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Americans for Safe Access: December Activist Newsletter

 

In This Issue:

AMA Says Marijuana is Medicine, Urges Change in Federal Position

ASA Threatens Suit if LA Bans Medical Marijuana Sales

ASA Targets Recalcitrant Law Enforcement Group

Celebrate the Year's Victories with ASA

ACTION ALERT: Urge Your Representative to cosponsor Truth in Trials!

Become an ASA Member!

Please support the work of Americans for Safe Access

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Americans for Safe Access

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Oakland, CA 94612
Phone: 510-251-1856
Fax: 510-251-2036

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Americans for Safe Access
Monthly Activist Newsletter

December 2009

Volume 4, Issue 12

AMA Says Marijuana is Medicine, Urges Change in Federal Position

Physicians' Group Wants Research Barriers Removed

The leading national doctors' group has now endorsed the medical use of cannabis and called for more research into the drug's potential. The move by the American Medical Association, the largest and most prestigious organization of physicians with nearly 250,000 members, officially calls on the federal government to recognize marijuana as a medicine and make it available for more clinical research.

The decision by the AMA marks a change in policy for the organization, which has historically supported the federal government's contention that there are no currently accepted medical uses for cannabis. Led by ASA Medical and Scientific Advisory Board member Dr. Sunil Aggrawal, the AMA's Medical Student Section pushed the larger organization to change its position based on the thousands of published, peer-reviewed scientific articles exploring the therapeutic applications of cannabis and cannabinoids, including 79 controlled clinical trials.

"It's been 72 years since the AMA has officially recognized that marijuana has both already-demonstrated and future-promising medical utility," said Dr. Aggarwal, who was one of the expert reviewers for the AMA. "The AMA has written an extensive, well-documented, evidence-based report."

The AMA's Council on Science and Public Health concluded that "controlled trials indicate that smoked cannabis reduces neuropathic pain, improves appetite and caloric intake especially in patients with reduced muscle mass, and may relieve spasticity and pain in patients with multiple sclerosis."

While these are conditions for which cannabis has been repeatedly shown to be effective, the AMA's formal recognition of the established science has larger policy implications. The U.S. federal government has long used the AMA's opposition to medical cannabis as justification for its own position. But that position has now been undermined by the AMA's report, which also urges the federal government to reconsider the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug. Reclassifying it as a medicine would, the AMA notes, help meet "the goal of facilitating clinical research and development of cannabinoid-based medicines, and alternate delivery methods."

The full report has not yet been made public, as the AMA hopes to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal "to help educate the medical community about the scientific basis of botanical cannabis-based medicines."
The report follows a resolution adopted in June by the Medical Student Section and responds to three resolutions dealing with medical marijuana that have come before the AMA in the past year. In February 2008, a position similar to the AMA's was adopted by the American College of Physicians, the country's second-largest physician group and the largest organization of doctors of internal medicine. That resolution also called on the federal government to review marijuana's status as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning it is considered to be highly dangerous and have no medical use.

"The two largest physician groups in the U.S. have established medical marijuana as a health care issue that must be addressed," said ASA Government Affairs Director Caren Woodson. "Both organizations have underscored the need for change by placing patients above politics."

The AMA joins the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the British Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association, and dozens of other organizations of health professionals in recognizing established therapeutic uses and calling for additional research.

See the AMA report at: AmericansForSafeAccess.org/downloads/AMA_Report.pdf

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ASA Threatens Suit if LA Bans Medical Marijuana Sales

DA and City Attorney Say Patients Can't Legally Buy Medicine

The years-long battle to establish regulations for medical cannabis distribution in Los Angeles is coming to a head as the City Council attempts to craft an ordinance. Some officials are taking a narrow view of the law and urging the city to ban any sale of medical cannabis. ASA has notified the city that any such ban will result in a lawsuit on behalf of patients.

The LA City Council has been considering successive drafts of an ordinance that would define where and how patient collectives can operate. Both the District Attorney and the City Attorney have opposed any plan that would allow patients to continue purchasing cannabis from collectives. They claim that only collective cultivation is permitted under state law. ASA, which has successfully litigated several landmark cases in California, has told city officials that it is ready to file a Temporary Restraining Order to block any ordinance that prohibits medical marijuana sales.

"Neither the Los Angeles City Attorney nor the City Council has the right to ban activity that is protected under state law," said ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford. "Medical marijuana sales have been deemed legal by the state legislature, the courts, and the California Attorney General."
Following the threat of legal action, Elford and ASA spokesperson Kris Hermes were featured on the local NPR affiliate on four separate programs, debating representatives of the city attorney's office and refuting the legal theories of the district attorney.

ASA also organized local patients and advocates to appear at city council meetings, with upwards of 400 supporters flooding committee hearings on the issue. That public pressure has resulted in the modification of some of the most unreasonable and unworkable restrictions, but the city attorney continues to insist that the city ban all sales, and the district attorney has promised to prosecute dispensary operators who accept money for medicine, even if they are adhering to city ordinances.

When California voters passed Prop 215 in 1996, they directed state and local officials to devise mechanisms to ensure "safe and affordable distribution of marijuana." In 2003, the state legislature specified that cultivators can be lawfully compensated by exempting cooperatives and collectives from state laws prohibiting marijuana sales or maintaining a place where sales occur. In August 2008, the State Attorney General issued guidelines recognizing the legality of medical marijuana dispensaries, detailing how collectives should operate in order to be in compliance with state law.

