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Chronicle AM -- May 7, 2014

A reform rollback in New Zealand, a hearing on DC decrim in Congress tomorrow, a medical marijuana trial becomes a travesty, the DEA makes another change-nothing drug bust, and more. Let's get to it:

New synthetic drugs are going back to the black market after New Zealand rolls back its effort to regulate them. (wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

ACLU DC Branch Will Testify on District Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Tomorrow. The American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation's Capital will testify before the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, Subcommittee on Government Operations about the District of Columbia's marijuana decriminalization bill tomorrow. The legislation would remove the criminal penalties under District of Columbia law for the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana within the District. The bill passed the DC council overwhelmingly and was signed by Mayor Vincent Gray. It cannot become law until Congress and the president have had 60 days to review it. The Subcommittee on Government Operations called the hearing to discuss the enforcement in the District of local and federal marijuana laws. The ACLU will testify that nothing in the bill would prevent federal law enforcement officers from enforcing federal law throughout the District.

Colorado Legislature Approves Bills on Hashish, Edibles. House Bill 1361, which limits hash sales, and House Bill 1366, which further regulates edibles, both passed the Senate Wednesday, the last day of the session. Under current law, consumers can purchase up to an ounce of hash at a time, but that will be reduced by some as yet unspecified amount. The edibles bill would ban manufacturers from making edibles that "a reasonable consumer would confuse with a trademarked food product" (goodbye, Reefers Cups) or that are "primarily marketed to children." Both bills await the governor's signature.

MPP Releases Report on Collateral Consequences of Marijuana Convictions in New Hampshire. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has just released a new report, Marked for Life, that shows how the lifelong stigma associated with a marijuana conviction can derail dreams by making it difficult to obtain jobs, an education, and even housing. The moves two weeks after the state Senate refused to consider a marijuana reform bill, but the session isn't over yet, and MPP and its allies say they are not giving up for the year.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Judge Denies Medical Marijuana Defense to Family Accused of Growing Medical Marijuana. A federal judge won't allow a family of a medical marijuana patients from Washington state to defend themselves against drug trafficking charges by arguing their pot plants were for medical purposes. US District Judge Fred Van Sickle of the Eastern District of Washington on Tuesday rejected the planned medical marijuana defense of Larry Harvey, 70, his wife Rhonda Firestack-Harvey, 55, and three others facing trial next week, saying they could not argue that growing marijuana was for medical purposes and legal under Washington state law. "The intent of the defendants is not relevant to the issues," Van Sickle said. "There's this concept of reliance on state law and the like. That's not relevant either." Because the federal government considers marijuana illegal, federal courts generally don't allow evidence that the drug may have been used for medical purposes, even when medical marijuana is legal under a state's law, as it is in Washington. The Harveys, their son, Rolland Gregg, 33; Gregg's wife Michelle, 35; and family friend Jason Zucker, 38, sought to describe their doctor-recommended medical marijuana cultivation at their upcoming trial on federal drug charges.

New York Medical Marijuana Bill Gains First Republican Sponsor. Sen. Joseph Robach (R-Rochester) added his name this week to the Compassionate Care Act, joining 17 other Democratic senators who have cosponsored the measure. The bill's primary sponsor is Sen. Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat. Republican Senate leaders have held up the bill. Senate GOP leader Dean Skelos said Tuesday there was a "good possibility" some sort of bill would be approved this session, but that he would only support a limited CBD bill.

Minnesota Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The state Senate Tuesday approved Senate File 1641, which would allow for up to 55 dispensaries statewide and allow patients suffering from a list of approved medical conditions to use the plant -- but not to smoke it. A companion measure in the House is even more restrictive. It could be up for debate as early as Friday.

Law Enforcement

Courts, Legislators Moving to Curb Police Access to Prescription Drug Databases. For years, police across the country have had easy access to databases of prescriptions for controlled substances used by individuals they suspect of committing a crime. Not anymore. Some courts and legislators are now starting to restrict the data, amid concerns by privacy advocates and defense lawyers who say warrantless searches of these databases violate privacy rights, The Wall Street Journal reports. In February, a federal court in Oregon ruled for the first time that federal agents need a warrant to search that state's prescription-drug database. Last year, Rhode Island raised the barrier of entry to its database, and legislators in Florida and Pennsylvania are considering new limits on law-enforcement access to the records in those states.

DEA in Nationwide Raids on Synthetic Drugs, Sellers. The Drug Enforcement Administration on Wednesday broadened its national crackdown on synthetic drug manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers as federal agents served hundreds of search and arrest warrants in at least 25 states. Agents served warrants at homes, warehouses and smoke shops beginning early morning. The largest single operation was a statewide effort in Alabama. Agents also were active in Florida and New Mexico, among other states. Wednesday's crackdown was focused strictly on US targets and involved 66 DEA cases, seven investigations led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agents and several others led by Customs and Border Protection that focused on express consignment shipments. Last year, the DEA and Customs and Border Protection wrapped up a 7-month investigation that ended in 150 arrests and the seizure of about a ton of drugs. And now it's rinse and repeat.

Sentencing Reform

Harry Reid Says Sentencing Reform Debate Could Hit Senate Floor Soon. CQ Roll Call (behind a pay wall; no link, sorry) reported Tuesday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was asked whether he intended to bring Sen. Richard Durbin's (D-IL) sentencing reform bill, Senate Bill 1410, to the floor for debate soon. "The answer is yes," Reid said, adding that he has been consulting with Durbin about it. The bill would slash mandatory minimums for some drug crimes and give judges more discretion to impose sentences beneath federal guidelines.

International

New Zealand Reverses Course on Regulating Synthetic Drugs. In a disappointing about-face, New Zealand reversed course on allowing some synthetic drugs to be legally sold after a rising public clamor about them. A law change effective Thursday will ban the sale and possession of all synthetic drugs. That ends the sale of 36 substances, many of which had been designed to mimic marijuana. Five other substances were banned earlier this year. The country last year gained international attention after enacting a novel new law that allowed those synthetic drugs thought to be low-risk to be sold while waiting for pharmaceutical-style testing. The law still allows manufacturers to sell the drugs if they can prove them low-risk after rigorous testing. But health officials have yet to develop testing protocols. And manufacturers may find the hurdles insurmountable after lawmakers on Wednesday also banned the use of animals in testing the products.

Tunisia Activists Urge Reform of Harsh Marijuana Laws.Tunisia's tough law on cannabis use, laying down jail terms of at least one year, is "destroying lives" and overcrowding prisons, according to a group of activists urging reform. Since the law was passed more than 20 years ago, "tens of thousands of Tunisians have been convicted," the group said in an open letter to the government. "But the number of people sentenced and the number of users continue to grow, proving that this law is not a deterrent. It has failed," said the group, named Al Sajin 52 (or Prisoner 52) as the law is called. Health ministry director general Nabil Ben Salah said the health and justice ministries are trying to "humanize" the marijuana law, but that decriminalization is not an option.

