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Bill introduced in Congress to decriminalize marijuana!

[Courtesy of Marijuana Policy Project] 

Today, a bill to eliminate all federal penalties for marijuana possession was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Would you please take one minute to ask your U.S. representative to support this bill? MPP’s easy online action system makes it simple — just enter your name and contact info and we'll do the rest.

"The Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008," introduced by Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), would eliminate the threat of arrest and prison for the possession of up to 3.5 ounces of marijuana and/or the not-for-profit transfer of up to one ounce of marijuana. It would not affect federal laws prohibiting selling marijuana for profit, importing and exporting marijuana, or cultivating marijuana.  It also would not affect any state or local laws and regulations.

Because almost all marijuana arrests are made by local and state police, the primary impact of this federal bill is twofold:  First, it would offer protection to people who are apprehended with marijuana in federal buildings or on federal land (such as national parks); and, second, the bill sends a message to state governments that the federal government is now open to the notion of states reducing their marijuana penalties, too.

This historic legislation comes 36 years after the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse made a similar recommendation to President Richard Nixon, suggesting that he decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

MPP has worked closely with Congressman Frank’s staff over the last year, helping to craft the legislation and build political support for the proposal on Capitol Hill.

Now that the bill has been introduced, members of Congress need to hear from their constituents who want to see it passed. It takes only a minute or two to use MPP’s online action system to send a quick note to your member of the House.

Thanks so much for your help.

Sincerely,
Kampia signature (e-mail sized)

Rob Kampia
Executive Director
Marijuana Policy Project
Washington, D.C.

P.S. As I've mentioned in previous alerts, a major philanthropist has committed to match the first $3.0 million that MPP can raise from the rest of the planet in 2008. This means that your donation today will be doubled.

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Harm Reduction: More Than 300,000 HIV/AIDS Cases Linked to Injection Drug Use

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 300,000 people have been infected with the HIV/AIDS virus through injection drug use. That is roughly 30% of all the slightly more than one million cases reported in the US since the disease first appeared on the radar in the early 1980s. The figures are contained in Table 3 of the CDC's latest HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, covering cases through 2006.

According to the report, more than 170,000 men and nearly 75,000 women contracted the virus through sharing dirty needles. Another 68,000 men contracted the virus through a combination of injection drug use and male-to-male sexual contact.

If there is any good news on the HIV/AIDS drug injection front, it is that the percentage of new cases linked to injection drug use appears to be dropping. While over the history of the epidemic, roughly 30% of all cases are linked to needle-sharing, in 2006 that number was only 17%.

Still, that means that more than 3,000 men and more than 1,700 women contracted the virus in 2006 through injection drug use. Nearly 1,200 more men contracted the virus through a combination of needle-sharing and male-to-male sex.

Needle exchange and other programs designed to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS currently operate in around 200 US localities, but despite their proven record in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS, they continue to face hostility in some communities and from some state and local officials. Under an amendment offered by then Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX), the federal government is prohibited from spending federal funds on needle exchange programs. Both remaining Democratic Party presidential candidates, Sens. Hillary Clinton (NY) and Barack Obama (IL), have called for an end to that ban.

Marijuana: Barney Frank Introduces Federal Decriminalization Bill

Last month, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) announced he would file a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession at the federal level. Wednesday, Frank followed through, introducing the "The Personal Use of Marijuana By Responsible Adults Act of 2008," which would set a maximum $100 fine under federal law for possession or not-for-profit transfer of less than 100 grams of marijuana.

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Barney Frank
Frank did not comment publicly this week on the proposed legislation, but in a statement last month on his marijuana legislation, Frank said it was a waste of federal time and resources to prosecute minor marijuana offenses.

"I think it is poor law enforcement to keep on the books legislation that establishes as a crime behavior the government does not seriously wish to prosecute," he said. "For highly-trained federal law enforcement agents to spend time prosecuting people for smoking marijuana is a diversion of scarce resources from their job of protecting public safety."

Marijuana laws should be left to the states, he suggested. "The norm in America is for the states to decide whether particular behaviors should be made criminal. To make the smoking of marijuana one of those extremely rare instances of federal crime -- to make a 'federal case' out of it -- is wholly disproportionate to the activity involved. We do not have federal criminal prohibitions against drinking alcoholic beverages, and there are generally no criminal penalties for the use of tobacco at the state and federal levels for adults. There is no rational argument for treating marijuana so differently from these other substances."