California's state tax authority, the Board of Equalization, has ruled that medical cannabis is a taxable commodity and collected estimated tax revenue in excess of $100 million from the state's cannabis dispensaries in 2008. Dispensing collectives have been providing cannabis to patients in exchange for cash contributions for more than a decade in California, and five other states have now adopted some version of a dispensary model.

The Los Angeles City Council is scheduled to consider the latest draft of the proposed ordinance on Tuesday, December 8, but few expect the battle over safe access to end there.

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ASA Targets Recalcitrant Law Enforcement Group

California Narcotics Officers Association Gets Educated

Over the past two months, ASA has been confronting a group of California law enforcement officers who are trying to undermine the state's medical cannabis law.

Thirteen years after voters enshrined a right to safe access in the state constitution, the California Narcotics Officers Association (CNOA) continues to publicly insist that "there is no such thing as medical marijuana." So when ASA learned that the CNOA was conducting "trainings" on how to subvert local regulations and shut down medical cannabis dispensaries, it was an opportunity to educate them on upholding the law.

For the first action, more than 100 protestors with colorful signs lined the streets outside the CNOA event in October. The luncheon training was titled "The Eradication of Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in the City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County" and featured both the LA City Attorney and the District Attorney.

For last month's CNOA training conference in San Francisco, ASA staged a "welcome" for officers. ASA staff and local activists in business attire, lapel flowers, and "welcome to CNOA" badges greeted arrivals with packets of ASA educational information about medical cannabis. By the time hotel management told ASA activists they had to leave, more than two-thirds of the literature was already in the hands of officers.

"They were expecting protesters, but we were so well dressed and nice that they couldn't help but take our welcoming packet," said Don Morgan, ASA associate director. "Two attendees even came out to look at the protest they had heard about. We had a nice chat and gave them our information to read. They took it and walked back in without realizing we were the protest."

Further information:
CNOA training brochure

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Celebrate the Year's Victories with ASA

December 16 in Oakland

From new federal policy on medical cannabis to support from the American Medical Association, patients and providers have much to celebrate as 2009 comes to a close. Americans for Safe Access is holding its annual holiday party on December 16, and all are welcome. Tickets are only $25 and all proceeds from the party go directly to helping ASA continue fighting for your rights.

The host will be the Executive Director and Founder of ASA, Steph Sherer, and there will be a screening of ASA's new video, "Medical Cannabis in California: A Report from the Frontline," as well as live bands, DJs, appetizers, refreshments, and more. The celebration is at Maxwell's Restaurant & Lounge, 341 14th Street (at Webster) in Oakland, California. The party is for supporters 21 and over, so please bring ID.

If you can't make it to the party, you can still support ASA's important work by making a tax-deductible donation. If you're considering year-end charitable giving, a contribution to ASA is a gift that keeps on giving. See the ASA website for more on supporting our work: www.AmericansForSafeAccess.org/donate.

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ACTION ALERT:
Help Get 50 Cosponsors for Truth in Trials!

A new bill in Congress would change federal law to better protect medical cannabis patients. So far, 28 Members of Congress have already cosponsored the Truth in Trials Act. That's a great start, but there are a total of 435 members in the US House of Representatives!

Help us reach our next goal: getting 50 Members of Congress to cosponsor the bill. Please write a letter to your U.S. Representative. Urge him or her to cosponsor HR 3939, the Truth in Trials Act.
Tell your Member of Congress that medical marijuana patients should be able to tell a federal court that they were following state law.

Read about the Truth in Trials Act here:AmericansForSafeAccess.org/truth.

Urge your Member of Congress to cosponsor "Truth in Trials" today. AmericansForSafeAccess.org/house.

If you want to mail a letter, you can find your Member of Congress by typing your zip code here: www.house.gov. You might need to include your full "Zip+4", which you can find on the last piece of junk mail you received.

Mail your letter to:
The Honorable [Full Name of your U.S. Rep]
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Current sponsors: Rep. Tammy Baldwin [D, WI-2]; Rep. Shelley Berkley [D, NV-1]; Rep. Howard Berman [D, CA-28]; Rep. Lois Capps [D, CA-23]; Rep. Steve Cohen [D, TN-9]; Rep. John Conyers [D, MI-14]; Rep. Anna Eshoo [D, CA-14]; Rep. Barney Frank [D, MA-4]; Rep. Raul Grijalva [D, AZ-7]; Rep. Maurice Hinchey [D, NY-22]; Rep. Michael Honda [D, CA-15]; Rep. Dennis Kucinich [D, OH-10]; Rep. Tom McClintock [R, CA-4]; Rep. James McGovern [D, MA-3]; Rep. Michael Michaud [D, ME-2]; Rep. George Miller [D, CA-7]; Rep. James Moran [D, VA-8]; Rep. Jerrold Nadler [D, NY-8]; Rep. Edward Pastor [D, AZ-4]; Rep. Ronald Paul [R, TX-14]; Rep. Jared Polis [D, CO-2]; Rep. Dana Rohrabacher [R, CA-46]; Rep. Linda Sánchez [D, CA-39]; Rep. Janice Schakowsky [D, IL-9]; Rep. Brad Sherman [D, CA-27]; Rep. Fortney Stark [D, CA-13]; Rep. Henry Waxman [D, CA-30]; Rep. Lynn Woolsey [D, CA-6]

 

