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Drug czar attacks!

Dear friends:

Once again, the White House drug czar is using taxpayer money to lie and interfere in an MPP state ballot initiative campaign. Earlier this week, drug czar John Walters and deputy drug czar Scott Burns appeared in Michigan to campaign against MPP's medical marijuana initiative there.

Walters pulled out his usual despicable lies. His claims in Michigan this week included:

  • Medical marijuana laws lead to “people who are dependent on this drug using the medical excuse to acquire the drug, to use the drug, to remain dependent, to get more teenagers and pre-teenagers to use.” (In fact, teen marijuana use has consistently declined in states with medical marijuana laws.)
  • Marijuana has no legitimate medical use. (In fact, the American Nurses Association, American Public Health Association, American Academy of HIV Medicine, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Lymphoma Foundation of America, American Academy of HIV Medicine, and dozens of other medical organizations recognize marijuana's medical value.)

While the drug czar spends taxpayer money to lie to voters, MPP's campaign committee is running out of funds to fight back and badly needs your help. Would you please consider donating $10 or more today?

This isn't the first time that the drug czar's office has campaigned against a state initiative. In fact, the drug czar makes a habit of targeting MPP. He campaigned against the medical marijuana laws that MPP successfully passed in Rhode Island in January of 2006 and in Montana and Vermont in 2004. And he has a history of swarming the airwaves with misleading and fear-mongering TV ads during the last two weeks of MPP's campaigns, so we expect the lies to escalate.

But we're fighting back. Just this week, MPP filed a complaint against the drug czar's office in the form of a Data Quality Act petition. The federal Data Quality Act requires federal agencies, like the drug czar's office, to ensure the quality, objectivity, and integrity of information it distributes. In other words, it mandates that the drug czar's information about marijuana rely on sound science — not twisted propaganda.

MPP's filing is the first of its kind. No organization has ever formally requested that the drug czar redact his lies. If we win, drug czar propaganda about marijuana will have to be corrected.

But there are only 19 days left until Election Day. MPP's campaign committee needs your help now. Won't you be part of making Michigan the 13th medical marijuana state — and the first in the Midwest?

Thank you in advance for anything you can give to help.

Kampia signature (e-mail sized)

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

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

United States

Feature: Michigan Medical Marijuana Initiative Faces Organized Opposition

Michigan's Proposal 1, the medical marijuana initiative sponsored by the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care, appears headed for easy victory according to recent polls, but now it is seeing organized opposition, including visits from the drug czar and one of his minions to urge Michiganders to reject the proposal.

When they go to the polls on November 4, Michigan voters will see the following ballot language and be asked to vote yes or no on whether the measure should be adopted:

The proposed law would:

  • Permit physician approved use of marijuana by registered patients with debilitating medical conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, MS and other conditions as may be approved by the Department of Community Health.
  • Permit registered individuals to grow limited amounts of marijuana for qualifying patients in an enclosed, locked facility.
  • Require Department of Community Health to establish an identification card system for patients qualified to use marijuana and individuals qualified to grow marijuana.
  • Permit registered and unregistered patients and primary caregivers to assert medical reasons for using marijuana as a defense to any prosecution involving marijuana.

If passed by the voters, the measure would make Michigan the 13th medical marijuana state and, significantly, the first in the Midwest. Currently, all the medical marijuana states are in the West or the Northeast.
marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
That could explain why the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office) is concerned enough to send its top people to Michigan, but at the state level, the organized opposition is a collection of the usual suspects from law enforcement, moral crusader, cultural conservative, and staid medical groups resorting to the same old medical marijuana bogey-man arguments always made by defenders of the status quo.

State opposition emerged late last month with the public coming out of Citizens Protecting Michigan's Kids. The group's spokesman, state appellate judge Bill Schuette, has been holding news conferences, this week in conjunction with drug czar Walters, and penning op-eds, in order to stoke fear about the initiative through a barrage of distortions, disinformation, misinformation and fabrications.

