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Legal Marijuana No Simple Matter for Colorado Retailers [FEATURE]

special to the Chronicle by Denver-based journalist Rebecca Chavez

Starting January 1, any person in Colorado over the age of 21 can walk into a retail marijuana facility and purchase marijuana with just a show of ID. While the process should be simple for those who choose to imbibe legally, things have not been so simple for the dispensary owners who have made the choice to sell retail marijuana. Luke Ramirez is one of these owners. His store, Walking Raven, sits on one of Denver's busiest streets.

For Ramirez, planning for retail marijuana sales began in February of 2012, when Walking Raven officially endorsed Amendment 64, the legalization initiative that won at the ballot that November. Even with almost two years of planning behind him, he finds that there are still a lot of hurdles to overcome. It wasn't until May of 2013 that Ramirez and other dispensary owners knew what would be expected of them by the state. Even with state legislation settled, Amendment 64 allows for municipalities to come up with even stricter rules for retail marijuana stores.

Denver started working on its own regulations in September, and wasn't done when the Chronicle spoke with Ramirez in late December. Though he was only the seventh person in the city of Denver to apply for a license, the constant changes mean that he won't be able to open until about January 10, over a week beyond the official start of recreational marijuana sales. In late December Ramirez was still getting calls about changes to marijuana laws at the city level.

The process has been similar for dispensary owners all over Denver, which means it might be one of the few places where a legal retail marijuana shortage will happen right away. The licensing for retail locations and retail grows is happening at the same time. This would be a problem for those trying to open on January 1, except that the state has allowed a one-time transfer of medical marijuana to retail. This transfer is how all stores will start, and it gives a little something extra to the consumer as well.

The edible companies have to go through the same process as other marijuana facilities, but some are opting out in the early stages. During the one time transfer, marijuana stores can make some edibles retail that otherwise wouldn't be available. This means some store owners are stockpiling certain items that they feel will be popular with retail consumers.

Ramirez has opted out of stockpiling because he simply can't afford it. The cost of selling retail marijuana is incredibly high, which prices smaller dispensaries out of an immediate switch. All told, Ramirez has spent $60,000 dollars going through the process of getting licensed and prepared to make the switch. Before he actually gets his license he expects to spend about $10,000 more.

Inside Walking Raven (Rebecca Chavez)
Money is a huge concern for retail marijuana dispensaries, and Ramirez is unsure of whether they will be able to make it all back during the first few months of retail sales. He acknowledges that the supply for retail just won't meet the demand, and worries that owners will see the same marijuana shortage that caused some of them to temporarily close their doors in 2012. This, of course, affects the people who work behind the counter. Ramirez wants to make sure that all of his employees are well-taken care of, but he acknowledges that he may have to cut back on hours at some point.

The marijuana shortage has another effect on the market. With marijuana prices possibly going as high as $70 for an eighth, Ramirez says that retail marijuana "won't get rid of the black market until supply meets demand."

In the meantime, his store and many others will have to compete with the grey market that has sprung up on Craigslist since the passage of Amendment 64.

Despite the many difficulties in his way, and the five inspections that he has to go through, Ramirez is confident that he is making the right choice. While he cannot sell retail marijuana at present, he is concerned to ensure that marijuana is still available for his current customers: medical marijuana patients.

"Patients definitely still need medicine," he says, and that's why he's sure to always have some on hand, segregated from retail marijuana for non-patients.

Retail and medical marijuana are sold in the same store, but they have to be kept in separate containers. Medicinal users can purchase retail, but retail consumers cannot get any of the medical marijuana regardless of a possible shortage. Despite eventual plans to sell only 10% of his product as medicinal, Ramirez is determined to always be able to take care of the patients.

They are, after all, the ones that supported him before the end of prohibition in Colorado.

Denver, CO
United States

Obama Commutes Sentences of Clarence Aaron, Seven Other Crack Offenders [FEATURE]

The White House announced yesterday that President Obama had granted commutations to eight federal prisoners serving decades-long sentences for crack cocaine offenses, including poster boy for drug war excess Clarence Aaron, who has spent the last 20 years behind bars. The president also pardoned 13 former prisoners.

Finally, Clarence Aaron will go free.
"Commuting the sentences of these eight Americans is an important step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness," the president said. "But it must not be the last. In the new year, lawmakers should act on the kinds of bipartisan sentencing reform measures already working their way through Congress. Together, we must ensure that our taxpayer dollars are spent wisely, and that our justice system keeps its basic promise of equal treatment for all."

[Editor's Note: The Senate Judiciary Committee was marking up three sentencing reform bills this same day.]

Some sentencing reforms have been enacted since the harsh escalation of the drug war in the Reagan era, including the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. It was unfair to continue to let people languish serving sentences no longer applicable, Obama suggested.