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Americans for Safe Access * 1322 Webster Street, Ste. 402 * Oakland, CA 94612

info@AmericansForSafeAccess.org* 510-251-1856 * www.AmericansForSafeAccess.org

An Open Letter From A Fresno, CA Medical Marijuana Patient

An Open Letter From A Fresno, CA Medical Marijuana Patient by Tommy Hawkins Jr. From the Fresno, CA KMPH (FOX) website's community bulletin board: http://www.communitycorrespondent.com/kmph/story.php?id=46031 I would like to ask those of you who have the time to please click the link above so I can increase my hit count on this post and show KMPH (FOX) that many people are interested in the topic of medical marijuana. You can also leave a comment if you want to. Thanks! I have a degenerative spinal condition, among other ailments, and I suffer severe, chronic pain to the point that my Pain Management Doctor prescribes me morphine and Norco daily. It took a lot of suffering before I finally broke down enough to start taking the morphine because I'm only in my mid forties, and when the doctors told me that I needed to start a lifelong regimen with this drug, I quickly realized that a lot of things needed to be taken into consideration. Things like the fact that in a situation where I would need the help of an ambulance crew, the strongest thing they would usually have on hand to give me when I could be in even worse pain would be morphine, and since I take that daily, it likely would not be very effective for relieving my suffering. And how about the next time I need surgery and will be faced with post-op pain? The addiction factor alone scares the hell out of me, too... I mean, I didn't grow up wishing that the doctors would make me into the basic equivalent of a "heroin junkie" one day, and it should be obvious what my fate will be when they have the technology to repair my spinal condition and it's finally time to go off the legal "smack." Can you say, "Horrible withdrawal symptoms", at the very least? I use medical marijuana to help alleviate some of the pain I'm in, and to help me cope with some of the symptoms of the Bipolar Disorder that came into my life along with all the other little gifts of puberty that we all know so well. In our community garden, next to the tomatoes and other vegetables, you will find a few more plants growing naturally in the sun. When they are ripe my friends and I harvest their flowers and consume them just like we do with all of our garden's gifts from nature. I have found that if I simmer dried marijuana leaves and flowers in olive oil or butter for a few hours in the slow cooker, all the beneficial compounds of cannabis are drawn out into the oil, changing them no more than to add a mild, pleasant aroma and taste, and a light green tint to these foods. I often rub the resulting cannabis olive oil on my arthritic knees when they hurt because it eases the pain better than any store bought remedy I know of. I like to eat foods cooked with cannabis butter because they taste really good to me, and when cannabis compounds enter the human body naturally through the digestive system there are very little intoxicating effects, yet I get all the benefits of the pain and muscle spasm relief that the cannabis compounds can provide. I also have found that I don't build up a tolerance to the cannabis like I do the morphine and other man made drugs, so I substitute some additional use of this natural plant to slow down the addiction/tolerance factor of the morphine. And, yes, I also smoke cannabis for pain relief and to relax my tired body sometimes, but I only do so in areas where cigarette smoking is allowed (as the medical marijuana laws say I must) and I make a conscious effort to see that nobody gets exposed to any of the second hand smoke. I try to be a responsible citizen... I follow all the laws that I am aware of except for federal medical marijuana laws (Oh yeah, President Obama said medical marijuana patients and providers are good to go on the Federal level, too, so long as we don't break any other laws, so is that really…), and I try to better myself and my community whenever I get the opportunity. I strive do these things every day, just as I try to do all things in my life, with the intention of "doing no harm" to others while enjoying my life to its fullest.

NJ Medical Marijuana Patient Convicted, Faces 5-10 Years in Prison

The jury has returned its verdict in the case of multiple sclerosis patient John Wilson, who was brought up on serious marijuana charges for growing his medicine:

Somerville- The jury returned a not guilty verdict to John Wilson on the first-degree felony charges against him. But the MS patient could still face time in prison after being found guilty of second-degree charges of ‘Manufacturing’ marijuana and third-degree possession of hallucinogenic mushrooms.  

If he had been convicted of "operating and maintaining a marijuana production facility" John would have faced a minimum of 15 years in state prison. That could have amounted to a death sentence for the 37 year old because of the degenerative nature of the disease. [Examiner]


So it could've been worse, but it's awfully hard to get excited about a result that could still send a seriously ill patient to prison. I guess the mushroom possession didn’t help, but shrooms should be legal anyway and I'm sure he found them helpful or he wouldn't have had them.

Let's hope this less-than-worst-case scenario doesn’t suck any momentum from the effort to get Wilson pardoned and pass medical marijuana legislation in New Jersey to prevent such injustices in the future.

Medical Marijuana: Congress Finally Lets District of Columbia Go for It

Eleven years after District of Columbia voters approved a medical marijuana initiative with 69% of the vote, Congress has finally stepped aside and will allow DC to implement the will of the people. The US Senate Sunday vote to approve the omnibus appropriations bill was the final step in removing language by former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) from the DC appropriations bill that had barred the District from implementing the results of the 1998 vote. President Obama signed the bill into law Wednesday.

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Bob Barr, lobbied to repeal anti-medical marijuana legislation he wrote
DC will shortly join the 13 states that currently have medical marijuana laws. But unlike some states that have joined the ranks more recently, the language of the DC initiative is relatively loose. It allows "all seriously ill individuals... to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes when a licensed physician has found the use of marijuana to be medically necessary."

The measure allows patients or up to four caregivers to grow, buy, and possess marijuana for medicinal use. It also permits the establishment of nonprofit dispensaries and orders DC health officials to devise a plan to distribute marijuana to patients.

DC officials say they want to move quickly to set up regulations. DC Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D) told the Washington Post Monday that after more than a decade, this was no time for delay. "We've waited 10 years. I think the opportunity to send it is now," Gray said. "There is no reason to sit on it."

