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A great day for the Martin family and the medical cannabis movement

[Courtesy of Rebecca Saltzman]

Michael Martin speaking at the press conference before his sentencing hearing.

I woke up this morning feeling nervous and unsettled. My friend and colleague Michael Martin was to be sentenced this afternoon, and I prepared myself for the worst. But after an emotional rally and lengthy sentencing hearing, I felt at ease because Mickey is not going to prison.

After pleading guilty in federal court to manufacturing marijuana edibles, with the government finding more than 400 plants, Mickey faced a guidelines range of 30 to 37 months imprisonment.  However, due to the tension between state and federal law and the lack of any evidence that any edible produced by Mickey was diverted to recreational use, United States District Court Judge Claudia Wilkin exercised her discretion to sentence Mickey to 5 years probation, with one year to be served in a halfway house and one year to be served in home confinement.

The hearing was intense. Judge Wilkin asked several astute questions about state law and the interplay between state law and federal law. Clearly, she saw that the conflicting laws made medical marijuana cases unique. After Mickey's attorneys spoke about state law and the need for a change in federal law, Mickey spoke for himself. He talked about the cancer patients that had been able to eat after using his edibles. He spoke about his loving family and his service to the community. He explained that he had only done what he did to help people, and never to profit. Half way into his speech, most of the dozens of supporters packing the court room were in tears.

His speech and the stack of support letter the judge had received made a difference. And after the judge announced his sentence, the entire court room of supporters stood up and clapped.

Of course, Mickey never should have been prosecuted in the first place and deserves no punishment for providing medical cannabis edibles to ailing California patients. But this punishment was the best he could have hoped for. It means that he will not miss any years of his children's lives and that he can continue to work and provide for his family.

This sends another message by a federal judge that the federal government should not waste its time bring these cases.

Location: 
CA
United States

Bob Barr Praises Federal Court Ruling Upholding Right of States to Allow Medical Use of Marijuana

Atlanta, GA - “The principle of federalism seemed dead three years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the federal government to run roughshod over state laws permitting the medical use of marijuana,” says Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party presidential nominee. Barr says the tide may be turning with the recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel, who refused to dismiss a case by city and state officials against the federal government for raiding a medical marijuana group in San Cruz, California. “Keeping the case alive was significant enough,” notes Barr. “But Judge Fogel suggested that the Bush administration might have violated the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution in adopting a policy intended to effectively void California’s medical marijuana law." As Judge Fogel explained, a trial must proceed on whether the federal government attempted to make ‘California’s medical marijuana laws impossible to implement and thereby forcing California and its political subdivisions to recriminalize medical marijuana.’ In short, says Barr, the courts may end up deciding that while the federal government may implement a policy that runs contrary to state rules in an area of traditional state authority, namely the criminal law, Washington may not work to overturn state law. “After spending billions of dollars and arresting millions of people, we seem no closer to eliminating illicit drug use than we were at the start,” Barr says. “But we certainly have lost a lot of our freedom. While we might disagree about the best approach to problem drug use, we should be willing to accept the compassionate use of marijuana by those who are sick and dying. Certainly states have authority under the Constitution to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana as medicine. The federal government has no constitutional authority to interfere,” insists Barr. Barr says that neither Sen. Barack Obama nor Sen. John McCain is willing to consider real change to current policy. “Sen. Obama says the federal government shouldn’t interfere with state policy, but he says he doesn’t want to waste his political capital on the issue," Barr explains. "Sen. McCain was for respecting state authority before he was against it. Neither the Democratic nor the Republican presidential candidate is willing to put constitutional principle—or the lives of those who are suffering from AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and more—before federal power." Barr says as president, he would "direct the DEA to initiate, for the first time, a truly open and objective scientific evaluation of the medical potential of marijuana." Moreover, Barr says he would ensure that all federal officials, including those in the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Agency, respect the decisions of states that choose to allow the medical use of marijuana. Finally, Barr would undertake a comprehensive review of federal crimes, which have expanded far beyond the few narrow cases foreseen by the nation’s Founders. "What the federal government does, it should do well, but it attempts to do far too much today," Barr says. "We must never forget that we are supposed to be living in a free society." "Such a decision, especially if upheld on appeal, would have significant and positive repercussions in other matters of public policy in which the federal government has used the power of federal law to thwart decisions by citizens of individual states," Barr notes. Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr represented the 7th District of Georgia in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. (This press release was reprinted by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
Location: 
CA
United States

Feature: Venezuela, US Governments Spar Over Drug Fighting

The tense relations between the Bush administration and Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez grew even more strained this week as Washington and Caracas traded charges and counter-charges over Venezuela's fight against cocaine trafficking. While it seems indisputable that cocaine trafficking through Venezuela has increased in recent years, the two governments are trading barbs over the extent of official Venezuelan complicity in the trade, whether Venezuela is doing enough to combat trafficking, and whether it needs to comply with US demands in order to effectively fight the drug trade.

