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Feature: The Kids Are Alright -- The SSDP 10th International Conference

Buoyed by this month's election results and jazzed by the prospects for change with a new administration in Washington, some 450 student activists converged on the University of Maryland campus in College Park last weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) at the group's annual international conference.

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first evening gathering (photo courtesy DrugWarRant.com)
Hosted by University of Maryland SSDP, traditionally one of the national group's staunchest chapters, the conference saw students come from across the nation and at least two foreign countries for three days of education, training in effective activism, and hands-on lobbying on Capitol Hill. Among the attendees were representatives of Canadian SSDP, buoyed by their own national conference, the organization's second, attended by 250 people earlier this month.

For both SSDP veterans and newcomers alike, the conference provided opportunities for networking, inspiration, and education. For some of the younger attendees, it was an eye-opener.

"I didn't realize how many people were involved in this," said SSDP national office intern Ericha Richards, a freshman at American University. "It's exciting!"

Jimmy Devine of Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire has been attending for several years, but still found plenty to get excited about. "It's always good to come to national, to see what the other chapters have been up to, and to meet old friends," he said. "And we're always looking for new ideas to take back with us."

On Friday, led by Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) lobbyist Aaron Houston, the students spent the morning polishing up on lobbying basics, then visited with representatives or their staffers to push for reductions in the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. Students reported mixed results, but that's no surprise, and even with representatives on the wrong side of the issues, lobbying is part of changing minds -- and votes.

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Rep. Danny Davis (photo courtesy DrugWarRant.com)
On Saturday and Sunday, students gathered at the University of Maryland student union for two days of panels and training in activism. Saturday morning, they heard from movement leaders, who described the chances of drug reform at the federal level in coming years with varying degrees of optimism. With the Democratic sweep of the presidency and the Congress, the prospects have improved, but big obstacles remain, the students heard.

"This election was about change," said MPP's Houston. "It's a very exciting time, so why aren't we doing back flips?" he asked. Drug reform may get short shrift in an Obama administration faced with a free-falling economy and foreign crises, Houston answered himself. "We're walking into favorable conditions, but there are a lot of issues facing Obama and the Congress."

But the economic crisis could lead to opportunity, he said. "We have huge economic problems, and this could be the time to start talking about taxing and regulating marijuana. That could generate $10 to $14 billion a year for the federal treasury," he said.

"Change is going to happen," said Adam Wolf of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. Wolf ticked off an ACLU reform wish list of rescheduling marijuana, ending the government monopoly on growing marijuana for research purposes, ending the selective prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers, abolishing the crack/powder sentencing disparity, and banning racial profiling.

"I'm hugely optimistic about the prospects for change in Congress," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), citing support for ending the federal funding ban on syringe exchange and reducing or eliminating the crack/powder sentencing disparity among highly placed Democrats. "We are over the hump," the Capitol Hill veteran said. "People are not afraid any more to talk about drug policy, and we have key committee chairs on our side. We will repeal the syringe ban and reduce sentencing disparities," he predicted.

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police militarization panel, featuring Reason's Radley Balko, StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden, SWAT raid victim Mayor Cheye Calvo of Berwyn Heights, Maryland, moderated by Alison Grimmer of Roosevelt University SSDP
But Piper was also looking just a bit further down the road then next year's Congress. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) comes up for reauthorization in 2010, he noted. Rather than try futilely to eliminate the office, "we can try to shift ONDCP's goals" to a more public health-oriented approach, he suggested.

"Marijuana is more popular than the past three presidents," MPP executive director Rob Kampia told a cheering audience as he recounted this year's victories for medical marijuana in Michigan and decriminalization in Massachusetts.

Student activists took no back seat to the professionals, though, and the breadth of reform efforts by SSDP chapters, and number of campuses leading or helping with them was impressive. Conference-goers got to hear about campus campaigns ranging from establishing safe ride programs (reducing intoxicated driving without exposing students to threat of penalty); good Samaritan overdose policies (neither the student needing medical help nor the student reporting it facing threat of arrest); getting schools to stop calling police into dorms for drug infractions; reforming dorm eviction policies for substance violations; working with ballot initiative campaigns such as those in Michigan and Berkeley; public education efforts; and state lobbying campaign; among others.

