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When Oversight Means Oversight: Waxman Goes After Walters for Politicizing His Office

"Oversight" is a funny word. It has two meanings, one the opposite of the other. "Oversight" can mean watching over, supervising, or reviewing an action, a policy, or a process. Or it can mean the failure to do so, as in: "I meant to keep an eye on those guys, but I didn't. I guess that was an oversight on my part." When it comes to monitoring the activities of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and its head, drug czar John Walters, six years of Republican control of the Congress meant the only oversight that was practiced was of the latter variety. That was especially true when it came to looking into charges that Walters and ONDCP were using their drug-fighting mission to unfairly intervene in state and local ballot issues or legislation, or to seek partisan advantage for the Republican Party. What a difference an election can make. With the opposition Democrats now in control of both houses of Congress, the drug czar's office is joining other large hunks of the Bush administration in coming under tough congressional scrutiny. Today, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), head of the House Oversight and Government Operations Committee, released the following statement charging Walters and ONDCP with coordinating with the White House to schedule events with some 20 vulnerable Republican incumbents in the months leading up to the November 2006 elections:
Politicization of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy At the request of Sara Taylor, the former White House Director of Political Affairs, John Walters, the nation’s drug czar, and his deputies traveled to 20 events with vulnerable Republican members of Congress in the months prior to the 2006 elections. The trips were paid for by federal taxpayers and several were combined with the announcement of federal grants or actions that benefited the districts of the Republican members. A November 20, 2006, memo from Ms. Taylor summarizes the travel Director Walters took at her request. An agency e-mail sent the following day describes how Karl Rove commended the historically nonpartisan Office of National Drug Control Policy and three cabinet departments – Commerce, Transportation, and Agriculture – for “going above and beyond the call of duty” in making “surrogate appearances” at locations the e-mail described as “the god awful places we sent them.” Other documents include an e-mail from the Interior Department to Ms. Taylor’s predecessor stating: “these folks need to be reminded who they work for and how their geographical travel can benefit this President.” Chairman Waxman wrote to Ms. Taylor to request her attendance at a Committee deposition on or before July 24 and her possible appearance at a Committee hearing on July 30. He also wrote to White House Counsel Fred Fielding, the Republican National Committee, Director Walters, and the Secretaries of the Departments of Commerce, Transportation, and Agriculture requesting relevant documents.
There's a complete set of links to the documents mentioned at the House Oversight and Government Operations Committee web site linked to in the title of the Waxman release. It makes some interesting--and damning--reading. Waxman looks like he will schedule some hearings on this soon. Gosh, it sure is fun when we have someone on the oversight committee who actually practices the first definition of the word!
Location: 
United States

DEA targets landlords of pot outlets

Location: 
Los Angeles, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Los Angeles Times
URL: 
http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-potlords17jul17,0,3296426.story?coll=la-home-local

David Murray Lies About Steve Kubby's Position on Medical Marijuana

Via DrugWarRant, here's a glimpse at the brilliant methods of ONDCP Chief Scientist David Murray.

First, recall Steve Kubby's brief imprisonment last year. Due to his unique medical condition, many people were concerned that Kubby might not survive being denied access to medical marijuana while in jail. He survived thanks to Marinol and said this about the experience:

"During that time I experienced excruciating pain, a vicious high blood-pressure crisis, passed blood in my urine and I lost 33 pounds. However, there was also good news. I learned that Marinol is an acceptable, if not ideal, substitute for whole cannabis in treating my otherwise fatal disease. Now I am a free man and I am profoundly grateful to be alive and to have friends and supporters such as you."

Testifying before Congress last week, David Murray then twisted Kubby's statement into a pretzel, casting it as a complete reversal of his position on medical marijuana in general:

Founding proponents of medical marijuana in the United States have reversed their key positions of support for medical marijuana. [...] Steve Kubby, another Co-founder of medical marijuana in California stated in a letter to supporters on April 14th, 2006 that "Marinol is an acceptable, if not ideal, substitute for whole cannabis in treating my otherwise fatal disease."

Steve Kubby was just glad to be alive. He lost 33 pounds. He was pissing blood. If that sounds like an endorsement of Marinol as an alternative to whole cannabis, your name must be David Murray. The guy gets caught lying every time he opens his mouth, but this is obscene and disgusting, even by Murray's rock-bottom standards.