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Venezuela (from the CIA World Factbook)
Venezuela does not grow coca or process cocaine, but like other countries in Latin America, it has been used as a conduit, especially by traffickers from neighboring Colombia, the region's largest coca and cocaine producer. The rise of the European cocaine market in recent years has undoubtedly made the country an attractive way station for cocaine headed east.

"The flow of cocaine through Venezuela -- both north particularly through the Dominican Republic and Haiti but also into Europe through Africa and other places -- has increased dramatically," US drug czar John Walters told the Associated Press in a recent interview. He said smuggling through Venezuela had quadrupled since 2004, to about 250 metric tons last year, or about one-quarter of total regional (and thus global) cocaine production.

The remarks come as the US is pressing Venezuela to renew cooperation with it on drug trafficking, and are probably laying the groundwork for a looming decertification of Venezuela's compliance with US drug war goals. Relations between the US DEA and the Venezuelan government have been almost nonexistent since Chávez expelled the DEA in 2005, charging that it was spying on his country. Only two DEA agents are currently stationed in Venezuela, and their activities are very circumscribed.

But Venezuela last weekend brusquely rejected renewed calls from Washington to accept a visit from Walters and resume cooperation on the drug front, saying it had made progress by itself and working with other countries. "The anti-drug fight in Venezuela has shown significant progress during recent years, especially since the government ended official cooperation programs with the DEA," Venezuela's foreign ministry said in a statement. Renewing talks on drugs would be "useless and inopportune," the statement said.

Walters had tried to "impose his visit as an obligation," the foreign ministry complained. "The government considers this kind of visit useless and ill-timed and feels that this official would better use his time to control the flourishing drug trafficking and abuse in his own country," the statement said. "Venezuela has become today a country free of drug farms, neither producing nor processing illicit drugs, and which has smashed records one year after another for seizing substances from neighboring countries," it added.
That statement came one day after US Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy ruffled feathers in Caracas by saying that Venezuela's failure to cooperate with the US was leaving an opening for traffickers. "The drug traffickers are taking advantage of the gap that exists between the two governments," Duddy told reporters, citing the estimated fourfold rise in trafficking.

President Chávez responded to those remarks Sunday by calling them "stupid" and warning that Duddy would soon be "packing his bags" if he is not careful. Chávez also suggested that the US concentrate on its own drug use and marijuana production.

On Monday, Venezuelan Vice-President Ramón Carrizales echoed his chief, telling reporters in Caracas that Venezuela was cooperating internationally, just not on US terms. "The DEA asks for freedom to fly over our territory indiscriminately," Carrizales said. "Well, they aren't going to have that freedom. We are a sovereign country."

Venezuela has seized tons of cocaine in recent years and has some 4,000 people behind bars on trafficking charges, he added. Most US-bound cocaine moves north by sea, he said, largely along Colombia's Pacific Coast.

But the Bush administration wasn't backing down. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormick said: "Our officials, including Ambassador Duddy, are going to continue to speak out on the state of US-Venezuelan relations... (and) what we see happening inside Venezuela. That does not foreclose the possibility of a better relationship... and certainly we're prepared to have a better relationship," he added, saying Washington first needed to see some unspecified actions by the Venezuelan government.

Good luck with that, said a trio of analysts consulted by the Chronicle. "There is little chance of increased cooperation," said Ian Vasquez, director of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, who cited corruption within the Venezuelan government.

Prospects for a rapprochement on drug policy are low, said Adam Isaacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "There is so much distrust between the two governments," he said. "Chávez's threat scenario is a US invasion, and a US military, security, or even police presence would be seen as probing for weaknesses. On the other hand, the US thinks Venezuela is on a campaign to bring Iran and Russia into the region, and Walters is an ideologue who thinks Venezuela is doing this to destabilize the region, you know, the idea of a leftist leader making common cause with drug traffickers. There is no trust, and there's not going to be any trust. The drug war stuff is really only one aspect of that larger context," he said.

