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Drug Testing for Public Assistance Bills Proliferate in New Year [FEATURE]

We are only a few weeks into the new year, but statehouse politicians across the country are already racing to see who can be next to introduce a bill that would require drug testing of people receiving public benefits. Within the last month, measures that would impose drug testing requirements have been introduced or are being contemplated in at least twelve states.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugtest2.jpg
The bills typically require beneficiaries to pay for their own drug tests (to be reimbursed later if they come up clean) and force those who test dirty off the rolls for specified periods. They also typically require a period of drug treatment at the would-be beneficiary's expense.

Faced with serious budget deficits as the economy continues sputtering through a weak recovery, would-be populists and small government conservatives see public benefits recipients as easy targets in their battle to ease the burdens of the taxpayers. With many Americans struggling hard to make ends meet, the narrative that welfare recipients or people receiving jobless benefits are just lazy junkies living resonates in some quarters.

Never mind that there is a paucity of evidence that welfare or jobless benefit recipients use drugs at a rate different from the public at large -- at the high end, a Michigan program a decade ago had 10% of welfare recipients testing positive for drugs, while Florida's now halted welfare drug testing program reported only a 2% positive rate, mostly for marijuana, though with data too incomplete at that stage to really know -- drug testing bills remain extremely popular, especially among conservatives.

It's not just Republicans. Although conservative Republicans dominate the legislative politics of drug testing the poor, in two states, Democratic legislators are leading the charge, and in one, it's a Democratic governor who is coming up with the idea.

But no matter the party, the rhetoric of the drug testers is remarkably similar. It's almost like they're reading from the same script.

"The working man, we're all subject to drug testing, and if they're gonna take the hard earned person's money and give it to someone on welfare, I think they ought to be tested the same way," Iowa Rep. Richard Arnold told WHO-TV in Des Moines as he announced his bill to drug test people on unemployment.

"If a job applicant has to take a random drug test, it only seems fair that a welfare applicant should too," said Georgia Rep. Doug McKillip (R-Athens). "We simply cannot allow the drug trade to be funded with government benefits," he told the Athens Banner-Herald. McKillips added that he wanted to apply any savings from the bill to paying for a tax cut on energy for manufacturers.

"If any of my employees fail a drug test, they're going to be fired," said Georgia Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah pharmacy owner and Republican Chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee. "It's leveling the playing field," Stephens insisted to 11 Alive TV in Atlanta. "It's making those recipients be subject to the very same regulations as those getting up going to work for a living," he added.

"Why in God's green pastures would we ever allow $1 of tax-supported assistance to go to an individual that is using illegal drugs?" South Dakota Rep. Mark Kirkeby (R-Rapid City) told the Rapid City Journal.

"I don't think any taxpayer in our state would say they're okay with funding a person's illegal drug use," Rep. John Mizuno (D-Kalihi Valley), who chairs the Human Services Committee, told KHON2-TV in Honolulu. Mizuno has introduced a pair of bills to drug test welfare recipients. "As taxpayers we need to save all we can, we don't need to raise people's taxes."

Such tropes have drug reformers, civil libertarians, and advocates for the poor crying foul. They accuse those pushing for drug testing of engaging in stereotyping and scapegoating.

"We feel like there's an ideology at work here, a sort of anti-welfare mentality intersecting with the drug war mentality," said Jill Harris of the Drug Policy Alliance. "They're using a budget crisis saying they want to reduce benefits for drug users as a way of pushing the drug war agenda."

"We look at it as basically another way to scapegoat the unemployed and blame them for the terrible economy they're in," said Rebecca Dixon, a policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project.

"There is really no point to this," said Dixon. "There is no evidence that unemployed workers are more likely to use drugs than anyone else. You have to have a solid work history to qualify for unemployment insurance, and you have to be actively searching for work. These are people who were working but lost their jobs, and now we're trying to treat them like they're something different. This feeds into really ugly stereotypes and could cause employers to not want to hire unemployed workers. There's already been some discrimination, and this doesn’t help the situation."

If legislators want to see a drug-free work force, said Dixon, there's already a way to do that. "If employers want to drug test workers, they can, and nearly half of them have pre-employment drug screening," she said. "They can do that already without the government stepping in."

Despite lingering questions about the constitutionality of mandatory suspicionless drug testing, bills are being filed or discussed that would require mandatory testing of welfare recipients in Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky (also includes state medical assistance), Massachusetts, Mississippi (all public benefits, plus prove US citizenship), South Dakota, and Tennessee.

In Iowa and in South Carolina, bills mandating suspicionless drug tests for people receiving unemployment benefits are being bruited, while in West Virginia, a bill that would require mandatory drug tests for workers in state-sponsored job training programs has been proposed.

Although the Supreme Court has not directly addressed the constitutionality of suspicionless drug testing of people receiving government benefits, a divided federal appeals court threw out an earlier Michigan mandatory drug testing law on the grounds that it violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription of warrantless searches almost a decade ago. More recently, last year a Florida federal district court judge hinted strongly she would rule the same way as she granted a temporary injunction halting Florida's mandatory welfare drug testing law. A decision on whether to permanently throw out the law has yet to be made.

While the legal precedents may not be binding, they do allow advocates to make a strong case that such suspicionless drug testing laws are open to legal challenge, which has helped blunt most of them in past years. Last year, for example, although at least a dozen states took up mandatory drug testing bills, only Florida's passed.

"The courts have said you can't treat everyone as a criminal because he or she is seeking public benefits," said Rana Elmir of the ACLU of Michigan, which successfully challenged the state's last attempt at mandatory drug testing of welfare recipients and which is keeping a close eye on bills moving again there now. "You don’t lose your constitutional rights just because you're poor," she said.

"The ACLU thinks the courts have been very clear that mandatory suspicionless drug testing is unconstitutional, and it's also unfair and relies on mean-spiritedness and employs the ugliest stereotypes of the disenfranchised," said Elmir. "It's part of an unrestrained attack on poor people."

Some drug testing legislators have finally wrapped their heads around the notion that going with mandatory, suspicionless drug test language is a constitutionally risky business and are moving toward legislation that would require drug testing only of subsets of the population where a "reasonable cause" to suspect drug use can be cited. Bills using reasonable cause to test benefit recipients have already passed in Arizona, Indiana and Missouri.

Legislators in Georgia and Hawaii are hedging their bets by filing reasonable suspicion bills alongside mandatory welfare testing bills, while in Michigan, the health department has just done a study of reasonable cause testing, and in Pennsylvania, there is an ongoing pilot program for reasonable cause testing of welfare recipients. Both the Michigan and Pennsylvania measures should lead to efforts to pass broader reasonable cause bills later this year.

The move to reasonable cause drug testing bills means advocates cannot afford to rely on the courts as much as they do when confronting mandatory drug testing bills. And that means fighting the measures at the statehouse.

