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Massachusetts Approves Some Drug Sentencing Reforms

In action taken over the weekend in the final days of its legislative session, the Massachusetts Senate passed a bill that would shorten some sentences for drug offenders. The sentencing reform came within broader legislation, SB 2583, that will reduce the availability of criminal records in a bid to help former offenders find jobs.

Massachusetts State House
The bill, which was supported by Gov. Deval Patrick (D), would grant drug offenders serving mandatory minimum sentences in county Houses of Correction parole eligibility after serving half of their time -- like other county prisoners -- unless there are aggravating factors, such as the involvement of minors or the use of weapons or violence. People already serving time for such offenses would be eligible to seek parole.

But the bill could have been better: The final version dropped two sentencing reforms previously endorsed by the Senate. One would have allowed drug offenders doing mandatory minimums in state prisons the same access to parole as their county prison counterparts, and the other would have allowed drug offenders to be eligible for work release programs.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) Massachusetts project director Barbara Dougan applauded the vote but said legislators did not go far enough. "This law should provide a powerful incentive for county drug offenders to put their prison time to good use and prepare themselves for a successful return to their communities," she said. "While we wish the bill had contained additional reforms, especially for those state prisoners who are serving the harshest sentences, FAMM views the current legislation as an excellent first step in the right direction. We look forward to working with the legislature to expand these reforms in the coming years."

This makes Massachusetts at least the 16th state to reform mandatory minimum drug laws in recent years. But there is still more work to be done, in the Bay State and elsewhere.

Boston, MA
United States

ACLU ready to challenge local marijuana ordinances

United States
Officials in the Michigan cities of Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills prohibited the dispensing of medical marijuana by creating laws that state it is "unlawful for any person or business to engage in any activity, conduct, use or venture in the city that is contrary to federal, state, or local laws or ordinances." Medical marijuana is still considered a Schedule I controlled substance under federal law, thus it would now be illegal to use in those cities even though 63 percent of voters statewide voted the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA) into law. The ACLU sent letters to both cities challenging the ordinances, which the ACLU claims violate the rights of medical marijuana users.
C & G News (MI)

Sacramento cannabis kumbaya: Marijuana shops get reprieve

Sacramento, CA
United States
Good news for Sacramento's patients! After long tumultuous debate, the Sacramento City Council voted to pursue the most liberal of three options for permitting and governing dispensaries. In the end, all 39 dispensaries that registered with the city by last summer have a chance to obtain special permits to stay in operation.
The Sacramento Bee (CA)

Medical Marijuana Now Legal in DC

Medical marijuana is now legal in Washington, DC, nearly 12 years after District residents voted overwhelmingly to approve it. The DC Council in May approved legislation allowing the city to permit up to eight dispensaries, but under Home Rule laws, Congress had 30 working days in which it could overrule the District. It declined to do so.
US Capitol
For more than a decade, the voters' decision was blocked by the Barr Amendment, authored by then Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), which blocked the District from spending any money to implement a medical marijuana program. But after Democrats took control of both Congress and the White House in the 2008 elections, the Barr Amendment was successfully stripped from the DC appropriations bill.

"We have faced repeated attempts to re-impose the prohibition on medical marijuana in DC throughout the layover period," said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. "Yet, it is DC's business alone to decide how to help patients who live in our city and suffer from chronic pain and incurable illnesses."

"After thwarting the will of District voters for more than a decade, Congress is no longer standing in the way of effective relief for DC residents who struggle with chronic ailments," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "This moment is a long overdue victory for both DC home rule and the well-being of District residents whose doctors believe medical marijuana can help ease their pain."

"DC Councilmembers and members of Congress should be commended for providing relief to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other patients who need medical marijuana," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Now we need to make sure that everyone who needs the medicine gets it and that federal law enforcement doesn't undermine the process. Providing marijuana to sick patients in DC is a major step forward, but this law has some faults that will have to be fixed over time," said Piper. "By not allowing patients to grow their own medicine, the DC law leaves patients at the mercy of medical marijuana dispensaries and the US Justice Department -- who could shut down those dispensaries."

