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Medical Marijuana: New Jersey Patient Acquitted of Most Serious Charge, Convicted of Others

New Jersey Multiple Sclerosis patient John Ray Wilson, whose case the Chronicle profiled last week, was found guilty Thursday of manufacturing marijuana and a separate charge of possession of psychedelic mushrooms. But the jury found him not guilty of the most serious charge against him -- maintaining a facility to manufacture marijuana -- which could have seen him sent to prison for 20 years.

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Wilson's case had gotten widespread attention, both because a bill that would have legalized his actions as a medical marijuana patient is nearing passage in the New Jersey Assembly and because the trial judge had earlier ruled that he could not mention medical marijuana or his disease in his defense. In a surprise move yesterday, the judge allowed Wilson to mention that he used marijuana because he suffers from MS, but that brief testimony did not sway the jury.

"I told them (the arresting officers) I was not a drug dealer and I was using the marijuana for my MS(Multiple Sclerosis)," Wilson testified yesterday after multiple sidebar conferences between Judge Robert Reed, prosecutors, and defense attorneys.

But no follow-up was allowed, and the defense was given no chance to expand on Wilson's single-sentence statement.

Wilson was arrested last year after a National Guard helicopter on a training flight spotted plants growing in the back yard of his Franklin Township home. Summoned by the pilot, police arrived at the unemployed 36-year-old's home and arrested him.

Two state senators, Nicholas Scutari, sponsor of the medical marijuana bill, and Ray Lesniak, two months ago called on Gov. Jon Corzine to pardon Wilson. But Corzine punted, saying he preferred to wait until after Wilson's trial had finished. Well, now it's done... and?

Medical Marijuana: Los Angeles City Council Approves Measure to Cap Dispensaries at 70

Under a measure passed Tuesday by the Los Angeles City Council, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city will shrink by more than 90%. The council voted to cap the number of dispensaries at 70, while recent estimates put the number of actually operating medical marijuana outlets in the city at between 800 and 1,000.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
The vote is only the latest in the council's tortuous and twisted four-year effort to regulate the city's booming medical marijuana retail industry. There were four dispensaries in the city when the council first tackled the issue in 2005. By the time the council issued a moratorium on new dispensaries in 2007, there were 186. In the past two years, their numbers have increased four-fold from there.

Of the dispensaries that legally registered with the city prior to the moratorium, officials believe 137 are still open. Those establishments will be allowed to stay open, but may have to move to comply with restrictions on where they may locate.

"I think we should hold true to those that followed the rules," said Councilman Dennis Zine, explaining why he voted to reward dispensaries that were legally registered.

If Los Angeles actually does cap dispensaries at 70, that will mean roughly one dispensary for every 50,000 residents. In Oakland, the only other large city in the state to impose a cap, four dispensaries serve 100,000 residents each. Other, smaller, California cities with caps include Berkeley (one dispensary for each 34,000 residents), Palm Springs (one for each 24,000 residents), West Hollywood (one for every 9,000 residents), and Sebastopol (one for every 3,500 residents).

The council will return to try to actually pass its medical marijuana ordinance next week. There are signs it is going to revisit its decision of two weeks ago to impose a 1,000-ft. restriction on dispensaries near schools, parks, and similar facilities after advocates argument the restriction would effectively ban dispensaries from broad swathes of the city.

Feature: With Passage of Medical Marijuana Bill Pending, New Jersey Patient Faces 20 Years for Growing His Medicine

Update: Wilson was convicted of some charges Thursday, but not the most serious one.

Just weeks before the New Jersey Assembly votes on pending medical marijuana legislation, a trial is set to take place that demonstrates precisely why such a law is needed. A sick Somerset County resident, John Ray Wilson, is looking at up to 20 years in prison for growing his own medicine.

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courthouse demo supporting John Ray Wilson, 2009
In the summer of 2008, Wilson, a Multiple Sclerosis (MS) sufferer, was broke, had no health insurance, and was desperate for relief from the debilitating symptoms of his disease. Unable to afford pharmaceutical medications and having already resorted to alternative healing practices, when Wilson saw fellow MS victim Montel Williams talk on TV about how medical marijuana had helped him, he decided to try it for himself.