Schuette is especially fond of warning that -- gasp! -- if the initiative passes, Michigan will turn into California with its "chaos, pot dealers in storefronts and millions of dollars being dumped into the criminal black market," as he put it in the op-ed piece. The Michigan initiative "is just like the California law," he wrote, even though the Michigan law is much more restrictive on who can become a medical marijuana patient and does not provide for medical marijuana dispensaries.

That particular distortion is even embedded in the group's web site URL,, although, again, the Michigan initiative does not allow for dispensaries.

Schuette and company are also hitting the theme that passing the initiative will lead to an orgy of teen marijuana use. "Law enforcement officials in California point to their state's marijuana law as a cause for the dramatic increase in drug use among high school students," he wrote, reprising comments along the same line he made at an earlier press conference.

Again, Schuette was spouting misinformation. According to a June 2008 report from the Marijuana Policy Project based on official state and national survey data, teen marijuana use has gone down in all grades in California and almost across the board in all other medical marijuana states in the 12 years since California passed its medical marijuana law.

"The opposition is using scare tactics out of desperation, which does not diminish the fact that medical marijuana can safely and effectively relieve the pain and suffering of seriously ill patients," Dianne Byrum, spokeswoman for the Michigan Coalition told the Associated Press earlier this month in response to the opposition claims. "They are just throwing things up in the air and hoping something will stick," she said, emphasizing that Michigan's initiative does not allow for the opening of "pot shops." "This law is nothing like California," she said flatly.

On Monday, the feds arrived. Deputy drug czar Scott Burns flew in to hold a press conference with Schuette and a roomful of law enforcement officials.

"Proposal 1 is bad for Michigan and it is bad for America," Burns said. "This issue is about dope, not about medicine."

Burns also argued that the initiative is backed by wealthy individuals who have supported similar measures in other states. "They are funded by millions of dollars from millionaires who live in Washington, DC, to hire people to come to Michigan to try and con voters from the state to pass it," he said without apparently noting the irony that he, if not a millionaire himself, had come from Washington, DC, representing an agency with a multi-billion dollar budget to tell Michigan voters what to do.

On Tuesday, the big dog himself, drug czar Walters showed up. In a Lansing press conference that same day, Walters repeated some of Schuette's misinformation about the possible increase of teen marijuana use and his deceptive comparisons with California.

Walters also said that the initiative "gives people who are addicted a way to say I have a medical problem" to obtain more of the herb. He also argued that marijuana, unlike opiate pain medications, is unregulated with varying potency, and that a pharmaceutical form of marijuana, Marinol, is already on the market. "To say we need to smoke a weed to make people high because that's the best we can do for them is an abomination," the Michigan native declared.

But the emergence of Michigan Citizens and the arrival of the drug czar and his deputy may be too little too late. The measure was well ahead in the most recent poll, and the state press has balanced the dire warnings of Walters and his local counterparts with interviews with patients and initiative supporters, so it is unclear how much ground the opposition offensive can gain.

For Bruce Mirken, communications director for MPP, which has confronted ONDCP interference with state initiatives in the past and which is supporting the Michigan initiative, the drug czar's schtick seemed time-worn and grasping.

"We're about equal parts amused and horrified," he said. "It's the same old disinformation campaign at taxpayers' expense that Walters has done again and again. This time, not only did he go to Michigan on our dime, he even brought along a medical cannabis vending machine the DEA seized a few months ago from a dispensary in Los Angeles, even though the Michigan initiative doesn't allow for dispensaries, let alone vending machines. It's the Walters Disinformation Tour 2008," Mirken groaned.

The campaign of false attacks on the initiative suggests that the opposition is desperate, said Mirken. "In some ways, that's a good sign for our side," he argued. "They don't have any actual facts and are reduced to making stuff up."

The voters of Michigan will have the final say in a little more than two weeks from now. Stay tuned.

Medical Marijuana: Four More Massachusetts Local Questions on the Ballot

Two weeks ago Drug War Chronicle reported on the various drug reform-related initiatives appearing on state and local ballots this November. While we mentioned the Massachusetts decriminalization initiative, other lower profile efforts in the Bay State were moving too. On Wednesday, the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts and the state NORML affiliate, MassCann, announced that voters in four Massachusetts legislative districts will be voting on public policy questions urging legislators to support medical marijuana.
Voters in 15 towns will be able to decide the following ballot question: "Shall the State Representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of legislation that would allow seriously ill patients, with their doctor's written recommendation, to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for their personal medical use?" The 15 towns are part of the following representative districts: 1st Middlesex, 13th Norfolk, 21st Middlesex, and 6th Plymouth.

