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Feature: The Vultures Circle Sturgis, But One Man Fights Back

South Dakota's annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally begins next weekend and, as usual, is expected to draw huge crowds of motorcycling enthusiasts. Eric Sage won't be one of them. Instead, he will be busy suing a South Dakota county, its prosecutors, and a Highway Patrolman over what happened to him when he went last year.

In addition to the hordes of bikers, the rally also attracts the attention of South Dakota law enforcement, with the state pulling large numbers of Highway Patrol troopers from East River to the Black Hills, where they lurk on the sides of highways like vultures waiting for their prey. And, if Highway Patrol statistics are any indication, the hunting is good.

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Main Street during Sturgis Rally (courtesy Wikimedia)
Most weeks, state troopers make a handful of felony drug arrests and three or four dozen misdemeanor ones. Last year during Sturgis week, the Highway Patrol bragged that it had made a whopping 38 felony and 192 misdemeanor drug arrests.

Eric Sage and three of his friends made up four of them. As we reported last year, Sage was driving a motorcycle home from the rally while his three friends convoyed with him in a pick-up truck. Sage was pulled over for "weaving" in his own lane by a state trooper, and the pick-up stopped a ways up the road to wait for him. The trooper, Dan Trautman, then asked for and received permission to search the pick-up, and found a pipe and a miniscule amount of marijuana. He then charged all four with possession of paraphernalia, including Sage, who wasn't even in the vehicle.

Sage refused to plead guilty to a crime he had not committed. Then, just before an October dispositional hearing, Gina Nelson of the Pennington County state's attorney's office left a message on Sage's phone: "If you don't plead to 'paraphernalia', we'll charge you with 'ingestion'" -- an offense unique to South Dakota.

South Dakota Codified Law 22-42-15 prohibits ingesting anything except alcohol for the purpose of intoxication, and they'll put you in jail for as long as a year, and fine you as much as $1,000, for wanting to get "high" instead of drunk. It also doesn't matter if you were even in South Dakota when you ingested the drug: "The venue for a violation of this section exists in either the jurisdiction in which the substance was ingested, inhaled, or otherwise taken into the body or the jurisdiction in which the substance was detected in the body of the accused."

The basis for the ingestion charge was the admission by one of the pick-up passengers that she had smoked marijuana with her friends earlier in the day. As Trautman put it on his dashboard video, "You have all just admitted to smoking marijuana." Of course, that was not the case, but it was the basis for the prosecutorial intimidation effort.

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Eric Sage
Sage rejected the intimidating plea offer from Nelson and dutifully drove once more the 500-mile round trip from his Nebraska home to appear in court on the appointed day, only to find that Nelson had dropped the charges without bothering to notify him. Out several thousand dollars in legal fees, travel expenses, and lost wages, Sage wanted justice for his bogus arrest and prosecution.

Assisted by long-time activist Bob Newland, head of South Dakota NORML, whom he had contacted shortly after his arrest, Sage sent letters of complaint to the state Department of Public Safety, the South Dakota Bar Association, and the Pennington County Commission. In the latter letter, he also demanded damages.

Not surprisingly, he struck out with state and local authorities. Neither the county commission nor the Highway Patrol would pay his expenses incurred, nor would they even apologize for the mistreatment.

"The county commission gave the first complaint I sent them to the state's attorney's office and -- go figure! -- they lost it," Sage recounted this week. "When I sent a copy to all five commissioners, all I got was a letter from the state's attorney saying he would not respond. The Highway Patrol gave me the finger, basically saying that if I couldn't accept a frivolous charge every now and then, I should stay off their highways."

Sage had slightly better luck with the bar association. After claim and counter-claim by Sage and prosecutor Nelson, the bar found that Nelson had indeed violated two bar association precepts, the duty not to file unfounded charges and the duty not to unduly burden innocent parties. The bar punished Nelson for her prosecutorial misdeeds by "admonishing" her not to do it again.

That wasn't enough for Sage. On Tuesday, he filed a lawsuit against Pennington County, Pennington County Deputy State's Attorney Nelson, her boss, State's Attorney Glenn Brenner, and Highway Patrolman Trautman. The lawsuit seeks damages of slightly over $4,000 to compensate Sage for his malicious arrest and subsequent malicious prosecution.

The prosecutor's office did not respond to a call for comment.