It would serve the U.S. Congress well to understand that David Murray does things like this. His claim that Steve Kubby changed his position on medical marijuana is a perfect example of the boundless dishonestly of which he is capable, and in fact specializes in.

This is the typical behavior that can be expected from the very Serious, Scientific, and Responsible people at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Don't bother asking why it is necessary for them to lie shamelessly about what Steve Kubby has said. They lie to our elected representatives only because they care about us. So we should be grateful that they are as good at lying as they are, lest we should be legally allowed to select medicines based on our experience rather than theirs.

Location: 
United States

Caribbean drug war has just begun

Location: 
Trinidad and Tobago
Publication/Source: 
Trinidad and Tobago Express (Trinidad and Tobago)
URL: 
http://www.trinidadexpress.com/index.pl/article_opinion?id=161176548

You know the drug war's been lost when they're growing marijuana right outside the DEA's office...

Via I Was the State: DEA discovers marijuana growing a few hundred yards behind their Dallas office, the Dallas News reports. IWTS rhetorically asks if the Texas marijuana market has been shut down, and points out that marijuana is Texas' 6th highest grossing crop. This is almost right up there with the time a marijuana plant was found growing out of a crack in the New Orleans courthouse, or when a patch of marijuana was spotted growing in a traffic median in Israel. (I'd appreciate if anyone can provide links for these; I remember them but couldn't find anything online.
Location: 
United States

Hurwitz Receives Lesser Sentence Second Time Around, Could Be Free in 17 Months

Via John Tierney at the New York Times, posted late last night... Judge Leonie Brinkema sentenced pain physician Dr. William Hurwitz to 57 months, more than pain treatment advocates were hoping for but considerably less than the 25 years handed down in the first trial by Judge Wexler. With time served, he could be out in 17 months. One paragraph in particular from Tierney's blog post encapsulates much of the backwardness inherent in the federal sentencing system, backwardness that affects many much more run-of-the-mill cases as well:
While there was no evidence that Dr. Hurwitz was profiting from the resale of his prescriptions -- and the jurors I interviewed said they didn’t think he intended the drugs to be resold -- he will still spend more time in prison than almost all the patients who admitting lying to him and reselling the drugs. Thanks to the deals they made to cooperate with prosecutors, seven of the nine patients got sentences ranging from 10 to 39 months. Only two got longer sentences than 57 months -- and one of them, who got 72 months, was also guilty of armed robbery and arson.
The other thing that is really troubling about this case is that jurors admitted to Tierney (previously) that they were not clear on what the law says about whether a doctor who screws up and prescribes to the wrong people, but isn't intentionally diverting drugs to the black market, should be held criminally responsible. But that is precisely the point of law on which the verdicts turned. If jurors don't understand the law they are judging, what is the justification for keeping the conviction and imprisoning someone for it? Despite the praise that has been given to Brinkema by Tierney and others for her handling of this case -- which admittedly was far better than other judges have done -- at the end of the day I have to say that I think she failed to do proper justice. I repeat, if the jurors admit that they did not understand the key point of law before them, I see no reasonable way for the verdicts to be considered legitimate, because the process itself is simply unsound. I could see an argument (theoretically) for having a third trial, but Dr. Hurwitz should be at home tonight with his family, and it's a crime that he's not -- not only for his sake, but for all the pain patients who effectively are being tortured by denial of pain medication because doctors don't want to take the risk of getting sent to prison. Lastly on this theme, think about the fact that the first set of convictions were invalidated, and this second set for the aforementioned reasons clearly should have been. That's an extraordinarily poor track record. A criminal justice system that imprisons people even when jurors admit they didn't know what they were doing is a system that is fundamentally corroded and has lost its way. Don't be proud of yourselves, feds! Despite all of the foregoing, I also have to say that I am relieved. 17 months is a long time to spend in prison, even if one hasn't already spent some years there already, but it could be much, much worse. Judge Brinkema could have given him the same 25 years, or life -- or 10 years, or 12 or 15. The trial also had a bright spot in that Brinkema saw through the misrepresentation about dosages that prosecutors had attempted:
Brinkema said she had read news accounts of the first trial and had seen some of the massive prescriptions Hurwitz had given out, including one patient who was given 1,600 pills a day. "The amount of drugs Dr. Hurwitz prescribed struck me as absolutely crazy," the judge said. But after hearing testimony from both sides, "I totally turned around on that issue," Brinkema said. "The mere prescription of huge quantities of opioids doesn’t mean anything."
In fact, there are known pain treatment cases in which the dosages were literally four times greater than the largest dosage prescribed by Hurwitz in the cases at stake (as I pointed out in a letter to Judge Wexler before the first sentencing, though obviously to no avail). Now lawyers in other pain cases (current and future) can read Judge Brinkema's comments to judges and jurors to explain why the apparently large doses may have been appropriate. The problem hasn't been a lack of experts willing to say that in trials; the problem has been that for some reason it just seems to wash over people in the face of the large number of pills. I think that having a quote like that from a federal judge will help to break through. I'm not a physician, and I'm not in a position to judge whether or not Dr. Hurwitz practiced good medicine in every case. But I'm completely confident that he did not engage any drug-dealing conspiracy. Perhaps the fact that I've met him several times in the past biases my view. But I've also met many of his former patients -- some of them I know well -- and it's a provable fact that he helped many people whom others doctors wouldn't help and who desperately needed the help, and that he gave them the benefit of thoughtful attention. A lot of these people were left in the lurch when the authorities moved against him, causing at least one suicide and arguably a few of them. Hopefully this outcome, while highly imperfect, has enough good points in it to help move things in the right direction; time will tell. You can keep with all of our pain reporting in our topical archive -- RSS is available here -- email us if you'd like to run our pain feed (or any other feed we offer) on your web site.
Location: 
United States

