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Seattle Aims to Open the First Safe Injection Sites in the US [FEATURE]

Seattle and surrounding King County are on a path to establish the country's first supervised drug consumption sites as part of a broader campaign to address heroin and prescription opioid misuse. A 99-page report released last week by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force calls for setting up at least two of the sites, one in the city and one in the suburbs, as part of a pilot project.

The facilities, modeled on the Canadian government-funded InSite supervised injection site in Vancouver, just 140 miles to the north, would be places where users could legally inject their drugs while under medical supervision and be put in contact with treatment and other social services. There have been no fatal overdoses in the 13-year history of InSite.

Although such facilities, which also operate in various European countries and Australia, have been proven to reduce overdose deaths and drug use-related disease, improve local quality of life, and improve the lives of drug users, they remain controversial, with foes accusing them of "enabling" drug use. Thus, the report refers to them not as "safe injection sites," or even "supervised consumption sites," but as the anodyne "Community Health Engagement Locations" (CHELs).

"If it's a strategy that saves lives then regardless of the political discomfort, I think it is something we have to move forward," said County Executive Dow Constantine, discussing the plan at a news conference last week.

The safe sites will address the region's high levels of opioid and heroin use, or what the task force called "the region's growing and increasingly lethal heroin and opioid epidemic." As the task force noted, the number of fatal overdoses in the county has tripled in recent years, with the rate of death rising from roughly one a week (49) in 2009 to one very other day (156) in 2014. The current wave of opioid use appears centered on young people, with the number of people under 30 seeking treatment doubling between 2006 and 2014, and now, more young people are entering detox for heroin than for alcohol.

Outside Vancouver's InSite (vch.ca)
Overdose deaths actually dropped last year to 132, thanks to Good Samaritan laws that shield people who aid overdose victims from prosecution and to the wider use of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. But that's still 132 King County residents who needn't have died. Task force members said the CHELs would help reduce that number even further.

"The heroin epidemic has had a profound effect not just on our region, but across our country as a whole," said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. "It is critical that we not only move forward with meaningful solutions that support prevention and treatment, but that we remove the stigma surrounding addiction that often creates barriers to those seeking help.

Not only are key local elected officials on board, so is King County Sheriff John Urquhart. He said the safe site plan was workable.

"As long as there was strong, very strong, emphasis on education, services, and recovery, I would say that yes, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks," he said. "We will never make any headway in the war on drugs until we turn the war into a health issue."

The region may willing to embrace this ground-breaking harm reduction measure, but it is going to require some sort of federal dispensation to get around the Controlled Substances Act and the DEA. How that is going to happen remains to be seen, but Seattle is ready.

The task force wasn't just about CHELs. In fact, the safe sites are just a small, if key, component of a broad-based, far-ranging strategy to attack the problem. The task force report's recommendations come in three categories:

Inside Vancouver's InSite (vch.ca)
Primary Prevention

  • Increase public awareness of effects of opioid use, including overdose and opioid-use disorder.
  • Promote safe storage and disposal of medications.
  • Work with schools and health-care providers to improve the screening practices and better identify opioid use.

Treatment Expansion and Enhancement

  • Make buprenorphine more accessible for people who have opiate-use disorders.
  • Develop treatment on demand for all types of substance-use disorders.Increase treatment capacity so that it’s accessible when and where someone is ready to receive help.

Health and Harm Reduction

  • Continue to distribute more naloxone kits and making training available to homeless service providers, emergency responders and law enforcement officers.
  • Create a three-year pilot project that will include at least two locations where adults with substance-use disorders will have access to on-site services while safely consuming opioids or other substances under the supervision of trained healthcare providers.

Will Seattle and King County be able to actual implement the CHELs? Will the federal government act as obstacle or facilitator? That remains to be seen, but harm reductionists, policymakers, and drug users in cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and New York will be watching closely. There have been murmurs about getting such sites up and running there, too.

A Long Hot Summer of Drug War Deaths [FEATURE]

The killing of a young, black, unarmed Tampa man by a SWAT team that raided his home in an operation that turned up two grams of marijuana has sparked angry protests last week, including demonstrations last Thursday where people damaged vehicles, lit fires, and threw trash at police, leaving five people arrested and a community outraged.

Levonia Riggins. Unarmed, killed in his bedroom in a raid that netted two grams of weed. (family photo)
Levonia Riggins was shot and killed in his bedroom by Deputy Caleb Johnson of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office as the SWAT team executed a search warrant based on purchases of marijuana from Riggins by undercover officers earlier this summer. Police said they used the SWAT team because they had found guns in the house a year earlier.

When deputies arrived, they broke through a window and found Riggins in bed. "Mr. Riggins then jumped up and moved his hands toward his waistband," a police spokesman explained. Johnson then fired, killing Riggins in what police called "a split-second decision." The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office is now investigating the killing, as is a sheriff's internal team.

Riggins was only the last person to be killed in drug law enforcement operations this summer that left 10 other people dead in separate incidents, including a Tennessee police officer. According to the Drug War Chronicle, which has been tracking such deaths since 2011, the year's drug war death toll now stands at 33.

That's a rate of about one a week, a rate that has held constant throughout the five years the Chronicle has been counting. Also consistent is the ratio of civilians killed to police officers killed. It has been running at about 10:1 over the five-year period, and with three officers killed so far this year, that ratio is being maintained.

Here are the rest of the summer's drug war victims and the circumstances of their deaths:

On August 18, in Apache Junction, Arizona, a Maricopa County sheriff's SWAT Team member shot and killed Larry Eugene Kurtley, Jr., 53, as the SWAT team attempted to take him into custody on drugs, drug paraphernalia, and weapons charges. A woman who left the residence as police arrived told them he could be armed, and the SWAT team then began to negotiate his surrender, police said. But Kurtley refused to come out, so police fired tear gas into the home. When he emerged from the house, he was armed, police said, and one of the SWAT deputies opened fire, killing him. Kurtley had served multiple prison sentences dating back to the 1990s. The Pinal County Attorney's Office and the sheriff's office professional standards bureau are investigating.

On August 16, just outside Augusta, West Virginia, a sheriff's deputy shot and killed John O'Handley, 55, of Yellow Springs as he reportedly grabbed the deputy's gun while being transported to jail after being arrested on methamphetamine and other charges. Deputies had originally gone to O'Handley's residence in search of a stolen motorcycle, but discovered an active meth lab in the home, as well as homemade bombs and stolen property. O'Handley allegedly reached between the front seats of the police car and grabbed the arresting deputy's gun. "A struggle then ensued," and the deputy fired one shot, striking O'Handley in the head and killing him. The shooting is being investigated by the West Virginia State Police.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent De'Greaun Frazier. Killled during an undercover drug buy. (tn.gov/tbi)
On August 9, in Jackson, Tennessee, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent was shot and killed while conducting an undercover drug buy. Special Agent De'Greaun Frazier, 35,was assisting Jackson Metro Narcotics and was in the front seat of a vehicle when the man he was supposed to buy drugs from instead tried to rob him, shooting him from the back seat. That man, Brendan Burns, has now been charged with murder in his death. Frazier had earlier served on a DEA task force while working at the Millington Police Department.

On August 9, in Los Angeles, LAPD officers in Boyle Heights shot and killed Jesse Romero, 14, as he fled from them while they investigated a report of possible "gang writings" and drug activity. According to the LAPD account, Romero and another youth split up and took off running when police arrived, and a witness saw Romero shoot a handgun toward pursuing officers. One officer returned fire, striking and killing Romero. But another witness said she saw Romero pull a gun from his basketball shorts as he ran, then toss it toward a fence. The gun fired when it fell to the ground after hitting the fence, startling Romero. "He didn't shoot," she said. Police recovered an old revolver, but it is unclear how near it was to Romero's body. The officers involved were wearing body cameras, but under LAPD policy that footage is only released to the officers involved before they make an initial statement -- not to the public. The ACLU of Southern California released a statement saying it was "particularly concerned" about Romero's death and criticizing LAPD's body camera policies.

