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Feature: Medical Marijuana at the Statehouse -- Stalled in St. Paul, Progress in Providence, Coming Out in Columbus

State legislatures are once again proving a formidable hurdle for the medical marijuana movement. In the last two weeks, legislation died for lack of action in the Minnesota Senate, and while the Rhode Island Senate passed a dispensary bill, it is unclear whether it will make it to the House floor. But hope springs eternal, as evidenced this week in Ohio, where the first medical marijuana bill in years was introduced.

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Rhode Island Senate chamber
In Minnesota, a bill that would have legalized medical marijuana in the state, SF 345, died this week because of inaction on the House floor. The bill had passed the state Senate last year, the first year of the state's biannual legislative session, and passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee on a 13-4 vote earlier this month.

But it never got to a floor vote in the House before the session ran out. Supporters blamed the House leadership and the opposition of some sectors of law enforcement, which could not be pleased no matter how many changes to the bill -- 19 -- supporters made to assuage their fears. The bill also faced a likely veto from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

"We're disappointed that the Minnesota legislature failed to enact a medical marijuana bill this year," said Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, the parent group for Minnesotans for Compassionate Care, which led the lobbying fight to pass the bill. "But we've seen in other states that the legislative process often takes several years, and we picked up incredible support this year, including the endorsements of the state's two largest newspapers. The dozens of brave patients who came forward to tell their stories in recent months aren't giving up, and neither are we."

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, the state Senate approved legislation May 15 that would create "compassion centers" or dispensaries where patients enrolled in the state's medical marijuana program could legally obtain their medicine. Under the bill, S. 2693,the dispensaries could legally grow and sell marijuana to the 359 patients in the state medical marijuana registry. The dispensaries would be regulated by the state Department of Health.

The legislation would create licensed marijuana dispensaries, or "compassion centers," that would legally grow and sell the drug at affordable prices to the 359 patients in the state's program. The centers would be regulated by the state Health Department.

But despite strong popular support and a 29-6 vote in the Senate, the bill is not expected to get through the House this year, the Providence Journal reported. It cited opposition in the House.

"I would really have to have a sock over my head if I didn't know that," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Rhoda E. Perry (D-Providence). "What I think is important is to show movement," Perry said of the Senate vote. "I think getting it out of a chamber is movement. It's showing that there is a level of understanding and a level of acceptance," she told the Journal.

How patients would get their medicine was "the unasked question" when the state's medical marijuana law was passed, House Majority Leader Gordon Fox told the Journal. "Do you send someone that may be suffering from cancer or whatnot out into the streets to procure it? I don't know if that's necessarily a good solution. I think the natural extension of that is that we provide some sort of safe place to obtain it for those who are legally authorized."

But Fox declined to support the bill just yet. "I'm not saying that the leadership's going to support it," he said. "I'd like to read the bill. I haven't looked at what the bill does."

While the Journal has pronounced the bill dead, that's a bit premature, said Jesse Stout, spokesman for the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition (RIPAC). "The House leadership hasn't said they're not going to vote on it, so we're working with them to try to schedule it," he said. "We still have another month left in the session."

Stout was confident the measure would pass if it got to a floor vote. "We have a lot of rank and file support from House members who favor this common sense expansion of the law, and we have a new poll that shows popular support for this measure at 69%. We have lots of support, so this is by no means over," he said.

While the legislative process has been long and torturous in Minnesota and Rhode Island, it is just getting underway in Ohio. On Wednesday, state Sen. Tom Roberts (D-Trotwood) announced details of his proposed Ohio Medical Compassion Act during a press conference at the state capitol in Columbus. Under Roberts' bill, the state Health and Agriculture Departments would be authorized to set up an advisory board to:

  • Consider granting medicinal use of cannabis in cases of debilitated medical conditions.
  • Consider applications for and renewals of registry identification cards for qualified patients and primary caregivers.
  • Provide recommendations for the safe use and efficient growing of medicinal cannabis.

"Our laws should reflect the latest in medical research, which has shown that medical cannabis has a variety of benefits for treating pain, nausea and other symptoms related to a wide range of disease," Roberts said in a prepared statement. "In an era of scientific breakthroughs and medical advances, patients should not be put in the position of choosing between living a normal life and living a healthy life," Roberts said.