"This is forcing advocates like us to do a lot of defense," said Elizabeth Farid, deputy director of the National HIRE Project, which works to improve employment opportunities for people with criminal records. "We don't have the resources to move progressive bills forward and we're spending a lot of time trying to stop bad things like this happening. On the other hand, this really goes to the values of those conservatives and Tea Party members who've been behind the introduction of most of these bills," she noted.

"Bills that specifically target, for example, people who have a conviction for a drug felony might pass constitutional muster because that could be considered a basis for suspicion," said Farid. "But whenever you have the specter of drug testing, you have to ask if it is really effective. Is it worth the time and money? We often don't even get to that."

"We need to look at this as a public policy issue," said the ACLU of Michigan's Elmir. "Let's go to the experts and look at best practices. Those experts recommend that if Michigan is to have drug testing, it invest in training public employees to appropriately screen and identify those with addictions and help them through expanded treatment programs. Drug screening paired with expanded treatment has worked in other states," she said.

"We have to fight these bills, we have to educate our legislators and other elected officials, not only about the constitutional issues, but also about the way past programs have failed," Elmir said. "We like to believe our elected officials have good intentions in trying to help residents who use drugs, but mandatory testing is both ineffective and fiscally irresponsible. If Michigan must adopt drug testing, it should be guided by constitutional norms and focus on recovery rather than punishment."

Welfare or jobless benefits drug testing bills not only test the poor, they test the values of the nation, Elmir said.

"When we look at our Constitution, it embodies the value that our laws apply fairly and equally to all, irrespective of one's individual wealth," said the ACLU of Michigan's Elmir. "This is an important moment for these states contemplating these laws. It's our moment to set the standard for how we treat our most vulnerable residents. I hope we're on the right side of history."

Revised New Jersey Pharmacy Syringe Sales Bill Passes

The New Jersey legislature last week passed a revised S 958, bill allowing pharmacies to sell syringes without a prescription. Gov. Chris Christie (R) signed it into law Tuesday. The legislature had passed the bill in December, but last week, Christie conditionally vetoed the original version of the bill, saying it needed to be tightened.

In his veto statement, Christie said the bill should include "a requirement of purchasers to present a photo identification for proof of age" and should require the health department to provide information about syringe disposal and drug treatment programs to pharmacies.

The bill would allow for the purchase of up to 10 syringes without a prescription. It also decriminalizes the possession of needles bought from a pharmacy without a prescription.

New Jersey is one of only two states that still bans over-the-counter syringe sales. The other is neighboring Delaware.

The bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), Assemblywoman Joan Voss (D-Bergen), Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex), Assemblywoman Joan Quigley (D-Bergen and Hudson) and Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Essex and Passaic).

Now that the governor has gotten the language he wanted, he has signed the bill.

Trenton, NJ
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Here's the latest medical marijuana news from around the country. There's a whole lot going on.

California

On December 30, a Marin County judge ruled that a Novato dispensary cannot be evicted. The landlord for the Green Door Wellness Education Center had sought to evict it, saying it had violated its lease in various ways, including allowing marijuana smoking on the premises. The judge ruled that the smoke complaints were the most serious violations but "were mitigated and can be further mitigated." But Green Door and the neighboring Green Tiger Collective still face problems with the city, which sent both of them cease-and-desist orders months ago and has a moratorium on dispensaries.

On January 4, the Arcata city council voted for a temporary ban on new dispensaries. The measure does not affect existing dispensaries, but it puts a temporary hold on processing applications for new medical marijuana cooperatives and collectives. Staff will return to the council with a draft moratorium. Also in Arcata, the Humboldt Medical Supply dispensary closed its doors after its landlord received a threat letter from federal prosecutors. Another dispensary, the Sai Center, also received a letter, according to owner Stephen Gasparas, who spoke before the council.

On January 4, outgoing Marin County Supervisor Susan Adams sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder opposing the federal intervention in California's medical marijuana program.

Last Thursday, a Humboldt County supervisor met with US Attorney Melinda Haag to discuss the federal crackdown on dispensaries. Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said he expressed his disappointment with the crackdown and urged Haag to respect local governments, who decide what is appropriate safe access to medical marijuana.

On Monday, dozens of people protested in San Francisco over the closing of the Market Street Cooperative, which has been operating since 1997. The dispensary shut down after its landlord received a letter from federal prosecutors threatening seizure of the property.

On Tuesday, Marin County supervisors sent a smoking ban back for a rewrite to make clear it does not include marijuana. The ordinance would largely ban smoking in apartments in unincorporated areas of the county.

On Tuesday, the Anaheim city council extended the city's moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries for another year. The unanimous vote came after council members said they needed more time to study the "legal complexities" around the issue. The city has had a ban in place since 2007. Anaheim's law was challenged in court by medical-marijuana patients who said it unfairly limited their rights guaranteed by state law. He lost in Orange County Superior Court, but the case is on appeal. Dozens of dispensaries that opened before 2007, when the city began its moratorium, are still open.
 

On Wednesday, in late breaking news, the DEA raided three San Diego-area dispensaries. No reports yet on arrests.



Colorado

On January 3, the Boulder city council voted to enact an emergency moratorium on new applications for medical marijuana business licenses. The move came after a surprise request by City Attorney Tom Carr, who wants to review unintended consequences of rules the city adopted and who wants to see how a recent court case against the city by a dispensary operator shakes out. The moratorium will be in place pending a public hearing on February 7 in which the council will discuss a longer-term moratorium.

This week, two state legislators said they would propose a bill that would allow the medical marijuana industry to form a "financial cooperative" to provide banking services to medical marijuana businesses. The cooperative would work like a credit union, with membership limited to industry members. But it would be free of the kinds of federal insurance requirements that exist with banks and credit unions and that have made those institutions reluctant to work with medical-marijuana businesses. The bill is in response to federal pressure on banks that have led them to drop medical marijuana businesses. The two solons, Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver) and Rep. Tom Massey (R-Poncha Springs), said they would introduce the bill next week.

Florida

This week, medical marijuana bills were filed in the Florida House and Senate. This marks the second year in a row a bill has been filed in the House and the first time a bill has been filed in both chambers. (See our newsbrief on it here.)

Maryland

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana bill was introduced in the state House of Delegates. Introduced by Delegate Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore),  HB 15, the Maryland Medical Marijuana Act, would create clear rules for qualified patients and law enforcement, and put in place a strictly regulated production and distribution system. HB 15 would also protect patients from housing and workplace discrimination, something that the workgroup failed to address.

Michigan

On Wednesday, a Lansing medical marijuana dispensary owner was acquitted of charges he violated Michigan's election laws. Shekina Pena, 34, the owner of Your Healthy Choice Clinic, was charged by Attorney General Bill Schuette's office with trying to influence voters after he offered free marijuana to patients who registered to vote. A jury found him not guilty.