Drug War Violence Flares in Northeast Mexico. Federal security forces killed five gunmen in separate shootouts in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, just across the border from McAllen, Texas, Monday. Army troops, meanwhile, detained 15 suspected criminals in different operations across the state. The Gulf and Zetas drug cartels have been fighting for control of Tamaulipas and smuggling routes into the United States for years, and now Gulf cartel factions are also fighting among themselves. The violence has spiked in recent weeks, but federal officials have not taken any additional measures to deal with the situation in the border state.

Chronicle AM -- May 1, 2014

Asset forfeiture gone wild is in the news, so is a Delaware drug lab scandal, there's a major report on imprisonment from the National Academy of Sciences, Silk Road is back, and more. Let's get to it:

Silk Road is back and as busy as ever.
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Bill to Seal Old Marijuana Convictions Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bipartisan sponsored bill that would allow someone to have their marijuana conviction sealed, if the conviction is now legal under Amendment 64. The committee heard nearly two hours of public comment before approving the measure, Senate Bill 14-218. The bill passed on a 3-2 vote and is now headed to the Committee on Appropriations.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana Medical Marijuana Bill Dies in Committee. There will be no medical marijuana legislation passing through the Louisiana legislature this year. Senate Bill 541, sponsored by Sen. Fred Mills (R-New Iberia) was defeated in the Senate Health and Welfare Committee on a vote of 6-2.

Iowa Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate. The Iowa Senate on Thursday approved a narrow opening for Iowa parents with children suffering from severe epilepsy to be able to access cannabis oil as a treatment option. After an emotion-charged debate, senators voted 36-12 to pass Senate File 2360, a bill that legalizes the possession and medical use under certain conditions of cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive component of marijuana that backers say possesses a wide range of therapeutic benefits. Ten Republicans joined 26 Democrats in passing the bill. Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) is the sponsor.

US House Narrowly Defeats Amendment to Allow VA Docs to Recommend Medical Marijuana. Nearly 200 members of Congress, including 22 Republicans, voted in favor of an amendment Wednesday intended to allow physicians within the Veterans Affairs system to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states that allow it. The bipartisan-sponsored amendment failed 195-222. The amendment, sponsored by Congressmen Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Sam Farr (D-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), and Jared Polis (D-CO), was the first of its kind to be introduced on the House floor. It would have become part of House Resolution 4486, the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act.

Asset Forfeiture

Florida Sheriff on Asset Forfeiture Rampage. Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair is seizing criminal suspects' assets like never before, according to this report from The Ocala Star Banner. Prior to Blair taking office in 2012, asset forfeiture cases averaged 38 a year, but jumped to 57 last year, and there are already 33 so far this year. Now, Blair is expanding the practice beyond drug cases to include common crimes. Suspects face being stripped of their property after being arrested by officers for DUI, shoplifting, burglary, armed robbery, resisting arrest, driving with a suspended or revoked license, or grand theft. One woman had her 2008 Chevy seized after being caught with a few oxycodone pills. Here's the money quote (so to speak), as Blair's office explains the increase in seizures: "It shows the difference between a sheriff with 35 years of law enforcement experience and a sheriff who came from the business world," Chief Deputy Fred LaTorre explained. The whole article is worth the read; click the link.

Class Action Lawsuit Coming Over Nevada County's Highway Robbery Asset Forfeiture Program. Humboldt County already had to give back the money it stole from driver Tan Nguyen under the guise of its highway asset forfeiture program -- and pay his lawyer's fees -- but now the county faces a class action lawsuit from other victims of its overzealous law enforcement practices. After Ngyuen won his case against the Humboldt County Sherff's Department, 20 more people have come forward to say that they too had been stopped in Humboldt County and forced to give up money without any charges or even being accused of a crime. In many cases, they weren't even slapped with a speeding ticket. "What they're doing is profiling. They think they're stopping people who are on their way to California to buy drugs, and then bring them back to the Midwest or the Eastern states, and then sell them," said John Ohlson, he attorney for the cash seizure victims.

Drugged Driving

"Impaired" Driving Bill Wins Vermont Senate Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday approved a drugged driving bill, House Bill 501, but not before amending it to remove the zero tolerance language in the version passed by the House. Instead, the Senate version now says the amount of drugs in your system has to actually impair your ability to drive. While the distinction between the two bills seems small, it may be a tough fight to hammer out a compromise by next Friday, when the session adjourns. The version of the bill cited here is the original; the amended version is not yet available.

Law Enforcement

Delaware Drug Lab Scandal Could See Thousands of Drug Cases Thrown Out. The Delaware Public Defender's Office on Wednesday filed "the first wave" of legal challenges to try and overturn 9,500 drug convictions because of tampering and thefts at the state's drug testing lab. This is on top of the more than 3,700 pending drug prosecutions in Delaware courts that are at risk of being dismissed due to the scandal at the Controlled Substances Lab inside the Delaware Medical Examiner's Office. And on the same day that public defenders delivered five archive boxes containing 112 motions for post-conviction relief to prosecutors and the court, state officials revealed that an employee at the Medical Examiner's Office has been suspended with pay as an investigation into the missing drug evidence continues. Click on the link for all the sleazy details.

Georgia Narc Denied Immunity in Killing of Innocent Pastor in Drug Investigation. A narcotics officer who fatally shot a Baptist pastor in Georgia persuaded a federal judge to partly reduce the jury-imposed $2.3 million verdict, but failed in his bid to claim qualified immunity because he was acting in his capacity as a law enforcement officer. Billy Shane Harrison shot and killed Pastor Jonathan Ayers after Ayers attempted to flee in his car from undercover officers attempting to question him in a drug investigation. The judge in the case ruled that "defendant could not have reasonably believed that Ayers posed an imminent threat of serious harm or that deadly force was necessary to prevent his escape," the 11-page ruling states. "And because it is clearly established that it is unreasonable for a police officer to use deadly force under such circumstances, defendant's motion for judgment as a matter of law based on qualified immunity is denied." No criminal charges were ever filed against Harrison for the killing.

Maine Governor Says He Found Money to Pay for More Drug War. Gov. Paul LePage (R) announced Wednesday that his administration has found $2.5 million to pay for a drug enforcement bill that would add agents, judges and prosecutors and increase funding for addiction treatment programs. The bill was enacted with broad bipartisan support, but the Legislature's budget committee did not fund it. On Wednesday, the LePage administration said it has found a projected surplus in the state's unclaimed-property fund, which is overseen by the State Treasurer's Office and consists of money and personal assets that are considered lost or abandoned. The governor said he will propose emergency legislation today to allocate the surplus to the drug enforcement initiative. But it's unclear whether the Legislature will consider it. The ACLU of Maine, which has consistently opposed the bill, urged lawmakers to reject LePage's proposal. "The governor continues to push a proposal that would scale up an already bloated criminal justice system while giving a back seat to more effective treatment programs," the group said. "Plenty has been said about the need for a balanced approach, but this proposal is nothing of the sort... A truly balanced approach would mean scaling back law enforcement while increasing treatment and prevention."

