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Press Release: Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate Committee in Bipartisan Vote, 8-3

Minnesota Cares logo

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE   
FEBRUARY 11, 2009

Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate Committee in Bipartisan Vote, 8-3

CONTACT: Former Rep. Chris DeLaForest (R-Andover)......................................................(763) 439-1178

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA -- Minnesota's medical marijuana bill, S.F. 97, cleared its first major hurdle this afternoon, passing the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee in a bipartisan vote of 8 to 3. The committee received spoken and written testimony from a number of patients and family members describing the relief provided by medical marijuana when conventional treatments had failed.

    "I believe this will be the year medical marijuana becomes law in Minnesota," said Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), a sponsor of the bill. "We've seen now from the experiences of 13 states -- one-quarter of the country -- that these laws work well, and that the dire warnings of opponents simply don't come true. The voters understand that there is no reason to subject suffering patients to arrest and jail for using a doctor-recommended medicine."

    One of those testifying was Joni Whiting of Jordan, a disabled Vietnam veteran who had strongly disapproved of marijuana use until her daughter was diagnosed with melanoma and began suffering unbearable nausea and pain from the treatments. "I was opposed to marijuana," Whiting said, "but the nausea my daughter suffered from the chemotherapy was so bad she lost a lot of weight, and the pills the doctor prescribed didn't help -- including Marinol, the THC pill. Marijuana allowed her to eat and also helped ease her pain, and she looked better than I'd seen her in months. I would have rather spent the rest of my life in prison than have denied her the medicine that kept her pain at bay and allowed her to live 89 more days."

    "I'm pleased to co-author this important legislation that will empower doctors and patients while protecting sick and dying Minnesotans from the threat of criminal prosecution," said Sen. Debbie Johnson (R-Ham Lake). "Most FDA-approved drugs assist in managing short-term pain.  Chronically ill and terminal patients need alternatives. Medical marijuana is one of those alternatives."

    Written testimony from patients and others is available at http://www.minnesotacares.org/Health_Housing_and_Family_Security_Committee_Testimony.htm.

    Thirteen states, including one-quarter of the U.S. population, now permit medical use of marijuana under state law. The newest such law was enacted by Michigan voters last November, passing with a record-setting 63 percent "yes" vote. Medical organizations which have recognized marijuana's medical uses include the American Public Health Association, American Nurses Association, American Academy of HIV Medicine, and American College of Physicians, which noted "marijuana's proven efficacy at treating certain symptoms and its relatively low toxicity," in a statement issued last year.

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Location: 
MN
United States

Medical Marijuana Press Conference at Minnesota Statehouse

Legislators and patients will launch what they expect to be the final push for passage of bipartisan medical marijuana legislation in Minnesota at a statehouse press conference. The Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee will hold a hearing on the bill, S.F. 97, at 12:30 p.m. A previous version of the bill passed the Minnesota Senate as well as every House committee, but did not receive a House floor vote. Presenters include bill sponsors Sen. Geoff Michel (R-Edina), Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing) and Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia); K.K. Forss of Ely, who has used medical marijuana to relieve pain from multiple neck surgeries; Dr. George Wagoner, physician from Manitee, Mich. (and formerly licensed in Minnesota), whose wife used medical marijuana during her battle with ovarian cancer and who campaigned for the Michigan medical marijuana initiative that passed in November with 63 percent of the vote. Also testifying at the hearing will be Joni Whiting of Jordan, whose daughter's battle with malignant melanoma was made bearable by using medical marijuana, and Kathy Rippentrop of Lakeville, whose mother used medical marijuana during her treatment for liver cancer. Written testimony from other patients will be presented to the committee and will be made available to the media.
Date: 
Wed, 02/11/2009 - 11:00am
Location: 
75 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.
St. Paul, MN
United States

Marijuana: New Hampshire Legislator Introduces Decriminalization Bill

New Hampshire state Rep. Steven Lindsey (D) Tuesday introduced a bill that would decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. Under the bill, HB 555, persons over the age of 18 would face no more than a $100 fine. Simple possession would also be decriminalized for minors, but they would be subjected to community service and a drug awareness program at their own expense or face a $1,000 fine.

The New Hampshire House passed a similar measure last year. It died in the state Senate.

Under current New Hampshire law, possession of up to an ounce is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. Rep. Lindsey called current law "draconian" during a Tuesday hearing.