"They wasted my time and my money for something they didn't have the least bit of evidence to prove even took place," Sage said. "If I don't get my money back, at least I'll get my money's worth."

"What happened to Eric Sage was outrageous," said South Dakota NORML's Newland. "To be honest with you, by this point I'm almost numb to their outrages, but after I heard his story, I thought, wow, this one is strange. They do a lot of bogus busts around here, but usually they at least have a shred of evidence."

Whatever the outcome of his civil suit, Sage is through with South Dakota. "I went to Sturgis three times in the past few years, and it just gets worse every year. If you see a cop, they're pulling someone over. They're just fishing for busts and the money they can make off them," Sage said. "I'm not going there again. I'm not going to South Dakota again. If I need to go to North Dakota, I'll go over to Iowa and Minnesota to get there."

"You don't even have to break the law to get stopped," said Newland. "Highway Patrolmen swarm the area between Sturgis and the Buffalo Chip campground a few miles away. For Sturgis week, that stretch of road is the most dangerous in America -- for getting busted. During peak traffic hours, the Highway Patrol is doing nothing but pulling over vehicles."

As for Sage, he has the following advice for anyone planning to head for Sturgis next week. "Good luck with that. Let me know how it turns out, because I won't be going. Know your rights."

The Sentencing Project: Disenfranchisement News/Updates 7/18/08

Louisiana: Bill Requiring Voting Rights Notification Gets Thumbs Up from Local ACLU The ACLU of Louisiana has applauded Gov. Bobby Jindal's recent signing of a law that mandates the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to notify people leaving its supervision about the process of regaining their voting rights. The law, which goes into effect August 15, also requires the Department to provide returning citizens with voter registration applications. "By requiring notice of voting rights reinstatement to those completing their felony sentences, the Louisiana legislature and Gov. Jindal have taken an important step towards ensuring that all of Louisiana's eligible voters can exercise their fundamental right to vote," said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana, which lobbied in favor of the bill. "The enactment of this legislation shows that the right to vote transcends partisan politics," Esman said. "This bill is about the strength of our democracy." Louisiana's current law bans nearly 100,000 citizens from voting until they have completed parole or probation. Thousands more are kept from the polls because they wrongly believe that they cannot regain their right to vote, according to the ACLU. "The ACLU of Louisiana will be working with Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) to help ensure that the Department of Public Safety and Corrections implements the bill quickly and effectively," said Norris Henderson, VOTE's founder and director. - - - - - - Help The Sentencing Project continue to bring you news and updates on disenfranchisement! Make a contribution today. Contact Information: e-mail -- zjennings@sentencingproject.org, web: http://www.sentencingproject.org.
Location: 
LA
United States

Medical Marijuana: Seattle Police Seize Hundreds of Patient Files in Raid on Co-op

Seattle police who acted after a bicycle officer smelled marijuana seized files on nearly 600 medical marijuana patients Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. After consulting with prosecutors, police raided the Lifevine cooperative and seized 12 ounces of marijuana and a computer, as well as the patient files.

According to Martin Martinez, who heads the co-op as well as Cascadia NORML, no marijuana was being grown at the scene and no one was arrested. The patient files were on hand because Cascadia NORML was preparing ID cards and needed proof the patients were legitimate, he said.

Under Washington's medical marijuana law, patients can have a 60-day supply of marijuana. The law does not define that quantity, but the state Health Department this month proposed that it be defined as 24 ounces of usable marijuana, and six mature and 18 immature plants. Seattle voters in 2003 passed an initiative making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority.

Apparently somebody in the city's law enforcement establishment didn't get the message. A spokesman for the King County prosecutor's office told the AP that police consulted a deputy prosecutor before raiding the co-op. The Seattle police have so far not commented.

Martinez and Seattle medical marijuana attorney Douglas Hiatt said they tried to persuade police and the deputy prosecutor not to raid the premises since the state's medical marijuana law was not being violated. But that didn't work.

The police "have a heck of a lot of patient records I don't think they should have," said Hiatt. "For one thing, those records are protected under federal privacy laws. If you're a medical marijuana patient, you don't want the police to know who you are or where you live, and this is why -- because you don't get treated very well."