This will mark the fifth consecutive biennial election in which local activists have placed marijuana policy-related questions on the ballot. They have been overwhelmingly successful, winning all 41 ballot questions in 125 Massachusetts towns representing one-third of the Commonwealth. Medical marijuana questions won with an average of 68% of the vote, while marijuana decriminalization questions won with an average of 62%. Industrial hemp and tax and regulate ballot questions also won.

The years of effort by local activists have helped lay the groundwork for this year's statewide Question 2, the marijuana decrim initiative. They are also laying the groundwork for passage of a medical marijuana bill, H 2247, which has been stalled at the statehouse since it was introduced in January 2007.

Police Steal Money from Elderly Medical Marijuana Patients

It is not at all uncommon for the war on drugs to target the very last people among us who ought to be treated as criminals:

For example, the 90-year-old couple, Lester ("Smitty") and Mary Smith--who were raided at their Philo home last week (9.24.08) with law enforcement seizing their life savings and all their plants in the process--are qualified patients with doctors' approvals and did nothing wrong.

Smitty said, "I wasn't worried a bit. I knew it was legal. I planted six plants two years in a row and this year, I planted 17 for me and Mary. That's not too many is it? My wife is very ill, confined to a wheelchair or recliner. She likes the bud tea. She has severe arthritis. It makes it easier for her to get around. She walks easier; she can walk to the bathroom even by herself."

Smitty has health issues too. "I have heart problems, blood clots, stomach cramps, emphysema, bad hips. I've had a heart attack. I sometimes get strong chest pains and can't breathe right. I take nitroglycerine. That brings me back. My doctors want me to take more x-rays here locally but that would be a big expense. Usually, I go to the Veterans Hospital and they pay for it."

Mary Smith was forced to stay in the house by herself during the 5-hour raid while additional warrants for an adjoining parcel were telephoned in and delivered, allowing sheriff's deputies to enter all the residences.

The elderly Smiths were not arrested or charged with a crime, because there was none. Sheriff's deputies were apparently more interested in robbery than arrest (excuse my french). They seized the two things that mattered most to the ill couple--their medicine, all 17 plants, leaving nothing--and their life savings, $52,000 from Mary Smith's inheritance and $29,000 in cashed in CDs.

"As soon as the bail-out hit, I cashed in my CDs and put the money in a safe in my house. I did not sell pot to get it. But turns out my money was not safe. They stormed in here and turned our world upside down. I thought I was legal." [IndyBay]

This is the real war on drugs. It’s not some magic formula that only screws over bad people. The drug war proliferates injustice everywhere it goes.

Medical Marijuana: Washington State Sets Supply Limits

Ending a contentious, year-long argument over what constitutes a 60-day supply of medical marijuana, the Washington state Department of Health last week issued new regulations setting the limit at 24 ounces of smokeable marijuana and 15 plants, no matter what size. The new standard comes a decade after Washington voters okayed the use of medical marijuana in 1998.
California medical marijuana bags (courtesy Daniel Argo via Wikimedia)
While the 1998 law specified that patients could have a 60-day supply, the law never specified just what that meant. As a result, some patients ended up being arrested and tried by prosecutors unfriendly to the law or intent on making sure it was not being used as a cover for marijuana manufacture and distribution. Some patients have even been convicted despite having physician recommendations.

Last year, the state legislature voted to order the Health Department to come up with reasonable quantities. After consulting with law enforcement, patients, medical personnel, and others, the department came up with a draft proposal calling for 24 ounces, six mature plants, and 18 seedlings, but that was lambasted by patients and advocates at an August hearing as insufficient for some patients.

The only differences between the draft and the final regulations were the move to allow 15 plants regardless of maturity, a move the department said would result in patients being able to harvest more, and the dropping of the requirement that patients get a doctor's note if they need more than the 60-day supply set by the department.

