mandatory minimum sentences?

Those are the kinds of questions I think that we ought to ask. And as thinking legislators on both sides, Republicans and Democrats, liberal and conservative, I would hope that we would ask those questions and then go into it with an open mind.

With drug war cheerleaders like Biden and Emanuel and professional drug warriors like Holder being invited to join the Obama team, drug reformers are understandably skittish. But most are taking a wait and see attitude, even as they bemoan some of Obama's choices.

"Some of the appointments, such as Holder, are certainly concerning," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "There is some problematic stuff in the past, yes, but people do change and learn. Who would have thought that a drug warrior like Bob Barr would end up as a Libertarian?" Mirken asked. "I don't think that because somebody said or did something we disagreed with a decade ago, he is necessarily bound to those same positions now, but we will be watching closely. If the time comes to freak out, we will, but it's premature to freak out now."

The reform community should not be freaking out, agreed Eric Sterling, who served as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in the 1980s and now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Instead, it should be trying to flex its muscles.

"I think the reform community is way overreacting and, more importantly, not taking the initiative," he said "Reform leaders ought to be asking themselves what letters they've written to President-elect Obama, what letters to the editor they've penned, what op-eds they've submitted. Is the movement doing anything other than passively reacting?" he asked.

"Our movement has been under such assault for the past eight years that we're really out of practice in being effective political actors," Sterling argued. "I just contacted [the left-leaning magazine] In These Times suggesting an article about taxing marijuana as a way to prevent the lay-off of public employees. Our movement should be reaching out to people like the public employee unions, maybe buying ads saying 'No teacher should be fired until the legislature tells us how many legal marijuana could pay for.'"

"What you can say about Emanuel and these other people is that they are political and will respond to pressure," said Sterling. "If Emanuel thought our issues were good politics, he would be standing on the ramparts, but it's not good politics because we haven't made it good politics. It's not enough to mobilize the drug reform aficionados, we have to be working with much more powerful organizations and interest groups around issues they care about. The dire situation with the economy right now and the lack of revenues for state and local governments is a tremendous opportunity for us, exactly like 1933 in that sense. What did they do then? They ended Prohibition and taxed alcohol."

Marijuana does not enjoy the same cultural favor that alcohol did, Sterling noted, but that can be overcome. "We need to frame the issue in very stark economic terms. We need to be asking who is going to teach our kids? How are we going to pay for teachers? If the state taxing marijuana is the only way to pay for teachers, should we do it? That marijuana isn't going anywhere. It's still going to be smoked, whether we tax it or not. Why don't we benefit from it?"

"Drug policy reform has its work cut out for it," said Kevin Zeese, a long-time reformer who doubts either major party is ready for fundamental change. "The best we can hope for is a little benign neglect, and that they not continue to waste law enforcement resources on medical marijuana providers in states that allow it."

Given the plateful of problems facing the incoming administration and the state of the drug reform movement, a big push on drug policy on the federal level is unlikely, Zeese argued. "We should be working locally to continue to build momentum and a real movement," he said, suggesting that "benign neglect" could come into play. "If the reform movement continues to push state and local initiatives, I think the Obama administration will stay out of those conflicts. I don't think we'll see the drug czar flying off to different states to campaign against initiatives, and that would be a good thing."

A big push for drug reform is not only unlikely, it may be unwise at this time, Zeese suggested. "The caution Obama brings to the job, and Biden and Emanuel's histories present some room for us to maneuver, but it may be best not to poke the sleeping bear with a stick. We don't want to wake up the criminal justice advocates in the federal government. Benign neglect is better than abuse. Perhaps we should just work under the radar and allow their political caution to work for us, instead of against us."

While Zeese could tick off the bad drug policy stances of some of Obama's newly-forming inner circle, he suggested that those stances were based more on political calculations than ideological enthusiasm. "As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden aligned himself with police and prosecutors -- that is his criminal justice base, that's where the power and safety is. Emanuel was a clear architect of the crime control acts under Clinton that increased police numbers and lengthened sentences. But both these guys are essentially political animals and will take what looks like a hard line to neutralize an issue."

One area that could be an early indicator of the Obama administration's drug reform proclivities is the ongoing DEA raids against California medical marijuana providers. Obama vowed during the campaign to halt those raids. But the big news there could be that there is no news.

"We expect that Obama will keep his promise about ending the raids in California," said MPP's Mirken. "There are plenty of reasons for him to do so, including Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Michigan -- all states that had gone Republican, but that he carried. Whatever else you think about Obama and his team, they can count, and it's hard for me to imagine that they think it is in their interest to continue a war against a quarter of the country, most of whom voted for him," he said.