Thirteen states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, most of them in the 1970s. But Nevada did it in 2001 and fellow New England state Massachusetts did it last November. State legislatures in Vermont and Washington are also dealing with decrim bills this year.

Marijuana: Vermont Legislators Introduce Decriminalization Bill

Led by Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington), 19 members of the Vermont legislature Wednesday introduced a bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Under the bill, HB 150, small time possession would become a civil infraction with a maximum $100 fine.

"There is no reason an otherwise responsible adult should face the life-altering consequences of a criminal arrest for what amounts to a minor indiscretion," Zuckerman said. "This modest reform will allow our police to quickly deal with these situations so that everybody can move on to more important matters."

The move comes one day after the Vermont Alliance for Intelligent Drug Laws (VALID) issued a press release announcing that a recent poll showed majority support for decrim. According to the poll, which was commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), 63% of respondents favored "a change in the law to provide for a $100 civil fine without jail time for those who possess an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use."

Interestingly, the poll found many Vermont voters wanted to go further: 49% of those polled said they would support "making marijuana legal for adults over 21, and regulating it similarly to alcohol," while only 37% said they would oppose the idea.

"This poll supports what we've known all along," said Nancy Lynch, executive director for VALID. "Vermonters don't want to see people ensnared in our criminal justice system for possessing a small amount of marijuana, and they see decriminalizing these violations as a modest, uncontroversial solution. Our representatives should take note -- passing this bill quickly is not only responsible; it's politically popular."

If the bill passes, Vermont would become the 13th state to decriminalize small time marijuana possession. But that doesn't appear likely. Rep. Bill Lippert (D-Hinesburg), head of the House Judiciary Committee, told the Burlington Free Press his panel has other priorities.

Even Zuckerman conceded the bill faces long odds. "The wheels are not greased on this," he said.

Medical Marijuana: South Dakota Bill Killed, House Votes to Ban Salvia Divinorum for Good Measure

The 2010 South Dakota medical marijuana bill, HB 1127, died a newborn as a House committee voted to table it only a week after it was introduced. The bill failed in the House Health and Human Services Committee on a 9-4 vote after representatives of state law enforcement claimed it would make its job more difficult.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/southdakota.jpg
bad legislating in the South Dakota badlands
The committee heard from a number of South Dakota medical marijuana patients, including Gulf War veteran Valerie Hannah of Deerfield. She testified that exposure to chemical weapons during her service left her suffering from chronic pain. Since first trying marijuana in 2001, she said, she had been able to quit using morphine.

"Medical marijuana seems to have been the best pain and anxiety relief I've received in the past 10 years," said Hannah, who was a spokesperson for the failed attempt in 2006 to pass a medical marijuana initiative. That effort garnered 48% of the popular vote.

Sioux Falls MS sufferer Patrick Lynch also testified. He said marijuana eased the symptoms of his disease and the side effects of other treatments he was taking. "By taking a few puffs after I take my shot, which is an injection, it eliminates both the headaches and the nausea that go along with it," Lynch said. "I'm not a pothead. I'm a human being with a disease."

South Dakota Chief Deputy Attorney General Charles McGuigan was much more concerned about potheads than with human beings suffering from disease. He told the panel his office is opposed to marijuana in any form.

The push for the bill came from long-time South Dakota marijuana activist Bob Newland and the organization South Dakotans for Safe Access, who are vowing to put the issue to the voters in another initiative in 2010. During the legislative session, Newland told solons this year was their chance to craft a medical marijuana bill; next year it will be his turn.

A backup bill, HB 1128, which would have allowed an affirmative medical necessity defense, also died this week. It was "deferred to the 41st legislative day" by the House Judiciary Committee. South Dakota's legislative session lasts 40 days.

Meanwhile, the South Dakota House Monday passed a bill, HB 1090 that would place salvia divinorum on Schedule I of the state's controlled substances list. The bill declares an "emergency," meaning it will go into effect 30 days from being signed into law.

"I'd like to have the drug off the street by the end of February", said Rep. Chuck Turbiville (R-Deadwood), the bill's prime sponsor. "It's just finding its way onto the Internet. It's just finding its way onto the street."

At least the House accepted an amendment by Rep. Larry Lucas (D-Mission) that would provide for a misdemeanor possession charge. Under the Lucas amendment, less than two ounces of salvia would be a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

South Dakota looks to be well down the path to criminalizing salvia, joining an accelerating trend among the states.