This week, an initiative campaign to repeal marijuana prohibition in Michigan, largely inspired by Schuette's antics and obstructionism, is gearing up for its signature-gathering phase. Read our feature article about it this week here.

Montana

Last week, two members of a family of medical marijuana providers were negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors, making it unlikely that a Montana court will ever have the chance to determine if federal drug laws preempt the state's medical marijuana law. Richard and Justin Flor face pot possession, distribution, and conspiracy charges after Montana Cannabis was raided last spring along with dozens of other providers. They had said they would challenge the charges, but now it looks like that won't happen.

New Jersey

On December 28, the town of Plumsted temporarily banned medical marijuana cultivation farms. The township wants time to plan where such a facility might be appropriately located. Plumsted is the third local government to ban medical marijuana cultivation, following Upper Freehold and Howell Township.

On January 4, the Westampton Land Development Board denied a permit for a medical marijuana grow and dispensary. The Compassionate Care Foundation, which had sought to locate the facility there, said it would appeal to state Superior Court. Only one of six care centers allowed under the New Jersey medical marijuana program has so far found a location.

Oregon

On Monday, several dozen people protested in Grants Pass to protest what they called corruption in law enforcement when it comes to medical marijuana. They accused by name a Grants Pass detective and an assistant district attorney, saying they violated people's rights, falsified documents, and wrongfully submitted evidence. Police denied any wrongdoing.

This week, the US Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from two Oregon sheriffs of a state Supreme Court ruling that found they could not deny concealed hand gun permits to registered medical marijuana patients. The sheriffs had attempted to argue that to provide permits to patients would force them to violate federal gun laws, which bar controlled substance users from obtaining weapons. They lost in every court that heard the cases.

Florida Medical Marijuana Bills Filed

For the second year in a row, medical marijuana legislation has been filed in Florida, and for the first time ever, bills have been filed in both the House and the Senate. The bills, House Joint Resolution 353 and Senate Joint Resolution 1028, ask the legislature to approve a referendum on medical marijuana for the November ballot.

Florida Decides activist Catherine Jordan
If the legislature approves the resolutions, the referendum must then win the approval of 60% of the voters. If 60% of the voters approve it, the state constitution would be amended to include medical marijuana language.

Under the resolutions, patients with a doctor's recommendation and his or her primary caregiver would have an affirmative defense if charged with a marijuana offense as long as the amount of marijuana was not greater than the amount set by the state and could still mount an affirmative defense if it was, provided that greater amount is "medically necessary." The amount is not set in the resolutions; instead, the legislature would be charged with setting quantity limits in the event the referendum passes.

Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing. Still, Florida activists are happy to see them and will be present in Tallahassee to lobby for them.

"This is the first time since 1978 that cannabis advocates will have a sustained presence in the legislature," said veteran activist Jodi James of the Florida Cannabis Action Network.  "Sick and dying people need access to this medicine now, she told the Gainesville Sun.

The group has also created a Florida Decides web site with a petition to Gov. Rick Scott (R) asking him to urge the legislature to bypass the referendum process and just pass a medical marijuana bill directly. So far, that petition has 2,876 electronic signatures.

While the House version has a handful of cosponsors, the sole sponsor in the Senate is Sen. Larcenia Bullard (D-Miami). She told the Sun she had originally sponsored the bill as a courtesy to constituents, but after researching it, has embraced the cause.

Now, it's up to the rest of the legislature to embrace the cause, and James and the Florida Cannabis Action Network are there to help them see the light.

Tallahassee, FL
United States

Mississippi Public Benefits Drug Test Bill Proposed

Last year saw efforts in numerous states to pass laws requiring that people receiving or applying for public benefits, such as food stamps or unemployment, be required to take and pass drug tests. This year looks to be more of the same, and some Mississippi legislators want the Magnolia State to be first out of the gate.

Mississippi State House
State Sen. Michael Watson (R-Pascagoula) told the Mississippi Press Monday that he will introduce this week a bill that requires recipients of public benefits to take mandatory drug tests and prove their US citizenship. The bill would apply to people receiving Medicaid, food stamps, electronic benefit transfer cards and other state assistance program benefits.

"Our system is abused," Watson said. "Across the state, lawmakers have big hearts and truly want to help people, but we want to help people who also want to help themselves."

Public benefits are designed as temporary help for people going through hard times, he explained.

"To the people who are taking advantage of our generosity and hardworking Mississippian's tax dollars, we want to say no more," Watson said. "The folks that can work need to get a job and stop taking advantage of our system."

The unemployment rate in Mississippi was 10.5% in November, the last month for which state-level data are available. It has hovered at over 10% and above the national average for all of the past two years.

Watson said he has heard opposing arguments that such programs are likely to save states little money, but said it would still be worth it.

"It's a sensitive and an emotional topic, but you have to look at it logically," Watson said. "Even if you break even, it's well worth it in my opinion."

Watson said his bill is modeled on a Florida law implemented last year. He didn't mention that the law was blocked shortly after it went into effect. A Florida welfare recipient backed by civil liberties attorneys successfully sought a temporary injunction in federal court and is awaiting a decision on a permanent injunction.

In Florida, the federal district court found a high probability that suspicionless drug testing will be found to be an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. That ruling was based in part on a US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2003 that threw out a Michigan welfare drug testing law -- the last suspicionless drug testing bill to be passed before Florida's.

Other states have passed drug testing bills that seek to avoid the constitutional issues by limiting drug tests to those benefits recipients officials have reasonable grounds to believe have been using drugs. Such measures have been passed in Arizona, Indiana, and Missouri, and have so far not been tested in the courts.

Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, told the Mississippi Press such efforts are misguided. "This is a policy proposal that's looking for a problem," Sivak said.

Sivak cited studies of programs in Idaho and Louisiana that found only small percentages of people tested positive and that the programs could cost as much as they save. He also said the state could have to pay to defend the bill if it becomes law and is challenged.

Legislators seem split along party lines on the welfare drug testing issue.

Rep. Steve Holland (D-Plantersville) said he saw no benefit to it. "And for what reason?" he asked. "What value does it offer? Other than further humiliation of mankind?"

But Sen. Bruce Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) said he supported the bill. "If you're getting, essentially, free healthcare from the government, you don't need to be doing drugs," Wiggins said.

Watson's bill could go before the Drug Policy Committee, where he is vice-chairman, or before the Public Health and Welfare Committee, on which Wiggins sits.

Mississippi isn't the only state moving fast on the issue this year. A hearing on an unemployment drug testing bill is set for this week in South Carolina, and movement is happening in other states, too. Look for a feature article on the issue next week.