DC Attorney General Peter Nickles, however, throw up a couple of potential roadblocks. He told the Post he has instructed his staff to determine whether the initiative language is too dated to stand up to legal challenge. He also warned that the initiative would have to survive a 30-day congressional review period because the original measure had never been sent to Congress.

But DC non-voting congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), told the Post the measure did not need further congressional review. "Congress thought they were simply taking the ban off and the District would simply proceed or not proceed," Norton said. "After all we have gone through, I can tell you, the Congress is not anxious to see this issue here again. It's taken me 10 years."

It's not just DC bureaucrats who are scrambling. Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws told the Post he has been fielding numerous enquiries from would-be DC medical marijuana businessmen. "There are probably at least 20 of these cannabis shop owners on the West Coast that have a dead-eye target on the District," St. Pierre said. "Over the weekend, we must have gotten 20 to 30 e-mails or phone messages from people I would say are entrepreneurs."

Medical Marijuana: Wisconsin Bill Gets Public Hearing

A Wisconsin bill that would allow seriously ill patients to grow up to 12 marijuana plants or purchase up to three ounces of marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries got a public hearing Tuesday. The bill, AB 554 (and its companion SB 368) was introduced a little more than a month ago, but after a decade of preparation and statehouse hall-walking by the state patients' group Is My Medicine Legal Yet? (IMMLY), it is moving fast. Tuesday's hearing was a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate Health Committees.

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Wisconsin's Jacki Rickert and Gary Storck, with New Jersey's Jim and the late Cheryl Miller (photo courtesy immly.org)
IMMLY's Jacki Rickert, of Mondovi, who suffers from a connective tissue disorder, has long been a poster child for Wisconsin medical marijuana patients. On Tuesday, she urged lawmakers to make her medicine legal, saying it allowed her to reduce her consumption of morphine for pain.

"When your doctor looks at you and says, 'If we cannot get weight on you, you will die' - that's what it comes down to, 'You will die' -- you do whatever you have to do," Rickert, 58, told the lawmakers. "We've never wanted to break the law, but sometimes you have to."

Both houses of the Wisconsin legislature are controlled by Democrats, but that didn't stop Republican skeptics from blasting away. Republican Attorney General JB Van Hollen played the "but it's a federal crime" card.

"Make no mistake, the marijuana possession permitted by the bill to a user or caregiver is illegal under federal law, with penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000," Van Hollen said in written testimony -- completely ignoring the Obama administration's vow to not prosecute people using medical marijuana in compliance with state law.

Such a law would also make it more difficult to prosecute marijuana cases in state court, Van Hollen complained. People could claim they had a medical condition, even if they were not on the state registry, he said. "If the bills are enacted as drafted, law enforcement's and prosecutors' ability to enforce what would still be illegal is seriously disabled," he warned.

Rep. Pat Strachota (R-West Bend) argued that the bill was too broadly written, citing a Department of Health Services estimate that 2.5 million Wisconsinites have medical conditions that would qualify them to use medical marijuana. The agency estimated that only a fraction of that number -- from 1,700 to 17,000 people -- would actually register as medical marijuana patients.

But that didn't stop Strachota. "That is not really a narrow scope on this bill if half the citizens of the state would qualify to use medical marijuana," he said.

But proponents of the bill argued that it was tightly crafted to avoid the kind of loopholes that have turned California into a medical marijuana Wild West. The bill is the "most comprehensive and responsible legislation in the country," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) attacked the motives of advocates, claiming supporters were cynically using critically ill patients as a "façade" for legalization. "It's nothing more than a ruse for you to move forward for full legalization of marijuana," Vukmir said, drawing loud boos from the hearing audience.

Vukmir's comments also stirred Senate bill sponsor Sen. Joe Erpenbach (D-Waunakee) to insist that he was not trying to legalize marijuana for recreational use. "People shouldn't have to break the law to get pot for their mom or dad or son. Republicans and Democrats are doing that right now -- in your district, right in your backyard," Erpenbach told Vukmir.

Despite the Republican attacks, supporters of the bill think it can pass the legislature quickly. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), lead author of the bill, said he was confident it would pass the Assembly Health Committee and get an Assembly floor vote, while Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) has signaled that he will allow a Senate floor vote on the bill. Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has said he supports medical marijuana.

Thirteen states currently have medical marijuana laws. The District of Columbia is about to be the 14th such jurisdiction, as officials there scramble to come up with a regulatory regime for the 11-year-old medical marijuana law that will only now be implemented after Congress ended a long-standing ban against spending District funds to do so. And New Jersey could be number 15, if, as expected, the Assembly votes to approve it next month.

The Caribbean: Jamaica Lawmakers Calls for Ganja Decriminalization

A highly placed Jamaican lawmaker called over the weekend for the decriminalization of marijuana possession. Sen. Dennis Meadows, deputy secretary general for the governing Jamaica Labor Party, made the call before parliament Friday and elaborated on it Saturday.

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Dennis Meadows
On Friday, Meadows told the Jamaican Senate that arresting and convicting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana "is only serving to criminalize our already marginalized young men and women, thereby creating a reservoir of hopelessness."

Prosecuting people for possessing a spliff is also a waste of valuable law enforcement resources, he said. "Decriminalization, among other things, will serve to free up the police resources and the already stressed justice system to focus on more serious crimes," Meadows insisted.

Meadows cited the 2001 National Commission on Ganja report, which also called for decriminalization. Although that report was presented to parliament and then Prime Minister PJ Patterson, movement toward decrim withered under loud US protests. Debate on the report should be reopened, Meadows told his colleagues.