"The Venezuelans have repeatedly stated they want to cooperate with the US on drugs, but Chávez deeply distrusts the US government," said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "He has had a terrible time with activist US ambassadors and he feels they have intervened repeatedly in Venezuela's sovereign affairs, but this could be a propitious moment. The Bush administration will get nowhere with any new anti-Chávez initiatives, so they just might be interested in taking some steps toward normalizing relations with Venezuela simply to show that the US is capable of using diplomacy."

Still, said Birns, don't look for any dramatic breakthroughs. "There won't be any effective agreement on drug trafficking unless it's part of a larger mix of confidence-building measures," he said. "Hugo Chávez has a confrontational, combative personality, but he's relatively clean when it comes to human rights violations or other derelictions, and that's very frustrating for Washington. There will not be any comprehensive agreement on this issue, just some de facto improvements on a graduated basis because the necessary confidence between the two governments just doesn't exist."

All three agreed that cocaine trafficking through Venezuela is increasing, but none thought it was a matter of official policy. "It's true there is now a lot of cocaine going through Venezuela," said Isaacson. "While I don't think that Chávez is actively trying to turn the country into a narco playground, I haven't seen any major effort to root out drug-related corruption. Chávez also has problems controlling his national territory; there are security and public security problems, common crime is a serious problem, and organized crime is growing."

"Venezuela has an income of $100 billion a year from oil revenues, why would they be interested in drug revenues?" Birns asked. "I'm sure there are some rogue elements in the government, but this is not a matter of state policy," he said. "You can't deny there is drug trafficking in Venezuela, but I can't imagine that Chávez has anything to do with or gain from it. After all, he's giving away hundreds of millions of dollars a year around the world, including the US, in oil and heating oil, so this just doesn't seem like an income opportunity he would be interested in."

The war on drugs is just a waste of time and resources, said Vasquez. "Asking countries to enforce US drug prohibition is asking them to do the impossible," said Vasquez. "It hasn't succeeded in Colombia, Mexico, or anywhere in the Andes. You see some ephemeral victories -- you might kill a drug lord or shut down a cartel, but this is a multi-billion dollar multinational industry that can easily adapt to whatever is thrown at it."

Asking for more enforcement is only asking for trouble, said Vasquez. "The more prohibition, the more law enforcement, the more violent it becomes," he said. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel. To the extent that the drug war is more aggressively pursued, we can expect more violence and corruption."

Still, there are things Venezuela could do to ease tensions, said Isaacson. "Venezuela could be more cooperative in monitoring its airspace, sharing radar information, even allowing occasional US verification flights like the other Latin American countries do," he said. "And as Fidel Castro has done, they need to take a hard line against drug corruption in the state -- it can eat a state from the inside out."

But if Chávez can be accused of playing politics with the drug issue, so can the US, said Isaacson. "US anti-drug goals look even more politicized. I'm sure Venezuela will be decertified, and people will fairly say they're singling out Venezuela because they're leftists and say bad things about the US. Meanwhile, Colombia, with the world's largest coca crop, and Mexico, which has a huge drug trafficking industry, will get a pass because they're pro-US."

"The US certification process on drugs is very tarnished," agreed Birns. "All of these annual mandates from Congress on drugs and terrorism and the like have been carried out in an archly political manner. The US minimizes the sins of its friends and maximizes those of its enemies."

Washington's problems with Venezuela are just part of an overall decline in US influence in the region, said Birns. "With countries like Peru having high growth rates because of the increased valuation of natural resources across the board and new resource discoveries, with Brazil on the verge of becoming a superpower, with various new organizations of which the US is not a part, like the Rio Group and the South American security zone, our leverage over Latin America is waning. The only way to achieve real results on any of these issues is earnest negotiation where real concessions are made."

Drug Use: Prescription Pills Up, Cocaine and Meth Down, Marijuana Holds Steady

Nearly 20 million Americans used illicit drugs in the month before responding to an annual national survey last year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That figure includes not only illegal drugs, but also prescription drugs used for non-medical purposes. The numbers come from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which interviewed 67,500 people for its annual report.

The numbers for overall drug use are similar to those for recent years, although the survey reported marginal declines in cocaine and methamphetamine use among young people. Among 18-to-25-year-olds, cocaine use dropped to 1.7%, down 23% from 2006, while meth use dropped to 0.4%, down about a third from 2006.