"That doesn't have to happen in dramatic fashion, you don't have to hold a press conference, it could just be something that happens quietly," said Mirken. "It may be awhile before anyone really sees for sure that a change has occurred. And that's fine -- we don't need a press conference as long as he stops arresting patients and caregivers."

"Obama is no doubt already thinking about a second term and doesn't want to make drug policy reform an issue of conflict with Republicans," said Zeese. "He will play it safe, but there is some opportunity for us there, and I think ending the raids is one of the things he could make happen. He'd prefer not to have medical marijuana patients and advocates angry at him in places like California and Oregon."

"I think he will stop the raids," said Sterling. "I don't see how the raids are helpful to him unless the Republicans are able to gin up some anger about providers, so it would be wise to stay low-key and continue to work with state and local officials so it is not controversial at the local level. But if it becomes controversial, and the Republicans are able to make it an issue, then Obama will be against us. We need to stay under the radar on this right now."

While reformers watch to see what does and doesn't happen regarding the DEA raids -- will they just quietly vanish into that long good night? -- there is still plenty of work to do, said Sterling. "We have to build the movement. We keep seeing the same 300 people at the conferences, maybe 1,000 if you're talking about the harm reduction conferences. No one is going door to door in the black community talking about how the drug war is undermining public safety and its relationship with the police. No one is talking to the unions. We've done well on the education part of our issue, but we haven't done well in developing a political power base, and until we do that, we won't get reform."

Europe: Dutch Mayors Want Regulated Marijuana Production and Sales

A solid majority of mayors of Dutch towns that currently have cannabis coffee shops are happy with the way they are working and favor legalizing the entire marijuana supply chain, according to polls conducted by Binnenlands Bestuur magazine and the NRC newspaper. Under current Dutch policy, marijuana sales are illegal but tolerated in small amounts at licensed coffee shops, but the production of marijuana to supply the coffee shops remains illegal and not tolerated.

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downstairs of a coffee shop, Maastricht (courtesy Wikimedia)
The conservative national government has been trying to eliminate the coffee shops or at least reduce their numbers. But it looks like the mayors of Holland's most important towns and cities are on the other side of the issue.

The Binnenlands poll identified 109 municipalities with coffee shops and elicited responses from the mayors of 88 of them. Of the mayors surveyed, 54 said they favored legalizing the entire supply line, while 25 said they were satisfied with the status quo, and nine wanted to ban coffee shops. That means nearly 90% of the mayors surveyed want either the status quo maintained or liberalized.

The NRC newspaper survey asked 70 local councils whether they wanted the national government to regulate the supply of marijuana to coffee shops. More than 75% said yes.

Meanwhile, the number of coffee shops in Holland continues its slow decline under the conservative government. In 1999, there were 846 shops; in 2005, there were 729; last year, the number was down to 702.

Medical Marijuana: ASA Files Lawsuit Against California DMV Over Patient Drivers' License Revocation

The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the California Department of Motor Vehicles after it revoked the license of a medical marijuana patient solely for being a medical marijuana patient.

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The plaintiff is Rose Johnson, 53, of Atwater. Johnson, a registered medical marijuana patient, had a clean driving record and no accidents in 37 years behind the wheel. But the DMV refused to renew her license on July 26 after obtaining her medical records and finding out she used marijuana medicinally.

According to the DMV, Johnson's license was revoked "because of... [an] addiction to, or habitual use of, [a] drug," thereby rendering her unable to safely operate a motor vehicle, even though no evidence existed to substantiate this claim.

"The DMV cannot simply disregard California's medical marijuana law," said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford, who is representing Ms. Johnson in her claim against the DMV. "When the voters of California enacted the Compassionate Use Act, they never intended to authorize the DMV to strip medical marijuana patients of their drivers' licenses," continued Elford. "The DMV should not be in the business of revoking the licenses of drivers like Ms. Johnson simply because she is a medical marijuana patient."

ASA said Johnson is not alone in losing her license. Suspension or revocation of drivers' licenses for qualified medical marijuana patients has occurred in at least eight California counties, including Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, Glenn, Merced, Placer, Sacramento, and Sonoma.

The DMV justifies its license revocations of medical marijuana patients by calling them "drug abusers" despite no evidence to back that claim. The DMV has not taken similar blanket action against people prescribed opiates, barbiturates, sedatives, tranquilizers, or stimulants.