Jackson, MS
United States

Tallahassee to Pay in Death of Informant Rachel Hoffman

Tallahassee, Florida, city commissioners last Friday voted to approve a $2.6 million settlement in the wrongful death suit of a young woman killed in a drug sting when she agreed to be a confidential informant for police after being busted on marijuana and ecstasy charges. The payout comes even as a similar killing is shaking the Detroit area.

Rachel Hoffman (facebook.com)
Rachel Hoffman, 23, a recent Florida State University graduate, inhabited student drug circles, but after she was busted and agreed to become a snitch in 2008, Tallahassee police sent her out into an entirely different world. They set up a "buy-bust" sting, giving Hoffman $13,000 in marked bills to buy ecstasy, cocaine, and a gun. Instead of completing the transaction, the two men targeted shot and killed her, stole the money, her credit cards, and her car, and left her body in a ditch. The killers were later caught and are now serving life sentences.

But Hoffman's parents sued after her death, claiming police were negligent in setting her up as an informant and putting her in harm's way. Jury selection in the case began two weeks ago, and the trial was set to begin Monday. After meeting with city attorneys, commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the settlement. The city itself will pay an initial $200,000 installment shortly, but under Florida law, the rest will only be paid after the Florida legislature passes a "claims bill," which could take years.

The city's settlement isn't the only fallout from Hoffman's killing. After her death, her parents lobbied for, and the legislature passed, "Rachel's Law," which mandated reforms to protect informants. Under that law, police who work with informants are also required to get special training, must allow them to talk with an attorney before agreeing to anything, and cannot promise them reduced sentences if they cooperate.

If Michigan had such a law, perhaps Shelley Hilliard would be alive today. The 19-year-old transgender woman was found murdered and mutilated on Detroit's east side in October after last being seen going to meet a man she had set up in a drug sting after being busted herself for marijuana.

In a Thursday preliminary hearing for Qasim Raqib, the man charged with her killing, testimony revealed that police told her she could avoid arrest by helping to set up a drug deal. She used her cell phone to call Raqib as police listened in on a speaker phone and told him she knew someone who wanted to buy $335 worth of marijuana and cocaine. He was arrested when he arrived at a local motel 20 minutes later.

Further testimony suggested Raqib called Hilliard two days later and urged her to meet him. A taxi driver who took Hilliard on all her calls testified she said she was worried that Raqib would seek payback over the drug bust. The taxi driver testified that after dropping her off, she called him and sounded fearful, and he then heard a sound like the phone dropping to the ground before it went dead. Her body was found hours later.

Tallahassee, FL
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Here's the latest from the medical marijuana skirmishes:

Arizona

A federal judge Wednesday threw out a lawsuit filed on behalf of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) that had blocked the implementation of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana dispensary program. Brewer and state health officials had sued to ask the court for clarification about whether the state's medical marijuana law was preempted by federal drug laws, saying they feared going forward would put state employees at risk of federal prosecution.

California

On December 21, California Attorney General Kamala Harris sent a letter to top lawmakers in which she warned that any efforts to regulate medical marijuana via the legislative process will be limited by the state constitution and by the federal government's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act. In the letter, she noted that an appeals court ruling (Pack v. Superior Court) found that state regulation of large scale medical marijuana cultivation "stands as an obstacle to federal enforcement efforts and is therefore preempted by the Federal Controlled Substances Act."

But Harris also noted that because Proposition 215 was enacted by voter initiative, any legislative regulation that would "undo what the people have done" would be unconstitutional under state law. Still, Harris wrote, the legislature needs to intervene because there are "significant unresolved legal questions" regarding parts of the initiative that allow for collaborative cultivation and the legality of dispensaries.

"I hope that the foregoing suggestions are helpful to you in crafting legislation," Harris concluded. "California law places a premium on patients' rights to access marijuana for medical use. In any legislative action that is taken, the voters' decision to allow physicians to recommend marijuana to treat seriously ill patients must be respected."

Also on December 21, the Happy Wellness Center in Newark reopened a week after being raided by state agents. "There's no way that me, the way I am, could just sit back and not open," said the center's CEO, Justin Hammer. "If I felt we were doing anything wrong, anything illegal, I wouldn't be here." The Happy Wellness Center operated for 105 days before the raid and originally opened before the city ban on such operations. An attorney for the collective says only a court order will change their position.

On December 23, the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department returned 2 pounds of medicinal marijuana to a dispensary from which it was seized earlier this month. The move came after a Superior Court judge the same day ordered them to return the medicine. It had been seized in a December 1 raid at the Common Roots Collective.

On December 23, two Long Beach dispensary operators, Jon Grumbine and Joseph Byron, were found guilty of marijuana trafficking after prosecutors argued the men operated the businesses for profit, which is forbidden under state law.

On December 26, medical marijuana patients rallied and marched in San Diego to protest the federal crackdown and recalcitrant local authorities. A crowd of 50 to 75 people showed up, including Democratic Congressman Bob Filner, who is running for mayor. 

On December 28, Riverside County officials said they had begun legal action to close down about three dozen dispensaries in unincorporated areas. The county asked a Riverside County Superior Court judge to declare Platinum Collective in Home Gardens a public nuisance. The county is seeking civil penalties of $1,000 for each day Platinum Collective has been open since March 7, when the business was notified it was operating illegally, and wants reimbursement for the cost of abatement, investigation and enforcement. Dispensaries are illegal under a ban the Board of Supervisors approved in 2006.

On December 29, veteran activist Steve Kubby filed a municipal initiative in South Lake Tahoe to control marijuana odor and rewrite restrictive cultivation rules. The city has 15 days from then to write a title and summary so the signature-gathering process can begin.

In late December, San Francisco's Market Street Co-op announced it would close January 9 due to pressure on its landlords from the feds. "A San Francisco Assistant United States Attorney threatened our landlords with property forfeiture if the cooperative does not stop dispensing cannabis at our current location," the dispensary noted.

On New Year's Eve, Sacramento's One Love Wellness Center closed its doors. The dispensary had had its bank account seized by federal authorities in September after a Treasury Department criminal task force alleged that the dispensary structured $102,713 in deposits in small amounts to skirt rules requiring financial establishments to report all deposits of $10,000 or more to the Internal Revenue Service. No charges have been filed, but One Love was under additional pressure after Sacramento US Attorney Benjamin Wagner sent out a notice threatening its landlord with seizure of its property if marijuana sales continued on site. One Love said the move will cost 20 jobs. The dispensary also noted that it had paid more than $227,000 into state coffers in sales taxes last year and nearly $50,000 to the city of Sacramento. About two dozen dispensaries remain in the city, but nearly a hundred Sacramento County dispensaries have been shut down since supervisors decided they weren't permitted in unincorporated communities.