Drug control officials attributed the decline to increased interdiction and enforcement leading to higher prices. But the decline could reflect the generational learning curve typically observed in drug use patterns over time.

The declines in illegal stimulant use were countered by an increase in the non-medical use of prescription pain pills. According to the survey, 4.6% of young adults reported using pain pills for non-medical reasons last year, a 12% increase over 2006.

Marijuana remains by far the most commonly used illicit drug, with an estimated 14.4 million people reporting use in the previous month. That is about 5.8% of the population, down slightly from 6% in 2006.

Baby boomers moving into their fifties are taking their drug habits with them, according to the survey. Illicit drug use among those 55 to 59 more than doubled to 4.1% last year.

Despite millions of drug arrests and hundreds of billions of dollars spent enforcing drug prohibition in the past three decades, drug use levels remain roughly where they have been for the entire period.

How Much More Public Support Does Medical Marijuana Really Need?

CNN hosted an interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday which featured democratically elected questions courtesy of the popular website Digg.com. Unsurprisingly, one of the top questions was about marijuana policy reform. Here is her response (it’s the 3rd question):



Obviously, Pelosi is very supportive of medical marijuana and despite her pessimism about achieving full-scale legalization, she didn’t actually say she opposed it. Ideologically, I’d have to say this was pretty good coming from the Speaker of the House. But, as Paul Armentano points out, Pelosi’s advice to supporters of medical marijuana just doesn’t add up. She laments Congress’ intransigence on the issue and encourages constituents to contact their representatives, as though this is all just a matter of showing politicians where the people stand.

Alas, we kinda tried that already. Public support for medical marijuana has been overwhelming for a long time. Reformers are 9-1 when it comes to passing state-level medical marijuana laws at the ballot box. State legislatures in Hawaii, New Mexico and Rhode Island have passed laws to protect patients, drawing praise from constituents. The only memorable instance of a politician being damaged for his position on medical marijuana involved Bob Barr, who lost his House seat following attacks for opposing medical marijuana. He’s come around since then.

What, other than legalizing medical marijuana in a dozen states, could the people possibly do to show the politicians in Washington, D.C. that we’re serious about this? You want us to go legalize medical marijuana everywhere else in America? We’ll do it. You want more research proving that it works? Let us know when you’re done reading what we’ve already given you, and we’ll gladly send the rest. Worried about the message to young people? Teenage use is down in states with medical marijuana laws.

You see, our feet are tired. Our throats are hoarse. Our keyboards are cracking, our sharpies are dry and we’re almost out of posterboard. With all of that in mind, Nancy Pelosi, since you do agree with us and you’re the Speaker of House now, we were hoping there might be something else you could do.

Feature: Afghan Opium Production Declines Slightly From Record Levels

With the West's occupation of Afghanistan now nearing the seven-year mark and plagued by an increasingly powerful and deadly insurgency revitalized by massive profits from the opium trade, Western officials gained some small solace this week when the United Nations announced that opium production there had declined slightly from last year's record level. But the small decline comes as the Taliban and related insurgents are strengthening their grip on precisely those areas where opium cultivation is highest, and the light at the end of the tunnel is, at best, only a distant glimmer.

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2008 Afghan opium cultivation chart from the UN report
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, released Tuesday, total Afghan opium production this year will be 7,500 metric tons, down 6% from last year's all-time record of 8,200 tons. Also, according to the survey, the amount of land devoted to opium production declined 19%. The UN said the total crop had decreased by a smaller number than the amount of land because farmers in key opium-producing provinces were producing bumper crops.

The UN attributed the decline in production to drought conditions and the efforts of a small number of Afghan governors and tribal and religious leaders to persuade farmers to give up the illicit crop. It also crowed that the number of opium-free provinces in the country had risen from 13 to 18, although it failed to mention that farmers in those provinces had, in many cases, merely switched from growing poppies to growing cannabis.

This year, almost all opium cultivation -- about 98% -- is now concentrated in seven provinces in south-west Afghanistan that house permanent Taliban settlements and are home to related trafficking groups that pay taxes to various Taliban factions on their opium transactions. The Taliban is making between $200 and $400 million a year off taxing poppy farmers and traders, Costa said earlier this year. In the report, Costa referred to Helmand province, one of the most Taliban-dominated in the country. "The most glaring example is Helmand province, where 103,000 hectares of opium were cultivated this year -- two thirds of all opium in Afghanistan," Costa wrote. "If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs."