"We took a lot of public comment, listened to what people told us, and then made several changes after considering those comments," said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky. "The final rule is simpler and gives patients and caregivers more flexibility in growing plants. Many patients said they didn't like the distinction in the draft rule between mature and immature plants. We believe the patients and their caregivers are in the best position to decide that."

Although not everyone in the Washington medical marijuana community is pleased with the new quantity regulations, they are in line with those of neighboring Oregon and exceed those of some California counties.

L.A. Protest Supporting Convicted Medical Marijuana Dispensary Owner Draws 350

OCTOBER 6, 2008

Protest Supporting Convicted Medical Marijuana Dispensary Owner Draws 350Patients and Advocates Call for an End to Federal Obstruction of State Law

CONTACT: Aaron Smith, MPP California organizer, (707) 291-0076

LOS ANGELES — The California organizer for the Marijuana Policy Project, Aaron Smith, joined approximately 350 medical marijuana supporters at a rally outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Los Angeles today.

    The rally was organized to support Charles C. Lynch, a former operator of a Morro Bay medical marijuana collective who was recently convicted on federal drug charges. Lynch opened Central Coast Compassionate Caregivers in 2006 but was raided by federal and San Luis Obispo County law enforcement agents in March 2007. A respected member of the community who operated with the support of local officials and the chamber of commerce, Lynch was known to refuse payment from patients who could not afford it.

    "He was just a compassionate kind of guy," Steve Beck, the father of a cancer patient who relied on Lynch's dispensary to relieve the pain caused by his treatment – which included an amputated leg – told Reason magazine this summer.

    The raid and subsequent prosecution was conducted at the request of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Patrick Hedges, who was unable to use his office to close the facility since it was in full compliance with state and local laws.

    The jury that convicted Lynch was barred from hearing any evidence about medical marijuana or his compliance with state law. Rally participants hope that a judge will grant Lynch a retrial. A hearing to consider Lynch’s retrial request is slated for Nov. 4.

    "Only a small minority of extremists still support imprisoning Americans for medical marijuana," Smith said. "That's why it's no surprise the federal drug warriors didn't allow jurors to hear all the facts in Charles' case."

    Smith encouraged the crowd to engage in the public process by urging Congress to lift the federal ban on medical marijuana. "With your help we can bring federal policy in line with the public sentiment," added Smith.

    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

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Marijuana Policy Project to Participate in Medical Marijuana Rally Today

OCTOBER 6, 2008

Marijuana Policy Project to Participate in Medical Marijuana Rally Today California Spokesperson to Join Advocates in Demanding an End to Federal War on Patients

CONTACT: Aaron Smith, MPP California organizer, Mobile (707) 291-0076

LOS ANGELES — MPP’s California organizer, Aaron Smith, will be speaking at a rally which is expected to be attended by hundreds of medical marijuana patients and advocates on Monday morning in downtown Los Angeles.

    The rally has been organized by local patients and advocates supporting Charles C. Lynch, a Central Coast man who was recently convicted on federal drug charges for operating a medical marijuana collective in Morrow Bay. Lynch complied with state law and obtained a permit to operate the facility. The jury in his trial was denied any information about the state’s medical marijuana law.

    - WHAT: “Free Charles C. Lynch” rally

    - WHEN: Monday, Oct. 6, 2008, 11 a.m.

    - WHERE: U.S. District Courthouse, 312 North Spring St. (at Temple St.), Downtown Los Angeles

    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

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Americans for Safe Access: October 2008 Activist Newsletter

No Prison for Cannabis Edible Maker

A federal judge has refused to impose prison time on a California man who had produced and distributed edible medical cannabis products throughout the state.

Michael Martin Michael Martin addresses supporters at his sentencing

Despite sentencing guidelines calling for at least two and a half years in jail, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilkin exercised her discretion to sentence Michael Martin, 34, to five years probation, with one year to be served in a halfway house and one year to be served in home confinement. The dramatic sentence caused the courtroom full of patients and activists to erupt in applause.

Faced with the threat of more serious charges and the specter of a federal trial in which no information about state law or medical use could be introduced, Martin pled guilty in federal court to manufacturing marijuana edibles and did not contest the government finding of more than 400 plants seized in the September 2007 DEA raid.