The bill allows people suffering from cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, and other chronic, debilitating ailments to use and possess marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. Patients can possess up to four ounces, but cannot grow their own, making the DC law one of the most restrictive in the country. Instead, patients will have to buy their medicine from licensed dispensaries, which either grown their own (up to 95 plants) or procure it from a licensed cultivator.

But don't expect the system to fall into place tomorrow. It is likely to be several months before the first dispensary or cultivation operation opens its doors. Mayor Adrian Fenty and the city Department of Health must now promulgate regulations for the bidding process for a dispensary or cultivation license, and once the process is completed and the permits issued, potential dispensaries will still have to undergo a zoning process in which residents could protest their locations.

Still, while it's been an awfully long time coming, the city is one step closer to actually having an operational medical marijuana program.

Washington, DC
United States

Final vote clears way for large-scale indoor medical marijuana growing in Oakland

Oakland, CA
United States
Oakland is set to become the first city to allow large-scale pot growing for medical use — and the standard-setter for the lucrative and largely uncharted territory of industrial-scale medical marijuana businesses.
San Jose Mercury News (CA)

CA Marijuana Init Worth Hundreds of Millions Yearly, State Analysts Say

A California Legislative Analyst's Office report released Tuesday estimates that if Proposition 19, the Tax and Regulate Cannabis marijuana legalization initiative, were to be passed by voters, it could generate "hundreds of millions of dollars a year" in tax revenues in state sales taxes and taxes imposed by counties and municipalities that allowed for taxed and regulated sales and cultivation. Passage of the measure would also lead to reduced costs in state and local law enforcement, courts, and corrections, while not endangering public safety, the report said.

The Legislative Analyst's Office is a non-partisan state agency. Its job is to provide fiscal and policy advice to the state legislature.

The "hundreds of millions of dollars a year" estimate is roughly in line with, although lower than, the State Board of Equalization's estimate that marijuana legalization could bring $1.4 billion a year in taxes and fees in the state. That estimate was based not on Proposition 19, but on an Assembly bill introduced by Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) that would have allowed for direct state taxation of marijuana. Under Prop 19, only cities and counties would have the ability to tax and regulate marijuana sales and cultivation -- although the state could, of course, collect a sales tax on anything sold in the state.

"Proposition 19 allows local governments to authorize, regulate, and tax various commercial marijuana-related activities," the report noted. "As discussed below, the state also could authorize, regulate, and tax such activities... we estimate that the state and local governments could eventually collect hundreds of millions of dollars annually in additional revenues."

The report warned, however, that firm estimates were hard to come by because of uncertainties, particularly those surrounding how the federal government would respond to California cities or counties moving forward to tax and regulate recreational marijuana sales.

With California laying off and furloughing state workers, and with California cities and counties doing the same with teachers, firefighters, and police officers because of ongoing budget crises, the Legislative Analyst's Office report is bound to become ammunition for Prop 19 supporters.

Oakland Okays Indoor Medical Marijuana Mega-Farms (FEATURE)

In a marathon session Tuesday night, the Oakland City Council Tuesday approved an historic plan for large-scale indoor marijuana farms, but only after hearing from a cavalcade of medical marijuana patients, growers, and dispensary operators intent on ensuring that small and medium-sized growers are not squeezed out.
While the ordinance is aimed at medical marijuana, the council, which has endorsed the Proposition 19 tax and regulate cannabis initiative, clearly sees the potential for tax revenues and jobs under a perhaps not-so-distant marijuana legalization in California.

The council passed a proposal that will authorize city officials to issue permits for four indoor marijuana farms to supply the city's four allowed existing medical marijuana dispensaries. The ordinance sets no size limitations. Some would-be medical marijuana cultivation entrepreneurs have proposed growing operations as large as 100,000 square feet.

Applicants for the four permits would submit proposals to the city. Permit holders would have to pay a $211,000 annual fee, as well as any taxes imposed by the city. The city currently taxes dispensaries at 1.8% and has plans to increase that tax to 8%. The large-scale grows would have a similar tax burden.

Councilmember Larry Reid, coauthor of the cultivation ordinance, said the new regulations were designed to ensure that patients receive a high-quality product grown at a safe, regulated, facility. He also cited house fires, robberies, and shootings that have plagued medical marijuana growers in the city, and said small growers or collectives could band together to apply for one of the four cultivation permits.