Feature: Is This the Year New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws Will Be Repealed?

For more than 35 years, New York state has had the dubious distinction of having some of the country's worst drug laws, the Rockefeller drug laws passed in 1973. While pressure has mounted in the past decade to repeal those draconian laws, the reforms made to them in 2004 and 2005 have proven disappointing. But now, in what could be a perfect storm for reform, all the pieces for doing away with the Rockefeller drug laws appear to be falling into place.

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June 2003 ''Countdown to Fairness'' rally against the Rockefeller drug laws, NYC (courtesy 15yearstolife.com)
New York is now governed by an African American, David Paterson, who was arrested in an act of civil disobedience against the Rockefeller drug laws and who has vowed to reform them. The Democratic leader of the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver, is on board for serious reforms. And for the first time in years, Democrats also control the state Senate. Add to that mix the budgetary crisis in which the state finds itself, and it would appear that this is the year reform or repeal could actually happen.

But it hasn't happened yet -- no bills have even been filed -- and there is opposition to real reform, mostly from district attorneys, representatives whose upstate districts depend on prisons as a jobs program, and the law enforcement establishment. Those folks may latch onto pseudo-reforms as a means of blocking real reform.

Their handbook could be the State Sentencing Commission report issued this week. That report, commissioned by Gov. Paterson last year, calls for marginal reforms in sentencing and parole, as well as limited judicial discretion, but leaves too much power in the hands of prosecutors, said reform advocates.

"The Sentencing Commission proposal was positive in that it would return some judicial discretion in limited cases," said Caitlin Dunklee, coordinator of the Rockefeller repeal coalition Drop the Rock. "But we hope and will press for more sweeping and meaningful reform of the Rockefeller laws. This report was the product of a commission composed of many prosecutors and corrections people, and it does not go far enough."

"I can't believe at this particular moment that they would put this out," said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) New York state office. "Not only does it not include real reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but it takes a step backward," Sayegh continued. "The commission acted as though the political climate we're in is not happening. It's like they drafted this thing from a cave."

DPA wants judicial discretion and treatment programs, which are included in the Sentencing Commission report, Sayegh said. "The problem is that when you dig into the details of the recommendations, what they are actually saying is that their version of judicial discretion, expanding treatment, and expanding diversion opportunities are all crafted out of the prosecutorial perspective. Prosecutors would maintain their leading roles and their diversion criteria would eliminate half the people from even being considering for it. That's the substance of our objections to the report," Sayegh said.

While Sayegh criticized Gov. Paterson for allowing the commission to "continue with its bumbling," he also took heart from Paterson's non-response to the report's release. "Paterson was going to hold a public event around the release, but that got changed to a press conference, and then even that got cancelled," he noted. "We see that as a good sign, an indication that he will not lend his backing to this report."

Instead, Sayegh said, a much better starting point would be the report issued two weeks ago by Assembly leader Sheldon Silver, Breaking New York's Addiction to Prison: Reforming New York's Rockefeller Drug Laws. In that report, Silver laid out the "principles" of reform:

  • Ilegal drugs should remain illegal. Adults who sell drugs to children, individuals who use guns in drug deals, and drug kingpins deserve harsh punishment.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences for low-level offenders must go. Mandating that judges sentence drug users and very low level street sellers to state prison has not impacted crime or reduced addiction but, rather, has led to a massive increase in New York's prison population with a disproportionate number of Latinos and African-Americans being incarcerated.
  • Real judicial discretion means an end to mandatory minimum prison sentences for Class B felony drug offenses and second time, nonviolent drug offenders and the placing of an equal emphasis on alternatives to incarceration and treatment. Except for the most serious crimes, judges in New York already have the discretion to fashion appropriate sentences for criminal acts. Judges should have the ability to make an informed decision whether circumstances warrant imposing a state prison sentence in drug crimes just as they do in cases of many assault, larceny, property damage and any number of other crimes.
  • District Attorneys should continue to play a key role in the process, but they should not be able to veto a judge's discretion. Indeed, to the extent there are district attorney-sponsored initiatives, such as Drug Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) programs that have proven success rates with the limited populations they serve, judges will have the discretion to continue them.
  • Existing maximum determinate sentences for first and second class B level felony and below offenders should be maintained so that if a judge decided circumstances warrant, those who commit the crime will do serious time.