In a speech to the court that had observers in tears, Martin spoke eloquently about why he had acted on behalf of patients, describing the cancer patients he was proud to have helped, the support of his loving family, and how he had only acted on behalf of others, never for profit.

That speech, the enormous volume of letters of support for Martin the judge received, and the lack of any evidence that any edible produced by Mickey was diverted to recreational use, all helped the judge declare that this was a unique case that did not call for a normal sentence, and certainly not the more than three years of federal prison that the law mandates.

Comments from the bench about the tensions between state and federal laws also made clear that the judge understood medical cannabis cases to be different from other federal drug cases, and she joined several other members of the federal judiciary in departing from the government's sentencing guidelines.

"The prosecution of good people like Michael Martin, who are trying to give patients the choice of an edible, non-smoked medicine, is a travesty," said Rebecca Saltzman, ASA Chief of Staff. "The government says smoking is a bad delivery method then prosecutes those who provide an alternative -- ridiculous."

ASA played a key role in providing support for Martin and his family after he surrendered to authorities. ASA staff helped organize the grassroots response of local patients and activists who filled the courtroom during Martin's hearings and assisted him with managing the media response in the wake of DEA attempts to portray him as a dangerous drug dealer.

Martin was the state's largest producer of medical cannabis baked goods and other edibles, products that offer an alternative to smoking cannabis that is preferred by many patients. The products were available only through licensed dispensaries and carried prominent labels warning that they were cannabis products for medical use only. A majority of the more than 300 medical cannabis dispensaries in California provide edible products to their patients.




Calif. Job Rights Bill Vetoed, ASA Vows Fight

Late September 30, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed AB 2279, a bill to ensure job rights for the state's medical cannabis patients.

AB 2279 would have stopped workplace discrimination against hundreds of thousands of legal patients, whose right to work was compromised by a California Supreme Court decision earlier this year. The governor's veto means that California employers can still fire patients who follow state law - even those who only use medical cannabis in the privacy of their homes. The veto is a setback for fairness and non-discrimination, but ASA will fight on in the state courts and capitol to protect and expand cannabis patients' rights.

"The governor's veto is disappointing," said Don Duncan, ASA's California Director. "But we have seen that persistent and strategic work by ASA - supported by our robust grassroots effort - can get results. In a different political climate, we would have gotten the governor's signature. But our strategy got it through the legislature, so we're hopeful for the future."

Medical cannabis patients were caught with other constituencies in the crossfire between Gov. Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers over the state's budget. The governor vetoed a record number of bills this year, including some that passed both houses unanimously and had no registered opposition, in apparent retaliation for the legislature's reluctance to adopt his controversial budget.

Patient Gets Cannabis Back from Police, Finally

In another victory for ASA's return of property campaign, a California medical cannabis patient got his cannabis back from police after a nearly three-year wait.

Jim Spray, 52, finally got Huntington Beach police to return the property they had seized from him in November 2005, but not without going through the legal wringer.

Jim Spray Jim Spray sports an ASA cap as he retrieves his property from police.

With the help of ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford, Spray went to court three years ago, asking for the return of approximately five ounces of marijuana, twelve immature plants, a jar of concentrated cannabis, and marijuana cultivation equipment valued at $1,000. But the court denied the motion.

The ruling hinged on another case, Chavez v. Superior Court, which had said that a patient-caregiver was not entitled to the return of his medical marijuana because not all was for his personal medical use. Courts and prosecutors used this to claim that there was no circumstance under which medical marijuana could be returned.
"We had been fighting this misunderstanding in a number of cases," said Joe Elford, ASA's Chief Counsel. "But because you can only appeal the denial of a motion for return of property through a procedure known as a writ, the appellate courts could elect to ignore us, which is what they did."

But Spray was not alone. Felix Kha was fighting a similar battle with Garden Grove police, also with ASA's help. Police had already been ordered to return patient Kha's property, but the city refused, and the appeal languished for months - until Spray's case came along.

ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford

"With Jim Spray's case filed," said Elford, "I could remind the court of appeal that the Garden Grove case was pending and that this was an issue that needed to be resolved. James Spray's case pushed the issue along."

The appeals court consolidated the cases for oral argument, with Elford arguing both. Three months later, decisions came down in favor of both patients. But the difficulties continued for Spray.

Despite being directed by the court of appeal to issue an order for the return of Spray's property, the trial court refused. So Spray and Elford had to file yet more paperwork, finally resulting in an order to police, nine months after ASA's court win.

On September 17, Spray took the order to the Huntington Beach Police Department to get his property back. Although much of the cultivation equipment had been mysteriously destroyed and the dried marijuana and plants were beyond salvage, one jar contained several grams of concentrated cannabis that is still usable, much to Spray's delight.

Congress Urges Oversight of DEA Tactics on Medical Cannabis

Several U.S. Representatives used the waning days of 110th Congress to record their continued opposition to federal enforcement raids on individuals who use or provide medical cannabis in accordance with their state law.

ASA's lobbying efforts helped convince more than a dozen members of the U.S. House of Representatives to sign a bi-partisan letter asking the Judiciary Committee to investigate DEA enforcement activity against medical cannabis dispensing collectives and their landlords. The lawmakers have asked to Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers to convene an oversight hearing on whether the DEA is using federal resources wisely and efficiently, what impact the increased level of enforcement is having on the ability of state and local governments to effectively implement their state law, and what changes to federal law are necessary.

The letter, which was spearheaded by ASA and sponsored by U.S. Representatives Sam Farr (D-CA), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Barney Frank (D-MA), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), and Dr. Ron Paul (R-TX), echoes the concerns raised by local officials across California and acknowledges the Chairman's pervious endeavors to provide oversight.

"We had hoped that oversight would have occurred by now," said Caren Woodson, ASA's Director of Government Affairs, "But given the Bush Administration's systematic obstruction of Congressional oversight the past few years, particularly of officials in the Justice Department, we expect oversight hearings to have generous support next year with a new Congress and new Administration open to change."

As a result of ASA efforts on Capitol Hill and in California this year, Chairman Conyers earlier sent a letter to DEA Acting Administrator Michelle Leonhart which questioned the Department of Justice about the enforcement tactics being used against medical cannabis patients and state programs.

Medical Marijuana: Bill Coming Down the Pike in Idaho?

Idaho is a rocked-rib Republican state, and the state's Republican Party is no friend of medical marijuana, but that isn't stopping one GOP legislator from going ahead with plans to introduce a medical marijuana bill in the next legislative session. Rep. Tom Trail (R-Moscow) told the local Fort Mill Times over the weekend that he is drafting a bill now.

Although Idaho is a conservative state, it is bordered by four medical marijuana states -- Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Montana -- as well as less medical marijuana-friendly Utah and Wyoming. And voters in at least one Idaho town, Hailey, last year approved a municipal medical marijuana referendum. After town officials balked at enforcing them, voters passed it again in May.

Rep. Trail said the bill he is drafting will be based on existing laws in Oregon and Washington. He also said he has been in contact with some Idaho doctors who support allowing the use of medical marijuana.

Still, it will be an uphill fight for the Panhandle Republican. In June, the GOP state convention committee voted 21-9 to oppose any relaxation of Idaho's marijuana laws, including medical marijuana. And there's still no medical marijuana in Hailey -- officials there filed a lawsuit after the May vote seeking guidance on how to deal with unruly voters who don't want authorities brutalizing medical marijuana users.

Feature: Drug Policy Reform and Sentencing Initiatives on the November Ballot

With election day little more than a month away, it is time for a round-up of drug policy reform initiatives facing voters in November. Not only are there a number of state-level initiatives dealing with marijuana decriminalization, medical marijuana, and sentencing reform (or its opposite), there are also a handful of initiatives at the county or municipal level.
November 4th is coming up
But after a spate of drug reform initiatives beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing into the beginning of this decade, the pace has slowed this year. Of the 139 statewide initiatives identified by the Initiative and Referendum Institute as making the ballot this year, only seven have anything to do with drug reform, and four of those seek to increase sentences for various drug offenses.

