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Medical Marijuana: DEA Hits California Dispensary in First Raid of Obama Administration -- New President Promised End to Raids

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided a medical marijuana dispensary in South Lake Tahoe, California, Thursday, marking the first dispensary raid during the brand new Obama administration. On the campaign trail, candidate Obama said repeatedly he would end such raids.

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DEA and SFPD dispensary raid, May 2008 (courtesy Bay Area Indymedia)
Neither the DEA nor the Obama administration had commented on the raid by Thursday evening. With the Obama administration mere days in office, many high-ranking Bush officials are still on the job, including acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart, who has been responsible for numerous federal raids in California. The Obama administration has yet to name a new DEA head or permanent drug czar (head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy), and attorney general nominee Eric Holder is still undergoing congressional vetting.

"Whether or not this unconscionable raid on a medical marijuana provider is the fault of federal officials from the previous administration, President Obama has an opportunity to change this harmful and outdated policy," said Caren Woodson, director of government affairs for Americans for Safe Access, the leading national medical marijuana advocacy organization. "We are hopeful that these are the last remnants of the Bush regime and that President Obama will quickly develop a more compassionate policy toward our most vulnerable citizens."

During the Bush years, the DEA raided more than a hundred California dispensaries, sometimes merely seizing their medicine and cash, sometimes prosecuting their operators and sending them to federal prison. But the DEA has also gone after a medical marijuana organization in Washington state that supplied starter plants for its members, used a federal grand jury in Oregon to obtain patient records, and even threatened New Mexico officials planning to implement that state's medical marijuana distribution program.

In Thursday's raid, DEA agents hit the Holistic Solutions dispensary in South Lake Tahoe, seizing cash and medical marijuana. They made no arrests.

"President Obama must rise to the occasion by quickly correcting this problem and by keeping the promise he made to the voters of this country," said Woodson, citing Obama's repeated campaign pledges.

DEA’s Medical Marijuana Raids Continue Under Obama Administration

Uh-oh. Looks like Obama has yet to deliver on his promise to end the medical marijuana raids:

Oakland, CA -- The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) raided a medical marijuana dispensary today in South Lake Tahoe, California, in the first days of the new Obama Administration. Even though President Barack Obama had made repeated promises during his election campaign to end federal raids in medical marijuana states, many high-ranking Bush Administration officials have yet to leave office. For example, still at the helm of the DEA is acting Administrator Michele Leonhart, who has been responsible for numerous federal raids in California, following in the footsteps of her predecessor Karen Tandy. Neither Eric Holder, President Obama's pick for U.S. Attorney General, nor a new DEA Administrator, have taken office yet. [Americans for Safe Access]

It’s too early to accuse Obama of turning his back on the patients he pledged to defend, but it’s a clear sign that the new president will have to take concrete steps towards ending the DEA’s controversial crusade in California. It won’t stop just because he said it would. He has to actually do something to stop this.

We’ll soon have new leadership at the Dept. of Justice and it will become perfectly clear to everyone what Obama’s priorities really are. Until then, we’re stuck with George Bush’s drug war under Barack Obama’s watch. The new administration has done its best to avoid publicly discussing marijuana policy, so let’s hope they understand that ending these raids promptly is the best way to avoid ugly headlines.

Press Release: San Bernardino Supervisors Broke Open-Meetings Law in Medical Marijuana Case, MPP Charges

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE    
JANUARY 21, 2009

San Bernardino Supervisors Broke Open-Meetings Law in Medical Marijuana Case, MPP Charges

CONTACT: Aaron Smith, MPP California policy director ................................. 707-575-9870

SAN BERNARDINO, CALIFORNIA -- San Bernardino County supervisors appear to have violated the Brown Act, California's open-meetings law, in deciding to take their lawsuit aimed at overturning part of the state's medical marijuana law to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Marijuana Policy Project charged today.

    San Bernardino and San Diego counties first challenged the state's ability to force them to issue identification cards to state-legal medical marijuana patients in the San Diego County Superior Court in December 2005. After losing in the trial court, both counties took their case to the 4th District Court of Appeals, which unanimously rejected the challenge on July 31, 2008.

    Turning down pleas from local patients and advocates, San Bernardino County supervisors voted to take the case to the California Supreme Court during their Aug. 26 closed session. In violation of the Brown Act, the board failed to notify the public of the decision during the open session that followed the vote. Advocates do not know when the decision to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was made, because the public was never notified as required by the Brown Act.

    "I have never seen such utter disdain for voters and the rule of law as has been demonstrated by San Bernardino County's supervisors on this issue," said Aaron Smith, California policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The board is so embarrassed by their decision to waste public funds fighting a popular law that they are trying to hide it from the public, in clear violation of another well-established law."