Washington ACLU attorney Alison Chinn Holcomb told the AP there was no evidence the co-op was growing or providing marijuana and no information so far revealed that would justify seizing patient records. "These are very sick people with very serious conditions, and we're sure none of them want the nature of those conditions made available to the public or to anyone who doesn't have a valid need for it," she said.

Marijuana: Georgia Grand Jury Foreman Says Legalize It

Grand juries are charged with evaluating potential crimes presented to them by prosecutors and deciding whether indictments are merited. The grand jury empanelled in March in Chatham County, Georgia, did just that, delivering numerous indictments for drugs and other criminal offenses.

But grand juries and their foreman also have the opportunity to speak their minds about what they have observed while serving. The Chatham County grand jury did so in its final report to Superior Court Judge Perry Brannen.

Its observations and recommendations were not surprising. "A high percentage of our cases were drug-related and a high percentage were repeat offenders," the grand jury noted. Authorities should "institute more effective methods of drug treatment and rehabilitation aimed at minimizing repeat offenders" and "as far as possible, use stricter or more effective methods of punishment," the jurors recommended.

While the grand jury's recommendations were pretty standard stuff, grand jury foreman Gordon Varnadoe used the opportunity to call for the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana sales in his personal recommendations. Varnadoe also called for the legalization of prostitution.

"It is my considered and strong opinion that marijuana should be legal, controlled, and taxed," Varnadoe wrote. "There is no evidence that it is a 'gateway drug' that leads to other drugs. It is not found to be present in cases of domestic violence, highway fatalities, or death caused by consumption. This can be completely turned around to change from a tax burden and expense to a source of great revenue."

The grand jury reports are not binding, and a grand jury or foreman using them as a platform to call for drug law reform is rare. But it has happened before.

As Eric Sterling of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation reminds, drug policy reform has also been on the mind of grand juries in at least one large American city, Baltimore. In 1995, a city of Baltimore grand jury issued a report that studied drug law enforcement during its September 1994 term. While that grand jury said "legalization is not an acceptable solution" to the larger drug problem, it also recommended that "consideration be given to decriminalizing marijuana" and "medicalization may be the best solution for managing addiction and drug proliferation."

By the summer of 2003, another Baltimore grand jury was ready to go further. In its report, that grand jury called for the "regulated distribution" of now illegal drugs -- not just marijuana. That grand jury report helped lay the groundwork for hearings in the Maryland Senate in 2003 where drug reformers got an opportunity to lay out the rationale for reform.

While usually considered the domain of prosecutors -- "a grand jury would indict a ham sandwich if a prosecutor told it to," goes the old saw -- grand juries have a chance to speak their minds in their reports, and perhaps lead the way to a reconsideration of current policies. There is as yet no sign that the Chatham County grand jury foreman's recommendations will lead to similar reflection, but it is a start. As drug policy reform makes its long march through the institutions of society, the grand jury should not be forgotten.

Feature: Vested Interests of Prohibition I: The Police

Drug prohibition has been a fact of life in the United States for roughly a century now. While it was ostensibly designed to protect American citizens from the dangers of drug use, it now has a momentum of its own, independent of that original goal, at which it has failed spectacularly. As the prohibitionist response to drug use and sales deepened over the decades, then intensified even more with the bipartisan drug war of the Reagan era, prohibition and its enforcement have created a constellation of groups, industries, and professions that have grown wealthy and powerful feeding at the drug war trough.

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By virtue of their dependence on the continuation of drug prohibition, such groups -- whether law enforcement, the prison-industrial complex, the drug treatment industry, the drug testing industry, the drug testing-evading industry, the legal profession, among others -- can be fairly said to have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. While the fact that such groups are, in one way or another, profiting from prohibition, does necessarily negate the sincerity of their positions, it does serve to call into question whether some among them continue to adhere to drug prohibition because they really believe in it, or merely because they gain from it.

In what will be an occasional series of reports on "The Vested Interests of Prohibition," we will be examining just who profits, how, by how much, and how much influence they have on the political decision-making process. This week we begin with a group so obvious it sometimes vanishes into the background, as if it were just part of the way things are in this world. That is the American law enforcement establishment.