On July 7, in Clovis, California, Clovis Police serving an arrest warrant on narcotics and related charges shot and killed Adam Smith, 33, as he attempted to flee in his vehicle. Police and his girlfriend's family lured him to the family residence, but he and his girlfriend tried to escape, jumping in his van in an alley. According to police, when they confronted the pair in the alley, the girlfriend jumped out of the van, Smith slammed it into reverse, nearly hitting her, then accelerated his vehicle toward the officers. Two of the three offices opened fire, fatally wounding Smith. He was not named in initial reports, but was later identified. In another report, an acquaintance said Smith was on heroin and had repeatedly said they he would die in a "suicide by cop," especially when he was on heroin.

Street meorial for 14-year-old Jesse Romero. (scpr.org)
On June 30, in Douglas, Wyoming, a US marshal shot and killed Jasen Scott Ramirez, 44, in the parking lot of a Catholic Church as he was leaving his father's funeral. The federal agents were seeking Ramirez to serve an arrest warrant on methamphetamine and weapons charges. Local police called to the scene after the shooting discovered 3.5 ounces of meth and two pistols in the vehicle he was driving, but it's unclear to whom the car, the guns, or the drugs belonged. It's also unclear whether Ramirez was brandishing or reaching for a weapon when he was shot and killed. The US Marshals Service has issued only a one-paragraph statement, short on details, including the name of the marshal who pulled the trigger. The agency said it would not be saying more until all investigations into the incident are concluded, including one by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation. After the killing, an unconfirmed death threat was made against law enforcement, prompting authorities to temporarily lock down the county courthouse, city hall, and the hospital where Ramirez died.

On June 16, in Westminster, Colorado, a Westminster police officer shot and killed Nicholas Damon, 30, after Damon allegedly dragged the officer and ran over him with his car. Police were attempting to arrest Damon on outstanding drug and assault warrants when he hopped into his car and attempted to flee the scene. The officer involved was briefly hospitalized with "non-life threatening injuries." The killing is being reviewed by an Adams County special investigatory team.

On June 14, in Chula Vista, California, an undercover ICE agent shot and killed Fernando Geovanni Llanez, 22, as agents met with a half-dozen suspected marijuana traffickers in an apparent buy-bust deal at an Eastlake-area strip mall. The agent was part of the Homeland Security Investigations Operation Alliance drug task force, and the agency said Llanez attacked him in what could have been a robbery attempt. The agent fired several times, fatally wounding Llanez. His five companions fled, but were all chased down and arrested on charges of possession of marijuana for sale, conspiracy, and suspicion of robbery. Chula Vista police declined to confirm that it was an undercover operation and would not say if any cash or drugs were seized. There was no mention of any weapon.

On June 8, in Kansas City, Missouri, members of a DEA task force executing a search warrant shot and killed Carlos Garcia, 43, after he fired at officers from inside the house and then refused to exit, leading to an hours-long standoff. Finally, after police shot tear gas into the house, Garcia ran out the back door of the residence aiming his rifle at officers, police said. Task force members then opened fire on Garcia, killing him in the back yard.

On June 7, in Turlock, California, two Modesto police officers who were members of the Stanislaus County Drug Enforcement Agency "involved in a narcotics investigation" shot and killed Omar Villagomez after the vehicle he was driving collided with unmarked police vehicles as they attempted to arrest him. The passenger in the vehicle was not shot, but was injured by debris from the collision. He was charged with suspicion of meth possession with intent to sell, transportation of meth, possession of a controlled substance while armed, and possession of a loaded and concealed firearm.

These Four States Will Be Voting on Medical Marijuana in November [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

It's been 20 years since California punched through pot prohibition and became the first state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. Now, 25 states have medical marijuana laws, and more than a dozen more have taken the half-step of legalizing the medicinal use of cannabidiol (CBD) only -- not raw marijuana.

Coming soon to Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota?
While some of the early medical marijuana states have now moved on to full legalization -- and more are set to this year -- states in the South and the Plains are just beginning to embrace the therapeutic use of the herb. This year could see medical marijuana finally assert itself in Dixie and on the Northern Plains.

Medical marijuana is amazingly popular nationwide. A June Quinnipiac poll had support at a whopping 89%. That same month, a Prevention Magazine poll had support at 75%, not nearly as stratospheric, but still very impressive. Support won't be as strong in states where it is on the ballot this year, but should still be strong enough to get voter initiatives over the top.

There are four states where medical marijuana initiatives are approved for the ballot this year, but before we get to those, there are still a handful of loose ends to mention. In Missouri, an initiative campaign is challenging a signature count that had it fail to qualify for the ballot; in Arkansas, a second medical marijuana initiative, this one a constitutional amendment, is still trying to gather signatures (update: that measure has now qualified for the ballot); in Oklahoma, an initiative has just passed a signature-gathering hurdle but has yet to qualify, and in Montana, an anti-medical marijuana initiative is challenging a signature count that found it coming up short. These are all long-shots at this point, but the efforts aren't definitively dead.

In the meantime, the four states definitely voting on medical marijuana in November are:

Arkansas -- The 2016 Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act. A similar initiative was narrowly defeated in 2012, and Arkansans for Compassionate Care hopes to get over the hump this year. The initiative would allow patients suffering from a long list of qualifying diseases or conditions to use medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. Patients could possess up to 2 ½ ounces and could grow five plants and 12 seedlings if they live more than 20 miles from a "care center." They could also have a designated caregiver grow for them, with a limit of five patients per caregiver. There would be at least 39 non-profit care centers across the state.

It's going to be a low-budget campaign. ACC says it has raised $15,000 and has a goal of $80,000. There is no significant organized opposition.

The polling is looking favorable. An Arkansas Poll from last November had support for medical marijuana at 68%, with only 26% opposed, while a June Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College Poll had support at 58%, with 34% opposed.

Florida -- Amendment 2. Medical marijuana backers organized as United for Care were narrowly defeated in 2014 although they won 58% of the vote. That's because their initiative was a constitutional amendment requiring a 60% majority, and so is this one. It would allow patients suffering from a specified list of qualifying diseases or conditions to use medical marijuana upon a doctor's recommendation. The amount they could possess will be determined by the Department of Health. Patients could not grow their own, but would be able to purchase it at state-regulated "Medical Marijuana Treatment Centers."

This is going to be a big bucks campaign in a high-population state, just as it was last time. In 2014, Las Vegas casino billionaire and hard right Daddy Warbucks Sheldon Adelson kicked in more than $5 million to the "no" campaign. This year, he's been quiet so far, but Florida arch-drug warrior Mel Sembler has kicked in $500,000 for the opposition Drug Free Florida, and Publix supermarket heiress Carol Jenkins Barnett gave $800,000 more. United for Care has largely been bankrolled by Florida attorney and Democratic donor John Morgan. It took in more than $3 million last year, spending most of it on signature gathering, and has only raised $555,000 so far this year, although Morgan's deep pockets could come through again in the home stretch.

Even with the needed 60% majority, the polling looks good. In eight polls since January 2015, the lowest support level recorded was 61% and the highest was 80%. But the opposition is going to use that fat campaign war chest to chip away at public support.

Montana -- Initiative 182. Voters in Big Sky County approved medical marijuana in 2004, but when the scene grew too bustling, the state's conservative legislature struck back with a vengeance. In 2011, Republicans in Helena essentially gutted the medical marijuana system, shutting down dispensaries and limiting caregivers and doctors. The Montana Medical Marijuana Act repeals the limit of three patients for each licensed provider, and allows providers to hire employees to cultivate, dispense, and transport medical marijuana. It also repeals the requirement that physicians who provide certifications for 25 or more patients annually be referred to the board of medical examiners, and it removes the authority of law enforcement to conduct unannounced inspections of medical marijuana facilities, instead requiring annual inspections by the state. Patients could continue to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and four plants and 12 seedlings. The initiative also adds PTSD to the list of qualifying conditions.