Sentencing

National Academy of Sciences Report Calls for Big Cuts in Imprisonment. A groundbreaking report released yesterday by the National Research Council, the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences, documents the unprecedented and costly price of US incarceration rates. As the report points out, this unprecedented rate of incarceration is a relatively new phenomenon in US history. America's prison population exploded largely as a result of the failed drug war policies of the last 40 years. The report calls for a significant reduction in rates of imprisonment and says that the rise in the US prison population is "not serving the country well." It concludes that in order to significantly lower prison rates, the US should revise its drug enforcement and sentencing laws.

Sentencing Commission Submits Federal Sentencing Guideline Amendments to Cut Drug Sentences. On Wednesday, the US Sentencing Commission submitted its proposed amendments to the federal sentencing guidelines to Congress. In addition to recommending reductions in some drug sentences, the Commission is also seeking public comment on the issue of whether to apply the amendment to the drug quantity table retroactively. Comments can be made through July 7 and can be emailed to public_comment@ussc.gov.

Federal Judge Calls for Clemency for Convicted Cocaine Dealer. In an opinion issued Tuesday, US District Court Judge Paul Friedman urged President Obama to commute the sentence of Byron McDade, who was convicted following a jury trial in 2002 of conspiracy to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine. Friedman sentenced McDade to 27 years in prison, the shortest sentence possible under federal sentencing guidelines, which were mandatory at the time. Prior to his conviction in the drug case, McDade had only a single misdemeanor on his record, for which he paid a $10 fine. "The sentence this Court was required to impose on Mr. McDade was unjust at the time and is 'out of line' with and disproportionate to those that would be imposed under similar facts today," Friedman wrote in his opinion dismissing McDade's latest bid to overturn his conviction. "While the Court is powerless to reduce the sentence it was required by then-existing law to impose, the President is not. The Court urges Mr. McDade's appointed counsel to pursue executive clemency on Mr. McDade's behalf so that justice may be done in this case." The administration recently called on federal drug prisoners to seek clemency.

International

Silk Road Internet Drug Sales Web Site Still As Busy As Ever. Eight months after federal agents brought down the man alleged to be running an underground Web site called Silk Road that had become a thriving venue for drug trafficking, not only is the site up and running again but the new version is more vibrant than ever. Busted Not Broken, a report from watchdog group the Digital Citizens Alliance claims the "online black market economy has done a complete somersault in the six months since the fall of the original Silk Road. New players have arisen, including a second incarnation of 'Dread Pirate Roberts' and a revived Silk Road (which seems to be thriving, even after law enforcement arrested and charged some of the new site's prominent figures) has replaced the original."

Jakarta Drug Crackdown An Exercise in Futility. The vice governor of Jakarta, commonly known as Ahok, has announced a crackdown on drugs in the Indonesian capital, but a thoughtful analysis from asiancorrespondent.com's Patrick Tibke shows how it is in exercise in both futility and hypocrisy. Click on the link; the read is worth it.

Lebanese Druse Leader Walid Jumblatt Says Legalize Marijuana. Walid Jumblatt, stalwart of the Lebanon's Druse community and leader of the Progressive Socialist Party, said Thursday he supported marijuana legalization, for both medical and economic reasons. "Never in my life have I smoked marijuana, but I support growing cannabis for medical use and to improve the living conditions of farmers in north and the Bekaa Valley," Jumblatt told Al-Jadeed TV. "Let's legalize cannabis and regulate its cultivation," the politician said. Crop substitution programs in the Bekaa Valley, which once saw a multi-billion marijuana trade, have been a failure, he added.

Chronicle AM -- April 23, 2014

There's news on the marijuana legalization initiative front, decrim dies in New Hampshire, pot sentencing reform dies in Alabama, Illinois patients can keep their guns, drugged driving and reproductive rights make news, too. And more. Let's get to it:

Former drug offenders will have their voting rights restored in Virginia, thanks to Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D). (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Legalization Vote Pushed Back to November. A ballot initiative that could make Alaska the third US state to legalize recreational marijuana will go before voters in a general election in November rather than in August as previously scheduled, officials said on Monday. Alaska ballot initiatives typically go before voters in primary elections. But a lengthier-than-normal state legislative session this year forced the change because, under state rules, initiatives must go to voters no less than 120 days after the end of a session.

New Approach Oregon Legalization Initiative Gets Another Big Bucks Donation. The Drug Policy Action Network, the political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, has given $100,000 to the New Approach Oregon legalization initiative campaign. That's the second $100,000 in a week for the initiative, which has just commenced its signature-gathering phase.

Total Marijuana Ban Initiative Proposed in Montana. A Billings businessman has proposed an initiative for the November 2014 ballot that effectively would ban the possession, use, cultivation, trafficking and transportation of marijuana in Montana. Steve Zabawa submitted the measure last week. If approved, it would change state law to say that any drug listed on Schedule 1 of the Federal Controlled Substances Act "may not be legally possessed, received, transferred, manufactured, cultivated, trafficked, transported or used in Montana."

No Decriminalization for New Hampshire This Year. Criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana will not change, after the Senate refused to consider a House-passed bill. Under House Bill 1625, the penalty for having an ounce or less of marijuana or hashish would have been the same as a traffic ticket, and it would have lowered the penalties for growing less than six marijuana plants. The bill passed the House by a better than two-to-one margin, but the Senate refused to accept the bill. It had killed a nearly identical bill last session.

Louisiana to Retain Harsh Marijuana Penalties. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Tuesday to kill a bill that would reduce the state's marijuana penalties, some of the harshest in the country. Senate Bill 323 would have made simple possession a misdemeanor punishable by no more than six months in jail. Under current law, repeat pot possession offenders can be jailed for up to 20 years. The measure failed on a 4-3 vote.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A bill to allow patients suffering from seizures or severe pain to use high CBD cannabis oil has passed the House Judiciary Committee. House Bill 843 passed the committee 15-3 and now heads for a House floor vote.

Wisconsin Governor Signs Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Scott Walker (R) last week signed into law Assembly Bill 726, which allows the use of CBD cannabis oil to treat severe seizures in children.

Illinois Medical Marijuana Patients Can Keep Their Guns. Illinois regulators finalizing the state's conditions for medical marijuana have removed a proposed rule that would have barred legal gun owners from becoming cannabis-using patients. Some patients had said they would rather continue to use marijuana illegally rather than give up their firearms owners ID cards. The wording drew numerous complaints in public comments from gun owners who hoped to apply for medical cannabis cards. Many said their rights were being trampled.

