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In US First, California Assembly Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill

A bill to legalize the adult use, sale, and production of marijuana was approved Tuesday by a 4-3 vote in the California Assembly Public Safety Committee. While the vote was historic—it marked the first time a state legislative committee anywhere had voted for a marijuana legalization bill—a Friday legislative deadline means the bill is likely to die before it reaches the Assembly floor. hearing room audience Still, supporters pronounced themselves well pleased. "The conversation is definitely gaining traction in Sacramento," bill sponsor Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF) told a press conference at the capitol after the vote. "This is a significant vote because it legitimizes the quest for debate. There was a time when the m-word would never have been brought up in Sacramento." “This historic vote marks the formal beginning of the end of marijuana prohibition in the United States,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who testified before the committee both Tuesday and in an earlier hearing. “Making marijuana legal has now entered the public dialogue in a credible way. Decades of wasteful, punitive, racist marijuana policy have taken quite a toll in this country. The Public Safety Committee has demonstrated that serious people take ending marijuana prohibition seriously.” "The mere fact that there was a vote in the Assembly to regulate and control the sale and distribution of marijuana would have been unthinkable even one year ago," said former Orange County Judge Jim Gray, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, who also testified before the committee last fall. "And if the bill isn't fully enacted into law this year, it will be soon. Or, the bill will be irrelevant because the voters will have passed the measure to regulate and tax marijuana that will be on the ballot this November," Gray pointedly added. The bill, AB 390, the Marijuana Control, Regulation, and Education Act would impose a $50 an ounce tax on marijuana sales and would task the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to regulate them. It was amended slightly from the original by Ammiano. In one example, the bill strikes "legalize" and replaces it with "regulate." It also strikes out language saying the bill would go into effect after federal law changes. And it adds language to clarify that medical marijuana does not come under its purview. Tuesday's Public Safety Committee opened to a hearing room packed with legalization supporters, but also by more than a dozen uniformed police chiefs and high-ranking police officers from around the state. Law enforcement was out in force to make its displeasure known. police and preacher present to oppose the Ammiano bill But first came Ammiano himself, recusing himself from his position as committee chair to testify in favor of his bill. "This is landmark legislation to legalize and regulate marijuana," Ammiano told his colleagues. "It would generate nearly a billion dollars annually in revenues, according to the Board of Equalization, and would leave law enforcement to focus on serious crimes, violent crimes, and hard drugs. The drug wars have failed," the San Francisco solon said emphatically. "Prohibition has fostered anarchy. Legalization allows regulations, and regulation allows order." Since the primary hearing on the bill took place last fall, Tuesday's hearing was limited to 30 minutes (it was closer to 45), and witnesses either said their pieces succinctly or were gently chided by committee Vice-Chair Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills). The Drug Policy Alliance's Gutwillig recapped testimony he gave last fall, as did the Marijuana Policy Project California state director Aaron Smith. "AB 390 is a historic reversal of failed marijuana policies," said Gutwillig. "It would begin to control a substance that is already commonly available and consumed, but unregulated. Prohibition has created enormous social costs and jeopardized public safety instead of enhancing it." "This legislation would finally put California on track for a sensible marijuana policy in line with the views of most California voters," said Smith. Also endorsing the bill was Matt Gray of Taxpayers for Improving Public Safety, a California group lobbying for more progressive criminal justice policies. "We support the bill," said Gray. "Marijuana is the state's largest cash crop, and this bill will remove a revenue stream from organized crime and decrease availability for youth." The opposition, led by law enforcement, church and community anti-drug groups, and a former deputy drug czar, threw everything short of the kitchen sink at the committee in a bid to sink the bill. Hoary old chestnuts reminiscent of "Reefer Madness" were revived, as well as new talking points designed to discourage members from voting for legalization. bill sponsor Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, with Dale Gieringer,