There doesn't appear to be any recent polling on the initiative's prospects. Montana voters have approved medical marijuana in the past, but the earlier phase of medical marijuana expansion sparked a harsh reaction, and the state remains divided over the issue. After a lengthy court fight, some of the restrictions approved in 2011 will go into effect at the end of this month, and cries of lost patient access may bend public opinion.

There doesn't appear to be any significant fundraising or spending by either side in this campaign.

North Dakota -- Question 5. Also known as the North Dakota Compassionate Care Act and sponsored by North Dakotans for Compassionate Care, the initiative would allow people suffering from a list of specified medical conditions to use medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. The initiative envisions a system of non-profit "compassion centers," which could grow and sell medical marijuana. Patients living more than 40 miles from a compassion center could grow up to 8 plants, but they must notify local law enforcement in writing. The initiative also includes a creepy provision allowing the Health Department to "perform on-site interviews of a qualified patient or primary caregiver to determine eligibility for the program" and to "enter the premises of a qualified patient or primary caregiver during business hours for purposes of interviewing a program applicant," with 24 hours notice. Patients could purchase up to three ounces of marijuana every two weeks.

The polling data is as scarce as the trees on the North Dakota prairie, but a 2014 poll had support for medical marijuana at 47%, with 41% opposed.

There doesn't appear to be any significant fundraising or spending by either side in this campaign, either.

Will medical marijuana go four for four this year? It seems likely, but we're going to have to wait for November 8 to know for sure.

It's Official: Five States Will Vote on Marijuana Legalization in November [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan last week certified a marijuana legalization initiative for the November ballot, setting the stage for a national election that will see the issue go directly to the voters in five states, including California, the nation's most populous.

Four states have already legalized marijuana at the ballot box, Colorado and Washington in 2012 and Alaska and Oregon in 2014. The District of Columbia also legalized marijuana -- but not commercial sales -- in 2014.

But those states combined only have a population of about 17 million people. Winning California alone would more than double that figure and winning all five states would triple it. If all five states vote for pot, we could wake up on November 9 with nearly a quarter of the nation living under marijuana legalization.

And that could finally lay the groundwork for serious progress on ending federal marijuana prohibition. With national opinion polls now consistently reporting majorities for pot legalization, public sentiment is shifting in favor of such a move, and if voters in these five states actually do legalize it, that sentiment will have been translated into political facts on the ground. Congress may finally begin to listen.

Still, it's not a done deal. Voters have to actually go to the polls and vote. But all five initiative campaigns are well-funded, increasingly with marijuana industry money and are in a position to significantly outspend the organized opposition. They also start from a generally favorable polling position, with leads in most of the states. And they can now point to the examples of the earlier legalization states, where, despite dire prediction, the sky has not fallen, and state treasuries are growing fat with pot fee and tax revenues.

Of the five states that will take up legalization in November, four have initiative campaigns organized under the imprimatur of the Marijuana Policy Project, whose "Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol" campaign proved so successful in Colorado. California is the one exception, with its initiative written by a group around tech billionaire Sean Parker and heavily influenced by the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy led by Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Here are the five states and their initiatives:

1. Arizona -- Proposition 205. Sponsored by the Arizona Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the initiative would allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants "in an enclosed, locked space within their residences." It would also create a state agency, the Department of Marijuana License and Control, to oversee legal, licensed marijuana commerce, but would limit the number of marijuana retail shops to one-tenth the number of liquor store licenses, which would be fewer than 180. The measure would allow localities to regulate or ban pot businesses, and it would impose a 15% excise tax on retail sales, with 80% of revenues earmarked for schools and 20% for substance abuse education. The measure does not allow for public use and does not remove existing penalties for possession of more than an ounce or six plants. That means possession of 28 grams is legal, but possession of 29 grams is a felony. The measure does not provide employment rights for marijuana user and it does not change the state's bizarrely strict drugged driving law, which criminalizes the presence of inactive marijuana metabolites, but does not require actual impairment to be proven.

The campaign has raised $2.2 million so far and may need to spend every cent to win. An April poll had Arizonans rejecting legalization 43%-49% and a July poll had legalization losing 39%-52%. Those numbers are going to be tough to overcome, but with normally rock-ribbed red state Arizona shifting to battleground state status this wacky election year, the state could be a pleasant surprise come Election Day.

2. California -- Proposition 64. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) initiative sponsored by Yes on 64 would allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants, keeping the fruits of their harvest. It would also allow the unregulated gifting of up to a quarter-ounce of marijuana. The measure would also allow for licensed on-site marijuana consumption, or "cannabis cafes." It would allow for legal marijuana commerce regulated by a new Bureau of Marijuana Control, which would replace the existing Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, and would impose a 15% retail sales tax and a $9.25 per ounce cultivation tax imposed at the wholesale level. In a nod to the state's existing ma-and-pa pot growing industry, the measure would license "micro-grows" (under 10,000 square feet), but would not allow "mega-grows" (more than ½ acre indoors or 1 acre outdoors) until 2023 at the earliest. Most remaining criminal offenses around marijuana would be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. Cities and counties could opt out of marijuana commerce, but only by a vote of residents, and they could not ban personal possession or cultivation. The measure provides no employment protections for consumers and does not change existing impaired driving laws.

The campaign has raised $7.1 million so far, including $1.5 million from Sean parker, $1 million from Weedmaps founder Justin Hartfield, and significant contributions from the Marijuana Policy Project and Drug Policy Action, the campaign and lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance. Fundraising is far exceeding the organized opposition, but in a state with a huge population and massive media markets, the campaign will need to double or even triple what it has raised so far.

The polling numbers are looking good, too. A February Probolsky Research poll had support for legalization at 59.9%, while a May Public Policy Institute of California poll echoed that with support at 60%. And the trend is upward -- the same Public Policy Institute of California poll had support at only 54% last year. California should go green on November 8.

3. Maine -- Question 1. Sponsored by the Maine Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, the measure would allow people 21 and over to possess up to 2 ½ ounces of marijuana, six flowering plants, and 12 immature ones. People could also give up to 2 ½ ounces or six plants to other adults without remuneration. The measure would allow legal marijuana commerce regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, with a 10% retail sales tax. The measure would also allow for on-site consumption, or "cannabis cafes," but would require that all pot purchased at such facilities be consumed there. Localities could regulate or ban commercial marijuana facilities.

Campaign supporters have only raised $692,000 so far, but Maine is a small state with a low population and isn't going to require millions to run a campaign. As in other initiative states, Maine opponents are trailing badly in fundraising, but will probably get some financial assistance from the prohibitionist Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which has vowed to put $2 million into the effort to defeat the five initiatives. Most of that money won't be going to Maine, though.

The polling numbers so far are encouraging, with a March MPRC poll showing 53.8% support and a May Critical Insights poll coming in at 55%. Those numbers aren't high enough for campaigners to rest easy, but they do suggest that victory is well within reach.

4. Massachusetts -- Question 4. The measure sponsored by the Massachusetts Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol would allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana in public or 10 ounces at home, as well as allowing the cultivation of up to six plants and the possession of the fruits of the harvest. It would allow legal marijuana commerce regulated by a Cannabis Control Commission, and it includes a provision that would allow on-site consumption at licensed facilities, or "cannabis cafes." Localities would have the option of banning legal marijuana commerce enterprises. The measure would impose a 3.75% excise tax in addition to the state's 6.25% sales tax, making an effective tax rate of 10%. Localities could add local taxes of up to 2%, but they certainly couldn't collect them if they didn't allow marijuana businesses to operate. There are no employment protections for pot smokers, and the state's drugged driving laws would remain unchanged.