Drugged Driving

Arizona Supreme Court Rules Presence of Marijuana Metabolite Not Sufficient to Prove Impaired Driving. The state's high court ruled Tuesday that motorists with a secondary marijuana metabolite in their system cannot be charged with a DUI on that basis alone, indicating the court was unconvinced the mere presence of the metabolite proves impairment. The state had argued that even the presence of metabolites in the urine of users was sufficient for a conviction, but the high court said "this interpretation would criminalize otherwise legal conduct" and "leads to absurd results." The case is Arizona v. Shilgevorkyan.

Michigan Bill Would Allow Police to Saliva Test for Drugs During Traffic Stops. The House Judiciary Committee is considering a package of bills related to drugged driving, including one, House Bill 5385, that would allow police to include saliva testing through a mouth swab. The measure is opposed by medical marijuana advocates, who raised concerns about the accuracy of the tests. The committee will continue taking testimony on the bills, which would also allow for police officers to confiscate driving licenses and issue temporary permits for drugged drivers as they do for suspected drunk drivers now.

Reproductive Rights

Tennessee Legislature Passes Bill Criminalizing Pregnant Women for Drug-Related Harm to Fetuses. A bill that holds women criminally accountable for illegal drug use during pregnancy, with punishments of up to 15 years in prison, passed the legislature last week. Senate Bill 1391 punished drug-using women if their babies are stillborn or born addicted or otherwise harmed. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has 10 days to decide whether to sign it into law.

Alabama Supreme Court Rules That Women Can Be Charged With Chemical Endangerment if They Become Pregnant and Use a Controlled Substance. The state Supreme Court last Friday upheld the conviction of a woman who gave birth to a baby that tested positive for cocaine, even though the infant was healthy. In so doing, the court upheld the state's 2006 chemical endangerment law and held that the word "child" in the law includes fertilized eggs. The case is Ex Parte Sara Jane Hicks. Alabama and South Carolina are the only states that authorize the prosecution of pregnant women for drug use, although as we see above, Tennessee could soon join them.

Prescription Drugs

Oklahoma Senate Approves Bill Adding Prescription Drugs to Drug Trafficking Law. The Senate Monday approved a bill adding four additional drugs to the state's Trafficking in Illegal Drugs Act. The measure, House Bill 2589, adds morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and benzodiazepine to the list of controlled substances in the act. Individuals convicted under the act would receive a minimum of 10 years, which is twice the prison term for possession of these substances. The bill is supported by the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics. It has been amended and will return to the House of Representatives for reconsideration.

Opiate Pain Relievers

FDA Panel Recommends Against Approving Dual Opioid Medication. An advisory panel of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) voted Tuesday against approving a combination morphine-oxycodone painkiller. The drug, Moxduo, would be the first medication to combine both opioids in one capsule. Moxduo's manufacturer, QRxPharma, says the drug is intended to provide faster relief from moderate to severe pain, with fewer side effects than currently available opioids. The panel voted unanimously against approving it, concluding that QRxPharma had not proved the drug is less likely to cause potentially life-threatening respiratory suppression, compared with taking oxycodone or morphine alone.

Search and Seizure

US Supreme Court Upholds Vehicle Stops Based on Anonymous Tip. An unusually divided Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that an anonymous 911 phone call reporting a reckless driver justified a traffic stop that led to a marijuana. The 5-4 decision saw Justice Antonin Scalia side with the court's liberal minority, but Justice Stephen Breyer's vote gave the conservative majority the win. The case is Navarette v. California. The ruling means police need not corroborate anonymous reckless driving tips before stopping a vehicle.

Voting Rights

Virginia Governor to Restore Voting Rights for Drug Offenders. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced Friday that he will immediately restore voting rights to anyone who has completed their sentence for a drug offense, and reduce the waiting period for other violent felonies from five years to three. Virginia is one of four states that ban all ex-felons from voting for life unless they receive clemency from the governor. But governors in these states can take executive action to alter the policies on these felons.

International

Sinaloa Cartel Losing Ground in Ciudad Juarez, Stratfor Analyst Says. The Carrillo Fuentes drug-trafficking organization, with its enforcement arm La Línea, is moving to regain the El Paso-Juárez corridor from the Sinaloa cartel, whose power in Juarez is eroding quickly, according to a terrorism and security analyst from the Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor. Click on the link for more details.

US Supreme Court Rejects Florida Drug Testing Appeal

The US Supreme Court Monday declined to review a lower court ruling that found Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) plan to randomly drug test state employees unconstitutional.

US Supreme Court
The decision by the nation's highest court means that the ruling by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals finding the plan unconstitutional stands.

The drug test-happy governor had issued an executive order in March 2011 directing all state agencies to drug test new hires and randomly test current employees. But that order was challenged by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 79, representing state workers.

The union argued that random drug testing was a violation of the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable searches and seizures. In its decision, the 11th Circuit generally agreed with the union, finding the suspicionless drug tests unconstitutional, but also ordered the state and the union to determine which state employees could be subjected to such testing.

The legal proscription on drug testing state employees is not complete. There are exceptions for some public safety and law enforcement workers.

But Gov. Scott's ambitious plan to foist drug testing on all state workers without cause has been squashed.

Chronicle AM -- March 31, 2014

Garden State municipal prosecutors say legalize it, an Arizona sheriff has to give back medical marijuana seized rom a patient, Colorado wants to crack down on high plant-count patients, Louisiana takes a resolutely last century approach to heroin, Uruguay is going to seriously track its legal weed, and more. Let's get to it:

This much heroin could get you a two-year mandatory minimum sentence under a bill being considered in Lousiana (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Prosecutors Say Legalize It. The New Jersey State Municipal Prosecutors Association has come out in favor of legalizing marijuana possession. The support of the prosecutors association comes as two bills were introduced this month in the legislature. The board of trustees of the municipal prosecutors association on February 21 voted to endorse legalization, said its president, Jon-Henry Barr, who is municipal prosecutor in Kenilworth and Clark.

Poll Shows Virginians Split on Legalization, Strongly Favor Medical Marijuana. A new Quinnipiac poll has Virginians narrowly opposed to legalization, with 46% in favor and 48% opposed. Medical marijuana fares much better, with support at 84%.

Wisconsin Decriminalization Bill Filed. Rep. Evan Goyke (D-Milwaukee) and 10 Democratic cosponsors have introduced a decriminalization bill, Assembly Bill 891. It has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice, but is not expected to go anywhere.

Wisconsin's Dane County (Madison) Votes Tomorrow on Legalization Advisory Referendum. Voters in Dane County, Wisconsin, will vote tomorrow on whether to approve an advisory referendum calling for marijuana legalization. The question was put on the ballot by County Board member Leland Pan.