"We took what we thought was the best of other medical marijuana laws and created this bill," said Tonya Davis, director of advocacy for the Ohio Patient Network. Davis, a chronic pain sufferer who is unable to walk, was optimistic about the bill's prospects. "This time around we have a cosponsor and more support in the Senate than ever before," she said.

For Davis, access to medical marijuana is a quality of life issue. With medical marijuana, she can reduce her reliance on other medications, she told the Wednesday press conference. "I require medical marijuana to maintain a lifestyle with dignity," Davis said.

The Ohio bill will likely face the same long and twisting legislative path that medical marijuana has followed in any number of statehouses. Whether it becomes law this year seems unlikely, but experience has shown that getting bills through is typically a multi-year process.

And that's something to remember in Minnesota and Rhode Island, too, not to mention other states, such as Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, where bills are active this year, said MPP's Mirken. "I understand the frustration, but we've seen before that it typically takes several years to get medical marijuana passed. Elected officials by and large still think medical marijuana is more controversial than it is. It's never easy," he said.

Still, said Mirken, time and the angels are on the side of the movement. "There is no question the historical tide is with us. It's just that sometimes it moves more slowly than we would like."

Feature: New Mexico's Medical Marijuana Law Is Working, But There Is a Hang-Up Over Production and Distribution

After an exhausting seven-year struggle, New Mexico joined the ranks of the medical marijuana states last year. As of July 1, the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program will be a year old, but while parts of the program are well underway -- patients are registering and obtaining ID cards -- the state law's innovative system of state-licensed production and distribution of medical marijuana is stalled in the regulatory process, with no end in sight anytime soon.

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New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signing a bill into law
Under the New Mexico law, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, patients suffering from a narrowly circumscribed set of illnesses -- cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, spinal cord damage with intractable plasticity, and HIV/AIDS -- can, with a doctor's recommendation and upon registration with the program, legally possess and use up to six ounces of marijuana, four mature plants, and three seedlings. The law also calls for a medical advisory board to determine whether other conditions should be added to the list.

Some 147 patients have registered with the state as of Wednesday, said Melissa Milam, head of the Medical Cannabis Program. "We're the little program that could," she said. "We just keep plugging along."

"The patients are really excited to get their ID cards and have some legal protections," agreed Reena Szczepanski, head for the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico office, who has been intimately involved in the passage and implementation of the law. "The Department of Health and the Medical Cannabis Program are doing a great job of working with the patients, and it's been very thoughtfully implemented in terms of registration and the medical advisory board," she said.

But the law also provides for designated caregivers to be able to grow for patients and for a system of state licensing of production and distribution. Although the law called for the Department of Health to promulgate regulations for production and distribution by last October 1, that hasn't happened yet. As a result, the provisions for caregivers and licensed production and distribution have not gone into effect. That means patients must either grow their own medicine or procure it on the black market.

The Department of Health finally promulgated draft regulations in December and held a public hearing on them on January 14. Those draft rules provided for "five different kinds of licensed producers: a qualified patient, a caregiver, an association of persons, a private entity, or a state owned and/or operated facility."

Based on the input it got in the hearing process, the department has been crafting a revised draft of the regulations ever since. "We're still working on that rule," said Deb Busemeyer, spokesperson for the Department of Health. "We held a public hearing and received written and oral comments, and we made some revisions, and it looks like we'll probably hold another public hearing to let people comment on our revisions."

Busemeyer was vague on a timeline, offering only that she expects a hearing "some time this year" and resolutely declining to predict when the regulations on production and distribution would actually be implemented.

But he department is committed to crafting the production and distribution regulations, Busemeyer said. "The governor was really clear -- this is an important program, and he wants us to figure out how to implement the law. We've been working on hard on this, we believe in this program, we're not dropping it by any means, but we want a good strong law with the right kind of rules, so we're taking our time," she said.

Still, Busemeyer conceded that the delay was hard on patients. "They still have to get it the same way patients do in those other medical marijuana states," she said.

"The biggest source of dissatisfaction among patients is where do you get it?" said Szczepanski. "It's the same situation as in so many other medical marijuana states. That's why the legislature was keen on the state-licensed distribution system; the intention was that New Mexico would be different."

It may well turn out to be different, but the question is when. "I'm concerned that we don't have a date for when the rest of the regulations are coming out," said Szczepanski. "I don't have any reason to believe they won't implement it, but I'd like to know the time frame."

