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California Governor Signs Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) Thursday signed into law a bill that decriminalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. The bill reduces simple possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction.

Currently, small-time pot possession is "semi-decriminalized" in California. There is no possible jail sentence and a maximum $100 fine. But because possession is a misdemeanor, people caught with pot are "arrested," even if that means only they are served a notice to appear, and they must appear before a court.

That has happened to more than a half million Californians in the last decade, and more than 60,000 last year alone. Every one of them required a court appearance, complete with judge and prosecutor. That costs the cash-strapped state money it desperately needs.

Under the bill signed today, SB 1449, by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), marijuana possession will be treated like a traffic ticket. The fine will remain at $100, and there will be no arrest record.

In a signing statement, Schwarzenegger said he opposed decriminalization for personal use -- and threw in a gratuitous jab at Proposition 19, the tax and regulate marijuana legalization initiative -- but that the state couldn't afford the status quo.

"I am signing this measure because possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is an infraction in everything but name," said Schwarzenegger. "The only difference is that because it is a misdemeanor, a criminal defendant is entitled to a jury trial and a defense attorney. In this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket."

"Gov. Schwarzenegger deserves credit for sparing the state's taxpayers the cost of prosecuting minor pot offenders," said California NORML director Dale Gieringer. "Californians increasingly recognize that the war on marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources."

The law goes into effect January 1. Even if Prop 19 passes in November, it leaves in place misdemeanor charges for smoking in public or in the presence of minors. Those misdemeanors would become infractions under the new law.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Legal Medical Marijuana Distributor Convicted of... Marijuana Distribution?!? [FEATURE]

The second time was the charm for anti-medical marijuana San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. Last year, she failed to convict San Diego medical marijuana dispensary operator Jovan Jackson on distribution charges. But on Tuesday, after Dumanis convinced the trial judge to not allow Jackson to mention medical marijuana in his defense, a state court jury found him guilty of three counts of marijuana possession and distribution.
Jovan Jackson
Jackson's attorney announced Wednesday that he will appeal the decision. It is about time for a state appellate court to clear up some of the confusion around the state's medical marijuana Compassionate Use Act, said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML.

"The verdict doesn't surprise me since they rigged the trial," said Gieringer. "It will be appealed, and it's probably a good appellate case. I think it's time for an appellate court decision on all this, or a new law to clarify the legality of marijuana distribution. Until we change the law, we have to rely on the courts."

"By refusing him a defense, the district attorney and the court have railroaded Jackson and ensured his conviction," said Americans for Safe Access (ASA) chief counsel Joe Elford, who submitted an amicus brief in support of Jackson prior to his trial. "Jackson was denied a fair trial," Elford continued. "His conviction and the basis on which the court relied in refusing him a defense -- that sales are illegal under state law -- should absolutely be appealed."

Jackson was the operator of the Answerdam Alternative Care Collective, a San Diego medical marijuana dispensary. He was arrested in 2008 in one of Dumanis' anti-medical marijuana raids, but was acquitted last December. He was arrested again during a series of raids in September 2009, and this time, Dumanis was able to convince Judge Howard Shore to not allow Jackson to mention medical marijuana in his defense.

"After the embarrassment of losing the first trial against Jovan Jackson, District Attorney Dumanis was desperate for a conviction," said Eugene Davidovich, head of the San Diego ASA chapter, and another dispensary operator whom Dumanis prosecuted but failed to convict. "Jackson should not have been denied a defense and should not be used as a scapegoat for the district attorney's misguided position that medical marijuana sales are illegal."

"We believe the basis on which the judge refused to allow the medical marijuana defense is flawed," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes. "It had to do with an interpretation of the medical marijuana program act that is based on the collective and cooperative cultivation statute only allowing distribution, not sales. If anyone had half a brain, they would see that it exempts collectives and co-ops from prosecution for a variety of charges, including sales. That was the basis of our amicus brief filed before the trial, but apparently never considered by Judge Shore."

"The DA down there is on a crusade to somehow convict people of medical marijuana," said Gieringer. "She's hoping she can score a victory in court on this. The law is certainly vague, and that has given her lots of opportunities, but until now, she had struck out on her jury trials, although she did get a bunch of defendants to plead guilty on minor charges."