Stephen Gutwillig and Aaron Smith in background "I traveled here with a heavy heart," said former deputy director for demand reduction for the Office of National Drug Control Policy Andrea Barthwell, the big hitter leading off for the opposition. "The eyes of America are upon you," she told the committee. "We don't want you to set a course that worsens the health of Americans for years to come. This is a scheme that will benefit drug cartel kingpins and corner drug dealers and create chaos in our public health system," she warned. "People all over the country are afraid California will have this leverage in the same way the medical marijuana initiative was leveraged to create a sense that these are reasonable policies," Barthwell continued. "We've reduced drinking and smoking through public health, and prohibition is working for our young people to keep them drug free," she added. "Legalization of marijuana will only increase the challenges facing us," said San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer. "What good can come from making powerful addictive drugs more cheaply available? Don't we have enough trouble with the two legal drugs? Adding an additional intoxicant will lead to increase drugged driving and teen sex," she told the committee. "Marijuana of today is not the dope your parent's smoked," she added for good measure. After mentioning that in the Netherlands cannabis cafes have "run rampant," asserting that "drug cartels will become legal cultivators," and that legalization would bring about "quantum increases" in the availability of marijuana, Manheimer swung for the fence. "To balance the budget on the back of the harm caused by illegal intoxicants is mind-boggling—I would call it blood money," she said. Worse, "the addictive qualities of these drugs will cause more crimes as people struggle to find money to buy marijuana. We are very concerned about marijuana-related violence." Then it was the turn of Claude Cook, regional director of the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition. "This is dangerous work we do," Cook said by way of introduction. "We are strongly opposed to AB 390, we see no benefit for our communities. Marijuana is also carcinogenic. If we want to raise revenue, maybe it would be safer to just bring back cigarette vending machines. This is human misery for tax dollars." And by the way, "Drug offenders who are in prison have earned their way there by past criminal conduct," he added. Cook predicted downright disaster were the bill to pass. "Use by juveniles will increase. Organized crime will flourish. California will become a source nation for marijuana for the rest of the country. The cartels will thrive. Highway fatalities will rise," he said without explaining just how he arrived at those dire conclusions. police waiting to speak at anti-drug rally after committee vote "I see the devastation of marijuana and drugs in my community," thundered Bishop Ron Allen, "CEO and president" of the International Faith-based Coalition, and a self-described former crack addict who started with marijuana. "If marijuana is legalized and we have to deal with it in our liquor stores and communities, you have never seen a devastation like you're going to see. It's going to lose us a generation. You don't want this blood on your hands." "I'm going to discount the ad hominems and alarmist attacks," Ammiano replied after the testimony. "Some of the arguments today reminded me of Reefer Madness," he said Before moving to a vote, committee members briefly discussed their positions. Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) noted that because of the state's medical marijuana law, "We have created a class difference, where a certain class of our population can utilize dispensaries for their own reasons to use marijuana, and on the other hand, we have the street activity around marijuana that is not under semi-legal status." Skinner voted for the bill, while saying she was not sure she would support it on the Assembly floor. "I'm not supporting marijuana, but the question is who we regulate it and is it time to have a serious debate." In the end, four of five Democratic committee members—all from the Bay area—supported the bill, while one Democrat joined the two Republicans on the committee in opposing it." The bill would normally head next to the Assembly Health Committee, but given the time constraints on the legislature, no further action is likely to be taken this session. Still, Tuesday was a historic day in Sacramento and in the annals of the American marijuana reform movement.
Location: 
Sacramento, CA
United States