Wilson had even resorted to bee-sting therapy in a bid to relieve his symptoms, but it was marijuana that worked best, he said. "I was diagnosed with MS in 2002," he said. "I suffer from blurred vision, pain in my joints, and muscle spasms. I didn't have any medical benefits, so I tried to get some financial assistance to actually get some MS medicine, but that didn't succeed. I even tried getting stung by bees. Then I saw Montel Williams on TV saying he had MS and smoked marijuana and it helped. So I tried it, too, and it definitely helped, especially in relieving the pain and the muscle spasms."

Lacking access to medical marijuana, Wilson decided to try his hand at growing his own in the backyard of his Franklin Township home, and that's when his life took a real turn for the worse. A National Guard helicopter on a training flight spotted Wilson's garden and reported him to state authorities, who promptly seized his 17 plants, arrested him, and charged him with a number of drug possession and drug manufacturing offenses that could get him 20 years in prison. If convicted on the most serious charge -- maintaining a drug production facility -- Wilson would be ineligible for pre-trial diversion and would have to go to prison.

Wilson and his attorney explored plea bargain negotiations with prosecutors, to no avail. "We were prepared to settle for a reasonable deal, but the best they offered was five years in prison," he said.

Now, Wilson is going on trial. Jury selection is set to begin Monday.

It will be tough for Wilson to prevail. In October, Superior Court Judge Robert Reed ruled that his medical condition, and the fact that he had been taking marijuana to treat his condition, could not be revealed to the jury during the course of the trial.

"By striking my medical history from the trial, they've pretty much tied my hands behind my back," said Wilson. "Hopefully, we can get a jury that can see through what they're doing to me, but it's more than a little scary. The consequences of what they're doing would be horrendous for me. My health would definitely deteriorate in prison. Stress makes all the symptoms worse, and going to prison would definitely be stressful."

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Wilson with Jim Miller and Ken Wolski
"Wilson tried marijuana and found it does in fact help," said Ken Wolski, head of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana-New Jersey, which has lobbied hard to pass a medical marijuana bill in the Garden State to protect patients. "Interestingly enough, a National MS Society expert opinion paper recently acknowledged that conventional therapies don't adequately control MS symptoms and marijuana does. But he will not be able to tell the jury he has MS, and that's the only reason he was using marijuana in the first place," said Wolski. "He's got no job, no health insurance, no access to medicine that might bring him some relief. He tries to eke out a living on eBay."

"This is exactly why New Jersey needs a medical marijuana law," said Roseanne Scotti, head of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, who has been walking the statehouse corridors in Trenton for years trying to get medical marijuana passed. "John Ray Wilson's case is every medical marijuana patient's worst nightmare," she added.

"He was using for medical purposes, but is precluded by the courts from introducing evidence as to why, and the court is correct -- this is the law in New Jersey," Scotti continued. "But that's exactly why we need to change the law -- so people like Mr. Wilson can get safe and legal access to medical marijuana, and we don't go around arresting and prosecuting someone patients seeking some relief."

"John Ray Wilson is a poster child for the legalization of medical marijuana," said Wolski. "So many people are outraged that he is facing 20 years for trying to treat himself and will not even be able to tell the truth during the course of his trial."

In a cruel twist of fate, Wilson is being prosecuted just weeks before New Jersey is likely to adopt a medical marijuana law. The state Senate has already passed it, and the Assembly will vote on it early next month. Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has indicated he will sign it. Two of the bill's sponsors, Sens. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), have highlighted Wilson's plight as indicative of why New Jersey needs a medical marijuana law.

"It seems cruel and unusual to treat New Jersey's sick and dying as if they were drug cartel kingpins. Moreover, it is a complete waste of taxpayer money having to house and treat an MS patient in a jail at the public's expense," said Scutari. "Specifically, in the case of John Ray Wilson, the state is taking a fiscally irresponsible hard-line approach against a man who's simply seeking what little relief could be found from the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis. Governor Corzine should step in immediately and end this perversion of criminal drug statutes in the Garden State."