"To be fair, as aggressive and mean-spirited as Dumanis has been, she is part of a culture in San Diego that has a sordid history of hostility around these issues," said Hermes.

The pattern of hostility can be seen in the county Board of Supervisors' failed 2006 lawsuit to avoid having to implement the state medical marijuana ID card program, and in continued aggressive action against dispensaries in the area. In 2007 and 2008, during the Bush administration, there were more than 50 raids against dispensaries. Most recently, Dumanis worked with the Obama administration to conduct 20 raids on dispensaries in San Diego on September 9, 2009, which resulted in the failed prosecution of Davidovich and the successful second prosecution of Jackson.

But as hostile as San Diego has been to medical marijuana, things are changing. Both the San Diego City Council and the county Board of Supervisors are now developing medical marijuana distribution ordinances that would regulate the very activity for which Jackson was convicted. In June, a San Diego grand jury issued recommendations calling on local governments to implement the state medical marijuana law. In particular, the grand jury called for the city and county to develop a "program for the licensing, regulation and periodic inspection of authorized collectives and cooperatives distributing medical marijuana."

The second time may have been the charm for Dumanis in the Jovan Jackson case, but if local governments act to implement the state's medical marijuana law, it may well be the last hurrah for her anti-medical marijuana crusade.

San Diego, CA
United States

Marijuana Questions on Some Massachusetts Ballots [FEATURE]

Voters in 73 Massachusetts cities and towns will be voting on a number of Public Policy Questions (PPQs) related to medical marijuana and marijuana legalization this November. Those towns and cities make up 18 state representative districts and account for about 12% of the state population.

Under Massachusetts law, citizens can petition to put PPQs on the ballot. The non-binding votes are a signal to legislators of voter sentiment on a given issue in the district.

2008 "Freedom Rally," Boston Common (via
The organizers of this year's PPQ campaign are the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts (DPFMA), the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition (MassCann/NORML), Suffolk University NORML, the UMass Amherst Cannabis Reform Coalition, and War on Lies, an on-again, off-again walk across America for marijuana freedom.

This year's PPQs are just the latest in a decade long effort to turn the marijuana policy tide in Massachusetts. Beginning in 2000, activists began using PPQs. Since then, they have passed 41 and lost none on medical marijuana, decriminalization, hemp, and most recently, legalization or tax and regulate. The PPQs passed with an average of 64.5% of the vote. Those PPQs laid the groundwork for the successful 2008 marijuana decriminalization initiative, and now, organizers hope to use them to push forward on legalization and medical marijuana.

"This is a continuation of that process," said DPFMA's John Leonard.

"We have a bunch of PPQs this year," said Bill Downing of MassCann/NORML. "There are a set of medical marijuana ones and a set of legalization ones. We're using the medical ones strategically to target individuals who have sway, and for the legalization ones, we used the results of the 2008 decriminalization vote to target communities with high decrim vote levels."

In nine districts, voters will be asked if state representatives from that district should be instructed to vote in favor of legalization. The wording of the PPQs varies slightly, with one asking if marijuana should be regulated "in the same manner as alcohol," and another mentioning "the taxation, cultivation, and sale of marijuana to adults."

In the other nine districts, voters will be asked to urge state representatives to vote in favor of medical marijuana legislation. Again, there is slight variation, with some PPQs asking about a doctor's recommendation and others specifying a recommendation "from a doctor or other caregiver."

"For medical marijuana, we looked at the real enemies of marijuana reform and targeted those districts," said Leonard. "We can go into a district and win by 60% or 70%, and if it doesn't change the legislator's mind, it will at least silence him. It has the effect of quieting down a lot of opposition."

history's dustbin: anti-Prop 2 (marijuana decrim) press conference, 2008 (Prop 2 passed)
Sometimes, the PPQs can turn former foes into allies, Leonard said. "We did it to Sen. Shannon, our PPQ got 67% of the vote, and he changed his position on marijuana 180 degrees. He became a convert and sponsored our decriminalization bill," he elaborated. "That same year, we did medical marijuana in the district of a Republican member of the health committee, and she became a sponsor of our medical bill."