On Saturday, Meadows issued a statement reiterating his stance. "What I am advocating is that ganja, at the level of spliffs for private use, be treated similarly to a traffic ticket," Meadows said.

That would be a good start for one of the most marijuana-friendly cultures on the planet. Let's see if the rest of Jamaica's political class is listening.

The Year on Drugs 2009: International Drug Policy Developments

(Please read our top ten US domestic drug policy stories review too!)

As 2009 winds to a close, we review the global year in drug policy. There were a number of events of global significance -- the trend toward decriminalization of drug possession in Europe and Latin America, the slow spread of heroin maintenance therapy, the frontal assault on global prohibitionist orthodoxy at the UN -- as well as new developments in ongoing drug-policy related struggles from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the cannabis cafes of Amsterdam.

This review can't cover everything -- it's a big world, and there's a lot happening in drug policy these days. Among the items worth at least mentioning in passing: Israel's embrace of medical marijuana, Canada's flirtation with mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana growers (still in process, and amended to be less harmful by the Canadian Senate), the continuing resort to the death penalty for drug offenses in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the bemusing link between cannabis and schizophrenia apparently at work only in some Commonwealth countries, the Andean drug war (unchanged in its essential outlines this year), and the rise of poor West African nations as favored smugglers' destinations.

What about Mexico? There is one glaring omission here, but there is a reason for that: In the third year of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's offensive against the so-called drug cartels, the violence is more intense and destabilizing than ever. What is happening in Mexico is certainly a drug policy-related phenomenon of global significance, but this year, with more than a billion US dollars in the anti-drug aid pipeline, beefed up border security, official acknowledgement that insatiable American appetites play a crucial role, and growing public and political concern about the violence on the border, we will examine the Mexican drug war in the context of US domestic drug policy issues. Look for it to be among the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories in our feature next issue.

With that as a caveat, here are this year's biggest global drug policy developments:

Afghanistan: War on Drugs, Meet War on Terror

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Afghan opium
Eight years after the US and NATO forces invaded and occupied Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power, the Taliban have returned with a vengeance, fueled by revenues from the country's primary cash crop: opium. Western estimates of Taliban income from the poppy and heroin trade are in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, which buys a lot of shiny new weapons for the resurgent insurgents.

This year has been the bloodiest yet for Western occupiers, with 495 US and NATO forces killed this year, according to iCasualties.org. Part of the uptick in violence can be attributed to the Taliban's opium wealth, but the decision by US and NATO forces to move aggressively into the Taliban's eastern and southern heartlands, especially Helmand and Kandahar provinces, has also led to increased fighting and higher casualties.

In June, President Obama, adhering to his election campaign vows if not the wishes of his some of his most ardent supporters, moved to directly confront the drug trade, sending 20,000 troops into Helmand to take on the Taliban and allied traffickers. But while that looked like more of the same, just weeks later, the US announced a major shift in its anti-drug policy in Afghanistan when US envoy Richard Holbrooke announced the US would no longer participate in poppy eradication campaigns. That was a startling, reality-driven break from previous US policy in Afghanistan, as well as with current US policies against coca production in Colombia and Peru.

Instead of persecuting poverty-stricken opium-growing peasants, the US and NATO would concentrate on drug manufacturers and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban -- not those linked to the corrupt and illegitimate (after this fall's fraudulent election fiasco) regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The US beefed up the in-country DEA contingent and even came up with a "hit list" of some 50 Afghan traffickers linked to the Taliban.

This fall, fighting has been intense in southern and eastern Afghanistan, as well as across the border in Pakistan, and now, the first of President Obama's promised 30,000-troop escalation is headed precisely for Helmand, where one of its first assignments will be to take and hold a major Taliban trafficking center. The war on drugs and the war on terror will continue to collide in Afghanistan, but now, at least, the imperatives of the war on terror have forced a historic shift in US anti-drug policy, at least in Afghanistan.

Latin American Leaders Call for a Drug Policy Paradigm Shift

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Commission panel, former President of Colombia Cesar Gaviria on left (courtesy comunidadsegura.org)
In February, a blue-ribbon panel of Latin American leaders, including former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria issued a report and statement saying the US-led war on drugs has failed and it is time to consider new policies, particularly treating drug use as a public health matter and decriminalizing marijuana possession.

The report, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, is the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which also includes prominent writers Paulo Coelho, Mario Vargas Llosa, Sergio Ramírez and Tomás Eloy Martínez as well as leading scholars, media members and politicians.

Latin America is the leading exporter of both cocaine and marijuana. As such, it has faced the ravages of heavy-handed American anti-drug interventions, such as Plan Colombia and earlier efforts to destroy the Bolivian coca crop, as well as the violence of drug trafficking organizations and politico-military formations of the left and right that have grown wealthy off the black market bonanza. And while the region's level of drug consumption has historically been low, it is on the rise.

"The main reason we organized this commission is because the available evidence indicates the war on drugs is a failed war," said Cardoso at a February press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce the report. "We need a different paradigm to cope with the problem of drugs. The power of organized crime is undermining the very foundations of democracy in some Latin American countries. We must acknowledge that these policies have failed and we must break the taboo that prevents us from discussing different strategies."

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''Global Marijuana Day'' demonstration in Mexico City, May 2008
The report garnered considerable attention, not only in the US and Latin America, but worldwide, and it set the tone for a very reformist year in Latin America.