Even if the Frank bill were to pass, which seems unlikely any time in the near future, it would have limited impact on the 800,000-plus marijuana arrests each year since the vast majority of them are made by state and local law enforcement. But it would send a very strong signal to the states that the federal government no longer considered pot-smoking a serious problem worthy of the criminal justice system.

Barney Frank Introduces Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

Via MPP (sorry no link):
"The Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008," introduced by Congressman Barney Frank (D-Mass.), would eliminate the threat of arrest and prison for the possession of up to 3.5 ounces of marijuana and/or the not-for-profit transfer of up to one ounce of marijuana. It would not affect federal laws prohibiting selling marijuana for profit, importing and exporting marijuana, or cultivating marijuana. It also would not affect any state or local laws and regulations.

Because almost all marijuana arrests are made by local and state police, the primary impact of this federal bill is twofold: First, it would offer protection to people who are apprehended with marijuana in federal buildings or on federal land (such as national parks); and, second, the bill sends a message to state governments that the federal government is now open to the notion of states reducing their marijuana penalties, too.

This historic legislation comes 36 years after the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse made a similar recommendation to President Richard Nixon, suggesting that he decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.
Congress can send the right message by passing this bill and demonstrating its commitment to defending individual freedom, while focusing federal law-enforcement resources on real crimes. As Barney Frank argues:
"I do not believe that the federal government should treat adults who choose to smoke marijuana as criminals. Federal law enforcement is a serious business, and we should be concentrating our efforts in this regard on measures that truly protect the public."
Despite bi-partisan co-sponsorship (Ron Paul, of course), I'm kinda not expecting this thing to become law anytime soon, but it will be fun to see who our friends are. Any debate over the bill will just reveal the idiocy of those in Congress who want federal law enforcement agents busting hippies for half-eighths, instead of defending the homeland from terrorists, zombies, and dancing libertarians.

Let it be known that one can stand for sensible drug policy without being voted out of Congress.
Location: 
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Please Burn the Byrne Grants

Since Scott opined yesterday about the injustice of paramilitarized policing, I thought I would follow up by referring back to a related topic I've addressed from time to time -- coordinated drug busts as taxpayer-funded lobbying by law enforcement agencies, large numbers of raids conducted together as part of statewide operations, intended to garner publicity for a funding program known as the Byrne Grants and thereby avoid Congressional budget cuts. California and Kentucky were among the guilty parties last year, though I suspect they were not the only ones. Kentucky is at again, according to libertarian SWAT-critic Radley Balko of Reason magazine, writing last week for FoxNews.com:
Last month, police in Kentucy went on a 24-hour drug raid blitz. According to local media accounts, the raids uncovered 23 methamphetamine labs, seized more than 2,400 pounds of marijuana, identified 16 drug-endangered children and arrested 565 people for illegal drug use. ... "During 'Operation Byrne Blitz,'" a local television station reported, "state police and highway patrol agencies, local police and sheriff's departments, and drug task forces throughout the country conducted undercover investigations, marijuana eradication efforts and drug interdiction activities. The collaborative effort, named for the federal grant program which funds many of the anti-drug efforts, underscored the impact that cuts to this funding could have on local and statewide drug enforcement."
Perhaps because they often are tied to drug arrest statistics, it was task funded by the Byrne grants that perpetrated the racist scandals in Tulia and Hearne, in which large numbers of minorities were rounded up and prosecuted, only for it all to turn out to be fabrication. In the Overkill report, Balko has identified the grants as one of the reasons for the overwhelming increase in the use of SWAT teams for minor drug enforcement. The Bush administration, surprisingly, has taken the lead in trying to slash Byrne funding, while Democrats have led efforts to restore it, such as NY Sen. Chuck Schumer at a press conference late last month. A letter signed by 51 senators asked the chairman and ranking member of the Committee on Appropriations to restore cut Byrne funding, among them presidential contenders Clinton and Obama. To be fair to the candidates, some of our favorite senators unfortunately are on there too, such as Chris Dodd (D=CT), sponsor of the first Senate bill taking on the Higher Education Act drug penalty; Dick Durbin (D-IL); the justice-reform-minded Jim Webb (D-VA), others who've done some good things from time to time. Democrats clearly relish the support of national law enforcement unions, and it must be hard for any politician to resist getting to stand up next to law enforcement leaders at a press conference and call for more money for them. The Byrne grants fund other things besides arrests too, and the reasons for opposing the program may seem like harder sells from the point of view of a member of the "establishment" than it does for us out here. Also to be fair to the Democrats, those 51 signatories included 15 Republicans. A conservative commentator from the Heritage Foundation, Cully Stimson, also commented on FoxNews.com, but making the case for the grants, in Don't Burn the Byrne Grants, back in February. Still, if George Bush can get it right, I think it's lame for Democrats not to, especially when one of the results of this program is what happened in Tulia and Hearne, about as close to overt race-based persecution by government as can be found. I say, do burn the Byrne Grants, in fact please burn them. The fact that law enforcement groups quite transparently lobby for them by conducting massive numbers of drug busts to get attention ought to set off warning bells. Any good things the grants might also support can be funded through other channels. This program is badly structured and misdirected, and it should go.
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Sentencing: Supreme Court Passes on Chance to End Punishments for Acquitted Crimes