That's right, the cops, the PO-lice. The Man makes a pretty penny off the drug war. How much? In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month, long-time drug war critic Orange County (California) Superior Court Judge James Gray put the figure at $69 billion a year worldwide for the past 40 years, for a total of $2.5 trillion spent on drug prohibition. In written testimony presented before a hearing of the Congressional Joint Economic Committee last month, University of Maryland drug policy analyst Peter Reuter, more conservatively put combined current state, federal, and local drug policy spending at $40 billion a year, with roughly 70-75% going for law enforcement.

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In either case, it's a whole lot of taxpayer money. And for what? Despite years of harsher and harsher drug law enforcement, despite drug arrests per year approaching the two million mark, despite imprisoning half a million Americans who didn't do anything to anybody, despite all the billions of dollars spent ostensibly to stop drug use, the US continues to be the world's leading junkie. That point was hit home yet again earlier this month when researchers examining World Health Organization data found the US had the planet's highest cannabis use rates (more than twice those of cannabis-friendly Holland) and the world's highest cocaine use rates. (See related feature story this issue.)

By just about any measure, drug prohibition and drug law enforcement have failed at their stated goal: reducing drug use in America. Yet in general, American law enforcement has never met a drug law reform it liked, and never met a harsh new law it didn't. The current, almost hysterical, campaign around restoring the Justice Action Grants (JAG or Byrne grant) program cuts imposed by the Bush administration in a rare fit of fiscal responsibility is a case in point.

The Byrne grant program, which primarily funds those scandal-plagued multi-jurisdictional anti-drug law enforcement task forces, has been criticized by everyone from the ACLU to the GAO as wasteful, ineffective, and ridden with abuses, yet the law enforcement community has mobilized a powerful lobbying offensive to restore those funds. Now, after yet another year where congressional Democrats, fearful of being seen as "soft on crime," scurried to smooth law enforcement's ruffled feathers, the Byrne grant program is set to receive $550 million next year, a huge $350 million increase over this year's reduced -- but not zeroed out -- levels.

"The law enforcement lobby is enormously powerful," said Eric Sterling, former counsel to the House Judiciary Committee, who now heads the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Law enforcement unions are extremely important in endorsements for state and local elections, especially in primary elections."

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When it comes to Washington, rank-and-file organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police are joined by a whole slew of national management organizations, such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriff's Association, the National District Attorneys Association, and the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition. On occasion, as is the case with the campaign to restore the Byrne grants, groups like the National Association of County Officials (which includes sheriffs) lead the charge for law enforcement.

"All of these groups are very powerful, and members of Congress are loath to be criticized by them or vote against them," said Sterling.

"Without a doubt, the war on drugs creates a lot of jobs for law enforcement and various aspects of the war on drugs create huge profits for law enforcement," said Bill Piper, national affairs director and Capitol Hill lobbyist for the Drug Policy Alliance. "With those revenues, they can employ more police and continue to expand their turf. The law enforcement lobby is very strong and effective," said Piper. "No one wants to deny them what they want. The Democrats are terrified of them, and most Republicans, too. Everyone just wants to go back to their district and say they're tough on drugs. The law enforcement drug war lobby is a train that is very, very difficult to stop."

Faced with those solemn line-ups of men in blue, American flags fluttering behind them, most politicians would rather comply with the demands of law enforcement than not, whether at the state, local, or federal level. And that's fine with police, who have become habituated to a steady infusion of drug war money.

"Law enforcement at all levels of government has become dependent on the drug war, which in turn is predicated on drug prohibition," said former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper, who joined the anti-prohibitionist group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) shortly after his retirement. "They are addicted to the revenue streams that have become predictable and necessary for the day-to-day operations of departments all across the country," he continued.

"State and local governments get anti-crime funding from the federal government, and there are line-items dedicated to things like those regional narcotics task forces," Stamper said. "It wasn't a whole lot of money at first, but over the years we are now talking billions of dollars."

It isn't just departments that benefit from prosecuting the drug war, individual police officers can and do, too. "Both police departments and individual officers have a strong vested interest in maintaining prohibition," said Sterling as he related the story of his ride-along with Montgomery County, Maryland, police a few years ago. After cruising suburban malls and byways for a few hours one cold December night, Sterling and the officer he accompanied got a call that an officer needed back-up.

The officer needing back-up was accompanied by Sterling's then assistant, Tyler Smith, who, when Sterling's car arrived, told him that his (Smith's) cop had pulled over nine cars and convinced four of their drivers to consent to drug searches. In the present case, the officer had scored. The three young men in the car he had pulled over consented to a search, and he found a pipe in the car and a few specks of marijuana in one young man's pocket. By now four different police cars were on the scene.