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But Corzine hasn't stepped in or stepped up. Instead, his office said it would wait until Wilson was convicted to consider a pardon.

"The attorney general and the governor didn't want to take any action, but they could make this case go away by exercising prosecutorial discretion," said Wolski. "They chose to let it move forward, and now its getting a lot of regional and national attention, and rightfully so, because it shocks the conscience of the community."

"The only way we're going see fewer of these cases come before the court is if the 'New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act' becomes the law of the land," said Lesniak. "This has been an issue that has taken years to resolve in New Jersey, and legislative approval and enactment into law are long past overdue. It's time that the Assembly posts this bill for a vote, so we can focus our attention on putting real criminals behind bars, and not piling on the suffering for terminal patients simply seeking a little relief from the symptoms of their diseases."

But while an Assembly vote is now set for next month, John Ray Wilson's trial will be over by then. Barring a miracle of jury nullification, Wilson will be drug felon. And in the meantime, he's going without his medicine. "I'm not going to buy marijuana on the street," he said. "That would get me thrown back in jail."

At the Statehouse: Sentencing, Drug Testing, Good Samaritan, Hemp, and SWAT Bills

As 2009 winds up, we present the last installment in our series of articles on drug reform in state legislatures. This week, we look at Good Samaritan bills, sentencing bills, drug testing bills, and a hemp bill and a SWAT bill.

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Rhode Island Senate chamber
Although we have tried to be comprehensive, we might have missed something. If we have, please write to us here.

Good Samaritan Bills

Connecticut: A bill that would protect overdose victims and the people seeking help for them from prosecution, HB 5445, was introduced in January and referred to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, where it got a hearing in March. It has not moved since.

Hawaii: A bill providing limited immunity from prosecution for overdose victims and those seeking to help them, HB 532, was introduced in January, passed the Health Committee on an 8-0 vote in February, and was assigned to the Judiciary Committee. It has now been held over for the 2010 session.

Maryland: A bill that would protect overdose victims and the people seeking help for them from prosecution, HB 1273, passed the House on a 135-0 vote in March, passed the Senate on a 47-0 vote in April, and was signed into law by Gov. Martin O'Malley in May.

Nebraska: A bill protecting drug overdose victims and those seeking to assist them from prosecution, LB 383, was introduced in January and got a hearing before the Judiciary Committee in March, but has not moved since.

New York: A bill that would provide protection to drug overdose victims and those seeking to help them, A 8147, was introduced in May and referred to the Assembly Rules Committee in June, where it has sat ever since. A companion measure, S 5191, was introduced in April and has sat before the Senate Codes Committee ever since.

Rhode Island: A bill that would provide limited immunity from prosecution for drug overdose victims and those trying to help them, S 194, was introduced in February and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has been stalled ever since.

Washington: A bill that would protect overdose victims and those trying to help them from prosecution, HB 1796, was introduced in January and approved by the Committee on Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness in February. It was then referred to the House Rules Committee, where it died for lack of action.

Drug Testing

Kansas: A bill that would have required people who seek public assistance to undergo drug testing, HB 2275, passed the House on a 99-26 vote in March. It was referred to the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee at that time, but has not moved since.

Louisiana: A bill that would have required welfare recipients to undergo drug testing, HB 137, died in June on an 11-5 vote in the House Appropriations Committee.

Missouri: A bill that would have made it a crime to falsify a drug test or to sell or transport drug test adulterants, HB 446, was introduced in May and promptly went nowhere. It is currently "not on the calendar." A bill that would require drug testing of welfare recipients upon "reasonable suspicion," SB 73, won a hearing before the Senate Progress and Development Committee in February, but has been dormant ever since.

West Virginia: A bill that would have mandated random drug tests for people who receive food stamps or unemployment benefits, HB 3007, was blocked in committee. A last ditch effort to revive it via a House floor vote was defeated 70-30 on a straight party line vote. Republicans voted for it.