Judge keeps door open for WAMM's medical marijuana case

Location: 
San Jose, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Santa Cruz Sentinel (CA)
URL: 
http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/archive/2007/July/14/local/stories/02local.htm

We Want Pardons: Petition to Save Bush's Legacy by Persuading Him to Pardon Thousands of Nonviolent Drug Offenders

(Please click here to send a copy of this petition in your own name to President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and your US Representative and Senators if you live in the US.)

Don't just pardon Scooter Libby and
Thanksgiving turkeys, President Bush!

We, the undersigned, ask you to save your legacy by releasing thousands of nonviolent drug offenders from federal prison before you leave office. Short of taking such a measure, you will be doomed to go down in history as a hypocrite.

Unlike President Clinton, you cannot point to a record of mercy toward people caught in the criminal justice system. While the overall Clinton record in criminal justice was not lenient, he did commute the sentences of 63 people, most of them neither wealthy nor powerful, including 29 nonviolent drug offenders.

You, by contrast, commuted only three prisoners' sentences prior to helping Scooter Libby, one every two years. You have pardoned four times as many Thanksgiving turkeys as people you've released from prison.

Even worse, in 2003 your attorney general, John Ashcroft, issued guidelines requiring federal prosecutors to always seek the maximum possible amount of prison time for defendants, with only limited exceptions permitted.

The measure we've called for will undoubtedly be controversial, but you will have defenders from across the political spectrum. Advocates will assist your staff in finding appropriate cases -- reopening cases you've previously rejected would give the project a good head start. Clemency petitions will undoubtedly start to pour in once you put the word out. You can answer critics by saying we need to redirect our resources toward national security instead. And it will be consistent with the sympathy you've expressed in the past, based on your personal experiences, for people who have struggled with substance abuse.

In the nation that is the world's leading jailer, which incarcerates a far greater percentage of its population than any other nation yet calls itself "land of the free," the president who helps to reverse that pattern will ultimately be recognized for it. Indeed, the "tough-on-crime" laws that have led us to this situation were mainly enacted for political reasons. Please pardon or commute the sentences of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders; please rescind the aforementioned Ashcroft directive; renounce your support for the drug war (at least in its current form); and call on Congress to repeal mandatory minimum sentences and authorize downward revision of most federal sentencing guidelines.

You have a year and a half left to prove that justice is for everyone -- not just for your friends. Will you rise to the occasion? History is watching.

(Please click here to send a copy of this petition in your own name to President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and your US Representative and Senators if you live in the US.)

Pardon Whom?