"Now, all four officers are witnesses," Sterling noted. "That means every time there's a court proceeding, they go down to the courthouse and collect three hours overtime pay. They're almost always immediately excused, but they still get the pay. That's four cops getting paid for one cop's bust, so they have an enormous personal stake in backing up the one gung-ho cop who's out there trolling for busts. Collars for dollars is what they call it," Sterling related.

"I think we need to take into account the fact that individual officers at all levels are character challenged and profit personally from prohibition," said Stamper.

"It's also generally easy police work," Sterling noted. "You start in a position of strength and assertion, you're not arriving at a scene of conflict, you're not stopping a robbery or responding to a gun call; it's a relatively safe form of police activity. You get to notch an arrest, and that makes it look like you're being productive."

And despite repeated police protestations to the contrary, enforcing the drug laws is just not that dangerous. Every year, the National Police Officers Memorial puts out a list of the officers who died in the line of duty. Every year, out of the one or two or three hundred killed, barely a handful died enforcing the drug laws. And those dead officers are all too often used by their peers as poster-children for increased drug law enforcement.

But if law enforcement profits handsomely with taxpayer dollars at the state or federal level as it pursues the chimera of drug war success, it has another important prohibition-related revenue stream to tap into: asset forfeitures. Every Monday, the Wall Street Journal publishes official DEA legal notices of seizures as required by law. On the Monday of June 30, the legal notice consisted of 3 1/4 pages of tiny four-point type representing hundreds of seizures for that week alone.

According to the US Justice Department, federal law enforcement agencies alone seized $1.6 billion -- mainly in cash -- last year alone. That's up three-fold from the $567 million seized in 2003. But that figure doesn't include hundreds of millions of dollars more the feds got as their share of seizures by states, nor does it include the unknown hundreds of millions of dollars more seized by state and local agencies and handled under state asset forfeiture laws. Last year, Texas agencies alone seized more than $125 million.

"Revenue from forfeited assets represents a particularly unconscionable source of funds, particularly when police agencies set out to make busts to create additional funding for themselves," Stamper said. "Even if the money is going to agencies and not into the pockets of individual cops, you still develop that mentality that we're enforcing the law in order to make money. That's not how it's supposed to be," he said.

"Unfortunately, there are many departments that see this as a useful way to deter drug use, even though there is no evidence to support that," said Sterling. "Still, they can justify taking private property as serving an important law enforcement purpose, but there are many accounts of departments that are almost entirely self-funded by the proceeds," he said.

"If Byrne is cut back or zeroed out, and the police agency is fortunate enough to have an interstate highway to patrol, they are in a position to target vehicles and go fishing for dollars," he noted.

"These revenue streams, whether it's Byrne grants or seized cash, create dependency in the departments that rely on them," said Stamper, "and that makes it less and less likely that the police in your community are going to be critical and analytical in questioning their ways of doing business. Does prohibition work, does it produce positive results? The answer is no and no. We have a situation where we are actually doing harm in the name of law enforcement, and it's deep harm, this notion that prohibition is workable. Drug law enforcement is funded at obscene levels, and this is money that could be used for things that do work, like drug abuse prevention and treatment," the ex-chief continued. "It's safe to say that American law enforcement has developed an addiction to the monies it gets from drug prohibition."

Drug Prohibition: No Clue in the Texas Legislature

If drug reform is making any headway in the Lone Star State (and it is), there was little sign of it Wednesday at an Austin hearing of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee. The committee is charged with examining current drug laws to see which are working and which are not and trying to come up with more effective drug policies.

With Mexican drug trafficking organizations sending billions of dollars worth of drugs across the border each year, much of it through Texas, state and local law enforcement agencies have been cooperating with federal agents to try to crack down on the trade. But it hasn't seemed to have had any impact, and that was a frustration for Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston).

"It don't affect the price of it at all, which means it ain't made a dent. Still huge amounts are getting through," he said in remarks reported by Austin TV station KVUE. "If you know where it's coming from, why can't you do more about it?" he asked plaintively.