PPQs can also win over another potential ally, said Leonard. "PPQs are the grunt work to prepare for an initiative, and they let people know there is a lot of support out there. They tend to bring newspaper editorial boards over to our side, and if an initiative does come, those editorials are important," he said.

In addition to putting politicians on notice, the PPQs serve other purposes, Downing said. "They provide the local press with evidence there is support for reform, as well as local supporters who might be interested in giving us financial support. Likewise, if there are people with money who want in invest in a state where it was pretty darned sure, we want to make it easy for them in Massachusetts."

"It's also a signal to national funders that these are winnable," Leonard pointed out. "The decriminalization initiative would not have happened without the PPQs. There are always polls, but these are actual votes, and people pay attention to that."

"It cost us nothing to run PPQs," said MASSCANN's Downing. "It's an all-volunteer effort so far, but we do have a budget for a legalization campaign that has been very carefully worked on. We're trying to start raising money for that, and I expect we will have made some from this year's Freedom Rally."

Although MASSCANN and DPFMA have a history of working together on the PPQs, there is space between them on the issue of legalization. While MASSCANN is rearing to go, DPFMA doesn't think the state is ready.

"Some people in MASSCANN think we should just go ahead on legalization, but at DPFMA, I think we feel legalization isn't that close," said Leonard. "We might score high with tax and regulate in some of these communities, but it's new, and once people throw all the scare tactics at it, support could drop a bit. I don't want a tax and regulate initiative without doing further work, doing more polling, having a large advertising budget. You should proceed cautiously," he cautioned.

"We've really done our homework with medical marijuana and decriminalization, but we're just putting our toes in the water with tax and regulate. What we do see that we're totally ripe for is a medical marijuana initiative. A strongly worded initiative without emasculated language like in Arizona could be put on the ballot and win easily," Leonard said.

This year's medical marijuana PPQs are part of that strategy, Leonard said. "We're bringing two of them within Scott Brown's old state senate seat, and a couple more where legislators have been strongly against marijuana reform. We're doing it in the worst districts we could do it in, and we're confident we will win."

DPFMA is pursuing the opposite strategy with its tax and regulate PPQs. "We're doing the most liberal districts and I think we'll do respectably in every district we target," Leonard said. "We are hoping with wins in these districts to make it legitimate for officials and candidates to talk about tax and regulate and not get tarred and feathered."

To the extent that PPQs or some other form of non-binding resolution local initiative exists in other states and localities, activists should take advantage of it, said Leonard. "This is a way for local people to do something, and you don't have to have a lot of money. I hope we inspire people all across the country to use this tactic. It's really politically effective."

United States

New Jersey Medical Marijuana Law Takes Effect on October 1st (Press Release)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 29, 2010                                   

CONTACT: Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Roseanne Scotti 609-610-8243

New Jersey Medical Marijuana Law Takes Effect on October 1st

Clock Ticking as Department of Health and Senior Services Has 90 Days to Adopt Regulations for Medical Marijuana Program

Patients, Families and Advocates Urge Department to Meet Deadline

Trenton, NJ— New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, becomes effective this Friday, October 1st. The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services will then have 90 days to adopt regulations to implement the Act.  The law passed in January after five years of intense advocacy by patients, families and advocates.  The legislation will allow patients suffering from certain debilitating and life-threatening illnesses such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, and multiple sclerosis to use and possess medical marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation.  The bill will also allow for the licensing of Alternative Treatment Centers where qualifying patients could safely access medical marijuana.  The program will be administered by the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.

Patients, families, and advocates have been eagerly awaiting the public release of the regulations and urging the Department of Health and Senior Services to meet the law’s deadline.

“We would appreciate it if they acted quickly on this because every day that goes by we are suffering without our medicine,” says Diane Rivera Riportella, who suffers from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  “People like myself with Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is taking my life away quickly, we need to have access to medical marijuana now.  Without the program being in effect, medical marijuana is difficult and dangerous to get. If it was one of their own family members, a parent or a child, would they take so long to create the regulations?”    

Earlier this year, Governor Chris Christie asked for a six-month to one-year delay in implementing the legislation.  Ultimately, the legislature passed an amendment which allowed for a three-month extension.  Even this delay caused concern among patients, families and advocates. 