"I disagree with these folks that say it will be like McDonald's," Reid said. "If I was a patient, I would want to make sure that the medicine I buy and consume was grown in a safe environment. These folks that are out there growing on their own, you don't know what you are getting. That's why we will have some sort of product testing."

"I support this. It's a growing industry," said councilmember and mayoral candidate Jean Quan, before voting against the ordinance because it did not include specific eligibility criteria for the grow operations. "If you're going to have a growing use in the state, even if the state [legalization] proposition doesn't pass, the volume of medical marijuana and high-quality marijuana that is regulated is going to grow. Oakland has been a pioneer in this area."

In response to community concerns, the council voted to take up the issue of regulating medium-sized grows when it returns from summer recess in the fall. The vote also included a decision to defer any crackdown on non-permitted grows until after the first large-scale cultivation permits are issued next year, perhaps as early as January.

The ordinance would not affect patients, who would still be allowed to grow up to 32 square feet, or three-person collectives, which would still be allowed to grow up to 96 square feet.

Concerns about whether the ordinance would eliminate small and medium grows had been growing ever since it passed the council's Public Safety Committee last week. "The ordinance needs to allow for moderate and small size growers -- it shouldn't grant an oligopoly to four extremely large permittees and leave nothing for smaller operators," said Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML, before the Tuesday night session. "It's like giving Anheuser-Busch and Miller a monopoly on beer in Oakland. We need some microbrews, too."

"We fully endorse this effort to bring the production side of the medical cannabis industry out of the shadows and into the light and to work to regulate and protect the activity, said Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access. "However, it should not be the domain of an oligarchy of producers, which will invariably reduce the diversity and will potentially not meet patients needs. The answer is to open the regulatory scheme to small and medium size collectives and producers who wish to be regulated."

That the Oakland medical marijuana community was concerned was understandable, said Hermes. "What they see is the council leaving the way open for large corporations to come in and dominate the market," he said. "In an era of decentralized small and medium sized cultivators, I can see why they're upset. You get better variety from a diverse community of small producer, and if this ordinance deters that activity, that would be a mistake."

"It's great that the city has started this dialogue on cultivation, but we didn't even see a draft of this until just before it went before the Public Safety Committee," said James Anthony, attorney for Harborside Health Center, a large Oakland dispensary. "As a matter of good policy, the city could take a little time to work with the stakeholders on this. It completely ignores the reality of hundreds and hundreds of individual and small collective cultivators who supply something like 12 to 15 pounds a day to Oakland dispensaries. There is no path for them to be regulated, licensed, inspected, and approved. Instead, there are only four marijuana factories of unlimited size. It seems like the ordinance could be amended to include some consideration for small and medium growers to come out of the shadows. Instead, the council just waved its hands in the air and said it would come back later," he said before Tuesday's council meeting.
Steve Deangelo and James Anthony
"Harborside will apply under that system and try to create space inside its facilities to include as many of our existing 500 growers as we can," said Anthony. "It would be nice to give them an option to come into a regulated system."

The city council heard more of the same Tuesday night, with almost every public speaker calling on the council to address small and medium grows or put off a decision until the issue was addressed. "I support the idea of licensing and regulating cannabis cultivation in Oakland, but I think the council needs to pass a measure that has a way for small and medium growers to participate, 500 of whom are the heart and soul of the Harborside collective," said Harborside founder Steve DeAngelo. "It's not the role of government to pick winners and losers in the marketplace. Let's bring the small and medium-sized growers into the system. Let the market sort out what sort of cultivation it prefers."

"Dispensaries have been waiting three years to be able to cultivate our medicine off-site," said Keith Stevens of the Purple Heart dispensary. "This is an inherently flawed program. For you, the council, to take the right away from the dispensaries and transfer it to commercial ag is absolutely un-American."

"There is no reason to push the little and midsize growers out," Luis Santiago of Homegrown Wellness told the council.

"We consumers support moving toward licensed productions, but we have concerns this particular proposal is monopolistic and anti-competitive," Gieringer told the council. "I urge you to slow down and open the process up to competition."