Whitmire's ignorance of the laws of supply and demand when it comes to drug prohibition is apparently equaled only by his ignorance of the US Constitution, and particularly the Fourth Amendment. At least, that's what his next comment suggested.

"If in fact so much of the narcotics is just coming up and down our highways and the main roads out of Mexico, why don't we just pull over more trucks?" Whitmire said. "It would be fun to try. I like that, zero tolerance."

Of course, every vehicle entering the US from Mexico must go through US Customs at the border. And then there's the Border Patrol checkpoints on highways leading north from the border. And then there's the saturation level patrols of those highways (although, to be fair, Texas cops are as interested in cars heading south as those heading north, because while the latter may contain drugs, the former may contain cash). But none of that is enough for Whitmire. Nor does it cause him to question his premises.

It looks like it will be business as usual in the drug war in Texas.

Fresno Supervisors to Hold Hearing on Medical Marijuana ID Card Program July 8

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE   
JULY 3, 2008

Fresno Supervisors to Hold Hearing on Medical Marijuana ID Card Program July 8Patients, Advocates to Highlight Program's Importance at July 7 Medical Marijuana Documentary Screening

CONTACT: Aaron Smith, MPP California organizer, 707-575-9870

FRESNO, Calif. — The Fresno County Board of Supervisors will conduct a public hearing on the local implementation of the statewide Medical Marijuana Identification Card Program, 9 a.m., July 8, in the County Board Chambers in the Hall of Records at 2281 Tulare St.

    Although 40 California counties have implemented the program – including Merced, Tulare, Inyo and San Benito as well as Los Angeles, Orange and Kern – Fresno has yet to act.

    Patients and advocates from across the county, including Diana Kirby, 66, will attend the hearing. Kirby uses physician-approved medical marijuana, under state law, to treat severe pain from an auto accident that resulted in having her leg amputated.

    "Patients like me shouldn't have to worry about being falsely arrested because our county isn't offering the ID cards," Kirby said. "Let's hope our elected officials do the right thing for patients and taxpayers by implementing this program."

    Aaron Smith, California organizer for the Marijuana Policy Project, noted that the program – mandated by a state law that went into effect in 2004 – benefits law enforcement by removing the burden of verifying patient documentation from officers on the street. The ID card provides a means for local peace officers to easily identify bona fide medical marijuana patients during enforcement stops.

    "We are merely calling on the Board of Supervisors to follow existing state law so that suffering patients like Diana do not have to live in fear of false arrest at the expense of local taxpayers," Smith said. "It is the duty of the county's leaders to protect their most vulnerable citizens and to make the jobs of local law enforcement easier by providing them with all the tools available. This program is a major step in the right direction."

    To help educate the community about this and other medical marijuana issues facing Fresno, MPP will host a free screening of the award-winning medical marijuana documentary "Waiting to Inhale," followed by a panel discussion, July 7, at 7 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church at 2672 E. Alluvial Ave., in Clovis.

    With more than 25,000 members and 100,000 e-mail subscribers nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit www.MarijuanaPolicy.org.

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Location: 
Fresno, CA
United States