On Tuesday, medical marijuana patients in Shasta County began seeking to oust Sheriff Tom Bosenko in the latest skirmish in the on-going war between them and county officials. Bosenko was handed a recall notice Tuesday by patient and advocate Rob McDonald after he suggested tightening restrictions on medical marijuana cultivation in the county. Recall notices are being prepared for supervisors David Kehoe and Les Baugh, though neither has been presented yet, McDonald said. He is also targeting for recall Redding City Council members Patrick Jones, Francie Sullivan and Rick Bosetti in response to the city's dispensary ban, passed in November.

Also in Redding, Shasta County Superior Court Judge Stephen Baker granted the city of Anderson's request for a preliminary injunction against the Green Heart, the city's only dispensary. The judge gave Green Heart until next Tuesday to appeal.

Also on Tuesday, in Lakeport, the Lake County Board of Supervisors rescinded an October cultivation ordinance in response to a successful referendum petition. The Lake County Citizens for Responsible Regulations and the Lake County Green Farmers Association want less stringent rules than those passed by the board. The board could have let the voters decide in a special election, but decided that would be too expensive, and just repealed the ordinance.

And also on Tuesday, Riverside County officials raided numerous dispensaries in the Lakeland Village area. Police, county code enforcement, and a county attorney came knocking on doors to let dispensaries know they must shut down within 72 hours or face legal action. The move came after the county Board of Supervisors last month authorized county attorneys to sue any dispensaries still open in unincorporated areas of the county.

Colorado

On December 22, Colorado became the fourth state to ask the DEA to reschedule marijuana. The head of the state Department of Revenue made the request in compliance with state law. Colorado now joins Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington in seeking rescheduling.

Rhode Island

On December 27, Rhode Island House Speaker Gordon Fox said he will personally petition the federal Department of Justice to see how Rhode Island can open the large-scale dispensaries for growing and selling marijuana that advocates have long sought. Fox disagrees with Gov. Lincoln Chafee's decision to halt the process of issuing dispensary permits in the face of federal threats.

Washington

On December 15, state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles released a summary of a proposed comprehensive medical marijuana bill. The Cannabis Defense Coalition had some issues with it; click the link to find out more.

On December 21, a state medical board that regulates medical marijuana has scheduled a hearing in Renton for January 11 to consider adding Attention Deficit Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as qualifying conditions.

On December 27, the town of Castle Rock approved zoning regulations for medical marijuana gardens. Under the zoning rules, group gardens only are allowed in two commercial areas east of Interstate 5 near exits 48 and 49. The gardens must not be able to be viewed from public streets and must be locked or otherwise secured. Any planned group garden also must be inspected by city officials. The city is trying to keep gardens away from schools and public areas.

The Top Ten Domestic US Drug Policy Stories of 2011 [FEATURE]

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/usmap-small.jpg
We can put 2011 to bed now, but not before looking back one last time at the good, the bad, and the ugly. It was a year of rising hopes and crushing defeats, of gaining incremental victories and fending off old, failed policies. And it was a year in which the collapse of the prohibitionist consensus grew ever more pronounced. Let's look at some of the big stories:

Progress on Marijuana Legalization

Last year saw considerable progress in the fight for marijuana legalization, beginning in January, when Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) got President Obama to say that legalization (in general) is "an entirely legitimate topic for debate," and that while he does not favor it, he does believe in "a public health-oriented approach" to illicit drugs. Before the LEAP intervention, which was made via a YouTube contest, legalization was "not in the president's vocabulary." While we're glad the president learned a new word, we would be more impressed if his actions matched his words. Later in the year, in response to "We the People" internet petitions, the Obama White House clarified that, yes, it still opposes marijuana legalization.

In June, Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) made history by introducing the first ever bill in Congress to end federal marijuana prohibition, H.R. 2306. It hasn't been scheduled for a hearing or otherwise advanced in the legislative process, but it has garnered 20 cosponsors so far. Sadly, its lead sponsors are both retiring after this term.

Throughout the year, there were indications that marijuana legalization is on the cusp of winning majority support among the electorate. An August Angus Reid poll had support at 55%, while an October Gallup poll had it at 50%, the first time support legalization has gone that high since Gallup started polling the issue. A November CBS News poll was the downside outlier, showing support at only 40%, down slightly from earlier CBS polls. But both the Angus Reid and the Gallup polls disagreed with CBS, showing support for legalization trending steadily upward in recent years.

Legalization is also polling reasonably -- if not comfortably -- well in Colorado and Washington, the two states almost certain to vote on initiatives in November. In December, Public Policy Polling had legalization leading 49% to 40% in Colorado, but that was down slightly from an August poll by the same group that had legalization leading 51% to 38%.

In Washington, a similar situation prevails. A January KING5/SurveyUSA poll had 56% saying legalization would be a good idea and 54% saying they supported marijuana being sold at state-run liquor stores (similar to what the I-502 initiative proposes), while a July Elway poll had 54% either definitely supporting legalization or inclined to support it. But by September, the Strategies 360 Washington Voter Survey had public opinion evenly split, with 46% supporting pot legalization and 46% opposed.

The polling numbers in Colorado and Washington demonstrate that victory at the polls in November is in reach, but that it will be a tough fight and is by no means a sure thing. "Stoners Against Proposition 19"-style opposition in both states isn't going to help matters, either.

Oh, and Connecticut became the 14th decriminalization state.

Medical Marijuana Advances…

In May, Delaware became the 16th state to enact a medical marijuana law. Under the law, patients with qualifying conditions can legally possess up to six ounces of marijuana, but they cannot grow their own. Instead, they must purchase it from a state-licensed compassion center. That law will go into effect this year.

Meanwhile, New Jersey and Washington, DC, continue their achingly slow progress toward actually implementing existing medical marijuana laws. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie (R) finally got out of the way and okayed plans for up to six dispensaries, but early efforts to set them up are running into NIMBY-style opposition. In DC, a medical marijuana program approved by voters in 1998 (!) but thwarted by Congress until 2009 is nearly at the stage of selecting dispensary operators. One of these months or years, patients in New Jersey and DC may actually get their medicine.

And late in the year, after the federal government rejected a nine-year-old petition seeking to reschedule marijuana, the governors of Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington formally asked the Obama administration to reschedule it so that states could regulate its medical use without fear of federal interference. As the year came to an end, Colorado joined in the request for rescheduling.

…But the Empire Strikes Back

Last year saw the Obama administration recalibrate its posture toward medical marijuana, and not for the better. Throughout the year, US Attorneys across the country sent ominous signals that states attempting to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries could face problems, including letters to state governors not quite stating that state employees involved in regulation of the medical marijuana industry could face prosecution. That intimidated public officials who were willing to be intimidated, leading, for example, to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) delaying his state's medical marijuana program, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee (I) to kill plans for dispensaries there, and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) to veto key parts of a bill there that would have regulated dispensaries.