Drug reformers have had an impressive run, especially with medical marijuana efforts, winning in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, and losing only in conservative South Dakota. Reformers also scored an impressive coup with California's "treatment not jail" initiative, Proposition 36, in 2002. At the municipal level, initiatives making adult marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority have won in cities across California; as well as Denver; Seattle; Missoula County, Montana; Eureka Springs, Arkansas; and Hailey, Idaho. Detroit and several smaller Michigan cities have also approved municipal medical marijuana initiatives.

One reason for the slow-down in reformers' resort to the initiative process is that, as Marijuana Policy Project assistant communications director Dan Bernath put it, "We've already grabbed all the low-hanging fruit."

While medical marijuana initiatives have had an impressive run, the remainder of the 22 initiative and referendum states -- Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming -- present a more difficult social and political terrain, in most cases. Running a successful initiative is also costly, said Bernath.

"Only half the states have initiatives, so there are only so many places where reformers can push them," he said. "And it is an expensive process that is often complicated. On the other hand, you don't have to rely on timid politicians. The voters are often way out in front of politicians on marijuana reform initiatives, and with an initiative, you don't have to worry about those timid politicians tinkering with your legislation and taking all the teeth out of it," Bernath noted. "As a general rule, I think most reformers would prefer to see something passed by the voters, that gives it a lot of legitimacy."

And that's just what reformers are trying to do with medical marijuana in Michigan and marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts this year, both of which appear poised to pass. Likewise, in California, reformers are seeking to expand and deepen Prop. 36, but they also face a pair of sentencing initiatives aimed at harsher treatment of drug offenders. And next door in Oregon, anti-crime crusaders also have a pair of initiatives aimed at punishing drug offenders -- among others.

Here's a rundown of the statewide drug reform and/or sentencing initiatives:

CALIFORNIA: It's the battle of the crime and sentencing initiatives, with Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA) going up against a pair of initiatives headed in the other direction. Building on the success (and limitations) of 2002's Prop. 36, Prop. 5 would expand the number of drug offenders diverted from prison into treatment, expand prison and parole rehabilitation programs, allow inmates earlier release for participating in such programs, and cut back the length of parole. It would also decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Led by the Drug Policy Alliance Southern California office, the Yes on Prop. 5 campaign has won broad support from drug treatment professionals, with the notable exception of drug court advocates. But it also faces opposition, not only from the drug court crew and the usual law enforcement suspects, but also actor Martin Sheen and several prominent newspaper editorial boards. No polls on Prop. 5's prospects have been released. See our earlier in-depth reporting on Prop. 5 here.

Proposition 6, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, is primarily aimed at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, but also includes provisions increasing penalties for methamphetamine possession, possession with intent, and distribution to be equal to those for cocaine, and provides for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. The measure also mandates increased spending for law enforcement. Read the California League of Women Voters' analysis of Prop. 6 here.

Proposition 9, also known as the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, unsurprisingly is concerned mostly with "victims' rights," but also includes provisions that would block local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the state fund corrections costs as much as necessary to accomplish that end. It would also lengthen the amount of time a prisoner serving a life sentence who has been denied parole must wait before re-applying. Currently, he must wait one to five years; under Prop. 9, he must wait three to 15 years. Prop. 9 would also allow parolees who have been jailed for alleged parole violations to be held 15 days instead of the current 10 before they are entitled to a hearing to determine if they can be held pending a revocation hearing, and stretches from 35 to 45 the number of days they could be held before such a hearing. These last two provisions, as well as one limiting legal counsel for parolees, all conflict with an existing federal court order governing California's procedures. Read the California League of Women Voters' analysis of Prop. 9 here.

Ironically, both "tough on crime" initiatives have received significant funding and support from Henry Nicholas, the co-founder and former CEO of Broadcom. Nicholas has reportedly contributed at least $5.9 million to the initiatives. That was before he was indicted in June on federal fraud and drug charges. His indictment alleges that he kept properties for drug parties, supplied methamphetamine and cocaine to friends and prostitutes, and spiked technology executives' drinks with Ecstasy.