"If they had been sentenced under the current law, many of them would have already served their time and paid their debt to society," he said." Instead, because of a disparity in the law that is now recognized as unjust, they remain in prison, separated from their families and their communities, at a cost of millions of taxpayer dollars each year."

The commutations are a departure for the Obama administration, which until now has been the stingiest in recent presidential history when it comes to the pardon power. Before today, Obama had issued only one commutation, where someone currently serving a sentence is actually released from prison, and 39 pardons of people who had already been released, some of them decades ago.

While all eight people whose sentences were commuted suffered for years under the impact of harsh federal sentencing laws racially biased in result if not, charitably, in intent, Clarence Aaron in particular has served as the face of the unjustly punished deserving of presidential mercy. Then a college student, the first-time, nonviolent drug offender was sentenced to three life sentences for a peripheral role in a cocaine deal in 1993.

A model prisoner, his case became widely known as a result of a PBS News Frontline special about the use of informants in drug cases. His case drew additional publicity when the investigative journalism consortium ProPublica documented problems with the Office of the Pardon attorney, using Aaron's more than a decade-long effort to obtain a pardon as Exhibit #1.

Aaron's reaction to the news was not surprising.

"He was just overcome," said his attorney, Margaret Love, herself a former US Pardon Attorney, who spoke with Aaron this morning shortly after he received the news. "We're very grateful to the president," she told ProPublica after the commutations were announced.

That all the commutations were for crack cocaine-related offenses, Love said, "says something very important about the long federal sentences for drug crimes. There are a lot of people in prison whose cases are similar to the ones being commuted."

The sentencing reform group Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) said four of its supporters, including Aaron, had had their sentences commuted, but that there were many more who deserved to come home, too.

"Now that the president has opened the door to doing commutations, he might make it a more regular activity, and not just save it for the holidays or the end of his term," said FAMM president Julie Stewart. "He certainly has plenty of cases that he could choose from. I guess that time will tell."

Other sentencing and drug reform organizations were pleased and encouraged by the news, but joined FAMM and the president in calling for more.

ACLU deputy legal director Vanita Gupta chimed in, "President Obama today gave several Americans who were unnecessarily sentenced to die behind bars the chance to reunite with their families. This is one important step toward undoing the damage that extreme sentencing has done to so many in our criminal justice system. We hope the President will continue to exercise his clemency powers and lend his support to systemic reform that will make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more humane." A recent report by the ACLU on people serving life without parole sentences highlighted the cases of four of the people who received commutations this week -- Aaron, Stephanie George, Jason Hernandez, and Reynolds Wintersmith, Jr.

"It's wonderful news that Obama has granted clemency to these individuals. We hope this is the just the beginning of the President using his executive powers to right the wrongs of the criminal justice system," said Anthony Papa, media relations manager for the Drug Policy Alliance, who was granted clemency in New York State in 1997 after serving 12 years under the notorious Rockefeller Drug Laws. "I hope governors with the same power at the state level follow his lead and reunite more families."

"Through his actions today, the President has signaled his willingness to undertake needed reforms to the criminal justice system," said Nicole Austin-Hillery, director of the Brennan Center for Justice Washington, DC, office. "For too long, harsh sentences and punitive policies have fed a system of mass incarceration in this country. A comprehensive effort, involving the Administration and Congress, is needed to solve this crisis and return balance to the scales of justice by creating a more rational, fair, and cost-effective criminal justice system."

"We commend the President on this right and just action. It shows bold and necessary leadership," said Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "This marks a year in which the administration has taken great leadership on criminal justice issues. From the statements of Attorney General Holder to the American Bar Association in August, to the implementation of their policies, this shows a trajectory towards real justice in the criminal justice system."

The trajectory may be there, but take-off has yet to be achieved, several advocates warned.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said in a statement, "Until there is legislative action to make the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, these commutations are the only relief available to federal inmates and their families. But the administration can only do so much; it is up to Congress to address this systemic failure.

"Kudos to President Obama for commuting these eight people," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann. "But shame on the President for not commuting many more. With over 100,000 people still behind bars on nonviolent drug charges, clearly thousands more are deserving of the same freedom. Congress should act immediately to reduce the draconian federal mandatory minimum sentences that condemn thousands to decades behind bars for nonviolent drug offenses."

And while the commutations are welcome, they are not the real solution, said FAMM's Stewart.

"Even if President Obama used his clemency power energetically, which he has not, he simply wouldn't be able to commute every excessive sentence," she said. "The sentencing laws themselves are the problem. Congress needs to get moving and pass mandatory minimums sentencing reforms that save the worst prison terms for the worst offenders," Stewart said. "We hope there will be even more commutations today, but it's only Congress that can prevent the need for commutations tomorrow."