Then the feds hit hard at Montana, raiding dispensaries and growers there, even as the state law was under attack by conservative Republican legislators. Now, Montana medical marijuana providers are heading to federal prison, and the state law has been restricted. What was once a booming industry in Montana has been significantly stifled.

There have also been raids directed at providers in Colorado, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington, but California has been the primary target of federal attention in the latter half of the year. Since a joint offensive by federal prosecutors in the state got underway in October, with threat letters being sent to numerous dispensaries and their landlords, a great chill has settled over the land. Dispensary numbers are dropping by the day, the number of lost jobs number in the thousands, and the amount of tax revenues lost to local jurisdictions and the state is in the millions. That's not to mention the patients who are losing safe access to their medicine.

It's unclear whether the impetus for the crackdown originated in the Dept. of Justice headquarters in Washington or with individual US Attorneys in the states. Advocates hope it will stay limited mainly to states that are not effectively regulating the industry, and a coalition in California has filed a ballot initiative for 2012 that would do just that. Either way there is plenty of pain ahead, for patients and for providers who took the president's and attorney general's earlier words on the subject at face value.

Synthetic Panic

Last year, Congress and state and local governments across the land set their sights on new synthetic drugs, especially synthetic cannabinoids ("fake marijuana") and a number of methcathinone derivatives ("bath salts") marketed for their stimulating effects similar to amphetamines or cocaine. Confronted with these new substances, politicians resorted to reflex prohibitionism, banning them as fast as they could.

Some 40 states and countless cities and counties have imposed bans on fake weed or bath salts or both, most of them acting this year.

At the federal level, the DEA enacted emergency bans on fake weed -- after first being temporarily blocked by retailers -- and then bath salts until Congress could act. It did so at the end of the year, passing the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2011. The bill makes both sets of substances Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act, which will pose substantial impediments to researching them. Under the bill, prison sentences of up to 20 years could be imposed for the distribution of even small quantities of the new synthetics.

But the prohibitionists have a problem: Synthetic drug makers are responding to the bans by bringing new, slightly different formulations of their products to market. Prosecutors are finding their cases evaporating when the find the drugs seized are not the ones already criminalized, and retailers are eager to continue to profit from the sales of the new drugs. As always, the drug law enforcers are playing catch-up and the new drug-producing chemists are way ahead of them.

The Drug War on Autopilot: Arrests Hold Steady, But Prisoners Decline Slightly

overcrowded Mule Creek State Prison, CA
Last year saw more evidence that drug law enforcement has hit a plateau, as 2010 drug arrests held steady, but the number of prisoners and people under correctional supervision declined slightly.

More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US in 2010, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report 2010, and more than half of them were for marijuana. That's a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 24 hours a day, every day last year. The numbers suggest that despite "no more war on drugs" rhetoric emanating from Washington, the drug war juggernaut is rolling along on cruise control.

Overall, 1,638,846 were arrested on drug charges in 2010, up very slightly from the 1,633,582 arrested in 2009. But while the number of drug arrests appears to be stabilizing, they are stabilizing at historically high levels. Overall drug arrests are up 8.3% from a decade ago.

Marijuana arrests last year stood at 853,838, down very slightly from 2009's 858,408. But for the second year in a row, pot busts accounted for more arrests than  all other drugs combined, constituting 52% of all drug arrests in 2010. Nearly eight million people have been arrested on pot charges since 2000.

The vast majority (88%) off marijuana arrests were for simple possession, with more than three-quarters of a million (750,591) busted in small-time arrests. Another 103,247 people were charged with sale or manufacture, a category that includes everything from massive marijuana smuggling operations to persons growing a single plant in their bedroom closets.

An analysis of the Uniform Crime Report data by the University of Maryland's Center for Substance Abuse Research added further substance to the notion that drug enforcement is flattening. The center found that the arrest rate for drug violations has decreased for the last four years, but still remains more than twice as high as rates in the early 1980s. The all-time peak was in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that for the first time since 1972, the US prison population in 2010 had fallen from the previous year and that for the second year in a row, the number of people under the supervision of adult correctional authorities had also declined.

In its report Prisoners in 2010, BJS reported that the overall US prison population at the end of 2010 was 1,605,127, a decrease of 9,228 prisoners or 0.6% from year end 2009. The number of state prisoners declined by 0.8% (10,881 prisoners), while the number of federal prisoners increased by 0.8% (1.653 prisoners). Drug offenders accounted for 18% of state prison populations in 2009, the last year for which that data is available. That's down from 22% in 2001. Violent offenders made up 53% of the state prison population, property offenders accounted for 19%, and public order or other offenders accounted for 9%.

In the federal prison population, drug offenders made up a whopping 51% of all prisoners, with public order offenders (mainly weapons and immigration violations) accounting for an additional 35%. Only about 10% of federal prisoners were doing time for violent offenses. Overall, somewhere between 350,000 and 400,000 people were doing prison time for drug offenses last year.

Similarly, in its report Correctional Population in the US 2010, BJS reported that the number of people under adult correctional supervision declined 1.3% last year, the second consecutive year of declines. The last two years are the only years to see this figure decline since 1980.

At the end of 2010, about 7.1 million people, or one in 33 adults, were either in prison or on probation or parole. About 1.4 million were in state prisons, 200,000 in federal prison, and 700,000 in jail, for a total imprisoned population of about 2.3 million. Nearly 4.9 million people were on probation or parole.

America's experiment with mass incarceration may have peaked, exhausted by its huge costs, but change is coming very slowly, and we are still the world's unchallenged leader in imprisoning our own citizens.

Federal Crack Prisoners Start Coming Home

Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison in November, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners were eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.

The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much criticized disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning in November.

Despite the joyous reunions taking place across the country, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.

And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.

But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war incarceration complex requires changes on the front end.

Also in November, the US Supreme Court announced that it will decide whether the Fair Sentencing Act should be applied to those who were convicted, but not sentenced, before it came into effect -- the so-called "pipeline" cases. The decision to take up the issue came after lower courts split on the issue. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue in June.

Drug Testing the Needy

drug testing lab
With state budgets strained by years of recession and slow recovery, lawmakers across the country are turning their sights on the poor and the needy. In at least 12 states, bills have been introduced that would require people seeking welfare or unemployment benefits to undergo drug testing and risk losing those benefits if they test positive. Some Republicans in the US Congress want to do the same thing. In a thirteenth state, Michigan, the state health department is leading the charge.

The race to drug test the needy appears to be based largely on anecdotal and apocryphal evidence. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Hailey (R), to take one example, cited reports that a nuclear installation there couldn't fill vacancies because half the applicants failed drug tests, but had to retract that statement because it was nowhere near to being true. In Florida, where welfare drug testing was briefly underway before being halted by a legal challenge, 96% of applicants passed drug tests, while in an Indiana unemployment drug testing program, only 2% failed.