“There are many seriously ill people in New Jersey waiting for the relief this important program will provide,” said Roseanne Scotti, Director of Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey.  “We know the Department of Health and Senior Services has been working on the regulations, and we urge them to move forward as quickly as possible to get this program up and running.”

Don and Gerry McGrath, who have dedicated the last five years of their lives to advocating for the passage of the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, worry that any further delay in adopting regulations would cause untold suffering for patients and families in New Jersey.  The McGraths lost their youngest son, Sean, to a rare form of cancer in 2004 when Sean was only 28 years old.  The McGraths’ story of how Sean’s doctors recommended medical marijuana and how it reduced his suffering has gained statewide attention. 

“The reason we became involved with this issue after Sean’s death was so that no other family would have to go through what we went through,” says Don McGrath.  “We had to worry constantly about being arrested or having our son arrested just because we wanted to provide him with the medicine that best relieved his nausea and wasting syndrome.  His doctors recommended medical marijuana and it provided Sean with relief and hope.”

Senator Nicholas Scutari, who was the prime sponsor of the legislation in the senate, and worked tirelessly for its passage, says, “The passage of this legislation represents significant progress and I expect the Department of Health and Senior Services to promulgate appropriate and effective regulations within the timeframe laid out in the statute. It is imperative to ensure that the ultimate goal of getting this medicine to the patients who are suffering and need relief is satisfied.”

The Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act is supported by a coalition of organizations including the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey, the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, the New Jersey League for Nursing, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the New Jersey chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. 

United States

Iowa Medical Marijuana Issue at Stalemate

United States
The Iowa Pharmacy Board has rejected a request that it write the rules regarding medical marijuana.

Higher Hurdles for Colorado's Medical Marijuana Entrepreneurs

United States
Attrition among Colorado's estimated 1,100 medical marijuana dispensaries is likely to pick up. Estimates of how many could go out of business in the near future, unable to comply with the new state regulations, range from 20% to 50%.
DailyFinance (US)

Oregon Representative to Introduce Marijuana Legalization Bill

Supporters of marijuana legalization in Oregon failed to get the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act(OCTA) on the ballot this year, but now another path appears to be opening. State Rep. Peter Buckley (D-Ashland) has announced he will introduce a legalization bill. He said he expected a hearing in February.

Buckley told the Portland Medical Marijuana Examiner he was using OCTA as a starting point because it was "a good proposal." He said that with budget concerns and "the desire to make progress on this," the OCTA proposal was something for the legislature to consider.

Rep. Peter Buckley and family

OCTA would set up an Oregon Cannabis Commission to regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana -- but not hemp, which would be legal and unregulated. The commission would license commercial growers and processors, which would sell their product to the commission, which in turn would retail it in commission stores. Cultivation and possession for non-commercial use by adults would not be regulated.

Whether Rep. Buckley actually introduces the bill remains to be seen, and its fate in the legislature is murky. But OCTA activists aren't just sitting around waiting for the politicians to set matters right; they are already gearing up for an effort to put OCTA on the ballot in 2012.

It looks like, one way or another, Oregon is vying to be one of the first states to cross the finish line in the decades-long marathon to end pot prohibition.

Ashland, OR
United States

PA: Spice/K2 Prohibition Gets Fast Track, Medical Marijuana Bills Wait (Press Release)

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 24, 2010
CONTACT: Chris Goldstein at 215-586-3483 or

PA: Spice/K2 Prohibition Gets Fast Track, Medical Marijuana Bills Wait

Pennsylvania saw medical marijuana bills HB 1393 and SB 1350 introduced last year. A Franklin&Marshall poll found that a whopping 80% of residents support the legislation, this was across the political spectrum.

Medical marijuana is currently the most broadly supported policy issue in Pennsylvania. Still, PA residents with serious medical conditions are waiting for the General Assembly to hold even a Committee level vote on the bills.

Since the issue is enjoying such strong backing from the voting public you’d think that medical marijuana would become positive political capital in an election year. But politicos do not know how to handle the numbers: They pop champagne bottles when their polls hit the high 30s…dare we say 40s. This whole range of 60-80 percent is new ground.

Instead of helping ill residents with an affordable, local health care alternative by legalizing cannabis therapy elected officials decided that they would rather spend their time banning something new.