Will Massachusetts go green this year? It will be a nailbiter
Funding looks to be lagging in the Bay State, where supporters have only raised $500,000, less than in Maine, which has a significantly smaller population. Organized opposition in the form of the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy Massachusetts may be the strongest of any of the five states this year, with the governor, the mayor of Boston, and other leading public officials on board.

The polling suggests this will be a very tight race. A July 2014 poll had the state evenly split, with 48% supporting legalization and 47% opposed, and polling from last year was showing slight majorities for legalization. But a May poll had only 43% support, with 45.8% opposed, and a July poll had legalization at 41%, with 50% opposed.

5. Nevada -- Question 2. Sponsored by the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Nevada, the measure would legalize the possession of up to one ounce by people 21 and over and would allow people to grow up to six plants -- but only if they live more than 25 miles from a retail marijuana store. The measure also creates a system of licensed marijuana commerce to be overseen by the state Department of Taxation. The measure would impose a 15% tax on wholesale marijuana sales, and retail sales would be subject to already existing sales taxes. The measure contains no provisions for on-site cannabis consumption, does not alter existing impaired driving laws, and does not provide employment rights for pot smokers.

The campaign has raised more than $1 million so far, including $625,000 from people in the marijuana industry. But it also faces significant opposition in the person of conservative money-bags Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave $5 million to the campaign to defeat the 2014 Florida medical marijuana initiative. Adelson hasn't so far kicked in directly to defeat Question 2, but he has bought the state's largest newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and flipped its editorial position from supporting legalization to opposing it.

Polling on the initiative campaign is scarce, but encouraging. A KTNV/Rasmussen poll just two weeks ago had the measure winning, 50% to 41%.

And there you have it. Given all the information available, our best estimate is that California is most likely to win, followed by Maine and Nevada. Arizona looks like the toughest nut to crack, followed by Massachusetts. We will know by the time the sun rises on November 9.

DEA's Marijuana Rescheduling Rejection Is Disappointing, But Doesn't Have Much Impact [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and an earlier version appeared here.

The DEA's decision Thursday not to move marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) ended months of speculation about whether the agency would finally act in accordance with an ever-increasing mountain of evidence of marijuana's medicinal utility and either schedule it less restrictively or deschedule it altogether.

Supporters of more enlightened marijuana policies were disappointed, but not surprised. After all, the DEA has a long history of rejecting and impeding science when it comes to marijuana. But even had DEA acted (it did ease the University of Mississippi's monopoly on growing marijuana for research purposes), the most likely move would have been grudgingly incremental, shifting marijuana from a schedule where it is grouped with heroin down to Schedule II, where it would be grouped with cocaine and methamphetamines, and still not prescribable absent FDA approval.

Or the agency could have taken some other largely unpalatable stance, such as making cannibidiol a Schedule III substance (like synthetic Marinol) while leaving the whole plant Schedule I. In any case, any move short of descheduling it entirely and treating it like alcohol and tobacco, would have left marijuana medicalized, but not normalized.

The article below was written days before the DEA's decision, but we think the discussion remains germane for understanding the issues around rescheduling and why most reformers are disappointed, but not devastated by the agency's stubborn refusal to budge.

While the DEA may move to reschedule marijuana to a lesser schedule, keeping it within the purview of the Controlled Substances Act means that it would still be illegal, even for medical use in the absence of FDA approval. Even with FDA approval, a years-long process, it would still require a prescription to obtain, which would do nothing to address legal adult marijuana sales, production, or possession in the states. Removing it from the CSA, or descheduling, is what consumers and the industry are calling for, but that is the unlikeliest outcome, even though that's how we deal with the two most commonly used recreational drugs in the United States, alcohol and tobacco.

Schedule I is reserved for substances that have "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," the DEA notes. "Schedule I drugs are the most dangerous drugs of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence." Those drugs include heroin, Ecstasy, LSD, peyote…and marijuana.

For more than 40 years, the DEA has blocked efforts to have marijuana placed in a more appropriate schedule, one that reflects the plant's medicinal uses as well as its relative harmlessness compared to other scheduled substances. But that stance has grown increasingly untenable in the face of state-level medical marijuana programs and in the face of an ever-larger mountain of research that fails to find significant serious health consequences from marijuana use.

Now, the DEA is considering a decision on the most recent rescheduling petition. Earlier this year, the agency told lawmakers it "hopes to release its determination in the first half of 2016," but that clearly didn't happen. Late in June, DEA spokesman Russ Baer said the agency is "in the final stages" of making its determination. And just last week, Baer said, "We're closer than we ever were. It's a very deliberative process."

If the DEA decides not to keep marijuana in Schedule I, the most obvious incremental move would be for it to bump it down one step to Schedule II, placing pot in the same category as morphine, cocaine, and methamphetamine. That could pave the way for eventually allowing doctors to prescribe it, and would remove some roadblocks to further research. It might open the way for broader changes in financial and business regulations, although a shift to Schedule III or greater would be needed to address the debilitating 280E tax provision, which prevents cannabusinesses from deducting ordinary expenses like rent or payroll.

The DEA still doesn't see the "medical" in "medical marijuana." (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)
But Schedule II, or any of the lesser schedules, would require that marijuana be approved by Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a lengthy and expensive process that could bankrupt businesses attempting to overcome those regulatory hurdles. And until that happens, there is no approved marijuana for doctors to prescribe. It's also unclear whether the FDA would ever approve smoked marijuana.

Members of the marijuana industry, medical marijuana advocates, and marijuana consumer advocacy groups alike expressed skepticism about the DEA's willingness or ability to respond to the scientific evidence, uncertainty about what the agency was likely to do, and a demonstrated a pronounced -- if not unanimous -- preference not for rescheduling, but for descheduling.

Matthew Huron is a founder and former board member of the National Cannabis Industry Association and founder and current CEO of Good Chemistry Colorado, a vertically integrated cannabis company, as well as the co-founder of the Wellspring Collective, which caters to seniors with health challenges. Huron isn't exactly enthused by the prospect of Schedule II.

"Just to move it to Schedule II is more complicated than we're reading about," he said. "It might just be the molecule that gets rescheduled -- not cannabis. I don't think moving it to Schedule II would really have much effect on the states. It wouldn't hurt, but it wouldn't really help. Most of us in the industry would like to see it descheduled."

The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA) is pushing for Schedule II, but it's not relying on the DEA to make it happen.

"We don't have a crystal ball, and we don't know what the DEA will do, but based on past history, we don't have high hopes they will reschedule," said ASA spokesperson Melissa Wilcox. "It's possible they will de- or reschedule CBD and leave whole plant cannabis at Schedule I. Who knows? The DEA tends to ignore the science."

Schedule II "would remove barriers to scientists wishing to do research, so we know best how to use cannabis -- targeting, dosing, all the questions we haven't been able to study because it is such a pain to get research done now," said Wilcox.

But with little faith in the DEA, ASA is instead pushing for a legislative solution, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States' Rights (CARERS) Act, also known as S. 683, which is currently bottled up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by octogenarian prohibitionist Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA).

The CARERS Act would move marijuana to Schedule II, as well as deschedule CBD, open up access to marijuana business banking, and end the NIDA monopoly on growing marijuana for research, among other provisions.

"We're pretty sure this could pass, but Grassley is the gatekeeper, and we're pushing hard to get him to schedule a vote," said Wilcox.

"Moving marijuana to Schedule II is not a solution," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which has played -- and continues to play -- a major role in advancing both medical marijuana and legalization at the state level. "It would certainly remove barriers to research, but it would still treat marijuana as if it were as harmful as cocaine and other illegal substances, when it is objectively less harmful than alcohol. We fully support removing marijuana from the schedules and treating it like alcohol," Tvert emphasized.