The UN said that manual eradication played almost no role in the decline, affecting only about 3% of the crop. What manual eradication did accomplish was the deaths of some 77 anti-drug workers and police at the hands of insurgents and angry farmers. On Wednesday, Costa told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he should abandon manual eradication as useless and even counter-productive.

While Afghan poppy production is down slightly, it still surpasses global demand for its illicit end products. And after several years of crops greater than global demand, it is likely that Afghan traders are sitting on huge stockpiles of opium, so even if production were to be slashed substantially, it would cause no significant disruption in the global markets for opium and heroin.

Still, with the war news from Afghanistan seemingly growing worse by the day, UN and Western officials were eager to jump on any good news they could find. "The opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede," Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the Vienna-based UNODC, wrote in the report. "This year, the historic high-water mark of 193,000 hectares of opium cultivated in 2007 has dropped by 19 percent to 157,000 hectares."

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith interviewed former opium-growing Afghan farmers outside Jalalabad in fall 2005
The Bush administration welcomed the report, saying it provided vindication for its much-criticized anti-drug policies in the country. But a State Department spokesman told the Washington Post, "the drug threat in Afghanistan remains unacceptably high. We are particularly concerned by the deterioration in security conditions in the south, where the insurgency dominates."

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), in charge of efforts to provide alternative development for farmers as part of the broader US counter-drug and counter-insurgency strategy, also looked for the silver lining in the storm clouds over Afghanistan. Its efforts are "paying off for Afghanistan in the war against poppy production," it said in a press release Tuesday.

The British foreign office also joined the chorus, with FCO Minister Lord Malloch-Brown releasing a statement welcoming the report's findings. "This shows that the Afghan government's Drug Control Strategy is starting to pay dividends," he said.

Still, Malloch-Brown warned there is a long way to go. "However, there is no room for complacency," he said. "Afghanistan is still the world's biggest supplier of heroin. High cultivation levels are concentrated in the unstable south, where we are working with the government of Afghanistan, local governors, and international partners to build security and governance."

Other, non-governmental observers were much less sanguine about what the slight decline in opium production signified. "I don't think there has been any real progress made at all," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. "But there has been so much money and pressure invested that they feel they have to justify their efforts. It's true that cultivation has ended in some provinces, but other areas are compensating for that."

A large part of the problem is that too many important players are involved and profiting from the trade, said Yaseer. "There are lots of strong, powerful people involved -- influential people in the Afghan government, governors, parliamentarians, provincial police commanders -- and unless they are suppressed, nothing will change. There is lots of concern expressed, but the business is hot and everyone is making money," he said.

Yaseer also pointed to the increasing ability of insurgents to wreak havoc. "Security is horrible, it's getting worse and worse precisely in those growing areas, and where the security gets worse, there are more opportunities for the drug business," he said. "Everyone takes advantage of the lack of security and the chaos."

The UNODC reports provides only "false hope," said the Senlis Council, the Paris-based drugs and security nonprofit that has long proposed buying up illicit poppy crops and diverting them into the licit medicinal market as a means of getting a handle on illicit production and the support for political violence it provides.

"Opium is the cancer destroying the south of Afghanistan," said Emmanuel Reinert, the group's executive director in a Wednesday statement. "Current counter-narcotics policies are failing to address the loss of the southern provinces to the dual scourges of poppy production and terrorism."

The decrease in poppy cultivation will have a minimal effect on the drugs trade, given the exponential growth in opium production since 2002. "This decrease is no more than a ripple in the ocean," Reinert added. "Without an urgent change of direction in the country's counter-narcotics policies, the international community will be unable to prevent the consolidation of opium production in the south of the country, and the consolidation of the Taliban which is financed by the illegal drugs trade."

Instead of pushing farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban and related insurgent groups by pursuing crop eradication, the West and the Afghan government should revisit the Senlis proposal, which was rejected out of hand when introduced in 2005, said Senlis policy analyst Gabrielle Archer. "It is clear that a long-term, sustainable solution is required to solve Afghanistan's opium crisis -- and prevent the insurgency's funding by illegal cultivation," she said. "Poppy for Medicine would allow farmers to diversify their crops, and give Afghanistan an opportunity to be part of a legal pharmaceutical industry. We need the Afghan people on our side if we are to be successful there, and this initiative could go a long way to winning back much-needed hearts and minds, which would be highly beneficial for our troops fighting there."