This week the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee unanimously (24-0) voted forward HB 176, a bill that would ban a new set of chemical fad drugs.

Legislators and the media are incorrectly labeling the substances “fake pot” or “synthetic marijuana” but the compounds are not at all like natural cannabis. They are more akin to chemical inhalants.

The fad drugs are sold as packets of incense with hundreds of label names like “Spice” or “K2.” Bans in other states have been completely ineffective as the ingredients are changed and access is readily available online.

Users seek an undetectable high. Because these chemicals are nothing like marijuana, users can pass all standard workplace drug screens. There are no intoxication urine tests or police field tests for the drugs. Tests would not be mandated by HB 176 and would be expensive to develop.

Some of the Spice/K2 type compounds contain synthetic cannabinoids; some contain already controlled substances. The truly dangerous part about these chemical drugs is that the ingredients are wholly unknown and the chemical recipe varies among the hundreds of brands.

Now, Harrisburg is literally creating a new drug problem in Pennsylvania where there was none previously. It is a horrifying, textbook example of why prohibition policy does not work.

As a marijuana reform advocate in Pennsylvania, I am getting a Kafkaesque front-row seat.

These politics are playing out on the streets of Pennsylvania. Residents are being told there is a legal high available, somehow like marijuana, and they are eagerly seeking it out.

HB 176 has been the most effective marketing and advertising tool for these chemical drugs, ever. There was little awareness of these Spice/K2 type chemical drugs locally before the bill was introduced to prohibit them.

The intention of HB 176’s more than thirty legislative co-sponsors is to quell the use of the Spice/K2 type drugs. Of course, the narrative taken by these legislators and the media to the public is having the opposite effect, causing a tremendous spike in interest and real-world use.

An effective deterrent might be having several Spice/K2 brands tested for their actual ingredients. Publishing the long list of strange and nasty chemicals in this stuff would keep many residents away from it.

Legislators could stand in line with overwhelming public support for a positive health solution with medical marijuana.  Natural marijuana is safe, effective, non-toxic and non-lethal. Humans have been using it for thousands of years. 

We have had doctors, severely ill residents, medical experts, religious leaders and community leaders testify in favor of medical marijuana. A flood of written testimony and emails has come in from all corners of Pennsylvania to support medical marijuana.

But, instead of heeding this call, elected officials are moving full-election year-throttle ahead with another senseless, ineffective prohibition. This could leave Pennsylvania to deal with another new drug problem, of its very own invention, for years to come.

United States

New Jersey Patients Fume Over Medical Marijuana Law Delays [FEATURE]

One of outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine's last acts before leaving office in January was to sign New Jersey's Compassionate Use Act Medical Marijuana Act, allowing qualified patients in the Garden State to use medical marijuana. The law was supposed to go into effect on July 1, and if Corzine had remained governor, most everyone involved in the process agrees that would have happened.

NJ patients share victory hug after medical marijuana bill passes, January 2010 (courtesy
But New Jersey voters chose to replace the Democrat Corzine with Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who has been dragging his feet. This summer, Christie asked for a six to 12-month delay in implementing the bill. The legislature gave him three months, until October 1.

That means only that the state Department of Health will then begin drafting regulations. It will have another 90 days after that to do so, pushing the law's effective date to January 1. But even that date is a chimera; given that registered patients will have to get their medicine from a state-licensed dispensary, or alternative treatment center, and given that marijuana takes a minimum of roughly three months to grow, even if potential dispensary operators are ready to go on January 1, it will be sometime in the spring of 2011 at the earliest before New Jersey patients are able to take advantage of the law.

Christie has also been floating proposals to change various aspects of the law. Last month, he proposed making Rutgers University the monopoly supplier. That proposal disturbed patients and advocates, but ultimately went nowhere when Rutgers declined the invitation, citing concerns about federal law. Christie has also raised concerns about New Jersey suffering the same allegedly dire experience California has gone through with its Wild West medical marijuana experience.

But the New Jersey law is already one of the strictest in the nation. It limits access to medical marijuana to people with a specified list of diseases, it limits the amount of marijuana patients can possess to two ounces per month, and it does not allow patients or their caregivers to grow their own medicine. Instead, at least six state-licensed alternative treatment centers, two in each region of the state, will grow and distribute medical marijuana.