"We think marijuana should be removed entirely from the Controlled Substances Act," said Dale Gieringer, long-time head of California NORML, representing consumers and small growers in the nation's most populous state. "As a fallback position, we've been litigating since 1972 to get it rescheduled to Schedule II. If they do that, that would be good -- they'd only be 45 years overdue," he noted.

"From the standpoint of states that have state-legal suppliers, Schedule II doesn't accomplish a whole lot," Gieringer said. "Those state-legal suppliers wouldn't become federally legal; they'd have to first obtain FDA approval. Until that happens, everybody is an illegal producer of a scheduled drug under federal law," he said.

"Schedule II would allow doctors to write prescriptions -- but nobody could fill them," Gieringer noted. "There are international prescriptions and international suppliers, though. But the main impact would be doctors would feel better and cops couldn't argue that marijuana isn't a medicine. If they're trying to create a niche for existing legal medical marijuana state, putting it in Schedule II is like creating a square hole for a round peg."

Marijuana patients, consumers, and the industry are all waiting for the DEA to act, but aren't really holding out much hope it will do the right thing. And even the half-steps it might take, such as moving it to Schedule II or separating out CBDs for lower scheduling, aren't going to substantially alter marijuana's legal status or resolve the conflicts between state-level legality and federal marijuana prohibition. When it comes to rescheduling marijuana, there's just not that much there there.

DEA Once Again Refuses to Reschedule Marijuana, But Does Offer One Sop [FEATURE]

The DEA today again refused to reschedule marijuana, arguing that its therapeutic value has not been scientifically proven. The move rejecting a rescheduling petition from two governors comes despite medical marijuana being legal in half the states and in the face of an ever-increasing mountain of evidence of marijuana's medicinal utility.

"DEA has denied two petitions to reschedule marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)," the agency said in a press release. "In response to the petitions, DEA requested a scientific and medical evaluation and scheduling recommendation from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which was conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in consultation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Based on the legal standards in the CSA, marijuana remains a schedule I controlled substance because it does not meet the criteria for currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision, and it has a high potential for abuse."

Today's action marks at least the fourth time the DEA has rejected petitions seeking to reschedule marijuana. The effort to get the DEA to move marijuana off the same schedule as heroin has been going on since 1972, and once again has garnered the same result.

The move comes despite the expansion of state medical marijuana laws at least three more states will vote on it this year -- and a growing clamor for change, including from members of Congress. Just yesterday, the National Conference of State Legislatures adopted a resolution calling on the federal government to move marijuana off Schedule I.

The agency did announce one policy change that could make it easier to conduct marijuana research. It said it would end the University of Mississippi's monopoly on the production of marijuana for research purposes by granting growing licenses to a limited number of other universities.

But that was not nearly enough for marijuana reform advocates, who scorched the agency for its continuing refusal to move the drug off of Schedule I, if not outside the purview of the Controlled Substances Act altogether.

"This decision is further evidence that the DEA doesn't get it. Keeping marijuana at Schedule I continues an outdated, failed approach -- leaving patients and marijuana businesses trapped between state and federal laws," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR).

The DEA again refuses to acknowledge marijuana's medicinal utility. (Creative Commons/Wikipedia)
"The DEA's refusal to remove marijuana from Schedule I is, quite frankly, mind-boggling. It is intellectually dishonest and completely indefensible. Not everyone agrees marijuana should be legal, but few will deny that it is less harmful than alcohol and many prescription drugs. It is less toxic, less addictive, and less damaging to the body," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"We are pleased the DEA is finally going to end NIDA's monopoly on the cultivation of marijuana for research purposes. For decades it has been preventing researchers from exploring the medical benefits of marijuana. It has also stood in the way of any scientific inquiries that might contradict the DEA's exaggerated claims about the potential harms of marijuana or raise questions about its classification under Schedule I," Tvert continued.

"The DEA's announcement is a little sweet but mostly bitter. Praising them for it would be like rewarding a student who failed an exam and agreed to cheat less on the next one. Removing barriers to research is a step forward, but the decision does not go nearly far enough. Marijuana should be completely removed from the CSA drug schedules and regulated similarly to alcohol," he concluded.

"For far too long, federal regulations have made clinical investigations involving cannabis needlessly onerous and have placed unnecessary and arbitrary restrictions on marijuana that do not exist for other controlled substances, including some other schedule I controlled substances," said Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML.

"While this announcement is a significant step toward better facilitating and expanding clinical investigations into cannabis' therapeutic efficacy, ample scientific evidence already exists to remove cannabis from its schedule I classification and to acknowledge its relative safety compared to other scheduled substances, like opioids, and unscheduled substances, such as alcohol," he continued. "Ultimately, the federal government ought to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act altogether in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco, thus providing states the power to establish their own marijuana regulatory policies free from federal intrusion.

It is time for Congress to step up, Armentano said.

The DEA's approach. (DEA)
"Since the DEA has failed to take such action, then it is incumbent that members of Congress act swiftly to amend cannabis' criminal status in a way that comports with both public and scientific opinion. Failure to do so continues the federal government's 'Flat Earth' position; it willfully ignores the well-established therapeutic properties associated with the plant and it ignores the laws in 26 states recognizing marijuana's therapeutic efficacy," he said.

He wasn't the only one.

"It's really sad that DEA has chosen to continue decades of ignoring the voices of patients who benefit from medical marijuana," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "President Obama always said he would let science -- and not ideology -- dictate policy, but in this case his administration is upholding a failed drug war approach instead of looking at real, existing evidence that marijuana has medical value. This unfortunate decision only further highlights the need for Congress to pass legislation curtailing the ability of DEA and other federal agencies to interfere with the effective implementation of state marijuana laws. A clear and growing majority of American voters support legalizing marijuana outright and the very least our representatives should do is let states implement their own policies, unencumbered by an outdated 'Reefer Madness' mentality that some in law enforcement still choose to cling to."

Given that the DEA and the executive branch have proven -- once again! -- unwilling to remove the ideological blinders from their eyes, it is now indeed up to Congress. Perhaps after this coming election cycle, in which we are likely to see more states vote to approve medical marijuana and even more vote to just legalize it, Congress will see the writing on the wall.

Washington, DC
United States

California: What Will Marijuana Legalization Look Like? [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Twenty years ago, California led the way on weed, becoming the first state in the nation to approve medical marijuana. Now, while it's already lost the chance to be the first to legalize recreational use, the Golden State is poised to push legal pot past the tipping point.

Although voters in Colorado and Washington first broke through the grass ceiling in 2012, with Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, following suit in 2014, if and when Californians vote to legalize it this coming November, they will more than triple the size of the country's legal marijuana market in one fell swoop.

It's not a done deal until election day, of course, but the prospects are very good. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA) legalization initiative is officially on the ballot as Proposition 64, it has cash in the bank for the campaign (more than $8 million collected so far), it has broad political support, including Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and at least four California US representatives, and it has popular support, with the latest poll showing a healthy 60% of likely voters favor freeing the weed.

It's also that the surfer's paradise is riding a weed wave of its own creation. Thanks in large part to the "normalization" of the pot business that emerged out of California's wild and wooly medical marijuana scene, the national mood about marijuana has shifted in recent years. Because of California, people could actually see marijuana come out of the shadows, with pot shops (dispensaries) selling it openly to anyone with an easily obtained doctor's recommendation and growers turning parts of the state in pot cultivation hotbeds. And the sky didn't fall.

At the same time, the shift in public opinion has been dramatic. According to annual Gallup polls, only a quarter of Americans supported marijuana legalization when California voted for medical marijuana in 1996, with that number gradually, but steadily, increasing to 44% in 2009, before spiking upward ever since then to sit at 58% now.

California isn't the only state riding the wave this year -- legalization will also be on the ballot in Maine and Nevada and almost certainly in Arizona and Massachusetts -- but it is by far the biggest and it will help the state regain its reputation as cutting edge on social trends, while also sending a strong signal to the rest of the country, including the federal government in Washington.