    Outraged by this failure to follow the law, Fontana resident and medical marijuana patient Craig Johnson filed a written complaint with the Public Integrity Unit at the county district attorney's office. MPP director of state policies Karen O'Keefe and Smith co-signed the letter, which was sent via certified mail on Sept. 15.

    Four months have elapsed and the county has not only failed to respond to the letter but have also formally taken their challenge to the United States Supreme Court.     

    "These supervisors work for the people and must be held accountable for breaking the law," Smith said.

    With more than 26,000 members and 100,000 e-mail subscribers nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit http://MarijuanaPolicy.org.

####

Location: 
CA
United States

South Dakota Legislature Will Take Up a Medical Marijuana Bill This Session

South Dakota's one-man marijuana reform movement, Bob Newland, has informed the Chronicle that he has found a legislative sponsor for a medical marijuana bill and there will be a hearing soon, most likely before the end of the month. The text of the proposed bill can be read here. It would be a very pleasant surprise if this bill were to pass, and a sweet vindication for activists like Newland in the only state to fail to pass a medical marijuana legalization initiative at the polls. In the 2006 initiative, medical marijuana gained 48% of the popular vote. Earlier efforts to pass a bill in the legislature went nowhere, and the opposition to this bill will be led by Attorney General Larry Long (R), who was also point man for initiative opponents in 2006. (Who knew the AG was an MD? Oh, he isn't.) Newland sought meetings with Long in an effort to address "law enforcement concerns," but Long made it clear that he is unalterably opposed to medical marijuana. Period. Newland also has a fall-back bill prepared if, as he predicts, Republicans will be aghast at allowing patients to grow their own medicine and try to kill the bill. The fall-back bill simply allows an affirmative defense in a patients is arrested and prosecuted for his medicine.

Marijuana: Washington State Decriminalization Bill Filed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada: BC Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Marijuana Law

The British Columbia Supreme Court last Friday rejected a challenge to the country's law criminalizing marijuana possession based on deficiencies in Canada's medical marijuana regime. In cases earlier this decade, some Canadian courts had held that because Canada's drug law did not provide for the therapeutic use of cannabis, the law was invalid. But in part because of changes already made to the program, the BC Supreme Court wasn't buying that argument.

In response to those earlier rulings, the Canadian government created a limited medical marijuana program, whose utility was challenged in the present case. But Justice Austin Cullen ruled that even if Canada's medical marijuana program is less than ideal, that doesn't mean recreational pot smokers win a get out of jail free card.

Pot prohibition is constitutional only as long as medical need is accommodated, Cullen conceded. "There must be a constitutionally acceptable exemption from prosecution for seriously ill people with legitimate medical needs for the drug," he wrote in the opinion in Poelzer v. Her Majesty The Queen. But even if medical need is not adequately accommodated, as some courts have ruled, "it does not follow that the prohibition on possession of marijuana is of no force and effect," Cullen held. Any remedy should be "more specifically targeted to the constitutional shortcomings" in the medical marijuana program, not an excuse for marijuana users to avoid prosecution.

Ryan Poelzer was arrested in May 2007 for smoking a joint aboard a ferry pulling into Langdale, BC. Police searched him as he disembarked and found about five ounces of marijuana and a quarter-ounce of hashish. He was charged with marijuana possession, convicted, and handed six month's probation.

With the aid of attorney Kirk Tousaw, Poelzer appealed, arguing that defects in the medical marijuana law rendered marijuana prohibition invalid and, alternately, that conflicting court rulings had left the legal situation so muddied that prosecutions should be considered an abuse of process. But while provincial courts in Ontario had held the marijuana law invalid because of the medical marijuana problem, neither the federal nor the BC courts had.

"In British Columbia, there is no binding authority that [the marijuana law] is of no force and effect in the absence of a constitutionally acceptable exemption for medical marijuana users," Cullen ruled. To rule otherwise "would be to fashion or provide a remedy that in the words of the Ontario Court of Appeal would be 'overly broad and inadequately tailored to the constitutional deficiencies in the [medical program].'"

Looks like it's back to the drawing board for Canada's legalizers, at least on the West Coast.

Feature: Politics Trumps Science as DEA Rejects Researcher's Request to Grow Marijuana for FDA-Approved Studies

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Wednesday blocked the years-long effort of a University of Massachusetts-Amherst researcher to end the federal government's monopoly on the supply of marijuana available for research. In doing so, the agency overruled its own Administrative Law Judge, Mary Ellen Bittner, who nearly two years ago formally recommended that the project be approved.

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Lyle Craker (courtesy aclu.org/drugpolicy/)
UMass-Amherst Professor Lyle Craker initially filed a petition in June 2001 seeking to cultivate research-grade marijuana for use by researchers in Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved studies aimed at developing the plant as legal prescription medicine. Currently, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is the sole source of marijuana for researchers, but that agency has repeatedly refused to make it available for privately-funded, FDA-approved studies seeking to develop smoked or vaporized marijuana into a prescription medication. Researchers have also complained about the quality of the marijuana produced at the federal government's Mississippi pot farm.