Vermont Legislature Legalization Debate Killed. An effort to debate a proposal to study the impact of legalization on state revenues died in the state House. The effort came in an amendment to a miscellaneous tax bill from Rep. Kristina Michelsen (D-Hardwick), but was blocked when Rep. Thomas Koch (R-Barre Town) asked House Speaker Shap Smith to rule on whether it was germane. He ruled it wasn't.

Hundreds Rally for Marijuana Reform in Harrisburg. Supporters of medical marijuana, hemp, and decriminalization rallied by the hundreds at the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg Monday. They called it the Keystone Cannabis Reform Rally.

Medical Marijuana

US Supreme Court Denies Arizona County's Appeal; Sheriff Must Give Back Seized Medical Marijuana. The Supreme Court has refused to overturn Arizona court rulings ordering the Yuma County sheriff to return marijuana that was seized from a woman with a California medical marijuana authorization honored by Arizona.

Oregon Has Now Approved 22 Dispensaries. The Oregon Health Authority reported 14 more dispensaries had been approved by late Friday, on top of the eight approved the previous week.The agency has processed 102 of 301 applications submitted since March 3. A total of 41 applicants have been granted provisional licenses until their security systems are in place, and 39 applications have been denied. Reasons for denial include incomplete information or locations within 1,000 feet of a school or another dispensary.

Nevada Dispensary Rules Finalized. The Legislative Commission approved rules for growing, processing, and selling medical marijuana Friday. Nevada voters approved medical marijuana in 2000 but patients have had no legal way to acquire it other than to grow it. A law approved by the 2013 legislature and signed by Gov. Brian Sandoval set up a taxing and distribution system to make it accessible to patients. It could be late this year or early 2015 before medical pot is available for purchase.

California Federal Court Judge to Hear Motion on Declaring Unconstitutional Marijuana's Schedule I Classification. For the first time, a federal judge has granted a hearing on a motion to declare unconstitutional the continued classification of marijuana in Schedule I. The evidentiary hearing is currently set for June 2 before Federal District Court Judge Kimberly Mueller in Sacramento.

Colorado Health Officials Warn of Crackdown on High Plant-Count Patients. Beginning today, the state Health Department will send out letters to doctors who recommended that patients be allowed to grow elevated plant counts and the patients who benefit, requiring them to provide more documentation on the need for the extra plants. The department also unveiled a proposed bill that would strictly limit medical-marijuana caregivers -- people who grow cannabis for patients who can't grow for themselves -- to serving only five patients and growing no more than six plants per patient. Caregivers can currently apply for a waiver to serve more than five patients. The proposals did not go over well with medical marijuana supporters, with Health Department spokesmen being cursed at and called "fascists" in response.

Massachusetts Municipal Association Releases Report on State Medical Marijuana Law. The Massachusetts Municipal Association has released a report on the state's medical marijuana law, offering several suggestions for local officials trying to navigate it. The report, written by MMA legislative analyst J. Catherine Rollins, touches on the legal right cities and towns have to regulate medical marijuana dispensaries and grow centers. Municipalities, Rollins said, have the power to create zoning bylaws, ordinances, special permits or host community agreements.

Drug Testing

West Virginia Governor Signs Mining Industry Drug Test Reporting Bill. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) has approved a bill requiring employers in West Virginia's mining industry to report all positive drug and alcohol tests to the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. Prior to this law, which takes effect immediately, mine industry employers were only required to submit test results to the state if a miner was fired. Employers must notify the administration within seven days if an employee tests positive, refuses a urine sample, or has submitted an adulterated sample. Suspect employees will be suspended from work until they appear before a board of appeals. New hires must submit to a pre-employment urine test.

Alabama's Jefferson County (Birmingham) Suspends Employee Drug Testing Program. Mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of all new hires in Jefferson County has been suspended pending an inquiry into whether the program is unconstitutional. Ronald Sims, the court appointed receiver in charge of the county's Human Resources Department, this month halted across-the-board drug tests and medical examinations for new county workers because, Sims said, the drug tests "likely violate individuals' rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution."

Law Enforcement

Friends, Family of Unarmed Man Killed in Drug Raid Rally in Tulsa. Deandre Starks was shot and killed last week by Tulsa police serving a drug search warrant. On Friday, friends and family members rallied at city hall demanding answers. Starks' mother said she believed her son was murdered. Police said they fired at him after he made a threatening movement, but Vanesta Starks wasn't buying that. "But to know that my son was shot when his hands was up in the air, surrendered. He tripped over a rail and that was the body movement. I know the story. I just want to know if somebody will come tell me why," she said.

Lawsuit Charges "License Plate Profiling" by Idaho Troopers. A 70-year-old Washington man who was arrested and his car searched by an Idaho Highway Patrol trooper solely because he had Colorado plates has filed a federal lawsuit charging "license plate profiling." Both Colorado and Washington are legal marijuana states, while Idaho is one of the most reactionary on marijuana policy. Click on the link for all the tawdry details.

Sentencing

Louisiana Bill Would Jack Up Sentences for Heroin Possession, Sales. A bill moving in the legislature in Baton Rouge would drastically increase prison time for heroin users and dealers, including a mandatory minimum two-year sentence for simple possession. House Bill 332 easily passed out of the House Criminal Justice Committee last week and is attracting bipartisan support, even among lawmakers otherwise skeptical of the "tough-on-crime" policies that have been blamed for Louisiana's nation-leading incarceration rate. The bill would also double the mandatory minimum sentence for heroin distribution from five years to ten.

International

Colombia's FARC Calls for "Humanized" Approach to Drug Policy. Colombia's counterdrug policies must have "a humanized approach in the context of integral agrarian reform" negotiators for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) said in Havana Friday. Forced crop eradication and aerial fumigation are repressive and ineffective, the guerrillas said during ongoing peace talks with the Colombian government. The FARC supports crop substation programs as long as they are "participatory, concerted, gradual, [and] environmentally sustainable."

Uruguay to Track Marijuana from Seed to Stash With Genetic Markers, RTF Tags. Uruguay's drug czar says every legal marijuana plant in Uruguay will be registered and tracked using radio frequency tags, and that state-grown marijuana will be cloned to include genetic markers, making sure that what's grown there stays there. That's a much tougher tracking system than those imposed in Colorado and Washington, which recently legalized marijuana use. Unlike those US states, Uruguay wants authorities to be able to test the pot in any drug user's possession to determine if it came from a registered, legal source.

Jamaican Marijuana Growers Call on Government to Halt Crop Destruction. At a preparatory meeting of the Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association (GFGPA) in Kingston this weekend, some participants called for an immediate end to the destruction of marijuana crops. "Please, Mr. Government, ask you police and the army to stop digging down the world number one brand ganja," Ras Arthur Newland shouted out emphatically. "We believe the persecution and the lock-up for ganja must stop immediately." That's not the official position of the GFGPA, which said it is going to concentrate on winning decriminalization first.