Press Release: Vermont Hemp Farming Bill Becomes Law

[Courtesy of Vote Hemp] FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: July 1, 2008 CONTACT: Adam Eidinger at 202-744-2671 or adam@votehemp.com, or Tom Murphy at 207-542-4998 or tom@votehemp.com Vermont Hemp Farming Bill Becomes Law Controversy Resolved by Opinion of Attorney General’s Office MONTPELIER, Vermont – Vote Hemp, a grassroots advocacy organization working to give farmers the right to grow non-drug industrial hemp, is extremely pleased that the Vermont Secretary of State‘s office accepted Formal Opinion #2008-1 from the Office of the Attorney General and gave H.267, the Hemp for Vermont bill, the designation of Act No. 212 last Friday. There had been a constitutional controversy as Governor Jim Douglas forwarded H.267 to the Secretary of State intending it to become law without his signature. The bill had overwhelmingly passed both the House (127 to 9) and the Senate (25 to 1). The new law sets up a state-regulated program for farmers to grow non-drug industrial hemp which is used in a wide variety of products, including nutritious foods, cosmetics, body care, clothing, tree-free paper, auto parts, building materials and much more. Learn more about industrial hemp at: www.VoteHemp.com. Smart and effective grassroots organizing by Vote Hemp and the Vermont-based advocacy group Rural Vermont (www.RuralVermont.org) mobilized farmers and local businesses, many of which pledged to buy their hemp raw materials in-state if they have the opportunity. Rural Vermont’s Director Amy Shollenberger says that “the Hemp for Vermont bill is another step toward legalizing this important crop for farmers. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't allow this crop to be grown. Looking at the Canadian experience, hemp provides a good return for the farmer. It's a high-yield crop and a great crop to mix in with corn.” Vermont grows an average of 90,000 acres of corn per year, a small amount compared to Midwest states; however, the need for a good rotation crop exists nationwide. From candle makers to dairymen to retailers, Vermont voters strongly support hemp farming. Admittedly a niche market now, hemp is becoming more common in stores and products across the country every day. Over the past ten years, farmers in Canada have grown an average of 16,500 acres of hemp per year, primarily for use in food products. In Vermont, the interest in hemp includes for use in food products, as well as in quality and affordable animal bedding for the state’s estimated 140,000 cows. “Vermont’s federal delegation can now take this law to the U.S. Congress and call for a fix to this problem of farmers missing out on a very useful and profitable crop,” comments Eric Steenstra, President of Vote Hemp. “North Dakota farmers who want to grow hemp per state law are currently appealing their lawsuit in the federal courts. The real question is whether these hemp-friendly state congressional delegations feel compelled to act,” adds Steenstra. Rural Vermont’s Shollenberger states that “the Vermont law is significant for two reasons. First, no other state until now has followed North Dakota’s lead by creating real-world regulations for farmers to grow industrial hemp. Second, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is Chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, as well as a member of the Committee on Agriculture – both relevant committees that could consider legislation. We also have a friend at the USDA in new Secretary Ed Schaffer who signed North Dakota’s hemp bill as Governor. I plan to visit Washington, DC and try to figure out what Congress and the Administration intend to do.” # # # Vote Hemp is a national, single-issue, non-profit organization dedicated to the acceptance of and a free market for low-THC industrial hemp and to changes in current law to allow U.S. farmers to once again grow this agricultural crop. More information about hemp legislation and the crop's many uses may be found at www.VoteHemp.com and www.HempIndustries.org. BETA SP and DVD Video News Releases featuring footage of hemp farming in other countries are available upon request by contacting Adam Eidinger at 202-744-2671.
Location: 
VT
United States

Feature: New Jersey State Assembly Passes Bill Reforming State's "Drug-Free School Zone" Law

Like many other states, New Jersey adopted "drug-free school zone" laws in the 1980s in a bid to stop that iconic drug war menace, the dope peddler lurking in the schoolyard shadows trying to hook our kids on their fiendish wares. Now, in good measure because of its drug-free school zone law, which applies harsh mandatory minimum sentences to areas reaching far beyond any school's walls, the Garden State boasts the dubious distinction of having the highest percentage of prisoners -- 35% -- behind bars for drug offenses.

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misleading concept
Under current law, anyone convicted of selling drugs, or possessing drugs with the intent of selling them, within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of parks, libraries, museums, or public housing projects, faces a mandatory minimum jail sentence of three years and $15,000 in fines.

While the language of the law is color-blind, its effect has been racially pernicious. In the dense urban environment where the state's minority populations are concentrated, the law in effect turns huge swathes of the landscape into drug-free school zones and subjects most urban drug offenders to prosecution under that law. Nineteen out of every 20 people prosecuted under the law are black or brown.

In 2005, the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing issued a groundbreaking report on the law, with a supplemental publication released in 2007. The commission found that the zones were ineffective in reducing drug offenses within the designated areas, while at the same time disproportionately affecting minority communities through its "urban effect."

Pressure has been building to reform the law ever since. The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) New Jersey office, headed by Roseanne Scotti, has been prowling the corridors of the statehouse in Trenton seeking to build a winning strategy. DPA added further fuel to the flames earlier this year with its own report, "Wasting Money, Wasting Lives: Calculating the Hidden Costs of Incarceration in New Jersey." The report found that in addition to the approximately $331 million that New Jersey spends each year to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders, the state loses millions more in taxable income from the lost wages of those incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses.