One chapter, Kalamazoo College in Michigan, seemed to have done almost everything, and all during its first year. At the annual Awards Banquet, where representatives received the Outstanding Chapter Award, a raft of impressive achievements were listed off in the introduction. Not only did Kalamazoo SSDP get a safe ride program established, and Good Samaritan and not calling police into dorms for minor drug violation policies established. They also went outside the campus to bring together a coalition of community groups, government agencies and law enforcement to get approval for a needle exchange program in the city for the first time.

One highlight of the conference was the Saturday lunch debate between SSDP executive director Kris Krane and Kevin Sabet of Students Taking Action Not Drugs. The back and forth between the two, moderated by Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, kept the audience rapt -- and scoring the debate like a boxing match.

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Krane/Sabet debate, Washington Post's Courtland Milloy moderating
Sabet, in what must have felt like hostile territory, did his best to try to establish "common ground" with drug reformers, citing his support for addressing the crack/powder disparity and qualifying some of drug czar John Walters' policies as "stupid politics." He also cited as models programs like North Carolina's Project HOPE, where probationers and parolees confronted by positive drug tests are not sent back to prison, but are hit with quick, short jail stays. "That's a huge motivation," Sabet argued.

If Sabet was looking for agreement from Krane or the audience, he didn't find much of it. "Our metrics in the war on drugs are wrong," said Krane. "We should be measuring abuse, problem use, infection rates -- not drug use rates," he argued. "You have to get arrested to get treatment, and that's backwards," he said.

Instead of being based on the Holy Grail of reducing drug use, drug policy should have different guiding principles, Krane argued. "First, no one should be punished for using drugs absent harm to others. Second, we should adopt a harm reduction framework, and third, we should adopt a human rights framework."

"Drug use doesn't occur in a vacuum," Sabet retorted. "A lot of drug use is problematic, and some of that can be addressed by dealing with poverty, health care, and homelessness. There is common ground," he tried again.

Not so quick, Krane replied, arguing that drug use should be treated as a public health problem, not the purview of law enforcement.

"Drug trafficking is not a public health problem, it's a law enforcement problem," Sabet countered.

"Drug trafficking is a prohibition problem, not a law enforcement problem," Krane retorted to cheers from the crowd.

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David Guard and Pete Guither prepare for ''Elevator Arguments'' panel
After the spirited back and forth between Sabet and Krane, attendees were treated to an address by Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL), who zeroed in on racial disparities in drug law enforcement. "One of the most egregious aspects of our drug policy is the racial inequity," he said, reeling off the now familiar statistics about African-Americans sucked into the drug war incarceration machine and urging support for re-entry and rehabilitation efforts for prisoners. "If we can reduce crime and recidivism, if we can help these prisoners, if we can train and educate them, we are helping all of America," Davis said.

Davis, too, pronounced himself optimistic. "There is a sense of hope that we can develop a sane policy in the way we treat drugs," he told the students, "but you have to stay engaged and involved. You have to believe change is not only possible, it's inevitable."

If Saturday was a day of panelists and speechifying, Sunday was for getting down to nuts and bolts as the young activists attended a plethora of sessions hosted by more experienced veterans. Students heard presentations on best practices for chapter organizing, fundraising, making quick reform arguments, networking, working the media, and working with youth communities, and looking beyond campus reform, among others. And the lunch session was a working one, with activists dividing up geographically and deciding on locations for regional conferences to be held in the spring.

From its beginning with a handful of students in the Northeast in 1998 outraged by the Higher Education Act's drug provision, SSDP has grown to an international organization with 140 campus chapters in the US, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom and Nigeria. With all they learned at this year's conference, the newest generation of drug reform activists is now headed back home to spread the message and the movement to the next generation.

Visit the Drug WarRant blog for Pete Guither's seven-part series of live-written reports from the conference.