State and local police in California have been instructed by Attorney General Jerry Brown to respect the state's medical marijuana laws and not arrest medical marijuana patients or take their medicine. "The DMV is not under a different set of requirements than local police in California," said Elford. "The failure to uphold California's medical marijuana law is entirely inappropriate for any local or state agency."

The lawsuit was filed in Merced Superior Court. It is expected to be heard sometime in the next few months.

Will Banning Blunts Reduce Marijuana Use?

No, of course not, but let me introduce you to some people who actually believe it will:

Council Bans Sale of Single Cigars in Bid to Curb Youths' Marijuana Use

The Prince George's County Council adopted one of the nation's most sweeping restrictions on the sale of cigars yesterday, an effort to curb a growing trend among urban youths of using hollowed-out cigars to smoke marijuana.

The council voted 8 to 1 to ban the sale of single cigars, requiring stores to sell them in packages of at least five. The new law will also make it easier to charge someone possessing a cigar with a drug paraphernalia offense…[Washington Post]

How much easier? I’d like to know more. Why would you charge someone with a drug offense for possessing cigars? If they have drugs, you can charge them for that. This is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a stupid idea when you’re trying to save the children:

Sylvia Quinton, who works with the Suitland-based Substance Abuse Treatment Education Prevention Network, said use of short fat cigars, often called blunts, to smoke marijuana has "become embedded in youth culture." Blunts make frequent cameos in rap music and movies.

She said the new law cannot stamp out the glorification of blunts, but raising the price might discourage some youths.

Are you crazy? If they can afford marijuana, they will find a way to smoke it. No one’s gonna give up on smoking a $10 bag because they couldn’t get a blunt for a buck. Not only will this plan fail overall, it will never work even one time on anybody, ever. They will eat their stash raw before surrendering to you.

Not to mention the glaring and hysterical fact that you can still buy boxes of blunts and get high five times, while saving some change. This is nothing but a much-needed lesson in economics for people who constantly waste weed by rolling it up in big slimy stinking blunt papers that spill herb into your mouth and make you smell like schwag for a day and a half.

The fact that we’re even talking about this is an enormous exhibit in the embarrassing failure of our marijuana laws.

New Study: Marijuana Might be Good for Your Memory

It’s hard to overstate the extent to which marijuana does the opposite of what the government says it does:

The more research they do, the more evidence Ohio State University scientists find that specific elements of marijuana can be good for the aging brain by reducing inflammation there and possibly even stimulating the formation of new brain cells.

"When we're young, we reproduce neurons and our memory works fine. When we age, the process slows down, so we have a decrease in new cell formation in normal aging. You need those cells to come back and help form new memories, and we found that this THC-like agent can influence creation of those cells," said Yannick Marchalant, a study coauthor and research assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State. [Physorg.com]

Over and over again, research finds that marijuana appears to prevent the exact conditions we were told it might cause. It’s amazing and we’re only just getting started. Not long from now, it’s quite likely that we’ll be faced with a new climate in which marijuana’s seemingly endless medical applications become impossible to ignore, even among those most determined to do so.

In the meantime, how do we explain to skeptics that marijuana is something completely different than they’ve been led to believe? Even the most sympathetic people look at me like I’m crazy when I explain that marijuana doesn’t cause cancer and may even cure it. We’re conditioned to instinctively reject a notion such as that and it usually takes a considerable amount of personal research and reflection to even become receptive to the reality that marijuana is a fascinating substance of untold potential.

If nothing else, it shouldn’t be terribly difficult to understand why marijuana users so often report wonderful outcomes in their lives. Many of the drug’s effects are decidedly positive and the only way to obscure that fact is to constantly obstruct users from participating in public discussions of what marijuana actually is.

Press Release: Medical Marijuana Lawsuit Filed Against Department of Motor Vehicles