In a March 31 order , the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from a man who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for an offense of which he was acquitted. In refusing to hear the appeal, the high court let stand the federal judicial practice of punishing defendants convicted of one crime by crafting sentences based also on "acquitted conduct" -- in effect punishing them for crimes in which they were found not guilty.

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Supreme Court sanctions supreme injustice
The case was that of Mark Hurn of Madison, Wisconsin, who was charged with possession of crack cocaine and possession of powder cocaine after a 2005 raid of his home in which police seized 450 grams of crack and 50 grams of powder cocaine. At trial, Hurn admitted to dealing drugs, but testified the crack belonged to other people living in the house. The jury convicted him of the powder cocaine offenses, but acquitted him of the crack offenses.

Under federal sentencing guidelines, Hurn should have faced about three years in prison for the powder cocaine conviction. But federal prosecutors argued he should be punished for both offenses with a 20-year sentence, and US District Court Judge John Shabazz agreed. Saying there was good reason to think Hurn was guilty of the crack charges, he sentenced him to nearly 18 years.

"This was an extraordinary increase," said Elizabeth Perkins, a lawyer in Madison who filed his appeal. "Allowing a sentencing judge to disregard the verdict of the jury is very disappointing," she told the Los Angeles Times.

But it's business as usual in the Alice in Wonderland world of the federal courts. Nearly a decade ago, the Supreme Court endorsed sentencing for acquitted conduct in a California case, but only in a short unsigned opinion. Under the court's rule, judges can sentence defendants by "relying on the entire range of conduct" presented by prosecutors, not just the charges that resulted in guilty verdicts. That has given judges the freedom to send people to prison for years for charges of which they were not convicted.

Hurn had appealed to the appeals court in Chicago, which agreed that his sentence was "based almost entirely on acquitted conduct," but upheld it nonetheless, citing the earlier Supreme Court ruling.

Hurn appealed to the Supreme Court last fall, with his lawyers arguing that prosecutors shouldn't be able to "execute an end run" around the jury. They cited a series of Supreme Court rulings in recent years that severely limited judges' ability to sentence defendants based on conduct not proven before a jury, but the Supreme Court didn't want to touch it. Instead, it rejected without comment even hearing the appeal.

"This is very disappointing," Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor who is an expert on sentencing, told the Times. "They have dodged this for now, but eventually the Supreme Court will have to grapple with this again."

Pain Treatment: Prosecutors in Case Seek to Shut Up Doctor, Critics

Federal prosecutors in the case of Haysville, Kansas, physician Dr. Steven Schneider and his wife, who were indicted for allegedly operating a "pill mill" by prescribing to pain patients, asked a federal judge last Friday for a gag order to keep Schneider and his supporters from making their case in the court of public opinion.