But what kind of signal will it send? What will legalization look like in the Golden State? To begin, let's look at what Prop 64 does:

  • Legalizes the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and the cultivation of up to six plants (per household) by adults 21 and over.
  • Reduces most criminal penalties for remaining marijuana offenses, such as possession or cultivation over legal limits or unlicensed distribution, from felonies to misdemeanors.
  • Regulates the commercial cultivation, processing, distribution, and sale of marijuana through a state-regulated licensing system.
  • Bars commercial "mega-grows" (more than ½ acre indoors or 1 acre outdoors) until at least 2023, but makes provisions for licensed "microbusinesses" (grows smaller than 10,000 square feet).
  • Allows for the licensing of on-site consumption premises, or "cannabis cafes."
  • Allows cities and counties to regulate or even prohibit commercial marijuana activities, but not prohibit personal possession and cultivation.
  • Taxes marijuana at 15% at the retail level, with an additional $9.25 per ounce cultivation tax imposed at the wholesale level.

In other words, pot is largely legalized and a taxed and regulated market is established.

Some changes would occur right away, advocates said.

"The criminal justice impact will be huge and immediate, and it will start on November 9," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which is backing Prop 64 not only rhetorically, but also with its checkbook through its lobbying and campaign arm, Drug Policy Action.

California arrests about 20,000 people a year for marijuana felonies and misdemeanors, currently has about 10,000 people incarcerated for pot offenses, and has as many as half a million people with pot convictions on their records. Things are going to change in a big way for all these people.

"Those marijuana arrests will stop," said Lyman. "And everyone currently sitting in jail or prison will be eligible to apply for release. They will have to file a petition, but like Prop 47 [the sentencing reform initiative passed in 2014], unless there is a compelling reason to deny it, the court must grant it. Similarly, all those people who have had marijuana offenses will be eligible to have their record reclassified."

To be clear, it will still be possible to be arrested for a marijuana offense in California after Prop 64. Possession of more than an ounce (or more than four grams of concentrate) will be a crime punishable by up to six months in jail and possession of less than an ounce can be a misdemeanor offense if it is on school grounds during school hours.

Similarly, cultivation of more than six plants without being a permitted medical marijuana patient or without a license is still a crime, but typically only a misdemeanor punishable by a maximum of six months in jail. There are some exceptions: Illegal growers could be charged with a felony if the person has prior violent offenses or violates state water or environmental laws.

Minors get special treatment. Kids under 18 who get caught with pot are hit with an infraction punishable by drug education, counseling, or community service, but no fines. People between 18 and 21 get an infraction with a maximum $100 fine. And while adults who possess pot on a school grounds during school hours get a misdemeanor, kids under 18 will only be hit with an infraction.

"We want to reduce the number of young people getting into the system, and this will really dial down the firehose into mass incarceration," said Lyman.

The state's largest marijuana consumer group, California NORML, certainly likes those provisions, but it only gives Prop 64 one thumb up and foresees some issues down the road.

"We're supporting the AUMA with reservations," said the group's long-time head Dale Gieringer. "It's not the best initiative ever written -- it has some problems that will have to be addressed -- but it is an important step. The huge thing it does is legalize adult possession of an ounce and adult cultivation of up to six plants. That's big. And it turns cultivation and possession with intent felonies into misdemeanors, or at worst, wobblers," meaning prosecutors could only in limited cases charge them as felonies.

"The AUMA is very long and complicated, with unnecessary hang-ups and restrictions," Gieringer complained, citing bans on public smoking and vaping as examples.

"In places where there are bans on smoking in apartments or residences, in public is about the only place you can smoke. If it's illegal to smoke pot in a public place, people will be hard-pressed to find any place," he said. "You can't even vaporize in a public place, and that's totally out of line with the existing science. They just caved in to the powerful anti-smoking lobby on that, and we can't endorse that."

The CaNORML membership also includes pot farmers, of which the group estimates there are some 30,000 in the state. They are nervous, Gieringer said.

"We have a lot of small growers and they have a lot of issues," he explained. "They are concerned about regulatory provisions they fear could quickly push small growers out of the business. AUMA requires you to be an in-state resident, and we're already growing more than we need, yet we have out-of-state sponsors lining up behind in-state sponsors."

Indeed, earlier this month, the state industry's largest membership group, the California Growers Association, voted to remain neutral on Prop 64 -- or least for now -- after its membership split almost down the middle on whether to support it. Growers, including association head Hezekiah Allen, worried that big-money investment and consolidation of the industry impelled by huge "mega-grows" could wipe out the now generations-old traditional pot farming scene in the stat's North Coast.

Allen warned in a report to the group's board that such consolidation could "result in a catastrophic economic collapse for huge swathes of California," including the North Coast's Emerald Triangle.

Stoners may have to fight for the right to toke and pot farmers for their place in the market, but some of the communities most buffeted by drug prohibition should see benefits. Prop 64 contains language that will direct revenues to minority communities, and also opens the door for localities themselves to take proactive steps toward racial justice.

"The AUMA has a community reinvestment fund with the first revenues available in 2019," said DPA's Lyman, adding that it will be $10 million the first year and up to $50 million a year in the futre. "This is going to communities most impacted by the drug war, black and brown communities, and will include everything from legal services, to public health and economic development. The communities will be able to decide."

Localities will also be deciding on how to implement regulation of the legal market, and that is another opportunity, Lyman said.

"Hopefully, we will see things like what happened in Oakland, where under the new regulations, 50% of the new licenses have to be from the community," she said. "We hope other cities will do that to mitigate racial discrimination and the injustice of the past by prioritizing people of color and women, so we don't end up white a bunch of white men getting rich off what black and brown people have endured. DPA will be very involved in this."

Somebody is going to be making money, though. The state's marijuana market, estimated at $2.7 billion for medical last year, could quickly hit $7 billion under legalization.

"I see tremendous potential for a blossoming of cannabis opportunities," said veteran California marijuana activist, author, and historian Chris Conrad, who has become a pro-Prop 64 spokesman under the rubric of Friends of Prop 64. "Of course, the size of the industry will be impacted by the need to limit the market to intra-state rather than national or international. Given that California is the world's sixth largest economy and has the largest appetite for cannabis in the world, the state's nonmedical market is going to be sizeable."

Legalization will bring changes from price reductions to changing product lines, he said.

"Overall marijuana production is expected to soar, prices to come down and probably a lot more cannabis will be converted into extracts and expand or open new markets for personal hygiene products, topical remedies and essential oils," Conrad predicted. "There will be large-scale cannabis production that is homogenized with relatively low to medium potency, but still of better quality than Mexican brick weed. But we will never replace the boutique markets any more than Budweiser has eliminated microbreweries or 'Big Wine' has wiped out California's family vintners."

And it's not just marijuana, but pot-related businesses that will boom, said DPA's Lyman.

"Formalizing regulations for the first time will expand the industry, and there will be lots of ancillary industries, such as marketing, packaging, and tracking, that should all thrive in post-legalization California," she said.

"There will be new ancillary markets for products such as locking stash boxes for people to carry their cannabis while driving, toking stations near entertainment venues and discrete, low-wattage, six-plant cultivation tents specialized for use in condos and apartments," added Conrad.

Conrad said he expected counties and cities will opt in to the revenues from allowing pot commerce instead of locking themselves out with bans.

"The distribution around the state will likely be porous, some areas more saturated and others with less access," he said. "Since towns will be licensing lawful businesses and no longer will be at the mercy of the county prosecutors' discretion, I expect to see a general spread of retail sites and onsite consumption shops around the state. Not in every town, not as obnoxious and omnipresent as liquor stores, but not too far away, either."

We shall see.