Despite winning the support of Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman, reformers could not gain passage of an earlier bill, which would have reformed the law by limiting the drug-free zones to 200 feet. But on Monday, the state Assembly took a big step toward reforming the drug-free school zone law, passing by a two-to-one margin a compromise bill that would restore a measure of judicial discretion in sentencing. Under the bill, A-2762, judges would be authorized to allow consideration of parole or probation on a case-by-case basis for some people convicted of distributing, dispensing, or possessing with the intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance while on or within a Drug Free School Zone. The following factors could be applied when weighing whether to apply a mandatory minimum sentence:

  • The extent of the person's prior criminal record and the seriousness of the offense;
  • Where the offense was committed in relation to the school property, including distance from the school or bus and the reasonable likelihood of exposing children to drug-related activities there;
  • Whether school was in session at the time of the offense; and
  • Whether children were present at or in the immediate vicinity of where the offense occurred.

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Judges would be prohibited from waiving a mandatory minimum sentence if the offense occurred on school property or the defendant used or threatened violence, possessed a firearm, or resisted arrest during the commission of the offense.

Now, the bill heads for the Senate, which is unlikely to address it before fall. The bill's sponsors and supporters are urging the Senate to follow their lead.

"Our current Drug-Free School Zone law does not work," said Assembly Majority Leader Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), one of the bill's cosponsors. "The mandatory minimum sentencing the zones require has effectively created two different sentences for the same crime, depending on where an individual lives. This is geographic discrimination at its most basic, and it is something to which I am adamantly opposed."

"Our insistence on mandatory minimums combined with the disparate geographic distribution of Drug-Free School Zones has created a situation in which 96% of the individuals imprisoned for dealing drugs within the zones are black or Hispanic," said cosponsor Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen), chair of the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee, in a statement made available to the Chronicle by his office. "When a policy so disproportionately affects a single group, we must take corrective action."

"Judges should have the discretion to craft fair and effective sentences and not waste taxpayer money," said DPA's Scotti. "It costs more than $46,000 a year to incarcerate someone in New Jersey. If someone doesn't deserve the additional penalty and if the additional penalty does nothing to improve public safety, mandating an additional penalty is just throwing taxpayer money down the drain. It damages the individual's ability to earn a living and become a productive member of society and it shrinks New Jersey's tax base. The bottom line is that New Jersey can't afford ineffective mandatory minimum sentences."

The state legislature is going on summer break soon, but Scotti said the push would be on in the Senate in the fall, and organized opposition is scarce. "There hasn't really been any," she said. "The prosecutors are for this, the state probation office is for this. The Assembly passed it overwhelmingly. There are some legislators who don't like it, but that seems to just be that old amorphous fear of being called soft on crime and drugs."

Maybe, just maybe, New Jersey is ready to make a break with the past. While the drug-free zones will still exist, at least judges would have the option of not sending all offenders to prison. That could be a start on shaving away at that $331 million annual prison bill. Now, it will be up to the Senate.

Marijuana: Puerto Rico Ex-Officials Say Legalize It

A former health secretary and an ex-university president are calling for the legalization of marijuana in Puerto Rico in a bid to reduce the prison population and prevent young people from being exposed to criminality. According to a report by the Associated Press late last week, their plan to tax marijuana sales, with proceeds going to drug treatment programs, is also supported by other former public officials and a medical doctor.

"The fight against drugs, using punishment, has not worked," said José Manuel Saldaña, former president of the University of Puerto Rico. "This is a social reality." People should not go to jail for smoking pot, he added.

According to the Puerto Rico Department of Corrections, 24% of the island territory's 13,500 inmates are doing time for drug offenses. The department estimates that 80% of crimes are "drug-related." More than 21,000 minors under age 18 were arrested in "drug-related" incidents between 1990 and 2005, according to police statistics.

The proposal for marijuana legalization comes as part of a broader package that includes tougher penalties for drug traffickers. It comes as the island is getting ready to begin drug treatment programs aimed primarily at the abuse of heroin and crack cocaine.

Saldaña was joined by former Health Secretary Enrique Vázquez Quintana in pushing for legalization. They have been discussing the proposal with prison officials and legislators, he said.

But lawmakers have said they only want to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes -- if that. Corrections Secretary Miguel Pereira told the AP he favors drug treatment programs legalizing marijuana, but only for medicinal, not recreational, use. "It's a proposal that we should be open to discussing," he said.

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