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Medical Marijuana: US 9th Circuit Upholds 10-Year Sentence for Bryan Epis, First California Supplier Tried on Federal Charges

In an unpublished opinion issued last month, a three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco has upheld the 10-year mandatory minimum federal prison sentence of Bryan Epis, the first medical marijuana supplier prosecuted in federal court after the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996, though not the first convicted.

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Bryan Epis reunited with his daughter, Ashley, on being released in 2004 following an initially favorable ruling on medical marijuana by the 9th Circuit
Epis, of Chico, was arrested by Butte County officers in June 1997 and ultimately convicted by a federal jury in 2002 of conspiring to grow more than a thousand marijuana plants. Authorities only seized 458 plants from his home, but presented records suggesting more plants had been grown there.

Epis had a doctor's recommendation to use medical marijuana for chronic back and shoulder pain. He said he was growing for a Chico patients group and admitted selling some plants at cost to co-op members. But federal prosecutors portrayed him as a drug dealer with dollar signs in his eyes.

He and his attorney, Brenda Grantland, appealed the sentence on various grounds, but the three-judge panel didn't go for any of them. Epis had no reason to believe Prop. 215 would shield him from federal law, especially because "a large-scale marijuana operation can have an impact on interstate commerce," they wrote, harking back to the Supreme Court decision in Raich v. Gonzalez that established federal primacy over state law. Epis served a little over two years on his sentence before being released on bail in 2004 as he appealed his case. Grantland will request that his bail be continued pending an appeal to the full 9th Circuit.

Epis supporters expressed shock and outrage at the decision. "This is an egregious miscarriage of justice with no conceivable benefit to the public," said California NORML coordinator Dale Gieringer, "Bryan Epis believed he was acting lawfully. To imprison him for 10 years is the kind of sentence one might expect only from judges who countenance torture," Gieringer added, taking a direct swipe at panel member Judge Jay Bybee, now infamous as one of the authors of the Justice Department memos justifying torture during the Bush administration.

Canada: Two-Thirds of British Columbia Voters Favor Legalizing Marijuana, Poll Finds

An Angus Reid Strategies poll of British Columbia adults released Monday has found that 65% favored legalizing marijuana as a means of reducing gang violence, while only 35% favored increasing marijuana trafficking penalties. The poll comes as the Conservative federal government seeks to increase penalties for marijuana trafficking offenses and with BC provincial elections looming.

Given a context of recent highly-publicized gang violence in Vancouver, Angus Reid shaped its polling question to reflect that concern. Pollsters asked respondents: "The illegal marijuana industry is linked to much of the gang violence on BC's streets. Some people say that violence would be reduced if marijuana was legalized, while other people say the violence would be reduced if penalties for marijuana trafficking were significantly increased. Which of the following statements is closest to your own view?"

The highest support for legalization came among supporters of the Green and New Democratic Parties, which generally poll behind the Liberals and Conservatives. Among Greens, support for legalization was 77%; it was 74% among NDP supporters.

While respondents favored legalization over increased criminalization by a margin of nearly two-to-one, their response to a question about lax enforcement of laws against "soft drugs" was more evenly divided. A tiny majority, 51%, said that enforcing laws such as those banning marijuana possession made criminals out of law-abiding citizens, while 49% said not enforcing those laws lets criminals go free, which could lead to violence.

Earlier in this decade, Canada was seen as a beacon of progress on marijuana reform. It became the first country to legalize medical marijuana in 2002, and two years later, the Liberal government of Paul Martin reintroduced a bill that would have removed criminal sanctions for the possession of less than 15 grams of pot. But that bill was never put to a vote, the Liberals lost power, and the current government of Stephen Harper is dogmatically opposed to marijuana law reform.

That opposition is shared by the leadership of the BC NDP and Liberals. Earlier this month, BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell said he opposed marijuana decriminalization, adding: "We need to listen to the police on how to deal with this." BC NDP head Carole James also acted the naysayer, declaring: "It's a federal issue as we all know. It's not something individual provinces can take a look at."

With legalization sentiment at roughly two-thirds of the electorate, politicians who oppose it might want to think again. Winning elections is tough when you're aligned against the majority on a high-profile issue. And marijuana politics is high profile in BC.