New Jersey Legislature Passes Medical Marijuana Bill, Set to Become 14th Medical Marijuana State (Plus DC)

New Jersey is set to become the 14th state to legalize the medicinal use of marijuana after the state Assembly Monday approved the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act" by a vote of 46-14. Later Monday evening, the state Senate, which had already approved its version of the measure, voted final approval by a margin of 25-13. Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has said he will sign the bill. The Assembly debated the bill for half an hour Monday afternoon before approving it. The debate took place before galleries backed with bill supporters and opponents. It was a similar scene in the Senate a few hours later. "It does not make sense for many of New Jersey's residents to suffer when there is a viable way to ease their pain," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), one of the sponsors of the bill. "Medical marijuana can alleviate a lot of suffering, and there is no evidence that legalizing it for medical use increases overall drug use." The bill will be one of the most restrictive in the nation. Patients diagnosed by their primary care physician as having a qualifying medical condition would be allowed to obtain—but not grow—medical marijuana through one of at least six "alternative treatment centers," or dispensaries. But patients would be able to register with only one dispensary at a time and would have to use the written recommendation within a month of when it was written. Qualifying medical conditions include severe or chronic pain, severe nausea or vomiting or cachexia brought on by HIV/AIDS or cancer ("or the treatment thereof"), muscular dystrophy, inflammatory bowel diseases, and terminal illnesses where the patient has less than a year to live. Chronic pain was removed from the original bill in an Assembly committee vote last summer, but reinserted last week when the Assembly approved an amendment by Assemblyman Gusciora. Patients could possess up to two ounces and be prescribed up to two ounces per month. That is an increase from the one ounce possession limit in earlier versions of the bill. Patients would be able to name a caregiver, courier, or delivery option to pick up medicine at the dispensary and deliver it to them. "This will be the strictest medical marijuana law in the nation," Gusciora said at a statehouse press conference Monday. "We have a good bill that will be very strict and will not decriminalize marijuana, but will allow doctors to prescribe the best treatment for their patients." Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, who has lobbied tirelessly for passage of a medical marijuana bill, agreed that the final Garden State bill is very tight, but said it was a start. "There will be some patients who will be able to get some relief," she said. "We think once the program's up and running and people see that there aren't problems, we'll be able to go back and get in some more of our patients." Also at the press conference were patients Diane Riportella and Mike Oliveri. Riportella was diagnosed with Lu Gerhrig's Disease in 2007 and given no more than five years to live. Oliveri suffers from muscular dystrophy. "I'm so excited to be able to be alive and to be here for this moment," said Riportella, 53, of Egg Harbor Township. "Within a few seconds, I'm relaxed and I'm smiling and I go to Disneyland just for a few minutes and say 'It's not so bad, I can live another day,'" Riportella said. Oliveri, 25, said he moved from his New Jersey home to California in order to be able to legally access medical marijuana. He said he vaporizes about an ounce a week to ease the pain in his legs and back and calm his digestive tract and that he had used it illegally before leaving for the West Coast. "I took every medication known to man before I took weed," said Oliveri, 25. "I knew it was a risk …but it was a life or death matter." The bill was supported by organizations including the New Jersey State Nurses Association, the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the New Jersey League for Nursing, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the New Jersey chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Special credit goes to the Coalition for Medical Marijuana--New Jersey, the patients' and advocates' group that has fought for years to get the bill over the top. New Jersey will now join Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington in the list of medical marijuana states. That list also includes the District of Columbia.
Location: 
Trenton, NJ
United States

New Jersey Assembly Approves Medical Marijuana Bill, One More Vote in the Senate This Afternoon

On the last day of the legislative session, the New Jersey Assembly has approved the state's medical marijuana bill, the Compassionate Use Act, on a vote of 48-14. The state Senate will vote on it later today. Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has said he will sign it. Look for a feature post on this once the Senate votes.
Location: 
Trenton, NJ
United States

Medical Marijuana: Colorado Judge Rules Users Have Right to Buy It

Colorado medical marijuana patients have a constitutional right to buy it, not just use it, a district judge ruled December 29. The ruling came in a lawsuit by the CannaMart dispensary, which sued the city of Centennial after it banned dispensaries, forcing the dispensary to move to a neighboring community.

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Colorado state medical marijuana application
In banning dispensaries, Centennial had argued that it could ban them because they violated federal drug laws. Using the same argument, other towns in Colorado have banned or are considering banning dispensaries, which have mushroomed in the past year in the wake of state health department administrative rulings and the Obama administration's vow to not harass medical marijuana providers acting within state laws.

But in granting CannaMart's request for an injunction blocking the city from keeping the dispensary closed while it challenges the city's federal argument, Arapahoe County District Court Judge Christopher Cross had some harsh words for cities making that argument. Centennial violated the rights of three medical marijuana patients who joined the lawsuit, he said. "These are people who have a right to medical marijuana, the right to the caregiver of their choice. That has been taken away from them," Cross said.

CannaMart attorney Lauren Davis echoed Judge Cross's words, telling the Associated Press the ruling "should be a warning to towns across this state" that are considering whether to ban dispensaries. "They are violating the rights of sick patients and caregivers," Davis said.

The CannaMart lawsuit against the city of Centennial will continue later this year. But Judge Cross warned that cities trying to ban dispensaries could find themselves in violation of the state constitution. "The voters have spoken. It is not a criminal act in the state of Colorado."