From the beginning, Bush administration officials have been unresponsive or sought to delay the proceedings in the Craker case. The DEA first did not respond to Craker's requests for status reports on his request, then told him it had lost his filing. When he submitted a photocopy, the DEA rejected that as improper. It took until 2004 for the agency to get around to rejecting Craker's request, and ever since then for that rejection to go through the administrative appeal process.

It was during that process that DEA Administrative Law Judge Bittner made her formal recommendation supporting Craker's request: "I conclude that granting Respondent's petition would not be inconsistent with the Single Convention, there would be minimal risk of diversion of marijuana..., that there is currently an inadequate supply of marijuana available for research purposes, that competition in the provision of marijuana for such purposes is inadequate, and that the Respondent has complied with applicable laws and has never been convicted of any violation of any law pertaining to controlled substances," Bittner wrote as she weighed the factors involved in her decision. "I find there that Respondent's registration to cultivate marijuana would be in the public interest."

Judge Bittner's recommendation was based largely on the fact that marijuana is the only Schedule I drug that the DEA prohibits from being produced by private laboratories for scientific research, which has resulted in a unique government monopoly that fundamentally obstructs appropriate research and regulatory channels. Other controlled substances, including LSD, MDMA, heroin and cocaine, are available to researchers from DEA-licensed private laboratories.

In contrast, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) remains scientists' sole source of marijuana, despite the agency's repeated refusal to make marijuana available for privately-funded, FDA-approved studies that seek to develop smoked or vaporized marijuana into a legal, prescription medicine.

As Judge Bittner concluded, "NIDA's system for evaluating requests for marijuana has resulted in some researchers who hold DEA registrations and requisite approval from [HHS and FDA] being unable to conduct their research because NIDA has refused to provide them with marijuana. I therefore find that the existing supply is not adequate."

But just as was the case with DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young's famous 1988 recommendation that marijuana was among the safest therapeutically active substances known to man and should be rescheduled, Bittner's recommendation was also ignored by her own agency. In the final decision issued this week, the DEA simply rejected most of Bittner's findings, and rejected Craker's petition.

"I am saddened that the DEA is ignoring the best interests of so many seriously ill people who wish for scientific investigations that could lead to development of the marijuana plant as a prescription medicine," said Professor Craker. "Patients with serious illnesses deserve legitimate research that might establish medical marijuana as a fully legal, FDA-approved treatment. Today, that effort has been dealt a serious blow."

Craker wasn't the only one protesting. The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) all supported Craker's quest, and all blasted the DEA decision.

"It's no surprise that an administration that has rejected science again and again has, as one of its final acts, blocked a critical research project," said MPP director of government relations Aaron Houston. "With the new administration publicly committed to respecting scientific research and valuing data over dogma, this final act of desperation isn't surprising, but the true victims are the millions of patients who might benefit."

"With one foot out the door, the Bush administration has once again found time to undermine scientific freedom," said Allen Hopper, litigation director for the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. "In stubbornly retaining the unique government monopoly over the supply of research marijuana over the objections of DEA's own administrative law judge, the Bush administration has effectively blocked the proper regulatory channels that would allow the drug to become a wholly legitimate prescription medication."

"The DEA and NIDA, but not the FDA, are clearly frightened of permitting privately-funded, scientific research into the risks and benefits of the medical uses of marijuana," said Rick Doblin, president of MAPS. "We need the Obama Administration to reverse this egregious suppression of scientific research that the outgoing administration so fears will reveal inconvenient truths."

Despite the DEA rejection, these are the waning days of the Bush administration, and this isn't over yet. Look for another lawsuit or an appeal to the Obama administration, said Doblin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Chance to Pressure Obama for Drug Policy Reform

Obama’s Change.gov website has created yet another feature for soliciting ideas from the public. This time it’s called the Citizen’s Briefing Book and you can vote on ideas or submit your own. The winning ideas will be printed out and handed to Barack Obama, so he can wipe his ass with them.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular idea is legalizing marijuana, yet again. This has really escalated to the point of absurdity and if the new administration hasn’t figured it out yet, this will continue until they either give us an intelligent response, or stop asking us to post ideas on their website.  

If, like me, you’re becoming cynical about this whole process, shake it off. Go to the website and vote. There is no way of measuring the impact of our repeated domination of Change.gov, but it is intuitively greater than zero. They wouldn’t keep doing this if it didn’t mean something to them.

Marijuana Law Reform No Longer a Political Liability, It’s a Political Opportunity

Paul Armentano’s latest piece at The Hill looks at evolving public attitudes about marijuana policy and the drug war. This is exactly how drug reform politics need to be framed from now on. It sounds like something I would write, probably because Paul is an awesome guy who’s always right about everything.

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