Although Szczepanski bemoaned delays in drafting the regulations, she said she is glad the department is holding another public hearing. "My understanding is that they are working on significant changes to the regs, and we are pleased to have a formal opportunity to have input," she said. "If there are drastic changes from the first draft, it's better to have another hearing."

While each of the five sorts of licensed producers and distributors envisioned in the first draft of the regulations has its advantages, there is a strong argument to be made for including a state-owned or -operated component, said Szczepanski. "We are a largely rural state and we have to be concerned about equality of access," she noted. "New Mexico has public health offices scattered around the state, and we have a Department of Agriculture at our state university that knows how to grow things. The possible downside to a single supplier is that if it's producing poor quality medicine or not delivering a range of products, what do you do?"

The best solution would be to have a mix of licensees as envisioned in the first draft regulations, Szczepanski agued. "Having a variety of options is important for patients. If you're in a small town with a public health office and only using for a short time, that might work for you. But if you live in Albuquerque and have a chronic condition with specific health needs, you might want other options. We have to do what's best for the patients," she said.

While Szczepanski chafed at the delays, she saw no sinister forces at work. "The feds pushed back against us when we were in the legislature, but I haven't heard any rumblings at all about any pressure from Washington," she said. "Our local opponents have also been very quiet. There's nothing for them to glom onto to; there have been no scandals or abuses or outrages. The program is working and the patients have their cards and are protected," she said.

But they still need help growing their medicine while the Department of Health ponders the regulations. The department could take interim steps to ease their plight, said Szczepanski. "If the department is going to wait much longer to produce the production and distribution regulations, they need to start certifying caregivers immediately," she said. "The department says it doesn't have the authority to do that until the regs are published, and we're not looking for hasty action, but the caregiver regulations could be done now. There are already applications pending."

The Obama Campaign Responds to My Criticism of His Position on Marijuana Decriminalization

Last week I discussed what I called The Obama Campaign's Poor Handling of the Marijuana Decriminalization Issue. The post argued that Obama's recent back pedal on the issue of decriminalization was a mistake since marijuana decriminalization enjoys majority support in the polls and because he's getting accused of being pro-marijuana anyway.

A reader, William Aiken, forwarded the post to the Obama Campaign and got the following response:
Dear Friend,

Thank you for contacting Obama for America to inquire about the Senator's position on allowing severely ill patients to use marijuana for medical purposes.

Many states have laws that condone medical marijuana, but the Bush Administration is using federal drug enforcement agents to raid these facilities and arrest seriously ill people. Focusing scarce law enforcement resources on these patients who pose no threat while many violent and highly dangerous drug traffickers are at large makes no sense. Senator Obama will not continue the Bush policy when he is president.

Thank you again for contacting us.

Sincerely,

Obama for America

Hilariously, the campaign staff responded to my criticism of Obama's vague position on marijuana decriminalization by restating the Senator's position on medical marijuana. The fact that they apparently have a form letter prepared addressing medical marijuana, but not marijuana decriminalization, goes directly to my point that Obama has failed to adequately define himself when it comes to decriminalization.

As I explained previously, Obama is widely believed to support marijuana reform, and will be attacked for that regardless of any statements he's made to the contrary. Thus, he is much better off defending whatever reforms he does in fact support, rather than distancing himself from the issue and allowing McCain to have the only clear position. At this point, Obama cannot say he supports "decriminalization" because he's backed away from that term, but he can still support reforming our failed laws, which would offer contrast to McCain's position, and maintain majority support from voters.

Finally, I'd like to thank William Aiken for sending the piece to the Obama Campaign and sharing their response. It's not like my post landed in Obama's lap or anything, but I've seen other examples in which bloggers were able to initiate important dialogues with public officials and/or mainstream media simply because many readers sent the same post to the same place at the same time. I tremendously appreciate this type of participation from readers.

(This blog post was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Virginia Senator Jim Webb Speaks Out Against Marijuana Laws

Senator Webb is known for speaking his mind, which is a good thing since he's interested in reforming drug laws:

Freshman Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's name has come up as a possible Democratic VP candidate. Judging from his new book, A Time to Fight, the decorated Vietnam vet might be a good choice. "The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," he writes. "It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related activities."