While such legislation appeals to conservative values, it is having a tough time getting passed in most places, partly because of fears that such laws will be found unconstitutional. The federal courts have historically been reluctant to approve involuntary drug testing, allowing it only for certain law enforcement or public safety-related occupations and for some high school students. When Michigan tried to implement a welfare drug testing program more than a decade ago, a federal appeals court ruled that such a program violated welfare recipients' right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.

That ruling has served to restrain many lawmakers, but not Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and the Florida legislature. Scott issued an executive order to drug test state employees, but had to put that on hold in the face of threatened legal challenges. The state legislature passed and Scott signed a bill requiring welfare applicants and recipients to undergo drug testing or lose their benefits.

But the ACLU of Florida and the Florida Justice Institute filed suit in federal court to block that law on the grounds it violated the Fourth Amendment. In October, a federal judge granted a preliminary injunction preventing the state from implementing it. A final decision from that court and decisions about whether it will be appealed are eagerly awaited.

Marking 40 Years of Failed Drug War

Drug War 40th anniversary demo, San Francisco
June 17 marked forty years since President Richard Nixon, citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1," declared a "war on drugs." A trillion dollars and millions of ruined lives later, a political consensus is emerging that the war on drugs is a counterproductive failure. The Drug Policy Alliance led advocates all across the country in marking the auspicious date with a day of action to raise awareness about the catastrophic failure of drug prohibition and to call for an exit strategy from the failed war on drugs. More than 50 events on the anniversary generated hundreds of local and national stories.

In dozens of cities across the land, activists, drug war victims, and just plain folks gathered to commemorate the day of infamy and call for an end to that failed policy. Messages varied from city to city -- in California, demonstrators focused on prison spending during the budget crisis; in New Orleans, the emphasis was on racial injustice and harsh sentencing -- but the central overarching theme of the day, "No More Drug War!" was heard from sea to shining sea and all the way to Hawaii.

The crowds didn't compare to those who gather for massive marijuana legalization protests and festivals -- or protestivals -- such as the Seattle Hempfest, the Freedom Rally on Boston Commons, or the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, or even the crowds that gather for straightforward pot protests, such as 420 Day or the Global Marijuana March, but that's because the issues are tougher. People have to break a bit more profoundly with drug war orthodoxy to embrace completely ending the war on drugs than they do to support "soft" marijuana. That relatively small groups did so in cities across the land is just the beginning.

Congress Reinstates the Federal Ban on Funding Needle Exchanges

Two years ago, after years of advocacy by public health and harm reduction advocates, the longstanding ban on federal funding for needle exchanges was repealed. Last month, the ban was restored as the Senate took the final votes to approve the 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

It was a Democratic-controlled House and Senate that rescinded the ban two years ago, and it was House Republicans who were responsible for reinstating it this year. Three separate appropriations bills contained language banning the use of federal funds, and House negotiators managed to get two of them into the omnibus bill passed Saturday.

A Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations bill including the ban on domestic use of federal funds for needle exchanges and a State Department bill including a ban on funding for needle exchange access in international programs both made it into the omnibus bill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

Needle exchange supporters said restoring the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone.

US Drug War Deaths

As far as we know, nobody has ever tried to count the number of people killed in the US because of the war on drugs. We took a crack at it last year, counting only those deaths directly attributable to drug law enforcement activities. The toll was 54, including three law enforcement officers.

Most of those killed were shot by police, many of them while in possession of firearms (some in their own homes) and some of them while shooting at police. Some were shot in vehicles after police said they tried to run them down (why is it they never were merely trying to get away?). But not all died at the hands of police -- several died of drug overdoses from eating drugs while trying to evade arrest, several more died from choking on bags of drugs they swallowed, one man drowned after jumping into a river to avoid a pot bust, and another died after stepping in front of a speeding semi-trailer while being busted for meth.

People were killed in "routine traffic stops," SWAT-style raids, and undercover operations. Hardly any of those cases made more than a blip in local media, the two exceptions being the case of Jose Guerena, an Iraq war vet gunned down by an Arizona SWAT team as he responded to his wife's cry of intruders in his own home, and the case of Eurie Stamps Sr., a 68-year-old Massachusetts man accidentally shot and killed by a SWAT team member executing a warrant for small-time crack sales.

Our criteria were highly restrictive and absolutely undercount the number of people who are killed by our drug laws. They don't include, for instance, people who overdosed unnecessarily because they didn't know what they were taking or medical marijuana patients who die after being refused organ transplants. Nor do they include cases where people embittered by the drug laws go out in a blaze of glory that wasn't directly drug law-related or cases, like the four men killed last year by Miami SWAT officers during an undercover operation directed at drug house robbers.

The toll of 54 dead, then, is an absolute minimum figure, but it's a start. We will keep track again this year, and look for a report on last year's numbers in the coming weeks.

In Conclusion...

Last year had its ups and downs, its victories and defeats, but leaves drug reformers and their allies better placed than ever before to whack away at drug prohibition. This year, it looks like voters in Colorado and Washington will have a chance to legalize marijuana, and who know what else the new year will bring. At the least, we can look forward to the continuing erosion of last century's prohibitionist consensus.


 

Medical Marijuana Update

So much is going on in the world of medical marijuana that we cannot adequately cover it all through news briefs and the occasional feature article. The news briefs and feature articles will, of course, continue, but we now include a weekly medical marijuana update at least noting all those stories we are unable to cover more comprehensively. Here's the latest:

California

On December 14, a federal judge in San Diego rejected a request from medical marijuana advocates for an injunction to halt federal enforcement actions against dispensaries there. The ruling followed his November ruling rejecting a temporary restraining order. US District Judge Dana Sabraw rejected arguments that the feds were engaging in selective prosecution by not targeting dispensaries in other states and that use of medical marijuana has become a protected right. Sabraw noted that the federal government was prosecuting some dispensaries in other states and ruled that using marijuana as medicine is not a fundamental right protected by the US Constitution. The suit is not dead, but the government is now expected to file a new motion to dismiss the case.

Also on December 14, NORML dismissed James Benno, the director of its Redding chapter, after his angry outburst during a meeting of the Shasta County Board of Supervisors the night before as the supervisors voted to ban dispensaries in the county's unincorporated areas. NORML also apologized to the supervisors and suspended the Redding chapter. Benno's behavior prompted an editorial in the Redding Record Searchlight, Nasty Outbursts do Nothing for Marijuana Cause.

On December 15, the Fresno city council voted to ban outdoor medical marijuana cultivation within the city limits. Fresno County banned outdoor grows last year. The vote came after Fresno police went to the council seeking an immediate ordinance "to prevent the cultivations from starting next year." Police cited the shooting death of a local man during an attempted marijuana heist in a backyard last year. The emergency measure took effect immediately and must be renewed within 45 days. A final permanent ban is expected in April, and it would make growing marijuana a violation of (no pun intended) the city's weed abatement ordinance. Local growers are holding meetings to figure out what to do next.