Partial reforms like those achieved in 2004 and 2005 are not going to cut it, said Caitlan Dunklee. "The reforms in 2004 and 2005 failed across the board... the only positive thing about them was that a few hundred people got to go home to their families, but they failed to address the underlying inequities of the Rockefeller drug laws. Specifically, they failed to return any discretion to judges, perpetuating the one size fits all justice that has led to huge levels of incarceration in New York."

The 2004 and 2005 reforms can be judged by their fruits. According to a Drop the Rock 2008 fact sheet, 5,657 people were sent to prison in 2004 for nonviolent drug offenses. That number increased to 5,835 in 2005, 6,039 in 2006, and 6,148 in 2007. About 40% of drug offenders behind bars in New York, some 5,300 people, are doing time simply for drug possession. And more than half of all drug offenders behind bars are doing time for the lowest level drug felonies, which involve only tiny amount of drugs. For example, it takes only a half-gram of cocaine to be charged with a Class D possession felony. More than 1,200 people are currently locked up for that offense.

So, is 2009 the year that real reform (or outright repeal) of the Rockefeller drug laws will happen? DPA thinks so, and held a conference two weeks ago to help make it happen. New Directions for New York: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drug Policy brought together numerous drug policy stakeholders in an effort to break the grasp of the criminal justice template on drug policy.

"This was the first time in state history where we had stakeholders ranging from the Medical Society of New York to needle exchange providers to people who actively use injection drugs and do outreach to reduce HIV to academics, prosecutors, and elected officials," said Sayegh. Although New York has good drug policy programs -- harm reduction offices, overdose prevention strategies in place -- the overall discussion is still framed too much by the criminal justice perspective, Sayegh said.

"There is an apparatus in place to lead the charge for more progressive drug policies, but the discussion is framed by the Rockefeller laws," he said. "At this conference, stakeholders who are focused on the Rockefeller laws met with groups who focus on treatment, harm reduction, and medical research. We used the four-pillars approach pioneered by Vancouver, which for many people was a new concept. This allowed them to look at drug policy and reform from a new conceptual perspective, and that's part of what will bring about change."

Sayegh is guardedly optimistic about the prospects for reform this year. "In the past, we hadn't been able to move forward because the prosecutors controlled the language and logic of the debate," he noted. "But now, we can provide the legislature with new language and a new framework, the logic of public health, not criminal justice. This will make the legislature much more willing to move on reform proposals. Who doesn't like public health?"

"I'm very optimistic," said Drop the Rock's Dunklee. "I think we'll see a progressive piece of legislation get passed this year that will include meaningful restoration of judicial discretion in drug cases. Hopefully, it will also include an expansion of funding for alternative to incarceration programs like job training and drug treatment."

Not everyone was so sanguine. "I'm optimistic that something will happen, but I don't think its going to be as profound as everyone would like," said Randy Credico of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which has been part of the Rockefeller repeal effort for years. "That's because there is no street movement anymore, not a lot of grassroots pressure.

While mobilizations in 2004 and 2005 put tens of thousands of people on the street calling for reform, the minor reforms achieved then took the steam out of the mass movement, Credico argued. "Some people thought incremental change would work then," he said, "but we said it's better to get no loaf than half a loaf. That way, the pressure would remain and build. But we got half a loaf, and four years later, all these guys are still in jail and all the air has gone out of the movement."

"And it's not just the Rockefeller drug laws -- we need to completely overhaul the criminal justice system, from sentencing to the appointment of judges to judge-shopping by prosecutors to racial profiling to banning stop and frisk searches. People need to focus on the overall criminal justice system, or just as many people will be going to prison as we have now."

Drop the Rock's Dunklee begged to differ with Credico over the state of the mass movement for reform. "Drop the Rock is the statewide campaign for repeal, and we haven't gone away," she said. "There is a movement. The 25,000 signatures we've gathered on our petition for repeal is a sign of that. Last year, we took more than 300 people up to Albany, and we will do it again this year."

Still, Dunklee conceded, the partial reforms of 2004 and 2005 did take a lot of air out of the movement. "The media spun that like they were real reforms, and that did weaken the movement," she said. "But in terms of movement building, we still find it easy to organize around this issue because people are so pissed off. I think there is still a lot of energy there."