Chronicle AM -- March 14, 2014

No legalization for Maryland this year, the ASA national conference is coming soon, Utah (!) passes a package of policing reform bills, welfare drug testing goes down in flames in Indiana, the Swiss ponder cannabis clubs, and more. Let's get to it:

A bill before Utah's governor would begin to rein in SWAT in the Beehive State. Only Maryland has done something similar.
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Activists Plan Slew of Local Reform Initiatives. Marijuana reform activists are planning "a tsunami move in November 2014," with plans to put initiatives aimed at legalizing or decriminalizing possession, use or transfer of small amounts of marijuana on private property by persons 21 or older on the local ballot in at least eight towns and cities, and perhaps a dozen more. The Safe Michigan Coalition, the folks behind successful initiatives in Lansing, Ferndale, and Jackson last year, are also behind this effort.

NORML PAC Endorses Tommy Wells for DC Mayor. NORML PAC, the campaign and lobbying arm of NORML, announced today that it is endorsing Councilman Tommy Wells for mayor of Washington, DC. "Councilman Wells is a passionate crusader for the cause of marijuana law reform," stated NORML PAC manager Erik Altieri, "Wells showed his skill and acumen for the issue when he championed the District's marijuana decriminalization measure, which was overwhelmingly approved by the DC City Council just this month. The District of Columbia would greatly benefit from having his compassion, knowledge, and strong leadership in the mayor's office. Under a Tommy Wells administration, DC will continue to roll back its failed prohibition on marijuana and move towards a system of legalization and regulation."

Maryland Legalization Bill Dies, But Decriminalization Bill Still Lives. A bill that would have legalized marijuana in Maryland, House Bill 880 from Rep. Curt Anderson (D-Baltimore), died for lack of support in committee yesterday, but a decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 364, filed by Sen. Robert Zirkin (D-Montgomery) passed the Senate and is now before the House Judiciary Committee.

Colorado Appeals Court Rules Some Marijuana Convictions Can Be Thrown Out. Some people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana can ask for those convictions to be thrown out under the law that legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado, the state's second-highest court ruled Thursday. The Colorado Court of Appeals said people whose cases were under appeal when Amendment 64 on recreational marijuana took effect in December 2012 are eligible to have their convictions reversed. The case is Colorado v. Brandi Jessica Russell.

Medical Marijuana

ASA National Conference in Washington, DC, April 5-7. The country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), formally announced today its second annual Unity Conference, "Navigating Medical Cannabis in the Mainstream," to be held in Washington, DC on April 5-7, 2014. The conference will highlight medical and legal experts, policymakers, and a wide array of workshops and panels focusing on scientific research, strategic planning, and skills building. Click on the links for more details.

Washington Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill Dies. A legislative effort to roll Washington's medical marijuana program into its I-502 legal marijuana system has died at the last minute after House Republicans tried to use it to divert a share of marijuana tax revenue to cities and counties. Senate Bill 5887 sponsor Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center) said the bill was doomed by "immovable positions" even after a last-minute push by the governor. The bill would have required existing dispensaries to either get legal under I-502 or close, would have ended collective gardens, and would have reduced the amount of marijuana patients could possess and the number of plants they could grow.

Utah CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Legislature. A bill that would allow children with epilepsy to use CBD cannabis oil has passed the legislature and now heads for the governor's desk. House Bill 105 won final approval in the House Thursday.

Drug Testing

Pre-Job Offer Drug Tests Violate ADA, Federal Court Rules. Pre-offer drug tests to determine the use of both legal and illegal drugs violates the Americans with Disabilities Act's (ADA) prohibition on pre-offer medical inquiries, a federal court in Pennsylvania ruled last week. The ADA contains an exception for tests solely "to determine the illegal use of drugs," but the court held that the urine drug screens qualified as medical exams because they tested not just for drugs but also for other medical purposes. The case is EEOC v. Grane Healthcare Co. and Ebensburg Care Center, LLC, d/b/a Cambria Care Center.

Indiana Welfare Drug Testing Bill Dies on Ties Vote in Senate. A bill to drug test welfare recipients suspected of using drugs died last night on a dramatic tie vote in the Senate. Senate Bill 1351 had already passed the House by a margin of 81-17, but Senate opponent said the measure unfairly targeted poor people and that other states that have adopted such programs have found they were not cost effective.

Law Enforcement

Utah Legislature Passes Policing Reform Bills. Three bills to impose some controls on law enforcement have been sent to the governor's desk in Utah. House Bill 70 originally would have limited the use of "dynamic entry" search warrants to situations involving violent crime, but was watered down. It still, however, imposes some restrictions on such searches. Senate Bill 185 would require police agencies with SWAT teams to report on why and how often they are used. Only Maryland has approved a similar law. And House Bill 185 requires police to obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone, including bulk data collection through technologies like Stingray.

Drugged Driving

Drugged Driving Bill Passes Vermont House. A bill that makes it easier for police to charge drivers with drugged driving passed the House Thursday. House Bill 501 changes existing law to use the same definition of "under the influence"of drugs as has been established for alcohol. Under current law, drugged driving can only be proven if someone drives unsafely, but the proposed law would change that to enable a conviction "when the person is under the influence of any other drug or under the combined influence of alcohol and any other drug." The state Supreme Court has held that any drug presence constitutes "under the influence." The bill now heads to the Senate.

International

Swiss Cities Consider Backing Cannabis Clubs. Municipal governments in at least five Swiss cities are considering plans to allow "cannabis clubs" or user associations. Local governments in Basel, Bern, Geneva, Lausanne, and Zurich are contemplating the move, with Geneva taking the lead. A working group will present a final proposal to authorities in June, but the move would require changes in federal law.

British Deaths From New Synthetics "Inflated," Former Drug Advisors Say. The National Program on Substance Abuse Deaths (NSPAD) reported 68 deaths in 2012 from the use of "legal highs" or new synthetic drugs, but two former government drug advisors say that figure includes many deaths from substances that "are already illegal, not new, and/or not psychoactive." Professor David Nutt and Dr. Les King of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs said only 11 of the 68 deaths actually occurred with new synthetics. "What is certain is that if the current government review of legal highs is to be taken seriously and lead to health improvements then there must be a proper definition of terms and improved data collection," they said. "Moreover the data must be properly and independently audited so the effects of any change in the law can be properly evaluated."

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Federal Judge Throws Out Florida Welfare Drug Test Law

In a ruling out of Orlando Tuesday, US District Court Judge Mary Scriven permanently halted enforcement of Florida's suspicionless drug testing of welfare applicants and recipients. The 2011 law had been in abeyance since a preliminary injunction was issued against it earlier.

"There is nothing inherent in the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a concrete danger that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use," Scriven wrote in her opinion in Lebron v. Florida Department of Children and Families. She found that "there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied."