The case of the Schneiders has attracted the attention of pain treatment advocates critical of heavy-handed federal government attacks on pain doctors, including the Pain Relief Network. The network's leader, Siobhan Reynolds, has been instrumental in mobilizing Schneider's patients in support of their doctor and in opposition to the federal prosecution. Prosecutors sought a temporary injunction to bar Schneider, his wife, other family members, and PRN's Reynolds from talking to the media.

"We strongly oppose a gag order because we believe in the public's access to the justice system," defense attorney Lawrence Williamson told the court. "We think the request is overbroad and not supported by law at all." While prosecutors accused the defense of trying to taint the jury pool, Williamson said that was not the case. "We are often contacted by media to respond to allegations that are made by the government and if the public has questions to the allegations we should be able to respond to those within the rule," Williamson said.

Prosecutors had no problem with media coverage of the case when they trumpeted the arrests of Schneider and his wife back in December, and they remained quiet when local media ran stories supportive of the prosecution. But questions raised in the press by Reynolds and other supporters about the 34-count indictment of Schneider accusing him of a variety of crimes related to his prescribing of opioid pain medications have the feds seeking to silence their foes.

Prosecutors claimed Reynolds told a patient that if he was going to kill himself because of lack of access to pain medications, he should do it publicly -- a charge Reynolds angrily rejected, calling it "absolutely false."

"This is just a wild allegation," Reynolds said. "Basically it was put out there to try to smear me. The Pain Relief Network works very hard to try to stop the suicides going on across the country because of untreated pain, the epidemic of untreated pain," she told the Associated Press. "I'm shocked that the government would try to get a gag order against a political activist. I find that stunning."

Editorial: Justice Unhinged

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
One of the basic elements of the US system of justice, a founding principle in fact, is that of the trial by a jury of one's peers. The jury is seen as a safeguard against tyranny, and has also been a matter of pride representing the strength and quality of our democracy.

No kangaroo courts, we say, no railroading by the system, and above all justice based on facts. If just one of the 12 jurors on a case feels that guilt has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, that juror should vote not guilty and then a conviction shall not be obtained -- another trial can be held, if the government thinks it's worth it, but a conviction is not obtained that time. If they all vote not guilty, then not guilty is the verdict, and the matter ends.

It is hoped thereby that the innocent will be protected from the overwhelming power of the state. Because another one of our founding principles is that it is better to let many guilty persons go free rather than convict and even incarcerate one innocent.

Unfortunately, while for many defendants in the courts those principles are still the law, for others they merely describe what once was. The wrench that unhinged justice was the "war on drugs." Within the '80s drug war, perversions were wrought that allowed those whose guilt was unproven to be punished, and in fact those who were acquitted of charges brought against them to also be punished.

One such perversion was civil asset forfeiture. In that corrupt practice, a charge is leveled not at a person, but at a piece of property. If the property is found to have been used in the commission of a drug crime (and some other kinds of crimes), it is "guilty," and the government can take it whether the owner knew about the lawbreaking or not. Some restrictions have been placed on this practice by states and even the feds from time to time, but they have been largely ineffective. The result of forfeiture is the disgusting spectacle of government agents stealing from members of the public -- the thefts ranging from dollars and cents on the street up to cars or even homes and retirement savings -- with the profits going to law enforcement agencies where they are spent on various purposes, many questionable.

An even greater perversion is what has happened to federal sentencing. Once upon a time, a conviction by a jury was needed to send a person to prison. That is still the case, if a defendant happens to be acquitted of all charges. But get convicted of just one charge that has been brought against you, if charges are brought together, and now you can be sentenced based on the others, even if there is no verdict or even if you were acquitted of them. In fact it's not even strictly necessary for the charges to be brought at all.

Though the Supreme Court has rendered some decisions in recent years to restrict this practice in certain cases, in others it is apparently wide open. In 2005, Mark Hurn was prosecuted in federal court in Wisconsin for possession of powder cocaine, and a larger amount of crack cocaine, was convicted of the former but acquitted of the latter. Federal guidelines specified about three years for the charge that was the subject of the conviction -- itself a grave injustice. But the prosecutor argued to the judge that Hurn was probably guilty of the crack charges too, the judge bought it, and hiked the sentence up to 18 years instead.