Marijuana: Pot Continues to Climb in Public Opinion Polls -- Zogby Goes Over 50%

Support for marijuana legalization or decriminalization among the American public continues to climb and may now be a majority position, if a pair of recently released polls are any indication. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released April 30 found that 46% of those surveyed supported "legalizing small amounts of marijuana for personal use," or decriminalization, while a Zogby poll released Wednesday found that 52% supported the legalization, taxation, and regulation of pot.

The 46% figure in the ABC News/Washington Post poll is the highest since the poll first asked the question in the 1980s, and more than double what the figure was just a dozen years ago. Support for decriminalization hovered at around one-quarter of the population throughout the 1980s, and was at 22% as recently as 1997. By 2002, support had jumped to 39%, and now it has jumped again.

When it comes to political affiliation, support for decrim is at 53% for independents, 49% for Democrats, and 28% for Republicans. Since the late 1980s, Democratic support has jumped by 29 points and independent support by 27. Even among Republicans, support for decrim has increased by 10 points.

Support was highest among people reporting no religious affiliation, with 70%, and lowest among evangelical white Protestants, at 24%. People under age 30 supported decrim at a rate of 57%, nearly twice that of seniors, at 30%. People in between the young and the old split down the middle.

The numbers were even better in the Zogby poll. Confronted with a straightforward question about marijuana legalization, 52% of respondents said yes, 37% said no, and 11% were not sure.

The pollsters asked: "Scarce law enforcement and prison resources, a desire to neutralize drug cartels and the need for new sources of revenue have resurrected the topic of legalizing marijuana. Proponents say it makes sense to tax and regulate the drug while opponents say that legalization would lead marijuana users to use other illegal drugs. Would you favor or oppose the government's effort to legalize marijuana?"

The poll was commissioned for the conservative-leaning O'Leary Report and published Wednesday as a full page ad in the Washington, DC, political newsletter The Hill. In that poll, the sample of respondents was weighted to reflect the outcome of the 2008 presidential race, with 54% Obama supporters and 46% McCain supporters.

"This new survey continues the recent trend of strong and growing support for taxing and regulating marijuana and ending the disastrously failed policy of prohibition," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project."Voters are coming to realize that marijuana prohibition gives us the worst of all possible worlds -- a drug that's widely available but totally unregulated, whose producers and sellers pay no taxes but whose profits often support murderous drug cartels," Kampia said. "The public is way ahead of the politicians on this."

Feature: Cannabis Nation Takes to the Streets in First Week of Global Marijuana March

Marijuana aficionados and reform supporters took to the streets of more than a hundred towns and cities across the globe last weekend in phase one of the annual Global Marijuana March.

The march, first organized in New York City in the 1970s, has since grown into a massive international event. This year, some 263 cities on every inhabited continent are listed as holding the marches.

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Vancouver, British Columbia (courtesy cannabisculture.com)
Typically held the first weekend in May, the event this year was broken up into two weekends, largely to accommodate Europeans, where the May Day labor celebrations are taken far more seriously than in the US (where May 1 is not Labor Day, but National Law Day). Finland was the exception there, with a march in Helsinki last weekend drawing at least 300 people, and events in Tampere and Turku drawing about 200 people each.

But on this side of the water, marchers took to the streets in cities like Portland and Philadelphia, which both drew about a thousand people, among the largest crowds of the day. In San Francisco, where 15,000 people gathered last year, crowd size -- if not spirits -- was dampened by drenching downpours all day.

The marches also hit middle America, if in smaller numbers. In Champaign, Illinois, hundreds marched, while in Cincinnati a similar crowd gathered. In Ogden, Utah, 30 lonely cannabis supporters rallied together, while Palm Springs, California saw a few dozen marchers.

Things were a bit livelier in Canada, with some 15,000 people gathering in Toronto and a thousand more in Vancouver. Even Edmonton, way out on the northern plains of Alberta, drew several hundred participants.

"It was fantastic, we had a lot of people show up here in Vancouver," said Jeremiah Vandermeer, production editor for Marc Emery's Cannabis Culture magazine, one of the organizing foci for the marches. "It was a great march. The Liberals were having their convention here, so we marched on that shouting that they need to stop C-15, the Conservative bill that would impose mandatory minimum sentences even for growing one plant."

When asked why Canadian cities appeared to be able to generate larger turnout than American ones, Vandermeer made several points. "Canada has a very strong cannabis culture, we have a lot of organizers who have been working very hard for years, Marc Emery included, of course, and our newspapers are very friendly," he said. "They promote the marches before they even happen, and that's a big help."