The law required anyone applying for welfare benefits to undergo a drug test without any particularized suspicion that he or she was using drugs. The federal courts have been loath to okay suspicionless drug testing, with a few notable exceptions for workers in public safety positions and some school kids.

Luis Lebron, the plaintiff in the case, who is also the sole caretaker of his disabled mother, was a 35-year-old full-time student at the University of Central Florida when he applied for temporary assistance in July 2011, to support his then 4-year-old son. When informed that he would be subjected to a humiliating and invasive search without cause or suspicion, Lebron refused to waive his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure by submitting to the newly-required drug test.

"I'm really pleased with the court's decision," said Lebron. "This confirms what I believed all along -- that what the government was asking people like me and my family to do was wrong. I'm proud that standing up against that is going to make a difference for other families like mine."

"This is a victory not just for Luis and his family, but for all Floridians who would have been forced to submit to invasive and humiliating searches of their bodily fluids just because they need temporary help making ends meet," stated Maria Kayanan, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU of Florida and lead attorney on the case. "In reconfirming that the Fourth Amendment protects all of us, regardless of wealth or status, Judge Scriven's decision soundly rejects the notion that the government can treat an entire class of Floridians like suspected criminals simply for being poor. We are thrilled to ring in the New Year with the Court's opinion."

"The Court today affirmed that the 4th Amendment protects everyone, including those who need temporary assistance from the government," stated Randall Berg of the Florida Justice Institute and co-counsel with the ACLU. "Requiring suspicionless drug testing of TANF recipients is a slippery slope toward requiring drug testing for the receipt of any kind of government benefit, including social security, farm subsidies, and student scholarships. A clear line must be drawn, and the court did so today."

Gov. Rick Scott (R) said he would appeal the decision.

Orlando, FL
United States

Judge Strikes Down Florida Welfare Drug Test Law

Happy holidays, indeed! First Uruguayan President Mujica give us a Christmas present by signing his country's law legalizing marijuana commerce (no surprise there, really), and now, a federal judge throws invites us to welcome the new year with a ruling throwing out Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) welfare drug testing law.

Curses, foiled again...
In a ruling out of Orlando today, US District Court Judge Mary Scriven permanently halted enforcement of the law, agreeing with an earlier court finding that "there is nothing inherent in the condition of being impoverished that supports the conclusion that there is a concrete danger that impoverished individuals are prone to drug use...."

The law required anyone applying for welfare benefits to undergo a drug test without any particularized suspicion that he or she was using drugs. The federal courts have been loath to okay suspicionless drug testing, with a few notable exceptions for workers in public safety positions and some school kids.

The case is Lebron v. Florida Department of Children and Families. We'll have more on it later.

Oh, and the never-say-die Gov. Scott says he will appeal.

Location: 
Orlando, FL
United States

Chronicle AM -- December 13, 2013

It looks like Washington state medical marijuana patients will continue to be able to grow their own, Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes wants to welcome pot tourists, the Michigan Senate takes aim at welfare drug users, Indian Maoists are profiting from prohibition, and more. Let's get to it:

India's Maoist Naxalities -- profiting from prohibition. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Seattle City Attorney Wants to Accommodate Pot Tourists. Seattle City Attorney Peter Holmes has warned the city council against passing rules that will make it harder for tourists to enjoy legal marijuana. "We need to recognize that tourists are coming to this state to sample wine, to sample Washington marijuana, to sample any of the attributes of this destination city; that we accommodate that somehow," he told KPLU FM.

Medical Marijuana

Washington State Leaning Toward Allowing Home Medical Marijuana Grows. Members of the state Liquor Control Board signaled Friday they will recommend medical marijuana patients continue to be allowed to grow their own medicine. The state Health and Revenue departments and the liquor board had earlier proposed outlawing home growing once I-502 takes effect, but aroused a storm of outrage from patients and their supporters. The board is expected to formally recommend allowing the grows next week.

Colorado Could Cut Patient Fees. State health officials want to reduce the fee paid by licensed medical marijuana patients. The Board of Health will hear a proposal next week to drop the annual fee from $35 to $15. That's because the fund that pays for the patient registry has a $13 million surplus, and the fee is not supposed to be about generating revenue, just paying for the costs of the program. There are nearly 113,000 registered patients in the state.

Second Hearing Held on Guam Medical Marijuana Bill. A pending medical marijuana bill on Guam got a second public hearing Thursday. The island's public health director said he could not support the bill because there was no funding for regulation, but patients and medical marijuana supporters testified in support of the bill. The measure, Senate Bill 215, remains alive, and cosponsor Sen. Tina Muna Barnes said she was working on amendments based on feedback from the public.

Drug Testing

Michigan Senate Approves Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The Michigan Senate Thursday approved Senate Bill 275, which would set up a pilot program to start subjecting some welfare recipients to drug testing. Recipient would be screened and those for whom there was "a reasonable suspicion" of drug use would have to submit to a drug test. A first failed drug test would result in a referral to treatment, a second would result in loss of benefits. The Republican-supported bill passed on a straight party line vote. Similar legislation has been approved in the House.

Sentencing

Report Reviews Changes in Federal Sentencing Since Booker. A new report, Legal Change and Sentencing Norms in Federal Court: An Examination of the Impact of the Booker, Gall, and Kimbrough Decisions, finds that not that much has changed. A series of Supreme Court decisions beginning with Booker held that federal sentencing guidelines are merely advisory, and expectations were that their impact would be significant. But "the findings suggest that sentencing policy changes at the national level -- including reforms mandated by these cases -- neither uniformly nor dramatically transformed sentencing practices. Factors in individual cases were the largest predictor of sentencing outcomes over all time periods. Sentencing behavior across districts changed incrementally over time but did not dramatically shift during major policy changes."

International

Indian Maoists (Again) Linked to Black Market Marijuana Trade. India's long-festering revolutionary Maoist movement, the Naxalites, is once again linked to the illicit trade in drugs. Officials in Odisha are complaining that they cannot eradicate the Naxalites until they "have control over the illegal cultivation of cannabis, which, according to intelligence sources, has become a major source of funding for the Maoists." Six of eight named districts where large-scale pot growing is "a well known fact" are known as "highly Naxal-infested districts." The state government is engaged in manual eradication, but is considering aerial spraying.

Costa Rica Public Opinion Not Ready for Marijuana Legalization. Costa Rica is not ready to legalize marijuana, according to a new public opinion poll. The survey from the School of Statistics at the University of Costa Rica found that only 15% favored legalization, while 50% were opposed. Medical marijuana fared better, with 53% in favor.

British Activist to Open "Cannabis Café" in Manchester. Notorious marijuana activist Colin Davies, who once handed a bouquet of flowers including marijuana to the queen, has announced plans to open a cannabis café in Manchester. Davis, who was once jailed for marijuana trafficking, said no pot would be sold at the café; instead it will be BYOB. Marijuana remains a Class B drug in Britain, so Davis should be looking for a police reaction.