The hearts and minds of the Afghan population are turning increasingly against the West and the country's occupation by foreign troops, warned Yaseer, ticking off a seemingly endless series of incidents where Afghan civilians have been killed by coalition forces, the most recent being the reported deaths of 90 civilians -- 60 of them children -- in a NATO bombing raid last week. That raid prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call this week for a reevaluation of the foreign military presence in his country.

"Everyday there are new uproars in parliament and local councils," said Yaseer. "They say there is no difference between the Soviets and the coalition forces. They bombard whole villages in the middle of the night because they hear four or five Taliban are there. These killings keep happening all the time, and people are fed up with it. This is all developing very rapidly now. 'Why did you bring this war to Afghanistan?' the people ask. The gap between the people and the government is growing larger every day," Yaseer said.

With coalition military casualties on the rise, the Taliban grown fat off opium profits and ever more aggressive, and growing hostility to the West in the Afghan population, a minor down-turn in opium production doesn't look so impressive.

Harm Reduction: Funds Begin to Flow to DC Needle Exchange Programs

Eight months after Congress voted to end a decade-long ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs (NEPs) in the District of Columbia, money is starting to flow to the programs in the city with the nation's highest rate of HIV. District officials had announced almost immediately after the congressional vote that they would fund NEPs in an effort to control the spread of the disease among injection drug users.

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PreventionWorks! at work (screen shot from nytimes.com '''slide show,'' June '07)
Now, according to the Washington Times, funding is finally reaching the city's NEPs. The city will spend $700,000 a year on NEPs, with the city's largest program, PreventionWorks!, getting $300,000 a year.

According to a DC HIV/AIDS Administration 2007 report, injection drug use is the second most common mode of acquiring the HIV virus after unprotected sex, and the District has some 10,000 injection drug users.

DC NEP advocates have long argued that the federal funding ban left them starved for funds and unable to adequately address the injection drug using population. PreventionWorks!, for example, has had to scrape by on private contributions, limiting the work it has been able to do.

The need is obvious and so is the response, Ken Vail, the group's executive director, told the Times. "If you want to reduce the spread of HIV... you put more syringes out there," he said.

Feature: California Attorney General Issues Medical Marijuana Guidelines -- Mostly Good But Some Problems, Say Advocates

After more than a decade of roiling confusion over what California's groundbreaking medical marijuana law and subsequent enabling legislation do and do not allow, state Attorney General Jerry Brown sought to clarify matters Monday by issuing a long-awaited set of guidelines for patients, providers, and law enforcement. In addition to clarifying what is permissible under state law, Brown also hoped to damp down the ongoing conflict between state and federal authorities over medical marijuana in California.

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California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
Under the guidelines, medical marijuana dispensaries must operate as not-for-profit collectives or cooperatives, and are prohibited from buying marijuana from growers who are not themselves patients or registered caregivers. The only fees dispensaries can collect are those covering overhead and operating expenses.

The guidelines strongly urge patients to obtain state medical marijuana ID cards and advise police to accept such cards as proof of legitimate medical need. The guidelines also call on police to return seized marijuana to patients who are later proved to be legitimate. They prohibit medical marijuana patients from lighting up near schools and recreation centers or at work, unless employers approve.

Affirming that California's medical marijuana law is not preempted by federal law, the guidelines further direct "state and local law enforcement officers [to] not arrest individuals or seize marijuana under federal law" when an individual's conduct is legal under state law.

But while providing protections to patients and non-profit dispensaries organized as co-ops or collectives, the guidelines could provide a green light for law enforcement to go after the store-front dispensaries that have sprung up like mushrooms in some areas of the state. In ballyhooing a Friday raid against a Northridge dispensary by California Bureau of Narcotics Agents, Brown signaled Monday that a crackdown could be looming.

Accusing the Today's Healthcare dispensary and its operators of criminal behavior by operating a profitable business, Brown went on the offensive. "This criminal enterprise bears no resemblance to the purposes of Proposition 215, which authorized the use of medical marijuana for seriously sick patients," he said. "Today's Healthcare is a large-scale, for-profit, commercial business. This deceptively named drug ring is reaping huge profits and flaunting the state's laws that allow qualified patients to use marijuana for medicinal purposes."