Patients and advocates are watching uneasily as the state moves at a leisurely pace toward implementation. They are not happy with the tightness of the law, they are not happy with the delays, and they are casting a suspicious eye on Christie.

"Even in a best case scenario, patients won't be getting medical marijuana in New Jersey until maybe March or April of 2011 from these alternative treatment centers," said Ken Wolski of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, the primary patient advocacy group in the state.

"Christie has been dragging his feet," said Wolski. "He had to appoint a new health commissioner, so he asked for a six to 12-month delay. He said he doesn't want New Jersey to turn into California, but we don't see how that could happen because the New Jersey law is so tight and the alternative treatment centers will be so strictly regulated by the Department of Health. A majority of the legislature accepted his reasons, but only gave him three months."

"The governor asked for an extension of six months to a year, and we fought that off," said Roseanne Scotti of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, which also lobbied for passage of the bill. "There was talk then of other changes; Christie was saying he needed changes in the law to be able to let Rutgers do it, and we've heard rumors of other changes. But our sponsor, Sen. Scutari, has been very adamant. The law doesn't need any more changes. It is the law, and they need to implement it," she said.

"We did not support the idea of a monopoly at Rutgers or anywhere else, and that continues to be our position," said Scotti. "When we talked to the health department, they seemed to be leaning toward trying to limit it in some way, which we are fighting against. You can't just decide on your own you're going to limit the people who do this."

The Teaching Hospitals of New Jersey floated a proposal in which they would become the sole dispensers of medical marijuana. The Drug Policy Alliance also opposed that.

"We met with them and asked them how they think they could legally do that, since they would be violating federal law," said Scotti. "They didn't have any answer for that. If they want to be a dispensary, even if they want to open several, we are not opposed to that, but we are not in favor of any kind of monopoly."

While the Christie administration talks about opening six dispensaries across the state, there is no limit on the number of dispensaries potentially allowed. The bill specifies only at least six.

"We're advocating that competition is good, that anyone who is capable of producing a good product and meeting the understandable security needs of the state should be able to provide services to patients in need," said Scotti. "The Christie administration seems to be latching onto the six, but that isn’t the law."

Marta Portuguez of Roselle Park is one of the law's potential beneficiaries. The 49-year-old woman suffers from 10 different illnesses, including gastroparesis, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Her symptoms include muscle spasms, attacks of nausea, and severe pain.

"The diseases are my constant companions," she said. "I'm on pain medications, and the doctors don't allow me to work. Not that I could -- I find it impossible to sit for more than half an hour."

Portuguez turned to medical marijuana on the advice of a family member who knew someone very ill whose doctor had recommending trying it. "I didn't really know anything about it, but the more research I did, the more clear it became that it would be a great help. My stomach is dead, and I needed medication I don't have to take orally," she explained.

"They brought some to me and it was like a miracle," Portuguez exclaimed. "I went from horrific pain 24-7 even with morphine, to almost no pain, almost immediately. I could be rolled up in a ball shaking and puking my guts out, and when I use it, that immediately starts dissipating. It's quite remarkable. I can sit down with my husband and children and enjoy a movie. I have a little bit better quality of life; I'm not always so sick."

But because marijuana is illegal, Portuguez is unable to get regular access to it. "I don't have it all the time," she said. "It's sporadic. I'm not comfortable with the fact that it's illegal, that's why it's so important for it to be legalized. It's about compassion and helping your fellow human beings."

Portuguez has been waiting for the law to be implemented, and when informed that it would be next spring at the earliest before medical marijuana would be available in New Jersey, she didn't take the news well.

"I think that's outrageous," she said, her voice quivering. "I get very upset. The governor is not doing the right thing. I understand that there are things that need to be followed, but how can somebody get up there and say he's going to try to stop the law we passed? How can they keep delaying and not consider the suffering they are making people go through? I think he's doing it because he doesn't have anyone ill in his family. Then, and only then, will he really understand. It's the Compassionate Use Act, but they're not acting very compassionate."

While the delay in implementing the law is painful, it is not a surprise, said Scotti. Nor is it a surprise that patients and advocates are keeping the heat on.