Sentencing: New Jersey Legislature Rolls Back Mandatory Minimums, Governor Will Sign Bill Into Law

With a 46-30 vote Thursday, the New Jersey Assembly gave final approval to a bill that will end mandatory minimum sentences for some "drug free zone" drug offenses. The bill passed the Senate in December. Outgoing Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has said he will sign the bill into law. When that happens, New Jersey will become the first state to roll back a mandatory minimum school zone law.

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misleading concept
Under a sentencing law in place since 1987, drug offenses that occurred within 1,000 feet of a school incurred mandatory minimum sentences of one to three years. Critics had argued for years that the law had a disproportionate impact on minority inner city residents and that it unnecessarily filled the state's prisons with low-level drug offenders who could be better served by drug treatment. The state spent $331 million last year to imprison drug offenders.

The bill just passed, A2762, would allow judges the discretion to impose a lesser sentence or probation, depending on whether school was in session, how close to a school it was, and whether children were present. Mandatory minimums would stay in effect if the offense took place on school grounds or involved violence or a gun.

According to the state Department of Corrections, 69% of drug offenders doing time are doing mandatory minimums. This bill will allow those doing mandatory minimums for school zone offenses to appeal those sentences.

"The mandatory minimum sentencing the zones require has effectively created two different sentences for the same crime, depending on where an individual lives," said Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), one of the bill's cosponsors. "This is geographic discrimination at its most basic."

"This is a progressive solution to a complex problem," said Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), another cosponsor.

The legislature's action won praise from sentencing and drug policy reform groups that were part of a broad coalition to pass the bill. "Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) commends the legislative leaders who fought for smart on crime sentencing policies in New Jersey. State lawmakers are increasingly disenchanted with ineffective and costly mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent, drug-related offenses and are turning to policies that allow the courts to individualize punishments based on the facts of each case. This move signals a better course for New Jersey, and fairer sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders," said Deborah Fleischaker, FAMM's director of state legislative affairs.

Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office, said the vote signals a new willingness on the part of elected officials at both the state and national level to reform failed sentencing and drug policies.

"At one time, these types of mandatory minimum laws were considered untouchable," said Scotti. "But there is a growing public backlash against these failed policies and a growing willingness on the part of elected officials to address the mistakes of the past."

Medical Marijuana: Rhode Island Releases Draft of Proposed Dispensary Rules

Last spring, the Rhode Island legislature approved a bill to allow for the creation of dispensaries for medical marijuana patients. Last week, in response to that legislation, the state Department of Health issued its proposed dispensary rules. A public hearing on the draft is set for February.

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Rhode Island patient activist Rhonda O'Donnell, at DC protest
Rhode Island approved the use of medical marijuana in 2007, but that law had no provision for dispensaries for patients unable to grow their own or find caregivers to grow it for them. This year's law allows for up to three nonprofit dispensaries to operate in the state. There are currently about 900 registered patients in the state and about 775 registered caregivers.

State health officials told the Providence Journal that if, after the public hearing, no revisions in the draft were necessary, the new rules could be enacted within 45 days. Then, the licensing process allows for up to 60 days to approve the applications. That brings the timeline to mid-2010, and that's if there are no additional public hearings and no major revisions demanded.

Even after dispensary operators are approved, it will take time to find financing and suitable locations. Once the facility is set up, it will take at least an additional three months before the first medicinal crop can be harvested. It could well be a year before Rhode Island sees a dispensary.

Under the proposed rules, a dispensary is defined as nonprofit entity that "acquires, possesses, cultivates, manufactures, delivers, transfers, transports, supplies, or dispenses marijuana... to registered qualifying patients and their registered primary caregivers."

Patients are limited to 12 plants and 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana. Dispensaries would be able to provide for multiple patients and would be allowed to keep on hand only 12 plants and 2.5 ounces per patient. The dispensaries could not provide a patient with more than 2.5 ounces in any 15-day period.

The proposed regulations do not address what prices dispensaries could charge. Instead, they say only that as licensed caregivers, they would be allowed to be reimbursed for the costs associated with helping a patient.