"You can't predict the future," said Gieringer. "It will be a new situation. Medical marijuana here evolved through several different stages, and I expect the same process to unfold here with the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. On balance, the AUMA is an important step, but it's not the end game, and it leaves us with unresolved problems."

You may not be able to predict the future, said Lyman, but you can influence it.

"This will be a work in progress," she said. "The long-term work of implementation starts on November 8. We have to be there. To continue to be engaged will be critical."

But even under state level legalization in California, as long as there is pot prohibition somewhere in America, there will be Golden State growers ready to supply the market.

"The one thing everyone needs to recognize is that this does not end the problem of illegal marijuana growing in California," said Gieringer. "The industry has been well-entrenched for generations and is currently supplying the rest of the country, too. That market isn't going to disappear. The more expensive and difficult it is to become legal, the more people will likely participate in that black market."

Mendocino County Could Adopt Wine Industry-Style Marijuana Appellations [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Before too long, when you sit down to enjoy your 2014 vintage Caymus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, you'll be able to pair your wine with a nice South Mendocino County Sour Diesel or maybe a Mendocino Covelo/Dos Rios OG Kush for a sip and smoke that hits all the high notes.

That's right, pot farmers in one of California's Emerald Triangle marijuana-growing counties are about to follow their brethren in the wine industry by seeking to capitalize on its reputation as a pioneer and still cutting-edge presence in American cannabis cultivation. As with Bordeaux in France or the Napa Valley nearby, the Mendocino Appellations Project wants the county's marijuana brand protected and promoted by designating denominations of origin that reflect both the county provenance and the distinct pot-growing microclimates that Mendo offers.

The first-of-its-kind project is riding a tide of local optimism not only about the future -- legalization is set to be on the ballot in California this year -- but also the present, now that the state legislature has belatedly passed the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act (MMRSA). Twenty years after voters first approved medical marijuana, the act will finally bring some clarity to an endeavor that has operated with many grey areas. It defines marijuana cultivation as an agricultural activity, creates state licensing requirements, and also makes it a crime to label or sell medical marijuana as grown in a county if it actually isn't.

These rules are similar to the ones that protect the state's wine regions, whose global reputations for fine wines are jealously guarded. But unlike wine, which is regulated by the federal government, California's pot's regulation defaults to the state under federal marijuana prohibition.

"You have a product coming out of prohibition, essentially. Marijuana growers are caught in a very difficult situation. It's a bit of a 'catch-22'. Even though it's legal at the state level, it's not legal at the federal level. They can't operate in the normal way by creating bank accounts and the like. Appellations will help show the legitimacy of what they are doing," wine legal expert Richard Mendelson told The North Bay Business Journal

Mendelson has played a key role in the development of Napa County's wine appellations for more than 30 years, and he's now lending his expertise to the Mendocino Appellation Project.

"Appellations can be really powerful because they can be a means to protect everything from the intellectual property, to the labor force, to the culture and history. They can be very rich vehicles for promotion, protection, and rural development," he added.

"Mendocino is the Napa Valley of cannabis. It is by far the most conducive place for outdoor cultivation," said project founder Justin Calvino. "Mendocino is a growing culture you won't find anywhere else."

Calvino began the project last year with a topographical map of the county, then proceeded to listen to growers and others in the industry. After surveying local farmers last fall, he created the appellation map, with 11 different micro-regions based on ecological factors, such as watershed and microclimate.

The proposed appellations are: Spyrock-Bell Springs, Covelo-Dos Rios, Long Valley-Branscomb-Leggett, Willits, Comptche, Ukiah Valley, North Mendocino Coast, South Mendocino Coast, Anderson Valley South Mendocino, Potter Valley, and Mountainhouse South Mendocino County.

"I like the way he's gone about it, because he's factored in not just the natural elements, he's gone out and spoken to growers, asking the old-timers what they think, and is making revisions. He's being true to the history. This is a template for the future, creating a dossier of physical and human, historical factors -- I applaud him for that," Mendelson said.

There are issues yet to be resolved, including whether to brand the name "Mendocino" or focus on smaller areas, the setting of environmental standards, and the thorny philosophical question of whether marijuana grown indoors can lay claim to terroir, a wine term that means the specific environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, that give a wine its unique characteristics. Can a crop grown with hydroponics in a controlled indoor environment have a terroir?

In any case, the adoption of appellations should be good for consumers and good for the industry.

"This is what makes wine so much fun for consumers, to experiment and to be able to go from the larger country and regional levels all the way down to the specific vineyard designation, and see, as a consumer if you can spot those differences and understand the effect of terroir on the final product," Mendelson said.

"Tourism is big. We want people to come out and visit our tasting rooms. We want the debate and the talk about our appellations, and which one does it better than another," he said.

Calvino also sits on the board of the California Growers' Association and has been asked to lead a group working on developing appellations statewide. He said he is looking a neighboring Humboldt County next.

CA
United States

It's Official -- California Will Vote on Legalizing Marijuana in November [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

A broadly-backed initiative to legalize marijuana in the country's most populous state will be on the California ballot in November. The secretary of state's office made it official Tuesday afternoon, certifying that a random sample of more than 600,000 signatures turned in showed there were enough valid signatures to qualify the measure.

"Today marks a fresh start for California, as we prepare to replace the costly, harmful and ineffective system of prohibition with a safe, legal and responsible adult-use marijuana system that gets it right and completely pays for itself," said Jason Kinney, spokesperson for the Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA)."This measure reflects years of hard work, diverse stakeholder input and broad, bipartisan public support, Kinney continued. "A growing majority of Californians support a smarter approach to marijuana and we're gratified that voters will finally have the opportunity in November to pass comprehensive, common-sense policy that protects children, local control, public health and public safety, saves state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, funds critical local programs, and serves as a model for the rest of the nation."

California joins Maine and Nevada among states that have qualified marijuana legalization initiatives for the fall ballot. In two more states -- Arizona and Massachusetts -- legalization initiative campaigns are overcoming final hurdles and are almost certain to join them, but a valiant effort in Michigan faces an uphill battle, forced to rely on the courts to overturn a new state law and unfavorable election board rulings.

Marijuana is already legal in four states, voted in by residents in Colorado and Washington in 2012 and Alaska and Oregon in 2014. Washington, DC, approved possession and cultivation, but not a legal marijuana market, that same year.

Seeing more states go green in 2016 is one thing, but California is the Big Enchilada. With a population of 38 million, its market is more than twice the size of all the legal pot states combined, and it represents more than 10% of the entire country. What is currently a legal marijuana industry generating hundreds of millions of dollars in sales will easily tick over into multi-billion dollar territory once California joins in.

And it looks like that's likely to happen. A Probolsky Research poll in February had support for legalization at 59.6%. A Public Policy Institute of California poll in May had support at 55%, but at 60% among likely voters.

Poll numbers like these are encouraging for proponents, but skeptics can point to the failed Proposition 19 effort in 2010, which came up short with 47% of the vote after polling above 50% for months that year.

This year should be different, though. The AUMA has broad support, beginning with charismatic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), and including the state Democratic Party, at least three members of the California congressional delegation, a number of state assembly members and other elected officials, the state NAACP, the state ACLU, the California Cannabis Industry Association, and the California Medical Association, as well as prominent figures in law enforcement.

It also has money, and a winning initiative campaign in California will need millions. The AUMA has some deep pockets behind it, including tech billionaire Sean Parker and Weedmaps founder Justin Hartfield, both of whom have dropped million dollar chunks of change into the campaign. The Drug Policy Action Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, has also kicked in at least $500,000.

The AUMA's campaign fundraising committee has raised $3.7 million so far this year, which is a good start and dwarfs the amount raised by the opposition Coalition for Responsible Drug Policies, composed of law enforcement and health groups such as the California Police Chiefs Association, the California State Sheriffs Association, and the California Hospital Association. The cops and docs have only managed a paltry $125,000 so far, thanks to donations from groups such as the Association of LA Deputy Sheriffs and the LA County Professional Peace Officers Association.