Mexico Decriminalizes Drug Possession

In May, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, including up to five grams of marijuana, a fifth-gram of ecstasy and methamphetamine, a tenth-gram of heroin, and a half-gram of cocaine. The new law closely resembled a 2006 decriminalization bill that had passed the legislature only to die in the face of US protests. There were no US protests this time.

With the Mexican government's action, drug decriminalization has now reached the very borders of the US.

But, according to well-placed observers, the Mexican decriminalization is a case of two steps forward, one step back. In addition to decriminalizing possession of very small amounts of drugs, the new law grants drug enforcement powers to state and local police forces that they never had before. That could mean an increase in the arrests and prosecution of retail-level drug sellers. Still, the long-term political ramifications could be helpful; as one observer noted, "the headline will read that Mexico decriminalized drugs."

Argentina Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession, Laws Against Possessing Other Drugs Tremble

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Supreme Court of Argentina
While Mexico decriminalized through the legislative process, Argentina is doing it through the courts. In a series of cases dating back to 2006, Argentine judges have grown increasingly skeptical of arguments for criminalizing drug use. In the spring, judges in Buenos Aires threw out marijuana cultivation charges against a defendant, saying the plants were for personal use, and the following month, a federal appeals court threw out ecstasy possession charges against a group of defendants, again saying the drugs were for personal use. In both cases, the courts cited a 2006 Argentine Supreme Court ruling that it was the burden of the state "to demonstrate unequivocally that the drugs were not for personal use." In the ecstasy case, the appeals court held that the portion of the country's drug law regarding drug possession must be declared unconstitutional.

In August, the Supreme Court did just that, using another marijuana possession case to rule that the section of the country's drug law that criminalizes drug possession is unconstitutional. While the ruling referred only to marijuana possession, the portion of the law it threw out makes no distinction among drugs.

Imprisoning people absent harm to others violates constitutional protections, a unanimous court held. "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," their ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others. The state cannot establish morality."

"It is significant that the ruling was unanimous," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy program at the Transnational Institute, which has worked closely with Latin American activists and politicians on drug reform issues. "It confirms the paradigm shift visible throughout the continent, which recognizes that drug use should be treated as a public health matter instead of, as in the past, when all involved, including users, were seen as criminals."

UN's Global Anti-Drug Bureaucracy Meets Organized Resistance

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demonstration at the UN drug meeting, Vienna
It wasn't like this a decade ago, the last time the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs took place. This year, for the first time, the UN's global anti-drug bureaucracy ran into organized resistance when its Committee on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met in March in Vienna. Not only did a large contingent of drug reform, human rights, and public health NGOs show up to challenge global prohibitionist orthodoxy, they were joined by a number of European and Latin American countries showing serious signs of defecting from the half-century old prohibitionist consensus.

In the end, the CND issued a political statement and plan of action that largely reaffirmed existing prohibitionist policies and ignored harm reduction, but with some victories for reformers both substantive and symbolic. For one, the US delegation finally removed its objection to needle exchanges.

But if the global anti-drug bureaucracies ignored their critics in their report, they were impossible to ignore in Vienna. Demonstrations took place outside the meeting hall, and Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished then chewed coca leaves as he demanded that his country's sacred plant be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa was forced to publicly acknowledge the failures and unintended consequences of prohibition. In his address opening the session, Costa bravely argued that "drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful," but was forced to concede that prohibition had created a dire situation in some places. "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions."

All the more reason to challenge prohibitionism and its consequences. After this year, the global anti-drug bureaucracy knows that not only is its long-held consensus under assault, it is beginning to crack.

Czech Republic Decriminalizes Drug Possession, Finally Sets Quantity Limits

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Czech marijuana reform demonstration, 2005 (courtesy Michal Vlk)
Following in Portugal's footsteps, authorities in the Czech Republic voted late last year to decriminalize the possession of "smaller than large amounts" of drugs. But that term was vague, leaving its interpretation up to police and prosecutors and resulting in situations where people like personal marijuana growers were being charged as traffickers.

This month, Czech authorities formalized "smaller than large amounts." The new guidelines mean Czechs will suffer neither arrest nor prosecution for up to 15 grams or five marijuana plants, five grams of hashish, 40 magic mushroom segments, five peyote plants, five LSD tablets, four ecstasy tablets, two grams of amphetamine or methamphetamine, 1.5 grams of heroin, five coca plants, or one gram of cocaine.

The new quantity rules go into effect on January 1.

Science vs. Politics in Great Britain

The British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is an official body charged with providing evidence-based analysis of drug policy issues for the British Home Office. Tensions between the ACMD and the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been on the rise since it rejected the ACMD's recommendation that marijuana, which had been down-scheduled from a Class B to a Class C (least harmful) drug under Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, remain at Class C. The government instead up-scheduled it back to Class B.

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David Nutt
The ACMD was slighted again in February, when it recommended that ecstasy be down-scheduled from Class A (most harmful) to Class B, only to have the Home Office reject that recommendation the same day. ACMD head Professor David Nutt also drew heated criticism from the Home Office -- as well as Britain's horsey set -- for heretically suggesting that ecstasy was safer than horse-riding. Nutt was forced to apologize for his remarks.

After a relatively quiet summer, the clash between drug science and drug politics exploded anew when Home Secretary Alan Johnson fired Nutt in late October for again criticizing the government's refusal to follow the science-based recommendations of the panel. That firing caused a huge fire storm of protest, including the resignations of at least six ACMD members, and was splashed across newspaper front pages for weeks.