While the US has its cannabis friendly elements and its veteran organizers, too, it does not generally have a press that is willing to provide free publicity beforehand for the marches. Nor, with the exception of the two groups mentioned below, do the marches garner any meaningful support from drug reform organizations. And, unlike the case in some European cities that draw huge crowds, events here have not drawn sponsors willing to put up cash to publicize the marches.

In some cities, events are organized by independent activists. In others, local chapters of groups like the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) take the lead. But in all cases, the size and success of the events is determined largely by local resources and talent.

"With some legitimate organization ahead of time and funding and promotion, perhaps these turnouts would be bigger, but as it stands now most of these US efforts are loosely organized at best, said NORML's Paul Armentano. "And perhaps culturally Americans are not as likely to take to the 'streets' as are their counterparts in other countries like Venezuela and Greece."

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GMM 2009 poster (courtesy GMM)
Cures Not Wars is the primary US-based organizing focus for the Global Marijuana March. It does what it can, but its resources are limited.

"We at Cures Not Wars provide material and logistical support for the marches," said Douglas Greene, one of the group's cofounders, along with Dana Beal, the man present at the beginning. "But that support is basically limited to providing posters and contact lists, things like that. We don't have money to hand out to make them happen, so these marches are primarily financed by what the local grassroots people can do," Greene said.

"I think the 4/20 events just a couple of weeks before the marches may drain energy and resources from the marches," said Greene. "Press coverage helps, but unlike Canada, we don't have prior coverage here in any city I can think of."

Greene pointed to some of the European cities, such as Rome, Athens, London, and Berlin, that regularly see crowds of thousands or even tens of thousands. "In Berlin, where the events rival the size of the Boston Freedom Rally, they have at least 10 major sponsors. We don't get that in this country," he pointed out.

Greene also said that perhaps the drug reform community should rethink its disdain for the marches. "These have evolved into an expression of the cannabis community, and it's unfortunate that they haven't become something the broader drug reform community has come together on," he argued. "Here in New York City, we had a lot of kids chanting 'We smoke pot and we like it a lot!', and while that is not going to necessarily change the law, at the same time we always have people who come up to us who are really interested in learning and changing the laws. These marches are going to happen no matter what the reform community thinks; it seems like it would be a good idea if we could work together and attract some serious people and try to educate those people who show up."

The marches may not be politic, there may be too many tie-dyed t-shirts, too much hair, and an uncomfortable number of young-looking public tokers, but the marches aren't going away and they are an authentic expression of cannabis culture. Perhaps the different strands of the movement will find a way to move closer together.

Medical Marijuana: Another California Dispensary Raid

A Bakersfield medical marijuana dispensary was raided Wednesday afternoon by Kern County sheriff's deputies and DEA agents. Three men were arrested, and police said they seized two pounds of marijuana and two loaded handguns.

The target of the raid was the Green Cross Compassionate Co-op at 309 Bernard Street in east Bakersfield, one of the first to open in the city since Sheriff Donny Youngblood raided a half-dozen dispensaries in 2007. Youngblood has said he will not interfere with the operation of nonprofit medical marijuana co-ops, but he has also said that dispensaries for profit should expect to be treated like drug dealers.

It is unclear at this point how Youngblood determined the Green Cross Compassionate Co-op was not a legal co-op under California law and guidelines issued by the state attorney general.

US Attorney General Eric Holder has said that the Justice Department would not act against California dispensaries unless they violated both state and federal law. At least one dispensary, Emmalyn's in San Francisco, has been subjected to a DEA-led raid.

But Wednesday's Bakersfield raid appears to have been led by the crusading Sheriff Youngblood. A DEA spokesman told local media its agents were there only in a backup capacity.

Another Medical Marijuana Raid in California

This is interesting/disturbing:

Kern Sheriff’s deputies and agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency were searching a medical marijuana store in east Bakersfield Wednesday afternoon.

Calls to the sheriff’s department were not immediately returned. A spokesman from the DEA said that agency was there only to assist. The spokesman said the sheriff’s department was the lead agency in the case.