MASSACHUSETTS: The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy is sponsoring an initiative that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Known as Question 2 on the November ballot, the initiative builds on nearly a decade's worth of work by local activists who ran dozens of successful ballot questions directed at individual representatives. Question 2 looks like almost a sure winner; it garnered 72% support in a mid-August poll. Still, late-organizing opposition has formed, primarily from the usual suspects in law enforcement and prosecutors' offices. See our earlier analysis of Question 2 here.

MICHIGAN: Michigan is poised to become the first medical marijuana state in the Midwest. An initiative sponsored by the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care and appearing on the ballot as Proposition 1 would allow patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, MS and other conditions as may be approved by the Department of Community Health to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. It would require the department to create an ID card system for qualified patients and their designated caregivers and would allow patients and caregivers to grow small amounts of marijuana indoors in a secure facility. It would also permit both registered and unregistered patients and caregivers to assert a medical necessity defense to any prosecution involving marijuana. A poll released this week showed the measure gaining the approval of 66% of voters. Read our earlier analysis of the initiative and campaign here.

OREGON: While medical marijuana activists are working on a dispensary initiative for 2010, perennial Oregon "crime fighter" Kevin Mannix is once again looking to throw more people in prison. Ballot Measure 61, "Mandatory Sentences For Drug Dealers, Identity Thieves, Burglars, And Car Thieves," is pretty self-explanatory. It would impose mandatory minimum sentences for the manufacture or delivery of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine of 36 months in some cases and 30 months in others. It also lays out similar mandatory minimums for the other criminal offenders listed above. Mannix originally included a provision attempting to supplant the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, but dropped it when it became apparent it could drag down the entire initiative.

Another measure initiated by the legislature and referred to the voters, Ballot Measure 57, would also increase penalties for the sale or distribution of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy. It sets a sentencing range of 34 months to 130 months, depending on the quantity of the drug involved. The measure would also require drug treatment for certain offenders and impose sanctions for those who resist, provide grants to local jurisdictions for jails, drug courts, and treatment services, and limit judges' ability to reduce sentences.

LOCAL INITIATIVES: In addition to the statewide initiatives mentioned above, there are also a handful of municipal initiatives on the November 4 ballot. Here they are:

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA: In Berkeley, Measure JJ seeks to broaden and regularize medical marijuana access. Supported by the Berkeley Patients Group and at least two city council members, the measure would expand the non-residential zones where dispensaries can locate, create an oversight commission including representatives from each of the three existing collectives to promulgate standards and determine whether relocating or future operators are in compliance, issue zoning certificates by right if operators meet standards, and bring Berkeley possession limits in line with recent state court rulings determining that such limits are unconstitutional. The ballot argument in favor of the measure can be viewed at the link above; no ballot argument opposing the measure has been submitted.

FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS: The local grassroots organization Sensible Fayetteville is sponsoring an initiative that would make enforcement of adult marijuana possession laws the lowest law enforcement priority. It also includes language mandating city officials to write an annual letter to their state and federal representatives notifying them of the city's position and urging them to adopt a similar one. If the measure passes, Fayetteville will become the second Arkansas community to adopt such an ordinance. Nearby Eureka Springs did so in 2007.

FERNDALE, MICHIGAN: Ferndale passed a medical marijuana initiative in 2005, but this year a shadowy group known as the National Organization for Positive Medicine has placed an initiative on the ballot that would allow for the distribution of medical marijuana, but only by the National Organization for Positive Medicine. The initiative is not affiliated with the statewide medical marijuana initiative.

HAWAII COUNTY, HAWAII: Hawaii's Big Island (Hawaii County) will be voting on an initiative making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. Ballot Question 1 not only makes adult possession offenses the lowest priority, it would also bar county law enforcement officials from accepting federal deputization or commissions to enforce laws in conflict with the initiative, prohibits the County Council from accepting or spending funds to enforce adult marijuana possession laws, and bar the County Council from accepting any funds for the marijuana eradication program. The initiative is sponsored by Project Peaceful Sky, a local grassroots organization whose name alludes to the disruption of tranquility caused by law enforcement helicopters searching for marijuana.

Alright, potential voters, there you have it. See you at the polls November 4.

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