Sentencing

Louisiana: A bill, HB 630, which would grant parole eligibility to people sentenced to life without parole for heroin offenses, passed the House and Senate in the spring and became law without the governor's signature in July. It became effective August 15.

Massachusetts: The state Senate last month approved SB 2210, which grants parole eligibility to nonviolent drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences. But the House recessed without taking action on the measure.

New Jersey: A bill that would give judges discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, SB 1866, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on November 23 and passed Senate yesterday. Its companion measure, A2762, passed the Assembly last year, and Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has said he will sign the bill.

New York: The legislature and Gov. David Paterson (D) came to an agreement in March on a second round of reforms to the state's draconian Rockefeller drug laws. The reforms, which went into effect in October, included returning judicial discretion in low-level drug cases, expanding treatment and reentry services, expanding drug courts, and allowing some 1,500 people imprisoned for low-level drug offenses to apply for resentencing.

Hemp

Oregon: Oregon became the 17th state to pass legislation favorable to hemp farming and the ninth state to remove legal barriers to farming the potentially lucrative crop as Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) in August signed into law SB 676, an industrial hemp act sponsored by state Sen. Floyd Prozanski (D). The bill removes all state legal obstacles to growing hemp for food, fiber, and other industrial purposes. It passed the House 46-11 and the Senate 27-2. Industrial hemp production remains prohibited under federal law.

SWAT

Maryland: Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law a bill that will require law enforcement SWAT teams to regularly report on their activities. The bill was largely a response to a misbegotten drug raid last July in Prince Georges County in which Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo and his family were doubly victimized -- first by drug traffickers who used their address for a marijuana delivery, then by Prince Georges County police, who killed the family's two pet dogs and mistreated Calvo and his mother-in-law for several hours. The bill, the SWAT Team Activation and Reporting Act (HB 1267), requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

Public Opinion: Majority Support for Marijuana Legalization Nationwide, Poll Finds

For the first time, a national public opinion poll has reported majority support for marijuana legalization. According to the poll by Angus-Reid Public Opinion, support for marijuana legalization now stands at 53% nationwide. The poll did not provide a regional breakdown.

In May, a Zogby poll reported support for legalization, taxation, and regulation of marijuana at 52% nationwide. The Angus-Reid poll asked only if respondents supported marijuana legalization.

In the Angus-Reid poll, among Democrats marijuana legalization garnered 61% support, with 55% of independents agreeing, and even 43% of Republicans.

Marijuana legalization bills have been introduced this year in California, Massachusetts, and Washington. California will also almost certainly have a legalization initiative on the ballot next November.

The poll also asked about legalizing other drugs. Fewer than one out of 10 respondents supported legalizing heroin, cocaine, meth, or Ecstasy. (More work to be done on that front.)

Finally, the poll asked whether the "war on drugs" has been a success or a failure. More than two-thirds (68%) said it has been a failure, with support for that position constant across geographic regions.

Medical Marijuana: LA City Council Votes to Cap Medical Marijuana Dispensaries at 70

Under a measure passed Tuesday by the Los Angeles City Council, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city will shrink by more than 90%. The council voted to cap the number of dispensaries at 70, while recent estimates put the number of actually operating medical marijuana outlets in the city at between 800 and 1000. The vote is only the latest in the council’s torturous and twisted four-year effort to regulate the city’s booming medical marijuana retail industry. There were four dispensaries in the city when the council first tackled the issue in 2005. By the time the council issued a moratorium on new dispensaries in 2007, there were 186. In the past two years, their numbers have increased four-fold from there. Of the dispensaries that legally registered with the city prior to the moratorium, officials believe 137 are still open. Those establishments will be allowed to stay open, but may have to move to comply with restrictions on where they may locate. "I think we should hold true to those that followed the rules," said Councilman Dennis Zine, explaining why he voted to reward dispensaries that were legally registered. If Los Angeles actually does cap dispensaries at 70, that will mean roughly one dispensary for every 50,000 residents. In Oakland, the only other large city in the state to impose a cap, four dispensaries serve 100,000 residents each. Other, smaller, California cities with caps include Berkeley (one dispensary for each 34,000 residents), Palm Springs (one for each 24,000 residents), West Hollywood (one for every 9,000 residents), and Sebastopol (one for every 3,500 residents). The council will continue working on its medical marijuana dispensary regulation ordinance tomorrow (Wednesday), and could even see a final vote then.
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Press Release: Tues. -- NY Assembly Hearing on Rockefeller Drug Reform Implementation