UMD SSDP window, Stamp Student Center

Police Steal Xbox From Innocent Marijuana Suspect

This is exactly the sort of daily injustice that comes to mind when drug war proponents insist that no one goes to jail for marijuana. It’s false, but also completely beside the point. You don’t even have to have any marijuana to get screwed over in the war on drugs:

Wendy Chapkis and "Dying to Get High: Marijuana as Medicine" on World AIDS Day

Author Wendy Chapkis will be reading from her new book "Dying to Get High: marijuana as medicine" at Bluestockings Bookstore in the East Village. The New York Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence will be officiating at the free event. "Dying to Get High" is an account of seriously-ill patients -- many of them people living with AIDS -- fighting the federal government for the right to use physician-recommended marijuana. This moving account of what is at stake in the ongoing debates over medical marijuana draws not only on abstract argument but also on the much messier terrain of how people actually live, suffer and die. “This is a most important book about the medical marijuana movement; lively and engaging, it will have broad appeal, not only to folks interested in the medical potential of cannabis, but also to those interested in an end to the drug war and those interested in grass roots activism.” - Paul Krassner Editor of Pot Stories for the Soul (High Times) "Dying to Get High provides a human element to the history, pharmacology, psychology, and politics of medical marijuana in a way that no other work has. The book is as riveting as a detective novel, as informative as a textbook, and as moving as a romance." - Mitch Earleywine Author of Understanding Marijuana (Oxford University Press) About the author: Wendy Chapkis is professor of Sociology and Women & Gender Studies at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, ME. She is the author of the award-winning book Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor and Beauty Secrets: Women and the Politics of Appearance. For more information about the book (including book reviews): http://dyingtogethigh.net
Date: 
Mon, 12/01/2008 - 7:00pm
Location: 
172 Allen Street between Stanton and Rivington
New York, NY
United States

Press Release: California Supreme Court Strikes Down "Caregiver" Defense for 215 Growers - People V. Mentch

Cal NORML Release - Nov. 24, 2008 Cal Supreme Court Rules Prop 215 Caregivers Must Do More Than Just Supply Marijuana In a blow to medical marijuana providers, the California Supreme Court ruled that defendants are not entitled to a defense as Prop 215 caregivers if their primary role is only to supply marijuana to patients. The court unanimously overruled an appellate court decision in the case People v Roger Mentch", writing: "We hold that a defendant whose caregiving consisted principally of supplying marijuana and instructing on its use, and who otherwise only sporadically took some patients to medical appointments, cannot qualify as a primary caregiver under the Act and was not entitled to an instruction on the primary caregiver affirmative defense. We further conclude that nothing in the Legislature's subsequent 2003 Medical Marijuana Program (Health & Saf. Code, § 11362.7 et seq.) alters this conclusion or offers any additional defense on this record." Full text of the decision may be found at http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S148204.PDF Prop 215 defines primary caregiver to be the "individual designated by the [patient]... who has consistently assumed responsibility for the housing, health, or safety of that person." According to the Court, these words " imply a caretaking relationship directed at the core survival needs of a seriously ill patient, not just one single pharmaceutical need." The Court concluded, " a defendant asserting primary caregiver status must prove at a minimum that he or she (1) consistently provided caregiving, (2) independent of any assistance in taking medical marijuana, (3) at or before the time he or she assumed responsibility for assisting with medical marijuana." The Court's ruling effectively limits the caregiver defense to relatives, personal friends and attendants, nurses, etc. In particular, it excludes its use by medical marijuana "buyers' clubs," retail dispensaries and delivery services. The remaining legal defense for medical marijuana providers is to organize as patient cooperatives and collectives, which are legal under SB 420. "The Mentch decision highlights the inadequacy of California's current medical marijuana supply system," said Cal NORML coordinator Dale Gieringer. "The law needs to allow for professional licensed growers , as with other medicinal herbs." - D. Gieringer Cal NORML -- Dale Gieringer - dale@canorml.org California NORML, 2215-R Market St. #278, San Francisco CA 94114 -(415) 563- 5858 - www.canorml.org
Location: 
CA
United States

Feature: No Post-Election Pause in Colorado -- Activists Attend Marijuana Boot Camp

This month's national elections are over, but marijuana reformers in Colorado are taking no breaks. Just 11 days after red state Colorado turned dramatically blue, nearly 300 activists and would-be activists gathered last Saturday morning at Regis University in Denver for the 2008 Colorado Marijuana Reform Seminar and Activist Boot Camp, designed to make them more effective and to pave the way for more marijuana law reform in the Rocky Mountain State.

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There is plenty to build on. Colorado has been a medical marijuana state since 2001 and a decrim state since the 1970s. In the past few years, activists like Mason Tvert of SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation) and Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado have been building an impressive movement for a new set of reforms. In 2005, SAFER won a Denver vote to legalize marijuana possession, and after that was ignored, came back in 2007 with a winning lowest law enforcement priority initiative in Denver.