"I've seen lots of regulations in New Jersey and other states take this long," she said. "It's not unusual, but we are constantly checking in with the health department and with legislators and talking to Sen. Scutari about keeping the pressure on. Our patients are very vocal and active."

Although patients and advocates are pushing hard to get the Compassionate Use Act up and running, they are also quick to point out its flaws. "While we're happy that marijuana is officially recognized as medicine in the Garden State, the law has a lot of shortcomings," said Wolski. "The legislature was very wary of allowing medical marijuana in New Jersey and went with the most restrictive law in the nation."

"The main problem is that home cultivation was taken out, which means that patients are unable to grow their own like they are in the 13 other states," said Wolski. "We see that as an important part of health care reform. Home cultivation would take the pharmaceutical and health insurance industries out of the equation and empower patients to help themselves."

Wolski also cited the quantity limits as inadequate for some patients. "The two ounce a month limit will be adequate for maybe half the patients," he said. "Hospice patients have tremendous needs for the constant medical care marijuana can bring to them, and limiting chronic pain patients to two ounces a month is not enough."

The number of conditions qualifying for medical marijuana use has shrunk, too, Wolski explained. While the final version of the bill includes seizure sufferers, cancer patients, glaucoma patients, HIV/AIDS sufferers, and people with multiple sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gerhrig's Disease), it does not include other neurological disorders, nor does it cover mental or emotional conditions.

"The Assembly Health Committee limited the law to three neurological conditions, but if medical marijuana is neuroprotective, it should be neuroprotective for all neurological conditions," said Wolski, a registered nurse. "And bipolar disease, ADHD, PTSD, anxiety disorders, they don't qualify, and that's a real shame. I think the Department of Health will address the issue of qualifying conditions, but we have our work cut out for us."

"Our fondest hope is that the law will be implemented the way it was written, and that the Department of Health's regulations will reflect the wording of the law to establish at least six nonprofit alternative treatment centers," said Wolski. "Our expectation is that this is what's going to happen, but there are fears the governor is trying to take over the medical marijuana industry," he said, alluding to Gov. Christie's abortive plan to have Rutgers University monopolize production.

New Jersey has a medical marijuana law. It may not be the best medical marijuana law, but it is a medical marijuana law and it will provide protection to at least some patients. Warts and all, New Jersey patients and advocates are working as hard as they can to get it up and running as soon as they can.

United States

Alabama Patient Facing 10 Years for a Gram of Medical Marijuana [FEATURE]

Activists in Alabama have been trying for years to get a medical marijuana bill passed there. Last year, for the first time, a bill made it out of committee. Next year, they will try again, but even if they succeed, it will be too late for Michael Lapihuska.
Michael Lapihuska, facing camera, wearing Alabamans for Compassionate Care t-shirt
Lapihuska, cursed with depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), grew up in Alabama, but left the state after serving 13 months for possessing five grams of marijuana in 2003. The now card-carrying medical marijuana patient from California was arrested on marijuana possession charges again on December 15 in Anniston, Alabama, as he visited his family for the holidays.

Lapihuska was stopped by a police officer and accused of hitch hiking as he walked down a road. The officer demanded he be allowed to search Lapihuska, and he complied. The search came up with a prescription bottle containing one gram of marijuana. Lapihuska explained that he was a registered California medical marijuana patient and produced a patient ID card.

But Alabama justice doesn't recognize medical marijuana, and Lapihuska was charged with his third marijuana possession offense, this one worth between two and 10 years in state prison. Under Alabama law, a first marijuana offense is a misdemeanor, but a second possession offense is a felony punishable by a year in prison. A third possession offense is a felony punishable by two to 10 years in prison.

"Alabama is a terrible, terrible place when it comes to drug laws," noted Loretta Nall, a long-time Alabama drug reform activist and leader of Alabamians for Compassionate Care, a medical marijuana activist group that has taken up Lapihuska's cause.

Lapihuska's public defender is urging him to cop a plea in which he would be sentenced to one year, with the sentence suspended and two years probation. But that deal also includes drug testing, and that's a deal-breaker for him. "Everyone says just take the probation, but if I did that, I'd end up in prison anyway for failing the drug test," he said.