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 7, 2009 CONTACT: Tony Newman at (646) 335-5384 or Anthony Papa at (646) 420-7290 NY State Assembly Hearing on Tuesday to Map Out Next Steps in Implementation of Historic Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Courts, Treatment Providers and Community-Based Programs to Brief Lawmakers on Expanded Access to Drug Treatment and Alternatives to Incarceration for Most Drug Offenses The New York State Assembly on Tuesday will hold a key hearing to press forward with implementation of the Rockefeller Drug Law Reform of 2009, soliciting feedback from courts, treatment providers and community-based programs on their readiness and resource needs to carry out the groundbreaking new law. The reform, which took effect on Oct. 7, eliminated mandatory minimum sentences for most drug offenses, restored discretion to judges to sentence individuals to probation, drug treatment or other alternatives to incarceration, and allows approximately 1,000 people convicted under the old Rockefeller Drug Laws to apply for re-sentencing. “As someone who spent 12 years behind bars on Rockefeller charges and another 12 fighting the inhumane laws, I am thrilled that the law has been changed,” said Anthony Papa, author of 15 Years to Life. “But Rockefeller reform will only be real when those who are behind bars are allowed to come home and those who need help get treatment instead of a jail cell.” At Tuesday’s hearing, lawmakers will explore a wide range of issues related to the Rockefeller reform, including: What steps has the court system taken to prepare for and implement the new judicial diversion program, and to ensure that persons who are resentenced have access to community-based reentry programs? Are there sufficient community-based treatment programs available to serve individuals sentenced to treatment or probation, or those released from prison? What are the barriers faced by formerly incarcerated individuals with a history of substance abuse in obtaining public benefits, medical assistance, employment and affordable and stable housing? These reforms will allow people to reclaim their dignity as we shift from a punitive criminal justice model to a much needed holistic public health framework," said Shreya Mandal, Mitigation Specialist for the Legal Aid Society. "Now it is time to see this reform through by empowering formerly incarcerated individuals with comprehensive re-entry planning. Reform also calls for revamping outdated modes of drug treatment, both in and out of prison, and for making progressive changes in how we respond to addiction.” Under more limited reforms to the Rockefeller laws signed by Gov. George Pataki in 2004 and 2005 – which authorized resentencing and eliminated life sentences for individuals convicted of certain drug felonies – 584 individuals were released from prison, and just 9 percent of these people returned to jail, far lower than the state’s 39 percent overall recidivism rate. These results counter claims made by district attorneys and law enforcement officials that sentencing reform leads to disaster. “Opponents of reform try to scare the public with claims that the ‘sky is falling’ every time individuals with substance abuse problems are sent to treatment instead of prison,” said Glenn Martin, Vice President of Development and Public Affairs for The Fortune Society. “But by working collaboratively among treatment providers and Alternatives to Incarceration programs, stakeholders can ensure the success of New York’s movement toward a public health and safety approach to drug use.” Enacted in 1973, the Rockefeller Drug Laws were intended to target drug kingpins, but instead the laws led to the incarceration of thousands of individuals, mostly people of color, for low-level, nonviolent offenses, many with no prior criminal records. Approximately 12,000 people remain locked up for drug offenses in New York State prisons, at a cost of roughly $45,000 per year to incarcerate a single person, compared to an average cost of $15,000 per year for drug treatment, which is proven to be 15 times more effective at reducing crime and recidivism. The Drug Policy Alliance is the nation's leading organization working to end the war on drugs and promote new drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights. For more information, please visit: www.drugpolicy.org. What: NY State Assembly Hearing on Rockefeller Drug Law Reform When: 10:30 A.M. Tuesday, December 8th, 2009 Where: Assembly Hearing Room 250 Broadway, Room 1923, 19th Floor New York, NY
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Law Enforcement: Man Trying to Snuff Joint at Checkpoint Ends Up Dead -- Attorney Accuses Police