For Immediate Release: November 19, 2008 Medical marijuana lawsuit filed against Department of Motor Vehicles Americans for Safe Access fights baseless revocation of patient's driver's license Merced, CA -- A lawsuit was filed today by medical marijuana advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access (ASA) against the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) on behalf of Rose Johnson, a 53-year-old patient from Atwater. Despite Ms. Johnson's clean driving record, not having caused an accident in 37 years of driving, the DMV revoked her license on July 26, 2008 because of her status as a medical marijuana patient. The DMV refused to renew Ms. Johnson's license only after obtaining her medical records and finding out that she was a qualified medical marijuana patient. According to the DMV, Ms. Johnson's license was revoked "because of...[an] addiction to, or habitual use of, [a] drug," thereby rendering her unable to safely operate a motor vehicle, even though no evidence existed to substantiate this claim. "The DMV cannot simply disregard California's medical marijuana law," said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford, who is representing Ms. Johnson in her claim against the DMV. "When the voters of California enacted the Compassionate Use Act, they never intended to authorize the DMV to strip medical marijuana patients of their drivers' licenses," continued Elford. "The DMV should not be in the business of revoking the licenses of drivers like Ms. Johnson simply because she is a medical marijuana patient." Advocates assert that the DMV policy of suspending and revoking the licenses of medical marijuana patients is widespread, occurring in at at least 8 California counties, including Alameda, Butte, Contra Costa, Glenn, Merced, Placer, Sacramento, and Sonoma. License revocations by the DMV, which have been based on a person's status as a medical marijuana patient, are often rationalized by calling the drivers "drug abusers" despite no evidence of the claim. In 2007, Merced -- the county in which Ms. Johnson lives -- implemented a police policy that instructed its Sheriff deputies to respect state law and not to cite medical marijuana patients or seize their medicine. "The DMV is not under a different set of requirements than local police in California," said Elford. "The failure to uphold California's medical marijuana law is entirely inappropriate for any local or state agency." The lawsuit filed today by ASA is expected to be heard in Merced Superior Court in the next few months. The lawsuit against the DMV is part of a campaign by ASA to fully implement California's medical marijuana laws. Further information: ASA's lawsuit against the DMV: http://AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/DMV_Writ.pdf # # #
Location: 
CA
United States

San Francisco Chronicle Catches Drug Czar in a Crazy Lie

The drug czar's recent claim that there are more medical marijuana dispensaries than Starbucks stores in San Francisco has finally achieved the level of public embarrassment it so thoroughly deserved.

San Francisco's Department of Public Health, which issues permits for medical marijuana dispensaries, is also befuddled by the federal data.

"It was extremely incorrect," said Larry Kessler, a senior health inspector at the department. "I don't know how they got that." [San Francisco Chronicle]

SF Chronicle obtained the alleged dispensary list from ONDCP and found double listings, closed businesses, and even a business in Los Angeles. With their fraud fully exposed, ONDCP has issued a totally bizarre reply saying it's "good news" that their story got press.

It’s straight-up insane. By the time you get to the part about how many Taco Bells there are in San Francisco, you’ll join me in hoping Sarah Palin is the next drug czar so we can at least get MSNBC to give these clowns the daily fact-checking they deserve.

People Who Punish Other People for Using Marijuana

Here’s a substance abuse counselor describing a new diversion program for marijuana offenders:

"We've had two groups go through the program now, and we are just thrilled with the results we've seen," she said. "Individuals are coming in with no real perception of how marijuana is impacting their lives." [Toledo Blade]

Could it be that marijuana wasn’t impacting their lives? If you forced a bunch of people into treatment for enjoying poetry, they’d be confused too. But after 48 hours of court-mandated therapy, I bet they’d tell you whatever you wanted to hear just to get the hell out of there. People can be terribly insincere when you hold a gun to their head.

I’m not saying there aren’t people who can benefit from marijuana treatment, but rather that having some in your pocket is a wildly insufficient diagnostic criteria for marijuana addiction. That’s like saying you’re an alcoholic if you have beer in the fridge.

And yet, despite the complete lunacy of indiscriminately forcing recreational marijuana users to complete drug addiction treatment, there are some who strongly believe a harsher approach is needed:

Bowling Green Police Chief Gary Spencer said he does not believe allowing people charged with a crime to complete an educational program and have the charge dismissed deters future crime.

"I'm not sold on any diversion program because I think it's a 'get out of jail free' card," he said. "It's giving someone a warning. To me, there has to be consequences for your actions."

No, there don’t have to be consequences for your actions. There just don’t. If someone smokes marijuana 1,000 times and nothing bad happens, then it’s all good. There is no logical reason on earth why there have to be consequences for people who enjoy marijuana. Just leave them alone.

We’ve Cut Cigarette Smoking in Half Without Arresting Anyone

NORML’s Paul Armentano has a good piece at The Hill, pointing out that sensible drug education can be effective without having to arrest anybody. Even if you believe marijuana is the worst thing in the world, you can’t rationally argue that we must arrest people in order to stop them from doing it. It’s an important observation that I hope can be effective when reaching out to folks who hate drugs.

Please consider posting a comment on the original article to show The Hill that marijuana reform is a popular topic. They’ve been cool about publishing pieces from NORML, which is great since their paper is widely read by Washington insiders.

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