Webb, who took office in 2007, criticizes the drug war and prison-industrial complex: "Either we are home to the most evil population on earth, or we are locking up a lot of people who really don't need to be in jail, for actions that other countries seem to handle in more constructive ways." [celebstoner]

This all sounds pretty good to me, although I would remind him that a lot of the worst "gang-related activities" are caused by drug prohibition. Just say "violent crimes," instead. Good start though, Senator. If Dick Morris gives you any lip over this, stomp him with your famous combat boots.

Minnesota medical marijuana bill dies one step from governor

[Courtesy of Marijuana Policy Project] 

Dear friends:

Although we made unprecedented progress this year, yesterday the Minnesota House of Representatives adjourned for the year without bringing MPP's medical marijuana bill up for a vote.

The bill had passed the Senate at the beginning of Minnesota's biennial session and was endorsed by the Minnesota Nurses Association, the Minnesota Public Health Association, the Minnesota AIDS Project, the Minnesota Senior Federation, and hundreds of doctors and thousands of nurses who signed statements of support. Recent polling showed more than 2-to-1 support among Minnesotans.

However, a small but vocal group of law enforcement officials spread mistruths, exaggerations, and outright lies about the bill in an attempt to kill it — such as claiming that medical marijuana lacks support from the medical community and that medical marijuana laws increase teen use. We fought back hard, blanketing the airwaves with these TV ads, generating thousands of phone calls from constituents to their state representatives, and releasing a series of Web videos documenting our opponents' lies. But in the end, the opposition's false claims swayed legislators enough to keep us from getting the vote.

However, the battle to protect Minnesota patients is far from over. The work we've done this year leaves us in a stronger position than ever: Prior to this session, no medical marijuana bill had passed a single House committee, while our bill passed out of five this time around. And polling clearly indicates that our public-relations and grassroots-organizing efforts have increased Minnesota voters' support for medical marijuana.

Despite the failure of the House to bring this popular bill up for a vote on the floor, the momentum is on our side in Minnesota, and we'll be back to finish the job next session.

Sincerely,
Kampia signature (e-mail sized)

Rob Kampia
Executive Director
Marijuana Policy Project
Washington, D.C.

P.S. As I've mentioned in previous alerts, a major philanthropist has committed to match the first $3.0 million that MPP can raise from the rest of the planet in 2008. This means that your donation today will be doubled.

Location: 
MN
United States

"You Don't Want This!"



It's funny because it's true. At least I think that's why it's funny. Anyway, I hope the whole movie is Tim Meadows getting stoned, acting super intense, and reverse peer pressuring people.

Update: I posted this back in December and repost it today after actually seeing the film, which really does feature numerous scenes in which Tim Meadows acts super intense and reverse peer pressures people. I guess it doesn't have much to do with drug policy, but the whole movie is really funny and you deserve a good laugh after reading the other depressing stuff I usually write about here.

Act Now to Protect Medical Cannabis Patients

[Courtesy of Americans for Safe Access] Dear ASA Supporter,

Last month, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) and a small bi-partisan coalition of Members of Congress introduced H.R. 5842, the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act. The legislation will help protect individuals who use or provide medical cannabis in accordance with their state law.

Visit www.AmericansforSafeAccess.org/PatientProtectionAct to take action now!

If passed, this important legislation would, among other things, reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to Schedule II drug according the Controlled Substances Act and provide clearer protections for qualified patients, their caregivers, and safe-access sites authorized by state or local law. Take action now to protect patients and their caregivers!

Visit www.AmericansforSafeAccess.org/PatientProtectionAct to write Congress now! Urge your U.S. Representative to support the Patient Protection Act!

Thanks you for supporting ASA and our efforts to secure safe access for medical cannabis patients. Please forward this message to friends, co-workers, and family members to encourage them to join you in this statewide movement to protect safe access!

Sincerely,

Sonnet Seeborg Gabbard
Field Coordinator
Americans for Safe Access

P.S. The only way we can continue to work on legislation like the Patient Protection Act is with your continued support. Become a member of ASA today!

Canada: Marijuana Legalization Retains Majority Support, Poll Finds

More than half of Canadian adults believe marijuana should be legalized, according to a poll done by the Angus Reid Global Monitor. According to the poll, 53% of respondents agreed that marijuana should be legalized.

The poll results are in line with early Angus Reid polls on marijuana legalization in Canada. In a July 2007 poll asking the same question, 55% said pot should be legalized; in an October 2007 poll, 51% said it should be legalized.