A Worcester, Massachusetts, man who died after being taken into custoday at a sobriety checkpoint last week was beaten by as many as 20 police officers, an attorney for his family said Monday. Kenneth Howe, 45, died at the Andover State Police barracks when police noticed he "became unresponsive" during booking.

The official version of the story, promulgated to the local media by Essex County District Attorney's Office spokesman Steven O'Connell is that Howe, a passenger in a vehicle stopped at the checkpoint, made "furtive movement," then "jumped out of the vehicle, struck the trooper, and fled." After a brief chase on foot and an "ensuing struggle," Howe was handcuffed and charged with assault and battery on a police officer.

O'Connell said that Howe was taken to the Andover barracks, and, while being booked "slumped over and became unresponsive." He was taken to Lawrence General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:45am last Thursday.

But today, attorney Frances King, hired by Howe's widow to represent her and her three young children, painted a starkly different picture of the events leading to Howe's death. Citing the testimony of the driver of the vehicle in which Howe was riding, King said Howe was pulled out of the truck, beaten by police, and dragged before he collapsed next to a police cruiser. The driver has made a taped statement about what he saw that night, King said.

The "furtive movements" were Howe attempting to snuff out a marijuana joint and put on his seat belt, King said. A female state trooper approached the truck, and Howe held up his hands and tried to explain that all he had in his hand was the joint. The trooper then reached into the truck, pulled Howe out, and screamed that he had assaulted her, King continued.

"Our position is that he never assaulted her," King said. Quite the contrary, she maintained: "It appears there were at least 10 to 20 officers all over the deceased, hands flailing." Howe was also "seen handcuffed and slumping to the ground, dragged over to the cruiser," she said.

The sobriety checkpoint was staffed by Massachusetts State Police, North Andover police and the Essex County Sheriff's Department. It was stopping every vehicle for a "threshold observation" to check for impaired drivers, a practice upheld by the US Supreme Court.

The Essex County District Attorney's Office is investigating, said O'Connell. An initial autopsy has been performed, but the cause of death has not been determined. Toxicology results are also pending. Police said they found one oxycodone tablet on Howe, for which he had a prescription.

"At this point, we're confident the Essex County DA's office is conducting a thorough investigation and that they are taking the case very seriously," King said. "I think it's only fair to allow the DA to conduct an investigation."

You don't need a crystal ball to see the lawsuit waiting to be filed here. But that won't come until after the Essex County District Attorney's Office investigates and exonerates the officers involved.

Feature: Medical Marijuana Gets Historic First Legislative Hearing in Pennsylvania

A Pennsylvania House committee in Harrisburg held the first hearing ever on medical marijuana in the Keystone State today. The hearing, which featured a raft of supportive witnesses, sparked interest and questioning from legislators and left medical marijuana advocates optimistic.

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PA night of candlelight vigils for medical marijuana, July 2009 (courtesy HempNews)
The hearing before the House Health and Human Services Committee was on HB 1393, introduced by Rep. Mark Cohen (D-Philadelphia). The bill would provide immunity from arrest for patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses who have a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana and a registration ID card. Patients could possess an ounce of marijuana and up to six plants. The bill also provides for state-licensed compassion centers which could sell marijuana to patients. Such sales would be subject to state and local sales taxes.

Witnesses included patients, medical marijuana advocates, physicians, attorneys, and a rabbi. It wasn't completely one-sided -- there to testify against the bill were the Pennsylvania Elks and a woman who lost a daughter to a drug overdose.

Some witness testimony tugged heart strings. In one such moment, Charles Rocha, who had travelled from Pittsburgh, told legislators how, at age 24, he obtained medical marijuana for his breast cancer-ridden mother and how it helped her get through end of life hospice care.