Now, the credibility of the Labor government and its adherence to evidence-based policy-making have been called into serious doubt, as it becomes clear that Home Office drug scheduling decisions are driven by a political calculus, not a scientific one. And if the Home Office thought firing Nutt was going to make him go away, it was sadly mistaken. Nutt is maintaining a high public profile and is vowing to set up his own independent drug panel.

Whither Holland's Cannabis Coffee Shops?

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downstairs of a Maastricht coffee shop (courtesy Wikimedia)
This year has seen the long-running battle over the Netherland's famous cannabis coffee shops continue to escalate. Under the Dutch policy of "gedogen," or pragmatic tolerance, marijuana remains technically illegal in Holland, but the sale and possession of small amounts is tolerated and even regulated.

But that tolerant policy is not a favorite of the conservative coalition national government, and it has created a number of problems. "Drug tourism," as the influx of border town marijuana buyers from more repressive neighboring countries is known, has led to everything from traffic jams to public urination to lurking hard-drug peddlers.

And Holland's halfway approach to marijuana policy -- it does not allow for the regulated provision of marijuana to the coffee houses -- has led to the "backdoor problem," in which coffee shop proprietors must rely on criminal-by-definition suppliers to provide them with their product. That provides additional ammunition for the anti-coffee shop crowd.

The conservative coalition government, however, is split on how best to rein in the coffee shops and has promised not to take action at the national level until after the 2010 elections. That has left the field to local authorities, and they have responded.

In March, the "drug tourism" problem resulted in the announcement by the mayors of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom that they would close all the coffee shops in their towns by September. In May, the mayors of the eight towns in the border province of Limburg announced coffee shops would be "members only." In August, the Dutch government announced it was providing more than $200,000 for a pilot "members only" program in the border town of Maastricht. Court challenges from coffee shop owners have so far failed to stop any of this.

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, an urban renewal plan unveiled in May called for a reduction in coffee shops there from 226 to 192, with a 50% reduction in the number of coffee shops in the central Red Light District. But just last week, Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen fought back, saying that national coffee house policy should not be based solely on border "drug tourism" concerns, that he opposed the "members only" option, and that he rejected a ban on coffee houses within 250 yards of schools.

Holland's marijuana coffee shops have been around for more than 30 years now, but as was made clear this year, they will continue to be a battle front between the forces of Dutch conservatism and Dutch liberal pragmatism.

Heroin Maintenance Continues to Spread

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maintenance programs can make heroin addiction cleaner and safer
This year saw a continuation of the slow spread of heroin maintenance programs for severely addicted users unamenable to other forms of drug treatment. At the beginning of the year, permanent or pilot heroin prescription programs were in place in Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland.

Denmark joined the club in February and Germany came aboard in June. These moves come after Switzerland voted in a popular referendum last year to move from a pilot to a permanent heroin maintenance program, based on favorable results from the pilot program.

Canada is about to join the club, too. After the success of the three-year North American Opiate Maintenance Initiative (NAOMI) in Vancouver, Canadian researchers are moving forward with SALOME (the Study to Assess Long-term Opiate Maintenance), a pilot heroin maintenance program set for Vancouver and Montreal. But as of late last month, Montreal's participation was a question mark after Quebec authorities said they would not pay their share of program costs.

Despite lingering political distaste for heroin by prescription, the body of evidence demonstrating its efficacy -- in terms of users' quality of life, public health, and public safety -- continues to grow. There has even been some discussion of bringing a heroin maintenance pilot program to the US. Dr. Peter Reuter, the renowned University of Maryland drug policy expert, authored a study this summer about the possibility of a pilot program in Baltimore.

There is an old saw about not being able to turn an ocean liner on a dime. That's certainly true when it comes to changing drug policies for the better at the national or international level. But each year, it seems that more progress is being made. Let's see what 2010 brings.

West Coast Weed Wars: Legalizing Legislators Come Out Swinging

Two leading advocates of marijuana legalization at the statehouse came out swinging during a Thursday press conference to push the issue forward. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), author of AB 390, the California legalization bill, and Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), cosponsor of HB 2401, the Washington state legalization bill, both said the time to legalize marijuana has come.

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Ammiano press conference for AB 390
"We're very excited, we've gained a lot of traction, and the political will seems to be there," said Ammiano, whose bill has already had one committee hearing and heads for an Assembly Public Safety Committee vote next month. "There also seems to be a populist dimension, as evidenced by the legalization initiative, which has qualified for the ballot."

Ammiano was referring to the Tax and Regulate Cannabis 2010 initiative sponsored by Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee, which formally announced this week that it had secured sufficient signatures to make the November 2010 ballot. (The Chronicle reported on that story two weeks ago.

"My bill would generate much needed revenue for the state," Ammiano continued. "We are in an historic economic and fiscal crisis, and taxing marijuana is just common sense."

But, Ammiano added, it isn't all about the dollars. "This is not just about the revenue," he said, "this is a social justice issue. People of color, specifically African-Americans, are being disproportionately arrested," the San Francisco assemblyman charged.

While opponents of legalization want to talk about its social costs, said Ammiano, that argument needs to be turned around. "We need to be talking about the social costs or prohibition," he said. "As a parent and grandparent, I'm concerned about the easy access that young people have, and I'm concerned about the chaos that prohibition brings, which is what we now have in California."

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Roger Goodman
If the California legislature is moving toward legalization, Washington's is right behind it, said Goodman, who represents a suburban Seattle district, and whose day job when the legislature is out of session is headingthe King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project. "We're following California's lead," Goodman said. "This is an issue that has been simmering and is now ripe for public discussions. Finally, rationality is being allowed in this discussion."