The council didn't slow down, but it showed that it got the message loud and clear. "We're at a time when the medical cannabis industry is a growing and emerging industry and there is increased demand for permitted production facilities," said Kaplan. "We want to address concerns about fire danger and security, but also to provide opportunities for good paying jobs for local residents and revenue to fund basic public services. I support this ordinance, as well as the directions to return for the permits for the medium facilities."

Oakland has made history yet again. The first city to tax and regulate medical marijuana is now about to become the first city to permit, tax, and regulate industrial-scale marijuana production.

Oakland Okays Mega-Pot Farms

At about 11:15 Pacific time Tuesday night, the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance that would allow for four permitted industrial-scale medical marijuana cultivation facilities. In response to widespread concerns among the medical marijuana community, it also vowed to work on permitting medium-sized grows in the fall and to defer any crackdown on medium-sized grows until after the first large-scale permits are issued in January. Patients can still grow up to 32 square feet and to three-person collectives can still grow up to 96 square feet without permits. Look for a Chronicle feature story on this historic vote to be posted in the morning.

Budget Axe Falls on Stockton Narcs

The California Central Valley city of Stockton has been a poster child for the Great Recession, infamous for its housing developments filled with foreclosed homes, its tent cities along the San Joaquin River, and its horrendous 20% unemployment rate. As joblessness soared and the Central Valley economy withered, so did Stockton and its municipal finances.
Stockton police union billboard (courtesy Kevin He and Flickr)
Faced with a grinding municipal budget crisis, the city last year laid off 29 police officers. Last month, it laid off 26 more, putting a $3.2 million dent in its $23 million budget deficit. In response, the Stockton Police Department announced Wednesday that it could no longer man its dope squad.

"We absolutely do not have any narcotics officers, narcotics sergeants working any kind of investigative narcotics type cases at this point in time," Officer Pete Smith told Sacramento's Fox40-TV.

That was news to Mayor Ann Johnson. "It distresses me that we've had to go to this extent in terms of reductions in our police department," she told Fox40. But the mayor blamed police for failing to negotiate a way to avoid layoffs. "It's really up to our unions, our police union to come to the table to make concessions so we can save officers or rehire officers. It's all about finances," said Johnston.

Stockton police and their union have fought hard to avoid cutbacks, even as the budget axe decimates other city departments. Before last month's layoffs, the Stockton Police Officers Association launched a billboard campaign, the billboards dripping blood and screaming "People are Being Murdered in Stockton" and "Stop Laying Off Cops."

The cops are resorting to the same sort of scare tactics now, with spokesmen warning of a jump in crime because of the lack of a dope squad. "Drugs are a breeding ground for many other activities," said Smith, "and if these are going more and more unchecked, one would have to speculate that you're going to see a rise across the board in those types of criminal activities."

Time will tell. And perhaps the good citizens of Stockton will come to see that there are better ways to protect the public than spending their money on drug squads.

Nearly 2/3 of New Yorkers Support Medical Marijuana, Poll Finds

A poll released today by the Cornell University Survey Research Institute found that nearly two-thirds (64%) of New Yorkers are in favor of legalizing marijuana for medical use. The poll results are similar to a Quinnipiac poll in February that measured support at 71%.
New York State House, Albany
Despite broad public support, medical marijuana legislation failed to pass either chamber of the New York legislature this year. For a dozen years, proponents have pushed medical marijuana bills, and twice the Assembly has approved them, only to see them die in the Senate.

That was understandable when the Senate was controlled by Republicans, but is less so now. Among Democrats, 66% support medical marijuana, and so do 68% of unaffiliated voters, while a mere plurality of Republicans (48%) oppose it. When broken down on ideological, as opposed to partisan, lines, 79% of liberals support medical marijuana, as do 63% of moderates. A majority of conservatives (51%), on the other hand, oppose legalizing medical marijuana, but only a slight majority.

Somewhat surprisingly, upstate residents had higher levels of support (67%) than people who live downstate (62%). Men were more likely to support it (67%) than women (61%), and whites were more likely to support it (66%) than non-whites (60%).

Medical marijuana won majority support across every age group, and was 65% or higher for every age group except those over 65, where support declined to 52%. It also won majority support across every income bracket, increasing steadily from 53% among those making less than $30,000 a year to 73% among those making more than $100,000 a year.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana. Maybe one of these years, legislators in New York will get around to enacting the will of Empire State voters.

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