Sheriff Donny Youngblood said his office will not interfere with the operation of non-profit medical co-operatives run by patients for patients. But, he said, dispensaries that sell marijuana for a profit should be expected to be treated like other drug dealers. [KGET]


DEA explained that they're "only there to assist," but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of federal charges down the road. This isn’t the first time DEA has "assisted" local law enforcement during a dispensary raid. I just spoke with Caren Woodson at Americans for Safe Access and they're waiting to learn more about the situation.

I'll update as details emerge.

Update: ASA just informed me that this appears to be a DEA raid being assisted by local authorities, rather than the other way around.

Update 2: Turns out it really was a state raid, based on a state warrant. ASA got some mixed messages from the PR dept. at DEA.

Arnold Schwarzenegger Calls for Marijuana Legalization Debate

Considering that he vetoed a hemp bill in 2006, this is about as good a statement as I would expect from him:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says California should study other nations' experiences in legalizing and taxing marijuana, although he is not supporting the idea.

He says it's time to debate proposals such as a bill introduced in the state Legislature earlier this year that would treat marijuana like alcohol.

State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, says taxing marijuana at $50 per ounce would bring more than $1 billion a year to the state.

Schwarzenegger said during a Tuesday news conference that "it's time for debate" on the idea. [NBC]

I like what's happening with this "let's debate it" line we keep hearing lately. It's a way for public officials to show interest in the subject without alienating anyone who feels strongly about the issue. Perhaps it has come to the Governator's attention that 56% of Californians support legalizing marijuana.

Considering the famous Schwarzenegger-smoking-pot video that's all over the web, some will accuse him of hypocrisy should his position ultimately fall anywhere short of outright support for legalization. Still, it's notable in and of itself that we're beginning to see politicians shifting away from knee-jerk opposition to reform, in favor of the more open-minded position of endorsing a debate on the subject.

Support for Marijuana Legalization is Huge in Canada

Duh. Still, I was intrigued by the way they framed the question:

The majority of British Columbians think the legalization of marijuana would reduce violence related to the drug trade, an Angus Reid Strategies poll suggests.

Sixty-five per cent of the respondents would legalize marijuana in order to minimize violence, while 35 per cent think harsher penalties for marijuana trafficking are the answer. [Vancouver Sun]

This question could be criticized for putting words in the respondents' mouths. Still, it's notable that, given a choice, so many opted to conclude that violence is a consequence of prohibition. Once that concept is understood, the whole idea of a war on drugs pretty much falls apart.

Support for Marijuana Legalization Continues to Grow in America

A new ABC poll shows that 46% of Americans favor legalizing personal use of marijuana. That's the highest number we've ever seen and, interestingly, it's doubled in only 12 years. Wow.

The idea of fixing our marijuana policy is enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity. It's particularly noteworthy when you consider how vigorously the previous administration campaigned to convince the public that marijuana is highly toxic and evil. They have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at us, and here we are, stronger than ever before.

So how does one explain such a dramatic shift in public perceptions surrounding marijuana policy?

Medical Marijuana: Rhode Island Dispensary Bill Passes Senate

For the second time, the Rhode Island Senate has approved a bill that would allow dispensaries to provide marijuana to patients qualified under the state's existing medical marijuana law. The bill now heads to the House, where a committee vote was scheduled for Thursday.

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Gov. Donald Carcieri, unsuccessful medical marijuana foe
Rhode Island approved a medical marijuana law in 2006, but that law did not provide a legal avenue for patients unable to grow their own medicine or find a caregiver to grow it for them to otherwise procure it. The bill would create "compassion centers" for the distribution of marijuana to people with severe, debilitating illnesses, including cancer, Hepatitis C, and HIV/AIDS.

Some 681 people are already registered with the Rhode Island Department of Health under the state's medical marijuana program.

The Senate approval of the compassion center program came on a 35-2 vote Wednesday. The vote came after bill sponsor Sen. Rhoda Perry (D-Providence) told her colleagues support for the bill was growing and it appeared the state police had dropped their opposition.

The Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition, which has lobbied hard for medical marijuana, praised the Senate for passing the bill. Spokesman Jesse Stout said it would make Rhode Island the second state after New Mexico to authorize nonprofit dispensaries for patients.

The Rhode Island Senate passed a similar bill last year, but it didn't make it through the House. Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) has vetoed medical marijuana bills twice, but was overriden by the legislature. A spokesman for the governor told the Providence Journal he continued to have "serious concerns with how the compassion centers would be set up and regulated."

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