Late last month, the Supreme Court declined to hear Hurn's case. And so Hurn is stuck with 18 years behind bars, but the vast majority of it for conduct of which he was exonerated. Who are the true criminals here? Not Mark Hurn, as far as I am concerned. Justice has been unhinged, courtesy of the drug warriors, the judiciary complicit. What fine service they have rendered to the nation.

Latin America: Bloody Easter Weekend in Mexico's Drug Wars

Prohibition-related violence in Mexico took no break for the Easter holiday, with 59 people killed in the three-day period between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday, according to Mexican press reports compiled by New Mexico State University's Frontera NorteSur (FNS) news service. The victims included former and current policemen, four soldiers, street-level drug dealers, used car salesmen, and an American citizen, Cuban-born Humberto Flores, who was gunned down in Cancun.

The violence ran the length and breadth of the country, with killings occurring in the northern border states (Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas), the center (Guanajuato, Mexico state), the Yucatan peninsula (Quintana Roo), the east coast (Veracruz), and the Pacific Coast (Oaxaca, Guerrero, Sinaloa). As FNS noted: "Once again, the geographical pattern of killings demonstrates how organized crime has extended its violent reach to virtually every nook and cranny of the country."

But there are hotspots, and one of them is Ciudad Juárez, across the Rio Grande River from El Paso. Nearly two dozen killings took place there over Easter weekend, including four people found burned to death at Los Lamentos ("The Regrets"), Chihuahua, on the New Mexico border. The police chief there crossed the US border into New Mexico seeking asylum after his deputies quit, saying he feared drug traffickers.

Further down the river in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, the body of Araceli de la Cruz, a 47-year-old woman kidnapped March 13, was dumped in front of an army post blindfolded and with a mutilated hand stuffed in her mouth. Accompanying the body was a note addressed to a Mexican army general warning of the fate that befalls informers.

In the past two years, as the Mexican government has undertaken massive offensives against the drug trafficking organizations, and the cartels have fought among themselves for control of lucrative franchises, the death toll has been around 2,000 a year. It looks as if 2008 is on, if not ahead of, the pace. And the killing continues: Nine more murders were reported in Ciudad Juárez by mid-week this week.

Search and Seizure: US Supreme Court to Decide Warrantless Search Case

The US Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a case that could clarify limits on when police using an informant may enter a residence. The case is Pearson v. Callahan (07-751), in which five members of the Central Utah Narcotics Task Force are being sued by a man whose home was searched without a warrant after an informant bought methamphetamine inside.

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US Supreme Court
In 2002, a snitch working with the task force bought $100 worth of meth from Afton Callahan inside Callahan's trailer in Fillmore, Utah. Once the officers waiting outside received the snitch's signal via wire that the deal had gone down, they entered and searched the trailer and arrested Callahan for sale and possession of meth.

Callahan moved to have the evidence suppressed because a warrantless search is unconstitutional, but a state court trial judge rejected that motion. Callahan then agreed to a conditional guilty plea while appealing the Fourth Amendment issue. A state appeals court later agreed with him and overturned his conviction.

Callahan then turned around and sued the task force members for violating his Fourth Amendment rights. The officers then argued that they were immune under the doctrine of "qualified immunity," which holds that government officials cannot be held liable for violating a law that was not clear at the time. A federal district judge, Paul Cassell, ruled in 2006 that the police were entitled to immunity, even if the search was unconstitutional, but the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver overruled Cassell, holding that the Constitution was so clear on the need for a warrant that no reasonable police officer would have proceeded without one.

Lawyers for the police officers then appealed to the US Supreme Court, which will have to decide both the search and the immunity questions. But despite what the 10th Circuit held, the federal courts are divided on whether a warrant is necessary in those circumstances. Some federal circuits -- but not the 10th -- have created the strange notion of a "consent-once-removed" exception to the Fourth Amendment. Under that theory, someone who consents to the entry of an undercover police informant is also consenting to the entry of police as well -- even if he doesn't know it. Because the resident gives permission to the snitch to enter, he has also given permission for the police to enter, this novel doctrine holds.

Now, the US Supreme Court will decide if there will be yet one more addition to the holes in the Fourth Amendment created by the drug war. And whether police who conduct unconstitutional searches will have to pay for them.

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