That energy will be needed in the coming months. While New York's budget mess will occupy legislators for the next few weeks, they will eventually turn to the Rockefeller law reforms. No bills have been filed yet, but they are expected shortly. And hearings are set for May. This year's battle to repeal the Rockefeller drug laws is just getting underway.

Drug Raids: Virginia Man Found Guilty of Manslaughter in Shooting of Police Officer Battering His Door Down

A Virginia jury on Wednesday convicted Ryan Frederick (see his MySpace page here)
of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of a police officer during a no-knock drug raid. Prosecutors asked for and the jury recommended a 10-year prison sentence for the 28-year-old resident of Chesapeake. The trial judge will make a final determination in a May hearing.

The jury did not convict Frederick of capital murder as prosecutors had sought. Nor was he found guilty of marijuana production -- the police raid was in search of an alleged grow -- but only of possession of a small amount of pot.

On January 17, 2008, local police executing a search warrant based on the word of questionable snitch -- who admitted burglarizing Frederick's home days earlier -- began breaking down Frederick's door. Saying he thought he was under assault from violent unknown intruders, he picked up his rifle and fired a shot through the door, killing Officer Jarrod Shivers, whose job it was to break down doors during raids. As Frederick put it himself in a jailhouse interview shortly after the incident:

Frederick said he was sleeping in a back bedroom because his job as a soft drink merchandiser required him to get up early. His dogs, Dora and Bud, were in the house. He woke up because his dogs "were barking like crazy. They're going like really crazy, so I grab my gun. As I'm walking through the hall, someone comes busting through my door."

Intruders were pushing through the bottom panels of the four-panel door, he said. The lighting in the house was dim. Frederick said he didn't hear anyone say "police" or see identification.

"I was like, 'Oh, God, if I don't shoot, then he's going to kill me'... I think I shot twice. I can't remember. It happened so fast. All I know is the gun jammed."

Frederick said he then went back to the bedroom to get a telephone. When he realized police were outside, he walked out of the house and surrendered.

In tears at times, Frederick said he doesn't grow or sell marijuana. He had a smoking bong and a small bag of marijuana, he said.

The raid and its unfortunate outcome for all involved added to rising concerns among civil libertarians and drug reform advocates about the apparently routine resort to SWAT-style tactics employed against small-scale drug offenders and, all too often, completely innocent parties.

The particulars in this case also raise serious questions about the quality of justice in that particular part of Virginia. For a closer look, try Radley Balko's detailed coverage for Reason magazine's Hit & Run blog here.

The case isn't over yet. Frederick's attorney said an appeal was definite.

Press Release: Vermont Lawmakers to Consider Bill to Make Small Marijuana Possession a Civil Penalty

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE   
FEBRUARY 3, 2009

Vermont Lawmakers to Consider Bill to Make Small Marijuana Possession a Civil Penalty

Recent Poll Shows 63 Percent Support for Modest Reform; Plurality of Vermonters Would Go Further, End Marijuana Prohibition Completely

CONTACT: Nancy Lynch, Vermont Alliance for Intelligent Drug Laws (VALID), 802-279-2486

MONTPELIER, Vt. — A bill to replace criminal penalties for personal possession of small amounts of marijuana with a simple fine was introduced in the statehouse today, coming on the heels of a recent poll showing overwhelming support among Vermonters for the reform.

    H. 150, sponsored by Rep. David Zuckerman (P-Burlington) and 18 other representatives, would end the arrest of adults caught with an ounce or less of marijuana, instead treating the infraction as a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine. Zuckerman said that under the bill, marijuana possession would still be illegal, but the punishment would more reasonably match the violation. He said the reform would also save tax dollars and law enforcement resources that would otherwise be wasted arresting those with small amounts of marijuana.

    "There is no reason an otherwise responsible adult should face the life-altering consequences of a criminal arrest for what amounts to a minor indiscretion," Zuckerman said. "This modest reform will allow our police to quickly deal with these situations so that everybody can move on to more important matters."

    According to a Mason-Dixon poll of 625 Vermont voters commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., and conducted by phone Jan. 9 and 10, 63 percent of respondents supported "a change in the law to provide for a $100 civil fine without jail time for those who possess an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use." This past Election Day, Massachusetts voters passed a law similar to the one introduced in Vermont today with 65 percent of the vote.