Goodman said he didn't intend to waste his time on a bill that had no chance of passage. "If we didn't think we could do this, we wouldn't be doing it at all," he said. "This is not an idle effort."

Marijuana legalization addresses a whole set of legitimate public policy objectives, said Goodman. "Let's protect our children, let's get it off the streets, let's be fiscally responsible," he said. "Let's talk regulation instead of prohibition because we can't afford that anymore. This issue has been sexy too long; it's time to make it boring. Let's talk about a regulatory framework for cultivation and sales and about storage and about quality control and about times and places for sales, the same way we talk about controlling liquor and pharmaceuticals."

The Washington bill, which was pre-filed for next year's session earlier this month, has not, naturally enough, advanced as far as Ammiano's California bill. But Goodman said it would move and could be modified during the legislative process. "We need public input into the rulemaking," he said. "This bill is a work in progress."

California and Washington are not the only states with active marijuana legalization efforts. In the Northeast, both Vermont and Massachusetts saw bills introduced this year. But despite rising support nationwide for legalization, the West Coast still seems the best bet.

"Polls show increasing levels of public support all around the country for making marijuana legal," said Julie Harris, managing director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which arranged the press conference. "Marijuana is increasingly seen as a mainstream substance used recreationally and unproblematic ally by millions of Americans. We see tremendous momentum in favor of making marijuana legal, yet we still see 850,000 Americans arrested for it every year," Harris noted.

"With so many states facing fiscal crises and draconian budget cuts, why are we wasting our precious law enforcement resources on nothing more serious than using marijuana?" Harris asked. "It's time we move toward a system of reasonable regulation."

Legalization needn't worry about federal marijuana prohibition, said DPA staff attorney Theshia Naidoo. "There is nothing in federal law that requires states to criminalize any particular conduct," she said. "States have the ability to decide what conduct is illegal or not under state law. The federal Controlled Substances Act criminalizes the possession, cultivation, and sale of marijuana under federal law, but does not compel the states to criminalize marijuana," Naidoo argued.

"The federal government may criminalize marijuana, but it cannot force the states to criminalize or to enforce federal prohibition," she reiterated. "The states are free to opt out of federal marijuana prohibition."

California looks to be the first state likely to break with federal prohibition -- either through the legislature or at the ballot box -- but cracks in the dam of pot prohibition are starting to show up elsewhere as well.

Medical Marijuana: New Jersey Patient Acquitted of Most Serious Charge, Convicted of Others

New Jersey Multiple Sclerosis patient John Ray Wilson, whose case the Chronicle profiled last week, was found guilty Thursday of manufacturing marijuana and a separate charge of possession of psychedelic mushrooms. But the jury found him not guilty of the most serious charge against him -- maintaining a facility to manufacture marijuana -- which could have seen him sent to prison for 20 years.

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Wilson's case had gotten widespread attention, both because a bill that would have legalized his actions as a medical marijuana patient is nearing passage in the New Jersey Assembly and because the trial judge had earlier ruled that he could not mention medical marijuana or his disease in his defense. In a surprise move yesterday, the judge allowed Wilson to mention that he used marijuana because he suffers from MS, but that brief testimony did not sway the jury.

"I told them (the arresting officers) I was not a drug dealer and I was using the marijuana for my MS(Multiple Sclerosis)," Wilson testified yesterday after multiple sidebar conferences between Judge Robert Reed, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.

But no follow-up was allowed, and the defense was given no chance to expand on Wilson's single-sentence statement.

Wilson was arrested last year after a National Guard helicopter on a training flight spotted plants growing in the back yard of his Franklin Township home. Summoned by the pilot, police arrived at the unemployed 36-year-old's home and arrested him.

Two state senators, Nicholas Scutari, sponsor of the medical marijuana bill, and Ray Lesniak, two months ago called on Gov. Jon Corzine to pardon Wilson. But Corzine punted, saying he preferred to wait until after Wilson's trial had finished. Well, now it's done... and?

Another Crazy Medical Marijuana Lie From the Drug Czar

Our friends at MPP just caught the drug czar literally editing out the most important part of the American Medical Association's new position on medical marijuana. According to a new ONDCP "factsheet":

The American Medical Association: "To help facilitate scientific research and the development of cannabionoid-based medicines, the AMA adopted (a) new policy … This should not be viewed as an endorsement of state-based medical cannabis programs, the legalization of marijuana, or that scientific evidence on the therapeutic use of cannabis meets the current standards for a prescription drug product."

Notice how it doesn't say what the "new policy…" actually is? That's because the original quote says, "the AMA adopted new policy urging the federal government to review marijuana’s status as a Schedule I substance." Leaving that part out isn't just confusing and dishonest; it looks ridiculous.

If it's now ok to use ellipses to pervert policy positions, maybe I'll just take AMA's statement and do this with it:

"This should…be viewed as an endorsement of state-based medical cannabis programs, the legalization of marijuana, [and] that scientific evidence on the therapeutic use of cannabis meets the current standards for a prescription drug product."

Yeah, I like the sound of that. But I'm not going to print it on a "factsheet," because it's not true.

As accustomed as I am to seeing the drug czar's office routinely deploying these sorts of sleazy semantic deceptions, I'm genuinely awed by this one. They buried the lead so blatantly that anyone who reads it ought to just end up wondering what the hell AMA's "new policy" on medical marijuana actually is. And once Google answers that question in a half-second, you might as well have just told the truth or scrubbed AMA off the site altogether like I suggested weeks ago.

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