But Sharon Smith gave an equally emotion-laden presentation. Smith, who started a drug-treatment advocacy group after her daughter's death from a heroin overdose in 1998, worried that allowing medicinal use of marijuana would lead to drug abuse and addiction, citing supposed "abuses" that have occurred in other medical marijuana states.

Smith also said legislators shouldn't be the ones deciding whether any given substance is a medicine. "Let the medical experts decide, not the legislators," she told the committee.

Smith's concern about abuse potential was addressed head-on by Edward Pane, CEO of Serento Gardens Alcoholism and Drug Services, Inc. in Hazleton. He told the committee that the gateway theory had been discredited and that patients given small amounts of marijuana were unlikely to develop a physical dependency.

"Concerns that the medical use of marijuana will spur individuals into the world of chemical addiction are baseless," said Pane, a part-time instructor on addictions studies at the University of Scranton.

HIV sufferer Brad Walter of Larksville told the committee he smoked marijuana four or five times a day to alleviate gastrointestinal distress from the 14 pills he takes each day for his diseases. Walter said he obtained marijuana on the black market because nothing else, including Marinol, worked as well.

Also appearing before the committee was a delegation from the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, including Dr. Howard Swidler, MD, Chief of Emergency Medicine at Warren Hospital, Conservative Rabbi Eric Cytryn of Harrisburg, and former Montgomery County Commissioner Ruth Damsker, whose husband died of brain cancer. The trio packed a punch, and legislators were especially intrigued by Swidler's testimony, interrupting him frequently with questions.

"Marijuana is non-addicting," Dr. Swidler bluntly avowed. "There is no physical dependence or physical withdrawal associated with its use. It is, from a practical standpoint, non-toxic. Marijuana is safer by some measures than any other drug," he told the committee. "There is simply no known quantity of marijuana capable of killing a person."

Saying she wanted to address a "common myth" that medical marijuana is a stalking horse for legalization, Damsker said: "This bill is about people like my late husband, Dr. Jeffrey Damsker, who could have benefited from medical marijuana while undergoing chemotherapy for a malignant brain tumor. This bill is about a better quality of life for Pennsylvania patients. This bill is about compassion, and it's about science."

"I am here to state that Jewish values and ethics unequivocally support passage of HB 1393," said Rabbi Citron.

While the committee Democrats were generally supportive, that wasn't the case with Republican committee co-chair Rep. Matt Baker (R-Wellsboro), who said that federal health officials had found little evidence of marijuana's medical benefits and that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. "I can't support the legalizing of medical marijuana," he said.

Similarly, Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett, who is running for his party's gubernatorial nomination, objected. In a letter to the committee, Corbett said the measure would weaken existing drug laws and make a dangerous substance more available.

With Republicans in control of the state Senate, the bill's immediate prospects are cloudy. Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Lawrence) have said Senate Republicans have no intention of moving on the bill even if were to pass the Democratically-controlled House.

But even a House vote is a ways off. Committee Chairman Frank Oliver (D-Philadelphia) said he plans to hold hearings across the state before taking a committee vote.

Still, after the session, supporters were stoked. "It was a great hearing," said Rep. Cohen, the bill's sponsor. "We moved the bill forward dramatically. There was a lot of thoughtful testimony."

"I feel very positive," said Chris Goldstein of Pennsylvanians for Medical Marijuana, which has led the campaign in the Keystone Stone. "This was the first medical marijuana hearing ever in Pennsylvania, and the legislators asked a lot of good questions. This was a non-voting hearing, and we still had 18 of 26 committee members show up, and they extended the hearing an hour past when it was supposed to end."

That the bill managed to get a hearing at all was a good sign, Goldstein said. "The legislature has been wrapped up dealing with the budget crisis, and there is a lot of stuff that isn't even going to get heard. That there were hearings at all says a lot. And, frankly, we look forward to having hearings all across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania."