And it isn't 2010 anymore. Since Prop 19 failed, marijuana legalization has now won in every state where it's been on the ballot, and the whole national atmosphere around it seems to have relaxed. And unlike 2010, this is a presidential election year, with higher turnout, especially among young voters, than is seen in off-year elections. The omens are good.

So what would the AUMA do? According to the campaign website (read the complete initiative text here):

  • Adults aged 21+ will be allowed to possess marijuana, and grow small amounts at home for personal use. Sale of marijuana will be legal and highly regulated to protect consumers and kids. [Possession of up to an ounce and cultivation of up to six plants]
  • This measure brings California's marijuana market out into the open -- much like the alcohol industry. It will be tracked, controlled, regulated and taxed, and we will no longer be criminalizing responsible adults or incarcerating children.
  • Includes toughest-in-the-nation protections for children, our most vulnerable citizens.
  • Protects workers, small businesses, law enforcement and local communities.
  • According to the independent Legislative Analyst and Governor's Finance Director, these reforms will save the state and local government up to $100 million annually in reduced taxpayer costs -- and raise up to $1 billion in new tax revenues annually.
  • Majority of revenues will be allocated to teen drug prevention and treatment, training law enforcement to recognize driving under the influence of drugs, protecting the environment from the harms of illegal marijuana cultivation, and supporting economic development in communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition.
  • AUMA includes strict anti-monopoly provisions and protects small farmers, so California's marijuana industry isn't overrun by mega-corporations.
  • The measure builds on the bipartisan legislation signed by Governor Brown to control and regulate California's medical marijuana industry, and is modeled after national best practices, lessons learned from other states, and the recommendations of the Lieutenant Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy.

Whether the AUMA is the best way to go about legalizing marijuana in California is certainly debatable, and it does have its critics within the state's cannabis culture, but this is what's going to be before the voters in November.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Supreme Court Opens Door for More Lawless Police Searches [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

In a pair of decisions released Monday, the US Supreme Court again demonstrated its deference to law enforcement priorities, in one case by expanding an exception to the long-standing ruling requiring that unlawfully gathered evidence be discarded and in another by holding that drug dealers, even those engaged only in street-corner sales, are engaged in interstate commerce.

The two decisions expand the ability of local police to skirt the law without effective punishment on the one hand, and allow prosecutors to use the weight of the federal criminal justice system to come down on small-time criminals whose cases would normally be the purview of local authorities on the other. Taken together, the decisions show a high court that once again give great deference to the demands of law enforcement.

In the first case, Utah v. Strieff, the Supreme Court held that evidence obtained from the illegal stop of Strieff should not be thrown out under the exclusionary rule, which requires that illegally seized be suppressed as "fruit of the poisonous tree." The exclusionary rule, which dates back to 1920 and values the rule of law even at the expense of seeing a guilty suspect go free, has long been a bane of judicial conservatives, who have been trying to chip away at it since at least the 1980s.

In Strieff, a Salt Lake City police officer investigating possible drug activity at a residence stopped Strieff without "reasonable cause" after he exited the home. During his encounter with Strieff, the police officer found that he was wanted on a traffic warrant, arrested him, then searched him subsequent to arrest. The police officer found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia, then charged him with drug and paraphernalia possession.

Strieff argued to suppress the evidence, arguing that it was derived from an unlawful investigatory stop. He lost at the trial and appeals court levels, but the Utah Supreme Court overturned his conviction, holding that an exception to the exclusionary rule known as the "attenuation doctrine" did not apply. The US Supreme Court disagreed.

The attenuation doctrine holds that unlawfully obtained evidence may be used even if "the fruit of the search is tainted by the initial, unlawful detention…if the taint is dissipated by an intervening circumstance," as the Utah Supreme Court described it. In other words, if police acting in good faith violate the law and don't do it flagrantly, they should be able to use any evidence found as a result of that violation in court.

The Supreme Court divided 5-3 on the case, with Chief Justice Roberts joining justices Alito, Breyer, and Kennedy joined Justice Clarence Thomas in his majority opinion. Thomas held that the police misconduct was not bad enough to warrant suppression of the evidence and, besides, police probably aren't going to abuse their powers to do mass searches.

"[The officer's] purpose was not to conduct a suspicionless fishing expedition but was to gather information about activity inside a house whose occupants were legitimately suspected of dealing drugs," Thomas wrote. "Strieff conflates the standard for an illegal stop with the standard for flagrancy, which requires more than the mere absence of proper cause. Second, it is unlikely that the prevalence of outstanding warrants will lead to dragnet searches by police."

Even if someone is unlawfully detained, evidence obtained from them can be used in court, the high court ruled. (wikimedia.org)
The Supreme Court's liberal minority was not nearly as sanguine. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, with Justice Ginsberg concurring, cut right to the heart of the matter:

"The Court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer's violation of your Fourth Amendment rights," she wrote in her dissent. "Do not be soothed by the opinion's technical language: This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification, and check it for outstanding traffic warrants -- even if you are doing nothing wrong. If the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant. Because the Fourth Amendment should prohibit, not permit, such misconduct, I dissent."

In the second case, Taylor v. United States, the high court upheld the ability of federal prosecutors to use federal law to prosecute people who rob drug dealers, even if the dealers are dealing only in locally-grown marijuana with no evidence of interstate sales. That 7-1 decision is in just the latest in a long line of cases upholding the ability of the federal government to regulate interstate commerce under the Constitution's "commerce clause" and to protect it from robbery or extortion under the 1951 Hobbs Act.

It was the "commerce clause" line of cases that led to the 2005 Gonzales v. Raich decision in which the Supreme Court upheld the ability of the federal government to move against marijuana cultivation and sales even in states where it is legal. In that case, the high court ruled that California medical marijuana patient Angel Raich's cultivation of marijuana plants at her home in California for her use in California implicated interstate commerce and was therefore liable to federal jurisdiction.

Even marijuana grown and sold locally implicates the Constitution's commerce clause, the court has ruled. (flickr.com)
In Taylor, Taylor was part of a Virginia gang known as the "Southwest Goonz" who targeted and robbed marijuana growers and dealers. He was charged under the Hobbs Act with two counts of "affecting commerce or attempting to do so through robbery." In his first trial, which resulted in a hung jury, Taylor offered evidence that the dealers targeted only trafficked in locally-grown marijuana. In his second trial, prosecutors convinced the court to exclude that evidence, and Taylor was convicted on both counts. The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that conviction, "holding that, given the aggregate effect of drug dealing on interstate commerce, the Government needed only to prove that Taylor robbed or attempted to rob a drug dealer of drugs or drug proceeds to satisfy the commerce element."

In an opinion authored by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court agreed.

"[T]he Government met its burden by introducing evidence that Taylor's gang intentionally targeted drug dealers to obtain drugs and drug proceeds," he wrote. "That evidence included information that the gang members targeted the victims because of their drug dealing activities, as well as explicit statements made during the course of the robberies that revealed their belief that drugs and money were present. Such proof is sufficient to meet the Hobbs Act's commerce element."

Only Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that the whole line of "commerce clause" cases granted too much power to the federal government.

"The Hobbs Act makes it a federal crime to commit a robbery that 'affects' 'commerce over which the United States has jurisdiction," Thomas wrote. "Under the Court's decision today, the Government can obtain a Hobbs Act conviction without proving that the defendant's robbery in fact affected interstate commerce -- or any commerce. The Court's holding creates serious constitutional problems and extends our already expansive, flawed commerce-power precedents. I would construe the Hobbs Act in accordance with constitutional limits and hold that the Act punishes a robbery only when the Government proves that the robbery itself affected interstate commerce."

Two cases, two distinct lines of legal precedent, one outcome: Drug cases continue to provide a basis for the expansion of state law enforcement power.

Washington, DC
United States

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