But while Denver appears ready to embrace legal weed, the rest of the state is not quite there yet, and a 2006 statewide legalization initiative ultimately came up short with 41% of the vote. A big part of the focus of the boot camp was to ensure that next time a legalization initiative appears on the ballot, it goes over the top.

To that end, SAFER and Sensible Colorado assembled a series of panel for the day-long seminar. Beginning with "Colorado's Marijuana Laws: Past, Present & Future," and "Everyone Can Agree: Colorado Needs Reform," "Citizen Lobbying: Reaching & Influencing Elected Officials," "The Media: How It Works, How We Can Use It, & Why It Matters," and culminating with "Taking Action: Building Support & Maintaining Momentum," organizers created a very full plate indeed for the assembled activists. The panels featured scientists, liberal and conservative public policy analysts, media representatives, and seasoned activists.

One big catch for the boot camp was House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann (D-Louisville), who explained the necessity and the how-to of lobbying elected officials to bring change. "We frankly just listen to each other unless there's an effort for people to get a hold of us," Weissmann said. It is more effective to build long-term relationships with elected officials than to make a campaign donation, he said. "The people who I remember more aren't folks who wrote a check, but the people who went door-knocking," he said.

"The 2008 campaign season only just ended for most people," said SAFER executive director Mason Tvert. "But for the growing number of Coloradans committed to reforming state and local marijuana laws, the 2009 campaign season has already begun. Our first goal -- to disprove the myth that marijuana makes people less motivated -- has clearly already been accomplished."

The boot camp filled an identifiable need among Colorado activists, said Tvert. As groups who had led campaigns and garnered considerable notoriety, it fell on SAFER and Sensible Colorado to address that need, he said.

"Because of all the work we've done around the state and all the media coverage we've received, we frequently hear from people who want to get involved; there are some every week," Tvert explained. "We wanted to find productive things for these people to do and we wanted to create a more supportive environment for ballot measures, so we identified areas where people can make a difference and developed materials so they can do things more effectively and understand the whys and wherefores," he explained. "The boot camp brought everyone together to provide them with the materials and some training. The point of the panels was to give them first-hand information that will help them be better, more effective activists," he added.

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"We didn't realize it would garner this much interest," said a clearly pleased Tvert. "We got people from all around the state. There were students, there were professionals, there were retirees. There were medical marijuana people there, but this wasn't about medical marijuana; it was about broader marijuana policy reform."

"The boot camp was an unqualified success," declared Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente. "We thought we might pull in 75 people on a Saturday morning, but I think we actually had 283 register. That shows there is an overwhelming interest in this issue in Colorado. We had lots of people from the Front Range because that's where most of the people are here, but we also had dozens of people from areas considered less friendly, like Colorado Springs and out on the West Slope."

That's important because even in unfriendly environments, votes matter, he said. "Whether it's someplace friendly, like Boulder or Fort Collins, or someplace unfriendly, if we can pick up even a couple of percentage points, that can make the difference in a statewide vote," he said.

"It was really inspiring to see everybody there focusing on the same goal, even people who don't necessarily smoke marijuana, but see it as a civil rights issue and want to help out victims," said Andrew Stephens, a 20-year-old student at Fort Lewis College in Durango, a seven-hour drive over the mountains from Denver. "I was outraged watching those federal raids on the California dispensaries -- that's what motivated me to get involved -- so I started a NORML chapter this year to work with other organizations and chapters to change marijuana policies."

Stephens said he was going to apply some of what he learned at the boot camp back home in Durango. "I'm interested in getting a lowest law enforcement priority initiative passed in Durango like there is in Denver," he said. "That would help give law enforcement more resources and time to spend on more important matters and lift a burden on college students who face persecution from law enforcement," he added, practicing his talking points.

Panelist Pam Clifton, outreach director for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, also called the event a success. "It was really well attended, people were really excited, and people stayed put in their seats," said Clifton. "It was a great event, very diverse, and there was a lot of energy in the air."

For Clifton, marijuana law reform is part of a broader criminal justice agenda. "We're about working to stop mass incarceration in Colorado, and recidivism and drug policy are really driving a lot of that, so a lot of our fight is about stopping the drug war," she said. "We want people to make the connection between how a marijuana conviction can affect the rest of their lives and changing those laws, and since we do a lot of grassroots activism, this event gave us an opportunity to reach out to these people."