"Getting a hearing is always important, particularly in a state without a lot of progress before," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), whose Bob Ceppecchio testified at the hearing. "It has generated a lot of press interest, and even if a bill isn't going to pass immediately, the educational process takes a huge leap when you start airing the issue in this kind of official forum."

"This will inevitably succeed," said addiction specialist Pane. "On one side, we have overwhelming support and the scientific evidence, and on the other side, hyperbole."

Pane said he thought he had gotten through the hostility of Republican co-chair Baker when he reminded legislators about how they struggled to get drug treatment resources. "People are not endangered by marijuana being in the hands of doctors, but they don't give you the resources to keep it out of the hands of 12-year-olds."

"I think this has a realistic chance of passing in 2010," said Goldstein. "Progress has been lightning-fast so far. We just started talking about a bill in March, it got introduced in April, it was supposed to have a hearing in September, but the budget crisis happened. A lot of important issues are getting dealt with, but medical marijuana got a hearing today."

Feature: At the Statehouse -- Salvia Banned in Four More States This Year

Hysteria over salvia divinorum, the fast-acting, short-lived psychedelic member of the mint family, continued in state legislatures this year. Although after five years, the DEA has not found a reason to add salvia to the federal list of controlled substances, that hasn't stopped state legislators from trying. This year, four more states joined the list of those that have criminalized it, while bills to do the same were introduced in seven others.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
Next week, we will conclude our review of drug policy-related issues in state legislatures with a look at sentencing reform, drug testing, meth-related measures, and some odds and ends.

Salvia Bills That Passed

Nebraska: Salvia Divinorum became a Schedule I controlled substance in February, after LB 123 passed the unicameral legislature on a 44-0 vote that same month. The governor quickly signed the bill.

North Carolina: A bill to prohibit the use, possession, sale, or manufacture of Salvia Divinorum, SB 138, passed the House on a 45-0 vote in May and the Senate on a 96-15 vote in August. It was signed into law that same month and went into effect December 1.

Ohio: Salvia Divinorum became a Schedule I controlled substance in April, 90 days after Gov. Ted Strickland (D) signed a bill banning the plant that passed the legislature late last year.

South Dakota: Possession of less than six ounces of salvia divinorum became a misdemeanor and possession of more became a felony after HB 1090 passed the House 67-2 and the Senate 34-0 in February. Gov. Mike Round (R) signed the "emergency" legislation in March, and it went into effect immediately. Curiously, the bill does not criminalize salvia sales.

Salvia Bills That Did Not or Have Not Passed

Alabama: A bill to make Salvia Divinorum a Schedule I controlled substance, HB 475, was introduced in February. It was assigned to the Judiciary Committee, where it has been sitting since May.

Kentucky: A bill to make Salvia Divinorum a Schedule I controlled substance, HB 228, passed the House on a 99-0 vote in February and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where no action has since occurred.

Maryland: A bill to make Salvia Divinorum a Schedule I controlled substance, HB 8, died in March after being reported unfavorably out of the House Judiciary Committee. A companion bill, SB 9, died without any action being taken.

Michigan: A bill to make Salvia Divinorum a Schedule I controlled substance, HB 4849, was introduced in April, referred to the Committee on Health Policy and promptly went nowhere. Its companion measure, SB 570, met a similar fate.

New Jersey: SB 2436 and its companion measure, AB 1323, would make Salvia Divinorum a Schedule I controlled substance. Both were both introduced at the end of 2008 for the 2009-2010 legislative session, and neither has gone anywhere.

Pennsylvania: A bill to make Salvia Divinorum a Schedule I controlled substance, SB 769, was introduced and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in April. It hasn't moved since. A companion measure, HB 2037, was introduced in October and sits before the House Judiciary Committee.

Texas: A bill that would make it a crime to provide Salvia Divinorum to minors, SB 257, was introduced last November. It was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 30-1 vote in April. In the House, the bill was approved by the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in May, and has done nothing since. Another bill, HB 126, which would make Salvia a controlled substance in Penalty Group III (along with LSD and pentobarbital, among others), was introduced last November, referred to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in February, and allowed to die there in March.

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