The Crooked Cop and the Case of the Vanishing Guilty Plea [FEATURE]

Special to the Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigates@gmail.com. This is Part 8 in his continuing series of stories about prosecutorial misconduct and police corruption in the drug war.

In an unusual recent case, the US 4th Circuit Appeals Court overturned a conviction in a crack cocaine case despite the defendant having pleaded guilty. The case involving Baltimore drug dealer Cortez Leon Fisher was not overturned because the plea agreement was coerced or not voluntary -- the usual standard -- but because it was based on the lies of a corrupt police officer.

The case -- but not this tale -- began with an October 29, 2007 raid on Fisher's home executed by Baltimore police officer and DEA drug task force member Mark Lunsford. The search turned up crack cocaine and a loaded weapon. To avoid a decades-long stretch behind bars, Fisher copped a plea to one count of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. Federal District Court Judge Frederick Motz then sentenced Fisher to 10 years in federal prison.

Fisher subsequently appealed to overturn his plea agreement after Lunsford was indicted on theft and perjury charges involving his use of bogus informants to falsely arrest and rip off drug dealers. In July 2010, the crooked cop got 20 months in federal prison for his crimes.

Lunsford's arrest and conviction uncovered a pattern of fabricating evidence to enrich police officers and selected informants, who received payments in cases in which they had not provided information. Reward money was fraudulently awarded to undeserving informants, and the proceeds were split between Lunsford and the snitches.

A search of Lunsford's home turned up jewelry belonging to alleged drug dealers and $46,000 in cash stolen from them. Federal prosecutors made no effort to return the stolen money to its rightful owners, but instead seized it for their own coffers.

But it gets worse. Lunsford also had a long history with Fisher and some of his family members, whom he had previously arrested on drug charges, some of which had been dismissed. In this light, Lunsford's pursuit of Fisher takes on the appearance of a personal vendetta.

When Fisher discovered that Lunsford had been indicted for perjury and theft in 2009, he wrote a pro se appeal to the judge who sentenced him, requesting that his guilty plea be vacated. But Judge Motz demurred.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/J._Frederick_Motz_District_Judge.jpg
Judge Fredrik Motz
"Unquestionably if the defendant had known of Lunsford's misconduct he would have filed a motion to suppress, and the motion may well have been successful," Motz wrote in denying the appeal. Nevertheless, "the defendant does not deny he was in possession of a firearm (as he admitted under oath during his Rule 11).Under these circumstances, I cannot find that a failure to allow defendant to withdraw his guilty plea would result in a 'miscarriage of justice.'"

Fisher appealed that decision to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. In his appeal, Fisher wrote that Lunsford "set me up and arrested me unlawfully." The informant in the case, Fisher said in the appeal, "never gave Lunsford information concerning drug activities at Fisher's home." Citing prior arrests of Fisher by Lunsford years ago, the appeal went on to say that after Lunsford arrested Fisher in 2007 in the current case, "the officer returned to my apartment later, stole a safe containing all my jewelry specifically numerous diamonds with blue and red design, including a diamond watch."

The 4th Circuit overturned the trial judge. The key question for the court was whether a police officer's misrepresentations of facts invalidated a guilty plea under the due process clause. The court noted that in order to invalidate a plea, the defendant must show that egregious impermissible conduct preceded the entry of the plea and that the misconduct influenced the defendant's decision to plead guilty.

While one member of the three-judge panel voted to dismiss Fisher's appeal, arguing that "natural reaction of extreme distaste to Lunsford's criminal act does not instantaneously transform Fisher's guilty plea into some form of due process violation that permits him now to withdraw his plea," his was a dissenting opinion.

Judges James Wynn and Henry Floyd disagreed. Lunsford's lies influenced Fisher to cop a plea and his perjury "undermined the entire proceedings, thus rendering the defendant's pleas involuntary, and violated his due process rights," they wrote. "A plea based on law enforcement fraud is invalid even if the person is guilty," the court held in its ruling in the case.

Cortez Fisher is still behind bars, waiting to see if the US Attorney's Office in Maryland will dismiss his case. Meanwhile, Lunford, the dirty cop, has already been released from prison, as have other defendants caught up in Lunsford's perjury and bogus search warrants.

Fisher was scheduled to appear in court on October 25th to resolve the matter, but a court clerk told the Chronicle a new date has not been announced yet. Fisher's attorney, Marta Khan, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment about the matter.

"I was supposed to be home like the other people that they let go behind Lunsford's lies but I believe the feds will try to recharge me," Fisher told the Chronicle in a letter from prison."But I am ready for a new trial since I have all this new evidence."

Cop v. Drug Dealer

Baltimore police officer Mark Lunsford despised drug dealer Cortez Fisher. Their adversarial history stretches years to when Lunsford rode patrol near Baltimore's notorious Murphy Homes Project, where Fisher and his brother called "Midget" sold drugs, according to court documents.

Between 1993 and 2004, Lunsford's aggressive efforts to rid the crime-ridden community of drug dealers helped fellow narcotics officers make some of the cases against Fisher, including one particular case in 1999 when Fisher faced charges for armed marijuana trafficking.

In 2001, Fisher picked up another drug case, but was never convicted. Doggedly pursuing Fisher, Lunsford finally nailed him in 2004 on drug trafficking and a weapons charge filed in federal court. Fisher immediately copped a plea to serve 36 months in prison.

After finishing serving the 36 months, Fisher got nailed again on drug charges by Lunsford, this time costing him another 12 months behind bars. But Lunsford wasn't through yet.

In a search warrant affidavit dated October 29, 2007, Lunsford wrote that he received reliable information from a snitch that Fisher was selling drugs out of his house. Then, based on that false report, Lunsford claimed he personally saw Fisher sell drugs from his car. It was all a lie.

Court records filed in Fisher's case include a redacted FBI document dated October 23, 2009, where Lunsford admits that he fabricated source information in Fisher's and numerous other narcotics cases that sent citizens to prison. Lunsford told FBI agent that, fully aware of Fisher's involvement in the drug trade, he had lied when he said the informant he had named in the affidavit was the source of his information about Fisher.

Fisher may well have had a career as a drug dealer, but as the 4th Circuit noted, "even the guilty can suffer a miscarriage of justice."

Cortez Fisher remains imprisoned as he awaits word on what prosecutors will do. In the worst case, he will stay there until 2017. Meanwhile, the crooked cop whose perjurious information led to Fisher's arrest and subsequent plea bargain is a free man, not on parole, and not in the clutches of the criminal justice system.

For the guy from the mean streets of Baltimore, there is nothing left to do except to start over -- again.

"They took everything I had," he explained.

Baltimore, MD
United States

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