    The poll, which has a margin for error of plus or minus 4 percent, suggests that a plurality of Vermont voters would actually go much further in reforming the state's marijuana laws. Forty-nine percent of the respondents said they would favor "making marijuana legal for adults over 21, and regulating it similarly to alcohol," while only 37 percent said they would oppose the idea.

    "This poll supports what we've known all along," said Nancy Lynch, executive director for VALID. "Vermonters don't want to see people ensnared in our criminal justice system for possessing a small amount of marijuana, and they see decriminalizing these violations as a modest, uncontroversial solution. Our representatives should take note – passing this bill quickly is not only responsible, it's politically popular."

    If the bill passes, Vermont would become the 13th state to decriminalize small marijuana possession. According to government figures, marijuana use rates in decriminalized states are indistinguishable from those in states that arrest those caught with small amounts of marijuana.

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Location: 
VT
United States

Salvia Divinorum: Nebraska Man is Acquitted of Sales Charge, But the Plant is Under Continued Attack There and Elsewhere

A jury in Lincoln, Nebraska, found a local man not guilty of selling salvia divinorum Monday. Although the psychedelic member of the mint family is not a controlled substance in Nebraska, creative thinkers in the Lincoln Police Department arrested shop owner Christian Firoz under a little used law against selling a substance for the purpose of inducing intoxication.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
Police seized about eight ounces of salvia in a raid after an undercover agent purchased some there. Firoz admitted selling the herb, which produces a powerful but short-lived hallucinogenic effect. But his lawyer argued that the state had failed to show it was a dangerous narcotic, and the jury agreed.

By this time next year, though, police anywhere in Nebraska may be able to arrest people on salvia possession or sales charges. The day after Firoz was acquitted, the Nebraska legislature voted 44-0 to advance a bill, LB 123, making salvia a Schedule I controlled substance. Under the bill, salvia would be classified along with heroin, LSD, and marijuana as substances with no medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Salvia is not known to produce fatal overdoses, nor has it been shown to be addictive. In fact, for most users, the high is so overwhelming that they only use it once or twice. Salvia use has been linked -- but only indirectly -- to two deaths, that of a Delaware teenager who killed himself some time after using salvia and that of an Ohio teenager who was slain by a friend who had previously used salvia, but was not under the immediate influence.

But that didn't stop the Nebraska bill's sponsor, Sen. Russ Karpisek (R-Wilbur) from declaring that the legislature had to save Nebraska's corn-fed youth by sending them to prison for possessing a plant. "Please, think about our children when you think about this one. It's another gateway drug. I think that it will entice people to use the drug and see what it's like. Scary thought to me," said Karpisek.

Nebraska isn't alone in seeing efforts to ban salvia this year. Also on Tuesday, the Maryland House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on HB 8, which would make salvia a Schedule I controlled substance in the Terrapin state. A similar bill has been filed in the state Senate. South Dakota legislators filed a bill, HB 1090 last week that would do the same, and declares the salvia threat so dire as to require emergency status, meaning the bill, if passed, would go into effect in 90 days. A Texas legislator has filed another salvia ban bill, HB 126, while another Texas bill, SB 257, would restrict its sale to minors.

That's what California did last year, although most of the dozen or so states that have moved against salvia have simply banned it for everyone. California's example is the correct response, said the Drug Policy Alliance Network's DC and Maryland office.

"We are very concerned about youth drug use, including the use of salvia, but by outlawing and prohibiting it legislators will make the problem even worse," said Naomi Long, DPAN's DC and Maryland Project director. "We can curb youth access to salvia by enacting age controls and placement restrictions similar to our strategies to reduce teenage smoking. We didn't have to criminalize tobacco or create prison sentences to achieve success. Criminalizing drugs makes it easier for young people to obtain them because the underground market doesn't check an ID to see if someone's an adult."

For salvia fans and civil libertarians, the one good sign in all this is that opposition is starting to appear. Not only did foes of criminalizing salvia make an appearance in Annapolis, they also objected in Lincoln. Opposition hasn't stopped any salvia bans yet, but at least it is finally showing up.

Feature: New Mexico Issues Regulations for Nonprofit Medical Marijuana Grows

Earlier this month, the New Mexico Department of Health issued its long overdue regulations for state-licensed, nonprofit medical marijuana providers, making it the first state to do so. Advocates say the new rules will allow for expanded access to medical marijuana for qualified patients. Not everyone is happy.