The interest in last weekend's Marijuana Boot Camp may reflect not only the years of activism by the likes of Tvert, Vicente, and their allies, but also changing Colorado demographics and political attitudes. For the first time in decades, Colorado voted for the Democratic presidential candidate this year.

"You're certainly seeing more progressives and Democrats getting into power here, and that bodes well for marijuana reform," said Sensible Colorado's Vicente. "Also, Colorado had a very strong grassroots machine in place that helped Obama win a traditionally red state, so there's something to be said for people power. And the fact that almost 300 people showed up on a Saturday morning a week after the election to talk marijuana reform politics is also a very good sign."

"The atmosphere has really changed quite a bit," said Clifton. "We're really blue these days. Last year, the legislature passed an act creating a governmental commission on criminal justice. They have to reduce the prison population in this state, so they looked at recidivism, next is some juvenile justice stuff, and then sentencing. But measures to reduce the prison population are the low-hanging fruit. I think only after that we will have a real opportunity to make changes around the marijuana and other drug laws."

Part of what makes marijuana law reform a relatively lower priority, said Clifton, is that Colorado's marijuana laws are already quite liberal for simple possession. Under current state law, possession of less than an ounce is already decriminalized with a maximum sentence of a $100 fine.

But the fact that Colorado has relatively progressive marijuana laws already is no reason to slow down down, said Tvert. "Whether it's more local initiatives or another statewide one in 2010 or 2012, we want to get these people active in their communities spreading our message," said Tvert. "We made 25,000 four-page business cards with our marijuana is safer than alcohol message on one page, that it should be treated that way on the next, how to contact elected officials on the third, and lastly, how to contact us."

While the legislature and other sections of the criminal justice reform community may have their attention elsewhere, an army of activists is now haunting the streets of Denver and Boulder, the high plains of Eastern Colorado, and the snowy peaks of the Rockies, laying the groundwork to take it to the next level.

Marijuana: Narrow Majority of Arkansans Favor Decriminalization, Poll Finds

A recent Zogby International poll commissioned by the Arkansas-based Drug Policy Education Group has found that a slight majority of respondents favor decriminalization of the adult use and possession of marijuana. The poll was conducted November 7-11 and was based on a Zogby online panel of 436 voters deemed by Zogby to be representative of the state's adult population. The margin of error was +/- 4.8%.

Respondents were asked the following question: "In 2007, over 7,400 adults were arrested in Arkansas for misdemeanor possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, over half the state's total drug arrests. According to a national 2005 study, state and local governments spend an average of $10,400 per arrest on police, courts, and jails. Based on that estimate, 2007 marijuana arrests will cost Arkansas taxpayers nearly $77 million dollars. Knowing this information, would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose a law that would eliminate the penalties for adult marijuana possession of one ounce or less?"

Slightly more than 35% strongly supported changing the pot laws, with another 17% somewhat supporting it, for a total of 53% in favor of decriminalization. On the other side of the coin, 38% strongly opposed and 7% somewhat opposed decrim, for a total of 45%. Three percent weren't sure.

Democrats and independents supported decrim by a margin of two-to-one, but only 29% of Republicans supported it. Intensity is on the side of Republicans, with 63% strongly opposed compared to 49% of both Democrats and Independents who are strongly in support.

A slim majority of voters under 64 would support decrim, with the highest proportion among the under-30 group. Among the young, 58% supported decrim. Majorities of both whites (51%) and African Americans (64%) said they would support such a law, while women (59%) were more likely than men (46%) to say they would support it.

A similar, but slightly differently worded poll commissioned by the Drug Policy Education Group in 2006 had similar findings. In that poll, which asked voters if they would support "reducing" the penalties for adult marijuana possession offenses, 61% said yes, while 35% said no.

Arkansas has been the scene of drug reform activism, mainly around marijuana, for several years now. Initiatives making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority passed by two-to-one margins in Eureka Springs in 2006 and in the college town of Fayetteville this month. State drug reform groups like the Drug Policy Education Group and its predecessors have also been tilling the ground in the Razorback State. Reform bubbles up in the most surprising places, and these poll results suggest Arkansans may be more receptive than most people imagined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the Washington Post reported:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Europe: Dutch Mayors Want Regulated Marijuana Production and Sales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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