"This is Anniston, Alabama," said Laiphuska. "There is no way I'm going to win this case. But my doctor told me this was my recommended medicine. If I was prescribed Oxycontin, or morphine, or Xanax and was walking down the road, they would have had to give my medicine back. I broke the law, but I think the law is wrong. I'm looking at two to 10 years for a gram of marijuana prescribed by my doctor?"

Lapihuska has been stuck in Alabama since December while awaiting trial. It hasn't exactly been fun, he said. "I've been miserable and anxious. I just want to go someplace where my medicine is safe and legal and I'm not at risk for using the medicine that works best for me."

In addition to repeated stints behind bars for using marijuana, Lapihuska has been hospitalized for mental health reasons 20 to 30 times, he said. "I've been on all sorts of medication. Most of my life has been eaten up with anxiety. They've tried Xanax, Thorazine, all kinds of things. They even gave me an anti-Parkinson's disease medicine and told me I would have to take it the rest of my life. I would sleep 16 hours a day on those meds, I'd be shaking," he recalled.

"But now, I feel better than I've ever felt," he said. "I ride my bicycle 50 to 150 miles a day. And now they're arresting me for the thing that cures me."

Unless he or state prosecutors relent, Lapihuska goes to trial October 28. If it comes to that, the Alabama medical marijuana community will do what it can, just as it has been beating the bushes to publicize the case already.

"Here in Alabama, our only hope of helping Michael out if this goes to trial is to do some jury nullification work," said Nall. "When he goes to trial, myself and other members of ACC will do some handouts at the courthouse to inform people about the true nature of the situation, that he was not just some guy smoking weed. We hope to find one person on the jury to vote to nullify."

Nall and ACC, for whom Lapihuska has been volunteering while he awaits trial, have been laying the groundwork for that by getting the story out. "We got a great article in the Anniston Star," she said. "That generated nothing but wonderful comments on the web site and three letters to the editor, all positive. We've been getting a lot of positive feedback on Facebook, too."

Lapihuska's plight may help the cause of advancing medical marijuana at the statehouse. Rep. Patricia Todd, sponsor of last year's medical marijuana bill, said she would reintroduce it for the session that begins in March. She would try to make it more palatable to law enforcement, she said.

"I'll pre-file the bill after the first of the year," Todd said. "We plan to sit down with law enforcement and health people, and may make some changes to appease law enforcement. I think the bill will start out with three dispensaries around the state, to be regulated by the health department. I think patients being able to grow will be part of it. The main heartburn the health department has is how to regulate it, how to know who's growing what."

While movement on medical marijuana in the legislature has been painfully slow, Todd expressed guarded optimism that her bill would move next year. Last year, for the first time, it got out of a House committee. But much depends on the outcome of the November elections.

"If the Republicans take over the legislature, the bill is going nowhere," she said. "If the Democrats keep control, it'll still be an uphill battle. We got it out of committee last year; this year, I hope we can get it to a floor vote."

"It should be coming up very early in the session," Todd said. "Attitudes are changing. Legislators watch the news, and we have a pretty good grassroots effort going. The main fear last year was that we don't want to be like California, with a dispensary on every corner, and I think we will have addressed that.

Todd said that had her bill passed last year, Lapihuska wouldn’t be facing the problems he is. "Our bill has the reciprocity clause in, and that would protect Michael and people like him," she said.

"It's totally ridiculous," said Todd. "He had a card that identified him as being able to use medical marijuana. I'm trying to change this, but this is the Deep South," she sighed.

If Lapihuska is sent to prison, it will be a tight squeeze. Alabama's prisons are at 180% of capacity, Todd noted.

"Our corrections commissioner makes the point to the legislature each year that he wishes we would quit passing laws to incarcerate more people," she said. "But I'm the only one who ever votes against them. Most of our elected officials are afraid they will be perceived as soft on crime, but the war on drugs isn't working, we have more people addicted than ever before. I think marijuana should be legal, and I'll keep on fighting."

So, it appears, will Michael Lapihuska -- unless he can persuade prosecutors to offer a sweeter deal. "I would accept two years of unsupervised probation in California, but for me to have to stay here and do drug rehab for my doctor approved medication, that's ridiculous. And with drug testing, if I use my medicine, I violate probation."

Anniston, AL
United States

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