California law enforcement pronounced itself pleased with the guidelines. Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, praised Brown for promulgating them. "Since Proposition 215 was passed, the laws surrounding the use, possession and distribution of medical marijuana became confusing at best. These newly established guidelines are an essential tool for law enforcement and provide the parameters needed for consistent statewide regulation and enforcement."

Despite the apparent threat to non-compliant dispensaries and their suppliers, most medical marijuana advocates also pronounced themselves generally satisfied with the guidelines. The medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access has been working with Attorney General Brown and his predecessor, Bill Lockyer, for several years in an effort to see guidelines promulgated. ASA spokesman Kris Hermes said this week that while the guidelines are not perfect, they are a step in the right direction.

"We've been urging them to come out with an official statement that can direct law enforcement and stop what has been rampant disrespect for state law in some areas," he said. "From that perspective, the guidelines are a huge step forward. They provide a blueprint for local law enforcement to develop sensible policies around patient encounters, and they recognize the validity and law-abiding nature of medical marijuana dispensaries in California. That's huge," said Hermes. "These guidelines are a boon for patients, police, and everyone else in the state and will greatly advance the implementation of state law."

"Given the vagueness of the initiative and the statutes, the guidelines are pretty good," said Bruce Mirken, San Francisco-based communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "They establish parameters within which the distribution of medical marijuana is to be treated as legitimate and legal. That's important because some prosecutors have been adamant that there is no legal authority for dispensaries -- period. This cuts the legs out from under them," he said.

"They were about what we expected," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "Most of the guidelines are consistent with what our attorneys have been saying and advising their clients to do all along. There are a few problem areas, but these guidelines will help fill the vacuum."

One problem Gieringer pointed out was that the guidelines say dispensaries may possess and distribute only lawfully cultivated marijuana, and that they cannot purchase from or sell to non-members. "There is nothing in either federal or state law against purchasing marijuana, so we don't see any legal basis for saying it's illegal to buy from outside vendors," he said.

Another potential problem is that the guidelines say that co-ops and collectives should document their activities and record the source of the marijuana they purchase, Gieringer said. "That is going to be problematic until we have some assurance of protection from being arrested by the DEA, and we don't want to see the cops come in and seize the records, and then bust the growers."

"While there is much about the guidelines that is positive, we also have some worries about some of the dispensary language," Mirken said. "Requiring dispensaries to be non-profit is just silly. Is Jerry Brown going to demand that Walgreen's and Riteaid become charities, too? If society thinks private enterprise and the profit motive are a logical way to distribute goods and services, why not medical marijuana?"

Still, said Mirken, the guidelines are a step in the right direction. "Given that we have all these issues here in California, anything that moves us in the direction of an orderly system with some legal clarity is a good thing. When you have local authorities who just don't like medical marijuana and are looking for an excuse to bust people, which some of them have been doing all along, this is going to provide protection."

But at least one Bay Area dispensary operator was not so impressed. "Let's see how it all plays out," said Richard Lee, proprietor of Oakland's Bulldog Coffee Shop and SR-71 dispensary and key promoter of the Oaksterdam scene. "Hopefully, it will help people in more repressed redneck areas and not hurt people in more progressive areas like Oakland and San Francisco."

Although Brown's guidelines call for dispensaries to be organized as co-ops or collectives, Lee has not incorporated in that manner and has no plans to. "We've been here eight years," he said. "We were here before they even passed SB 420. Oakland has a system that allows reasonable profits; it's set up for the clubs to run like any other business, and we are fine with that. Does Jerry Brown really want to come in and mess with Oakland's system that works?"

While the guidelines could result in a temporary decrease in the number of dispensaries as non-compliant ones either close their doors or have them closed for them by law enforcement, the end result will most likely be more dispensaries opening in areas of that state that are currently underserved because of local law enforcement or official hostility.

"I'm not too worried about a short term decrease in the dispensaries if it brings a little more rigor," said Gieringer. "Things have been fast and loose, and we have some rogue operators who wouldn't normally be operating in a legal market. We will lose some of those people, which could result in a short term decrease in availability, but in the medium term, this should be balanced out by the increase in availability in currently underserved areas."

While not everyone is happy with all aspects of the guidelines, the state of California has now taken a big step toward legitimizing its medical marijuana industry, reducing the confusion surrounding the state's medical marijuana law, and sending a strong signal to the DEA that it intends to police itself.