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New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson signing a bill into law
The process was long and involved, with numerous state agencies and law enforcement entities, as well as patients and advocates all trying to ensure that their interests and concerns were met. Originally mandated to be done by October 2007, the regulations were only finalized this month, with the Department of Health making late revisions based on public comments to earlier versions.

Under the newly promulgated regulations, nonprofit providers can grow no more than 95 plants, including both mature plants and seedlings, and can possess an amount of medical marijuana "that reflects current qualified patient needs." The nonprofits must sell medicine at constant unit prices and without volume discounts.

In order to apply for provider status, the nonprofits must provide copies of their articles of incorporation and bylaws, a list of all people involved in operating the facility, a list of all people who have a 5% or greater ownership in the facility, and have a board of directors that includes at least one health care professional and three qualified New Mexico medical marijuana patients. All of these people must also undergo a criminal background check.

But wait, there's more. As the regulations state:

All applicants must develop, implement and maintain on the premises policies and procedures relating to the medical cannabis program. At a minimum, the policies and procedures will include the following criteria:

  • Distribution criteria for qualified patients or caregivers appropriate for medical cannabis services.
  • Distribution criteria must include a clear identifiable photocopy of each registry identification card of a qualified patient and the patient's caregiver (if applicable) who are served by the nonprofit.
  • Policies and procedures relating to an alcohol and drug free workplace program.
  • A job description or employment contract developed for all employees, which includes duties, authority, responsibilities, qualifications and supervision.
  • A personnel record for each employee that includes an application for employment and a record of any disciplinary action taken.
  • On-site training curriculum, or enter into contractual relationships with outside resources capable of meeting employee training needs, which includes but is not limited to:
    a) Professional conduct, ethics and patient confidentiality.
    b) Informational developments in the field of medical cannabis.
  • Training in security measures and specific instructions on how to respond to an emergency, including robbery or a violent accident.
  • All nonprofits will prepare training documentation for each employee and have employees sign a statement indicating the date, time and place the employee received training and topics discussed, to include the name and title of presenters. The nonprofit will maintain documentation of an employee's training for at least six (6) months after termination of employment.

The new regulations also require patients who are growing their own to submit an application. Patients can grow up to four flowering plants and 12 seedlings. They can also possess up to six ounces of usable marijuana.

"We have worked hard to create a medical cannabis program that will be viable and meet the needs of patients in New Mexico," said Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil when the regulations were announced. "Now patients can get medical cannabis for their chronic health conditions in a way that is safe and legal under state law."

"I think the regulations will serve the patients of New Mexico well," said Melissa Milam, administrator of the Medical Cannabis Program in the state Department of Health. "I'm really happy that we are moving forward; I think that's better than to continue having this drawn-out debate over the regulations."

The first application by a nonprofit organization was accepted last week, said Milam. "We expect several more soon," she added. One hold-up, she said, was the requirement that all members of the nonprofit's board of directors pass a background check. "We're asking them to do that through the state Department of Public Safety, and those take about two weeks to process," Milam said.

Advocates are hoping the new regulations are a first step only. "We were able to get a lot of the changes we wanted into the regulations, so we're glad that the governor's office was receptive, but we didn't get everything we wanted," said Reena Szczepanski, head of the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico office, which worked closely with Gov. Richardson for years to push medical marijuana through the legislature. "There will be room in the future to look at things like the regulations on nonprofits and plant limits."

That's because the regulations call for an annual evaluation report, Szczepanski said. "We were able to get that yearly evaluation in there, and that will give us a chance to look at revisions in the future in light of how well the program is meeting the needs of patients. We also wanted state-run providers and didn't get that. That's another thing we can look at in coming years," she said.

Some advocates wish the department had gotten it right the first time around. Bernie Ellis, MA, MPH, an epidemiologist with more than 20 years experience in substance abuse-related research and administration, is one of them. Ellis has worked for medical marijuana in New Mexico for years, dating back to the days of Gov. Gary Johnson. Ellis also brings with him the bitter experience of a federal medical marijuana prosecution in Tennessee where he currently resides. He submitted detailed recommendations on the regulations during the public comment period last year, which interested readers can obtain by contacting him via the link above.