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
The Nation (NY)
URL: 
http://www.thenation.com/doc/20070730/pollitt

Feature: Medical Marijuana -- A Progress Report

A little more than a decade after California voters passed Proposition 215 in 1996, making it the first state to approve the use of medical marijuana, the movement continues its slow spread across the country. Now, medical marijuana is legal in 12 states (with varying degrees of protection), and roughly 50 million people -- or about one out of six Americans -- live in those states.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/montel.jpg
federally-approved patient Irv Rosenfeld hands his empty federal medical marijuana canister to Montel Williams, while Reps. Sam Farr, Maurice Hinchey and Ron Paul observe
On the Pacific Coast, medical marijuana is legal from the Canadian border to the Mexican border (Washington, Oregon, California), as well as in Alaska and Hawaii. In the intermountain West, Colorado, Montana, and Nevada were joined this year by New Mexico as states where medical marijuana is legal. The other regional medical marijuana hotbed is the Northeast, where Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont allow its use, and only a veto from Republican Gov. Jodi Rell kept Connecticut from joining those ranks this year.

While it may be a bit of an exaggeration to speak of a pincer movement aimed at the heartland, medical marijuana is on the move. In addition to the 12 states where it is legal, a number of other states, including Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York have seen progress in state legislatures and are inching closer to approving medical marijuana. Meanwhile, a medical marijuana initiative is getting underway in Michigan, and activists are eyeing similar initiative campaigns in a handful of other states.

But at the same time, the federal government remains staunchly opposed to medical marijuana. The Justice Department and the DEA continue to harass patients and providers, especially in California, where a loosely-written Prop. 215 has led to the most wide-open medical marijuana scene in the country. While the DEA, sometimes working with recalcitrant state and local law enforcement officials, has been raiding dispensaries for years, this week the agency unveiled a new tactic against them: It sent letters to dozens of Los Angeles area landlords who rent to dispensaries, threatening them with civil forfeiture and possible criminal action if they continue to rent to what the DEA considers criminal drug trafficking organizations.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/asademo.jpg
Americans for Safe Access demonstration
Similarly, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) regularly sends out its shock troops to attempt to defeat medical marijuana legislation and initiatives at the state level. The DEA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) all attempt to block independent research on the therapeutic uses of cannabis and throw whatever obstacles they can imagine in the path of medical marijuana.

But the federal government is under attack by medical marijuana advocates coming from several different angles. In Congress, the most significant piece of medical marijuana-related legislation is the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would bar the use of federal funds to persecute patients and providers in states where it is legal. Hearings and a vote in the House on Hinchey-Rohrabacher are expected in the next week or two. While approval appears unlikely this year, supporters, including the group spearheading the effort, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), expect to pick up votes and edge ever closer to the needed majority.

In the meantime, there are three legal challenges to the federal hard line on medical marijuana:

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/ethanrusso.jpg
Dr. Ethan Russo addresses Patients Out of Time medical marijuana conference
Clearly, the medical marijuana movement is trying to advance on many fronts, and while the disparate groups that make up the movement may be on the same page, they aren't always reading the same paragraphs. With a movement that includes groups like MPP, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), which seek an end to marijuana prohibition outright, and groups like the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which seeks broader drug policy reform, as well as organizations like ASA and Patients Out of Time (POT), which focus exclusively on medical marijuana, it is little surprise that while there is broad strategic agreement, there are tactical differences.

Groups differ on the utility of acting at the state versus the federal level, over whether initiatives or legislative action is preferable, and over who should be the public face of the movement, among other issues. For some, even winning more victories at the state level is not as important as changing the parameters of the debate.

For MPP, which is hard at work in the states as well as on Capitol Hill, meaningful change will result from continuing to hammer away at the federal level, said Dan Bernath, MPP assistant director of communications. "There will probably be a vote on Hinchey-Rohrabacher within a week or two, and we think we will pick up at least 20 votes," he said.

But with the amendment having garnered 163 votes last year, an additional couple of dozen votes would still leave it well short of the 218 votes needed to ensure passage in the House. "It is not likely to happen this year," Bernath conceded, "but it is important that we continue to build momentum for the future. The safer it looks for politicians, the easier it is for them to vote for it."

While passage of Hinchey-Rohrabacher would not change the federal marijuana laws, it would effectively protect patients, Bernath said. "If the Department of Justice loses funding to go after medical marijuana in the states, that would be 100% protection for patients."