Law Enforcement: LEAP Barred From Asian-American Cops Meeting in Virginia

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the 10,000-strong organization of police, judges, prosecutors, DEA and FBI agents, and others calling for an end to drug prohibition, was declared persona non grata at the conference of the National Asian Peace Officers Association (NAPOA) in Crystal City, Virginia, on Tuesday. LEAP member Howard Wooldridge--best known as the guy in the cowboy hat with the "Cops Say Legalize Drugs" t-shirt--was forced to remove himself and his booth from the conference after federal agents there complained about his presence, LEAP said in a Wednesday press release.

According to the press release: "Acting under pressure from unnamed federal officials, Reagan Fong, president of the NAPOA, insisted on the immediate removal of LEAP from the conference vendor roster. It appears that some of the event's other exhibitors took exception to the LEAP message and put pressure on the event organizer to expel LEAP from the event."

Wooldridge reported that federal agency representatives, including DEA, Federal Air Marshals, and the Coast Guard had vendor booths at the conference. On Monday, Wooldridge visited the DEA booth and described the DEA agent there as "decidedly unhappy" with having to hear an opposing viewpoint.

Although NAPOA head Fong has not yet responded to LEAP requests for clarification and rectification, LEAP believes he took the action at the request of the DEA agent. LEAP is asking for an apology and demanding that Fong reveal the identity of the agent who leaned on him.

"We ask that Mr. Fong identify the individual, agency or group that lobbied for our eviction from the event," LEAP said. "If this was an independent effort then he or she was acting outside the scope of authority and should receive administrative punishment for unprofessional actions. If this action was sanctioned by upper level management then the managers need to explain their behavior in an open forum. If this was sanctioned official action by the US government it is a serious matter which requires serious and immediate attention."

Southeast Asia: DEA Bringing Drug War Tactics to Vietnam

DEA agents are in Vietnam this month to train Vietnamese anti-drug officers how to conduct drug raids American-style, but local UN officials say you can't police your way out of a drug problem. Still, that's not stopping the American drug warriors from teaching door-kicking-in and other skills they consider necessary for their paramilitarized approach to drug law enforcement.

According to a report from Voice of America radio, DEA agents like Joe Boix, the agency's head firearms and tactical instructor in the state of Arizona, are showing the Vietnamese how it's done back home. As Boix watched, a column of masked Vietnamese police practiced raiding a drug den.

"Someone needs to be on that side of the door," said Agent Boix. The agents kicked in the door and enter the room. "Protect your back. Turn around now," continued Boix.

"The drug problem is an international problem, and it's killing children, and it's killing families, and it's all the same no matter where you go," Boix told VOA.

Although Vietnam is not a drug producer, it has seen rising levels of heroin addiction since it opened itself to foreign trade two decades ago. Amphetamines and ecstasy are also popular. But the DEA isn't particularly concerned about drug use in Vietnam; rather, it wants to crack down on the use of the country as a transshipment point in the global drug trade.

"Our main thrust is to go after the international organizations. We'll help them out. That's what this training is for, to help them deal with their internal problem. But we want to go after the bigger organizations, the large ones, international in scope," said Jeff Wanner, the DEA officer at the US Embassy in Hanoi.

While training exercises like the one now on-going may help increase cooperation between US and Vietnamese law enforcement, it is unlikely to reduce drug use rates in Vietnam, and may even exacerbate problems related to drug abuse, said Jason Eligh, a harm reduction specialist at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Hanoi office.

"If police enforcement is extremely strong, extremely rigid, concerned about stopping all things related to drugs, imprisoning people, imposing strict fines, that's going to cause heroin users to flee from authority, Eligh told VOA. "In Vietnam, drug use is classified as a social evil and as a crime. Where there's strong enforcement, you're seeing drug users not want to engage in services," he said.

When tough law enforcement drives drug users underground, the result can be higher rates of HIV infection, Eligh said. Nor was he particularly enamored of the current Vietnamese approach to drug users, which is to intern them in mandatory rehabilitation camps, generally for two years, but sometimes for as long as five years, but then offers few services once drug users go back home.

"There are a number of better ways of dealing with drug dependence, and this is not one of them. Certainly methadone is by far the best approach to heroin dependence that we have in the world today," said Eligh.

Vietnam recently began implementing its first methadone maintenance programs. That's a more progressive and humane approach than either the rehab camps or American-style drug raids.

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