On December 15, the Butte County Registrar of Voters certified a referendum petition turned in by opponents of a ban on medical marijuana dispensaries in the county. The petitioners are trying to reverse a recent vote by county supervisors to ban dispensaries. Supervisors will take up the issue at their next meeting. They can either reverse their decision or put the matter before the voters on the June ballot.

On December 15, medical marijuana advocates filed a proposed 2012 ballot initiative to license, regulate, and tax the industry at the state level. The initiative, the Medical Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act was filed by a coalition that includes Americans for Safe Access, California NORML, the Drug Policy Alliance and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents some dispensary workers.

"We think that this initiative will create a level playing ground that law enforcement will embrace because it creates a sensible process," said Dan Rush, national director of the United Food and Commercial Workers' medical cannabis division. "The US attorneys became hostile to medical marijuana in California and what we are doing is offering a responsible, dignified and sincere approach to the citizens of California."

Look for a feature article on the initiative in coming weeks. 

On Friday, Sacramento County's Magnolia Wellness Center closed down but only after offering free grams and discounts on top-tier medical marijuana strains to its clients. Hundreds of customers of what was possibly the largest dispensary in the county lined up for the final day, with many expressing great unhappiness with the federal crackdown and an aggressive campaign by the county to shut down dispensaries via citations for building code and zoning violations. The county had seen as many as 99 dispensaries open in the past two years. Now there are only five left. The closing of Magnolia left 25 unionized bud tenders and other workers out of jobs in a county where the unemployment rate is 11.8%.

On Saturday, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Novato closed its doors in the face of threats of federal prosecution. The Alliance was the oldest operating dispensary in the state and had a good working relationship with local officials, but ran afoul of the feds because it was located too close parks and schools. It closed after it was served an eviction notice by its landlord, who had received a threat letter from US Attorney for Northern California Melinda Haag. Co-founder and longtime Alliance operator Lynette Shaw also formally severed her connection with the Alliance, saying she was "in great danger," presumably of federal prosecution.

On Monday, San Diego medical marijuana collectives unveiled a proposed ballot initiative that would regulate storefront operators and generate additional revenue through a sales tax to the city of San Diego. The move comes after years of futile efforts to get the city council to enact a friendly ordinance regulating dispensaries and as both local and federal prosecutors are cracking down on dispensaries in the area. The same collectives earlier this year collected enough signatures to successfully repeal a restrictive city ordinance. If they get enough signatures this time, the measure will be on next November's ballot.

Montana

On December 15, three medical marijuana dispensary operators were sentenced in federal court to a year in prison each. Joshua Schultz, Jesse Leland, and Jason Burns could have faced a five year prison sentence, but the US Probation Office recommended two to 2 ½ years under sentencing guidelines.

US District Court Judge Charles Lovell went a step further, saying: "The sentencing range that established the guidelines has been, in the judgment of the court, excessive for utilization in this particular case under what I find to be very unusual circumstances. While it is true that the law was violated and while it is true that the computation set forward by the US Probation Office complies with the guidelines in an ordinary case, this is not an ordinary case as to each of the three defendants."

The three men had all operated dispensaries in compliance with Montana state law and believed they were safe from federal prosecution because of the Justice Department's 2009 Ogden memo. But their dispensaries were among more than two dozen hit in March raids by the feds, and they were arrested and jailed on about 25 charges each, including manufacturing and distributing marijuana and money laundering.

On Tuesday, a Whitefish man who helped run a medical marijuana dispensary was sentenced to a year and half in federal prison. Ryan Blindheim, 34, had helped operate the Black Pearl dispensary in Olney along with Evan Corum, also of Whitefish. Corum earlier pleaded guilty to money laundering and was sentenced to six months in prison. Blindheim pleaded guilty to money laundering and conspiracy to manufacture marijuana. Black Perl was among the more than two dozen medical marijuana businesses raided by the feds in March.

Washington

On December 14, Seattle marijuana defense attorney Douglas Hiatt filed a lawsuit challenging the city's ordinance regulating medical marijuana dispensaries. The lawsuit argues that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it requires dispensary operators to admit they are taking actions that are illegal under federal law.

North Carolina Opium Law Snares Small Prescription Pain Pill Holders

North Carolina's drug laws, which severely punish people who traffic in opiates, are yielding harsh prison sentences for people possessing or trafficking small quantities of prescription pain pills. That is leading to renewed debate in the Tar Heel State about whether the laws are too harsh.

This pill bottle fulls of opiate pain pills could get you 20 years or more in North Carolina. (wikimedia.org)
Under North Carolina's opium law, which was designed to attack heroin trafficking, anyone caught with more than four grams of opium, heroin, or an opium derivative faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of between six and seven years. But as the Wilmington Star News reported, the four-gram limit means people caught with as few as four Lorcet tablets, five Percocets, or six Vicodin are subject to those draconian punishments.

The sentences increase with the quantities of drugs in question. Having between a half ounce and an ounce of prescription pain pills can earn a seven-to-10-year sentence, while having more than an ounce garners between 19 and 23 years. A single pill bottle full of pain pills could be enough for that latter sentence.

The penalties for opiates are much more severe than for other drugs under the North Carolina law. Trafficking an ounce to 199 grams of amphetamines has a two-year mandatory minimum, while the same quantity of cocaine has a three-year mandatory minimum. When it comes to marijuana, to get the same mandatory minimum as five or six pain pills, one would have to be caught with a ton or more of pot.

While some relatives of pain pill overdose victims have lobbied for harsher penalties, even some North Carolina prosecutors say the punishments are already too extreme.

"You can literally end your life in prison on a handful of pills," said Chris Thomas, an assistant district attorney in Brunswick County. "When the legislature enacted the trafficking law back when they did, I don't think they ever intended it to apply to prescription drugs. That was when heroin was a big problem," he told the Star News. "But it's one of those things that's on the books, and it's a tool that we're going to utilize."

New Hanover County Assistant District Attorney Janet Coleman, who handles drug cases, said many people she has prosecuted for pain pills had no prior criminal record. "None, zero, not even a speeding ticket," she said. "They are otherwise law-abiding citizens who end up in this nightmare."

[Editor's Note: Why prosecute people with those laws then? Prosecutors have the discretion to not do so.]

The issue has gained the attention of state lawmakers, but has so far gone nowhere. A bill in the 2008 legislature would have allowed some some convicted traffickers to get out after serving half their sentence if they lacked a violent criminal history and did not have a firearm when the offense was committed, in addition to meeting other criteria, but it died in committee.

NC
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