ASA, while supporting Hinchey-Rohrabacher, was quick to point out that the protection provided by Hinchey-Rohrabacher would only apply to patients in states where medical marijuana is legal. "Hinchey has been something for certain drug reform organizations and proponents to rally around to help turn the tide on medical marijuana," said ASA spokesman Kris Hermes, "but it is certainly not the be all and end all. It would unfortunately only protect patients and providers in those 12 states, but does little to address the concerns of doctors, patients, and caregivers in the rest of the country."

More promising for ASA, Hermes said, are the federal lawsuits. "The ruling by the DEA judge in the Craker case certainly adds to the growing chorus in support of doing further research on the subject," he argued. "And if we can win our case against HHS and the FDA, that would only build pressure on the government's position that marijuana has no medicinal value."

Some patient-oriented groups would rather concentrate on medium-term movement-building than short-term political victories. "While we accept the strategy of most people working within the movement, which is to change the law and get the patients their medicine, we don't always agree with the tactics," said Al Byrne, spokesman for Patients Out of Time, which has concentrated on educating the public and especially the medical profession about medical marijuana. "We need to let educators lead the movement into the future, not lobbyists, lawyers, and legislators," he argued. "Picking up the states one by one is worthwhile, but after a while it's sort of redundant. We don't think we will see real meaningful change until the medical community accepts marijuana as medicine."

Patients Out of Time has for the past several years worked to bring the medical community on board through its series of conferences on cannabis therapeutics, which bring together scientists, researchers, and medical professionals from around the country and the world to discuss the latest advances. POT's Fifth National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics is set for next April in California.

Winning more medical marijuana victories at the state level is not redundant for MPP. To get change at the federal level will require more states getting aboard the medical marijuana bandwagon, said Bernath. "The way change will happen is that when enough states adopt their own medical marijuana laws, the federal government will no longer be able to ignore this."

To that end, MPP will continue to push for passage of state medical marijuana laws, sometimes through the initiative and referendum process and sometimes through the legislative process. In Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New York, medical marijuana legislation got some traction this year. "We can pick up next year where we left off," said Bernath.

DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann, whose organization is working on medical marijuana bills legislation in Connecticut and New Jersey, was quick to add those states to the list. DPA sees more bang for the buck in legislative efforts than initiatives, he said. "Legislative campaigns cost money, but not as much as ballot initiatives, and they have the advantage of generating enormous amounts of free media," he said. "Since a major part of the medical marijuana effort is about public education, the more hearings you have and the more media they generate, the better."

Bernath also pointed to MPP involvement in a Michigan medical marijuana initiative campaign that is just getting underway and suggested there may be more initiatives in other states. "The polls are looking pretty good in Arizona, Idaho, and Ohio," he said.

"This is where MPP and DPA have a slightly different philosophy," said Nadelmann. "I hope the Michigan initiative wins, and it would be helpful if it did, but as a matter of resource allocation, I'm skeptical about the value added of spending all that money to win one more state. But that's a judgment call," he added.

NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre drew a distinction between states that accepted medical marijuana through the initiative process and those that accepted it through the legislative process. "The initiatives covered a greater number of stakeholders and are more functional than the ensuing laws, which are very narrow in scope, serve fewer stakeholders, and haven't changed the federal dynamic of those states' representation in Washington," he argued. "If you look at who is supporting Hinchey-Rohrabacher, it is the delegations from the Western and Rocky Mountain states where support is strongest -- the states where medical marijuana came about through the initiative process."

On the other hand, St. Pierre acknowledged, states that have legalized medical marijuana through the legislative process have fewer problems with recalcitrant law enforcement. "In large parts of initiative states like California, Washington, and Oregon, the police simply ignore the law," he pointed out. "But when a medical marijuana bill goes through the legislature, law enforcement is part of the process. The police got to have their say. They lost, but at least they were sitting at the table."

Eleven years ago, no patients were protected by state medical marijuana laws. Now, some 50 million Americans live in states where they could be, and that's progress. But it also means that some 250 million Americans continue without the protection of state medical marijuana laws, and despite tentative advances in the South and the Midwest, today those areas remain without any such laws. In the last few years, progress has been made, but at a painfully slow pace. Perhaps that will change next year, with a number of states well into legislative consideration of medical marijuana bills.

And perhaps things will change at the federal level the year after that, especially if the Democrats extend and deepen their control of Congress. But at this juncture, the only likely federal changes will come if one of the lawsuits turns out victorious, and that means going back to the states and whittling away at medical marijuana prohibition one statehouse or one popular vote at a time.

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