"The biggest frustration that I share with other medical marijuana activists nationally is that the New Mexico legislation could have been the gold standard for administering medical cannabis programs, but instead it has turned out to be just one more 'same old-same old' program with unrealistically low limits on the amount of cannabis patients can possess and providers can grow," said Ellis. "Limiting patients to no more than six ounces of medicine means that patients who grow outdoors will face arrest for possessing any more cannabis than their first six weeks supply. Limiting providers to 95 plants, including those in vegetative growth, means the producers will be able to produce medicine for no more than six patients apiece."

According to Ellis, there are at least 46,000 New Mexicans whose medical conditions currently make them eligible for the state's program, and the state is now considering adding more qualifying conditions. "With these regulations, we are talking about the potential need to license about 7,500 producers (or more) to serve a population like that, instead of licensing a smaller number of producers who could produce at a more realistic level," he said.

Ellis had argued for much larger state-licensed medicinal grows. "I have done preliminary cost and staffing estimates for providers growing an acre of cannabis, which would serve several hundred patients," he said. "There is no state better than New Mexico to do this right. The population there has centuries of medicinal use of this substance, the cultural climate is very favorable for success, and Gov. Richardson put a considerable amount of his own political capital to work to get this passed. But now, after a fifteen month delay releasing the program regulations, we have a program with unrealistically low limits on patients and providers, which will allow patents to be 'legal' only a few months of the year."

"The federal government doesn't seem to get involved with less than 99 plants or 99 pounds; that's where that number comes from," said Milam. "It is a measure to protect providers."

More importantly, said Milam, the patients seem satisfied. "No patients have complained to me about the plant limits," she said. "If they don't have a problem with it, I don't either."

The regulations contain a safety valve for patients, Szczepanski noted. "If a need is indicated by their medical provider, patients can apply to possess amounts over the limit," she pointed out.

The limits on providers also have another negative consequence, Ellis argued. "With those sorts of limits, producers will not have the ability to reduce the price for medical cannabis below the current illicit price, which would defeat the goals of a program like New Mexico's," he said. "If you tell a nonprofit it is limited to 95 plants and it has to set up an elaborate security system and staff the effort commensurate with the security and horticultural needs, I don't see how they will be able to reduce the market price doing that. A larger, properly staffed facility could bring those prices down. Right now, the few providers I've talked to in New Mexico say they're just buying cannabis for patients from the illegal market and paying $200-$500 an ounce for it. I think if it were done right, we could get the cost down to around $50 an ounce."

"We're a very poor state, and many of the patients are on Medicaid or disability," said Milam. "California may have dispensaries everywhere, but they're charging black market prices. Our patients can't afford to pay $400 an ounce on top of their other medications. We're trying to set it up so marijuana is an affordable medication," she said, adding that she was sure licensed growers could beat black market prices.

"The state of New Mexico said it wanted to make cannabis available on demand to patients," Ellis continued, "but the way they're treating medical marijuana patients is analogous to telling a patient with a major infection that she needs penicillin immediately, and then handing her a loaf of bread and instructions on growing her own antibiotics. If a cancer patient has to undergo chemotherapy soon after diagnosis, he needs access to medical cannabis then, not five to seven months down the road when his first harvest might be ready."

Milam didn't disagree. "I've had doctors call me saying their patient needed medical marijuana on an emergency basis, and I have had to tell them to tell their patients to go find it themselves. This is a prime example of why the federal government needs to get marijuana rescheduled as Schedule II. The patients need to be able to go to the pharmacy and pick it up when they need it."

Despite his litany of criticisms of the new regulations, Ellis took pains to emphasize he supports the New Mexico medical marijuana program. "I am a proponent of the New Mexico approach as outlined in their legislation, but an opponent of the current regulations. Martin Luther King once said he would not have had the success he did in the civil rights arena without [black radical] Stokely Carmichael and others agitating for change. I'm trying to be Stokely Carmichael on this. If we don't watch out, they can incrementalize us, and too many patients, to death."

There are currently 207 patients registered with the New Mexico Department of Health. Now, they will soon have the opportunity to procure their medicine through the nonprofits -- or at least a few months after one actually gets up and running. In addition to the one application already in process, said Milam, at least two more are going through the criminal background check requirement and should be applying soon.

Whether and how well the new regulations will serve the needs of patients remains to be seen. "We will be monitoring the implementation, and we've been doing that through this whole process," said Szczepanski. "As these nonprofits are going forward, we will be watching to see if they are approved and if not, why not, and making sure the regs are being followed."

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