People complying with the Rhode Island medical marijuana law would be protected from arrest or prosecution, and they could not be penalized by schools, employers, and landlords. Dispensaries could not operate within 500 feet of a school and must have an alarm system.

The proposed rules bar people with drug felonies -- but not other felonies! -- from operating or working for a dispensary, unless their offenses would not be offenses under the Rhode Island medical marijuana law. It also allows the Department of Health to waive that requirement if it wishes.

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill 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.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

Medical Marijuana: Wisconsin Bill Gets Public Hearing

A Wisconsin bill that would allow seriously ill patients to grow up to 12 marijuana plants or purchase up to three ounces of marijuana from nonprofit dispensaries got a public hearing Tuesday. The bill, AB 554 (and its companion SB 368) was introduced a little more than a month ago, but after a decade of preparation and statehouse hall-walking by the state patients' group Is My Medicine Legal Yet? (IMMLY), it is moving fast. Tuesday's hearing was a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate Health Committees.

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Wisconsin's Jacki Rickert and Gary Storck, with New Jersey's Jim and the late Cheryl Miller (photo courtesy immly.org)
IMMLY's Jacki Rickert, of Mondovi, who suffers from a connective tissue disorder, has long been a poster child for Wisconsin medical marijuana patients. On Tuesday, she urged lawmakers to make her medicine legal, saying it allowed her to reduce her consumption of morphine for pain.

"When your doctor looks at you and says, 'If we cannot get weight on you, you will die' - that's what it comes down to, 'You will die' -- you do whatever you have to do," Rickert, 58, told the lawmakers. "We've never wanted to break the law, but sometimes you have to."

Both houses of the Wisconsin legislature are controlled by Democrats, but that didn't stop Republican skeptics from blasting away. Republican Attorney General JB Van Hollen played the "but it's a federal crime" card.

"Make no mistake, the marijuana possession permitted by the bill to a user or caregiver is illegal under federal law, with penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000," Van Hollen said in written testimony -- completely ignoring the Obama administration's vow to not prosecute people using medical marijuana in compliance with state law.

Such a law would also make it more difficult to prosecute marijuana cases in state court, Van Hollen complained. People could claim they had a medical condition, even if they were not on the state registry, he said. "If the bills are enacted as drafted, law enforcement's and prosecutors' ability to enforce what would still be illegal is seriously disabled," he warned.

Rep. Pat Strachota (R-West Bend) argued that the bill was too broadly written, citing a Department of Health Services estimate that 2.5 million Wisconsinites have medical conditions that would qualify them to use medical marijuana. The agency estimated that only a fraction of that number -- from 1,700 to 17,000 people -- would actually register as medical marijuana patients.

But that didn't stop Strachota. "That is not really a narrow scope on this bill if half the citizens of the state would qualify to use medical marijuana," he said.

But proponents of the bill argued that it was tightly crafted to avoid the kind of loopholes that have turned California into a medical marijuana Wild West. The bill is the "most comprehensive and responsible legislation in the country," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa) attacked the motives of advocates, claiming supporters were cynically using critically ill patients as a "façade" for legalization. "It's nothing more than a ruse for you to move forward for full legalization of marijuana," Vukmir said, drawing loud boos from the hearing audience.

Vukmir's comments also stirred Senate bill sponsor Sen. Joe Erpenbach (D-Waunakee) to insist that he was not trying to legalize marijuana for recreational use. "People shouldn't have to break the law to get pot for their mom or dad or son. Republicans and Democrats are doing that right now -- in your district, right in your backyard," Erpenbach told Vukmir.

Despite the Republican attacks, supporters of the bill think it can pass the legislature quickly. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), lead author of the bill, said he was confident it would pass the Assembly Health Committee and get an Assembly floor vote, while Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker (D-Weston) has signaled that he will allow a Senate floor vote on the bill. Gov. Jim Doyle (D) has said he supports medical marijuana.

Thirteen states currently have medical marijuana laws. The District of Columbia is about to be the 14th such jurisdiction, as officials there scramble to come up with a regulatory regime for the 11-year-old medical marijuana law that will only now be implemented after Congress ended a long-standing ban against spending District funds to do so. And New Jersey could be number 15, if, as expected, the Assembly votes to approve it next month.