In 2004, the former Liberal government introduced legislation that would have decriminalized the possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana, but that legislation never went anywhere. The current Conservative government disagrees with legalization sentiment and is currently pushing a bill that would create mandatory minimum six-month jail sentences for marijuana growers.

The same poll asked Canadians whether they would support legalizing other drugs, but found few takers. Nine percent would support legalizing powder cocaine or ecstasy, 8% would support legalizing heroin or crack cocaine, and 7% would support legalizing methamphetamine.

Europe: Despite British Marijuana Reclassification, No Jail for Low-Level Sellers

Last week, the British government announced it was returning marijuana to Class B drug status, signaling an end to the four-year experiment that saw the herb downgraded to a less serious Class C drug. That meant marijuana sellers could theoretically face up to 14 years in prison. Under guidelines issued Monday by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, however, it appears that many pot sellers will face no more than low-level sanctions.

For the first time in four years, the Sentencing Guidelines Council has promulgated a range of sentencing options for every offense that can be dealt with at a magistrate's court. Under the new guidelines, marijuana users who grow their own stash and occasionally provide marijuana to friends could be punished with only a fine or probation. Even those who supply larger amounts of marijuana or other drugs to share with a small circle of friends could receive probation, according to the guidelines.

For small-scale growing or sales of marijuana, the top end punishment in magistrate's court under the guidelines is 12 weeks in custody, but that sentence would be imposed only if there were aggravating factors. Commercial cultivation or large-scale sales offenses would be handled in the more serious Crown Court, where stiffer penalties are applied.

Opposition Conservatives were quick to pounce on the apparent contradiction between the government's announced hard line and the sentencing council's guidelines. "Once again we see mixed messages going out about drugs," said Tory justice affairs spokesman Nick Herbert in a Monday statement. "Just as the government finally admits that they got it wrong when they lowered the classification of cannabis, these guidelines would see most dealers receive weak and often poorly enforced community sentences."

But despite the posturing of the Tories, the sentencing council's guidelines seem in line with the recommendations of the government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which opposed the reclassification.

Medical Marijuana: GOP Attacks Obama for Suggesting He Would End Raids

With Sen. Barack Obama now the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, the Republican Party is looking for potential weaknesses and thinks it has found one in his relatively progressive stance on medical marijuana. On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee issued a press release saying Obama's position on medical marijuana and the DEA raids on patients and providers "raises serious doubts" about an Obama candidacy.

The attack came after the San Francisco Chronicle published an article Monday detailing Obama's position on medical marijuana, from comments he made in November to a response he more recently provided to the paper's candidate questionnaire. In responding to the Chronicle's medical marijuana question, the Obama campaign said he endorsed a hands-off federal policy:

"Voters and legislators in the states -- from California to Nevada to Maine -- have decided to provide their residents suffering from chronic diseases and serious illnesses like AIDS and cancer with medical marijuana to relieve their pain and suffering," said campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt. "Obama supports the rights of states and local governments to make this choice -- though he believes medical marijuana should be subject to (US Food and Drug Administration) regulation like other drugs," LaBolt said. He added that Obama would end DEA raids on medical marijuana providers.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has also suggested she would end the raids, according to Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana, a New Hampshire-based activist group that specializes in trying to get candidates on the record on medical marijuana. Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has waffled on the issue, according to Granite Staters, which has him saying he would end the raids at one point, but saying he would not end them a few weeks later.

But in was Obama who was in the GOP bull's-eye over medical marijuana this week. "Barack Obama's pledge to stop Executive agencies from implementing laws passed by Congress raises serious doubts about his understanding of what the job of the President of the United States actually is," said RNC communications director Danny Diaz in the press release. "His refusal to enforce the law reveals that Barack Obama doesn't have the experience necessary to do the job of president, or that he fundamentally lacks the judgment to carry out the most basic functions of the executive Branch. What other laws would Barack Obama direct federal agents not to enforce?" Diaz asked.

Obama's refusal to countenance continued DEA raids would mean he would violate his oath of office by not protecting and defending the Constitution, the RNC charged. The Supreme Court has upheld the authority of Congress to regulate the use of marijuana, it noted.

Whether the Republican Party can gain advantage by attacking Obama on the medical marijuana issue remains to be seen. In poll after poll, American voters have said they support access to medical marijuana for sick people. It is currently legal in 12 states and under serious consideration in several more this year.

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