West Coast Weed Wars: Legalizing Legislators Come Out Swinging

Two leading advocates of marijuana legalization at the statehouse came out swinging during a Thursday press conference to push the issue forward. Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), author of AB 390, the California legalization bill, and Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), cosponsor of HB 2401, the Washington state legalization bill, both said the time to legalize marijuana has come.

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Ammiano press conference for AB 390
"We're very excited, we've gained a lot of traction, and the political will seems to be there," said Ammiano, whose bill has already had one committee hearing and heads for an Assembly Public Safety Committee vote next month. "There also seems to be a populist dimension, as evidenced by the legalization initiative, which has qualified for the ballot."

Ammiano was referring to the Tax and Regulate Cannabis 2010 initiative sponsored by Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee, which formally announced this week that it had secured sufficient signatures to make the November 2010 ballot. (The Chronicle reported on that story two weeks ago.

"My bill would generate much needed revenue for the state," Ammiano continued. "We are in an historic economic and fiscal crisis, and taxing marijuana is just common sense."

But, Ammiano added, it isn't all about the dollars. "This is not just about the revenue," he said, "this is a social justice issue. People of color, specifically African-Americans, are being disproportionately arrested," the San Francisco assemblyman charged.

While opponents of legalization want to talk about its social costs, said Ammiano, that argument needs to be turned around. "We need to be talking about the social costs or prohibition," he said. "As a parent and grandparent, I'm concerned about the easy access that young people have, and I'm concerned about the chaos that prohibition brings, which is what we now have in California."

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Roger Goodman
If the California legislature is moving toward legalization, Washington's is right behind it, said Goodman, who represents a suburban Seattle district, and whose day job when the legislature is out of session is headingthe King County Bar Association's Drug Policy Project. "We're following California's lead," Goodman said. "This is an issue that has been simmering and is now ripe for public discussions. Finally, rationality is being allowed in this discussion."

Goodman said he didn't intend to waste his time on a bill that had no chance of passage. "If we didn't think we could do this, we wouldn't be doing it at all," he said. "This is not an idle effort."

Marijuana legalization addresses a whole set of legitimate public policy objectives, said Goodman. "Let's protect our children, let's get it off the streets, let's be fiscally responsible," he said. "Let's talk regulation instead of prohibition because we can't afford that anymore. This issue has been sexy too long; it's time to make it boring. Let's talk about a regulatory framework for cultivation and sales and about storage and about quality control and about times and places for sales, the same way we talk about controlling liquor and pharmaceuticals."

The Washington bill, which was pre-filed for next year's session earlier this month, has not, naturally enough, advanced as far as Ammiano's California bill. But Goodman said it would move and could be modified during the legislative process. "We need public input into the rulemaking," he said. "This bill is a work in progress."

California and Washington are not the only states with active marijuana legalization efforts. In the Northeast, both Vermont and Massachusetts saw bills introduced this year. But despite rising support nationwide for legalization, the West Coast still seems the best bet.

"Polls show increasing levels of public support all around the country for making marijuana legal," said Julie Harris, managing director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which arranged the press conference. "Marijuana is increasingly seen as a mainstream substance used recreationally and unproblematic ally by millions of Americans. We see tremendous momentum in favor of making marijuana legal, yet we still see 850,000 Americans arrested for it every year," Harris noted.

"With so many states facing fiscal crises and draconian budget cuts, why are we wasting our precious law enforcement resources on nothing more serious than using marijuana?" Harris asked. "It's time we move toward a system of reasonable regulation."

Legalization needn't worry about federal marijuana prohibition, said DPA staff attorney Theshia Naidoo. "There is nothing in federal law that requires states to criminalize any particular conduct," she said. "States have the ability to decide what conduct is illegal or not under state law. The federal Controlled Substances Act criminalizes the possession, cultivation, and sale of marijuana under federal law, but does not compel the states to criminalize marijuana," Naidoo argued.

"The federal government may criminalize marijuana, but it cannot force the states to criminalize or to enforce federal prohibition," she reiterated. "The states are free to opt out of federal marijuana prohibition."

California looks to be the first state likely to break with federal prohibition -- either through the legislature or at the ballot box -- but cracks in the dam of pot prohibition are starting to show up elsewhere as well.

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?

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