Still, it is good that Clarence Aaron and a few others are going home.

Washington, DC
United States

Teen Drug Use Survey Figures Spark Marijuana Debate [FEATURE]

This year's annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey on the habits of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders was released Wednesday, and most of the results were uncontroversial. But with two states having already legalized marijuana for adults and opinion polls suggesting more and more Americans are ready to move ahead with legalization, battles are raging over the numbers on teen marijuana use and what they mean.

The survey found that for most drugs, teen use levels are stable or declining. Synthetic marijuana use was down, as was cigarette smoking, alcohol drinking, and the use of inhalants, synthetic stimulants, prescription opioids, salvia divinorum, and hallucinogens other than LSD.

Drugs where teen use levels were stable included LSD; amphetamines; Adderall, specifically; Ritalin, specifically; ecstasy; cocaine; crack; heroin; methamphetamine; crystal methamphetamine; sedatives; tranquilizers; Rohypnol; Ketamine; and steroids. For most of these drugs, use levels even in 12th grade were quite low. For instance, 2.2% of seniors reported using LSD, 2.3% reported using Ritalin, and 4.0% reported using ecstasy.

When it comes to marijuana, 23% of seniors said they smoked in the month prior to the survey, 18% of 10th graders did, too, and so did 12% of 8th graders. Some 6.5% of seniors reported daily use, as did 4.0% of 10th graders, and under 2% of 8th graders.

It helps to put those numbers in historical perspective. All of the numbers are above the historic lows in teen drug use reported at the end of the Reagan-Bush era in the early 1990s, but well below the historic highs in teen drug use reported in 1979, just before the Reagan-Bush era began.

For seniors, the all-time low for monthly use was 11.9% in 1992, but the recent high was 23.1% in 1999. This year's 22.7% is actually a decline of two-tenths of a percent from 2012, and in line with figures for the past decade showing rates hovering in the upper teens and low twenties. It's a similar story at the younger grade levels.

The survey also found that the notion that regular use of marijuana is harmful is losing favor among teens. Only 39.5% of seniors saw it as harmful, down from 44.1% last year, and down significantly from views over the past two decades.

Despite the relative flatness of the marijuana use numbers, some warned that the sky is falling, cherry-picking the numbers and warming to favored themes to support their points of view.

Ever since Reefer Madness days, teen marijuana use has worried the grown-ups.
"Let these numbers be a wakeup call to parents and decision-makers alike," said Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy advisor in the Obama Administration now serving as the director of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). "There is no way to properly 'regulate' marijuana without allowing an entire industry to encourage use at a young age, to cast doubt on the science, and to make their products attractive -- just like Big Tobacco did for 50 years. Today's Big Marijuana is no different."

"These increases in marijuana use over the past few years are a serious setback in our nation's efforts to raise a healthy generation of young people," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Teens deserve to grow up in an environment where they are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and drug use never factors into that equation. Today's news demands that all of us recommit to bolstering the vital role prevention and involved parenting play in keeping young people safe, strong, and ready to succeed."

"This is not just an issue of increased daily use," said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). "It is important to remember that over the past two decades, levels of THC -- the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- have gone up a great deal, from 3.75% 1995 to an average of 15% in today's marijuana cigarettes. Daily use today can have stronger effects on a developing teen brain than it did 10 or 20 years ago."

Volkow also latched onto figures showing that 12% of 8th graders had tried marijuana in their lives.

"We should be extremely concerned that 12% of 13- to 14-year-olds are using marijuana," Volkow added. "The children whose experimentation leads to regular use are setting themselves up for declines in IQ and diminished ability for success in life."

In 2012, MTF added questions about where students obtain marijuana. In states that have medical marijuana, 34% of pot-smoking seniors said one of the ways they got their marijuana was through someone else's prescription (recommendation). And 6% said they got it with their own recommendation.

"A new marijuana industry is forming in front of our eyes, and make no mistake about it: they are delighted their customers -- today's youth -- consider their product safe," remarked former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, a Project SAM cofounder. "The rise of legalization and medical marijuana has sent a message to young people that marijuana use is harmless and non-addictive."

But while the drug czar, Dr. Volkow, and Project SAM were sounding the tocsin about the threat of teen marijuana use, others reacted more calmly, taking solace from the findings that teen cigarette smoking and drinking, not to mention other drugs, had declined.

"These findings should put to rest any claims that reforming marijuana laws and discussing the benefits will somehow contribute to more teens using marijuana," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's time for prohibition supporters to stop hiding behind teens when debating marijuana policy."

The declines in teen cigarette smoking and drinking show that regulation -- not prohibition -- is the way to address substance use, Tvert said.

"Regulation clearly works and prohibition has clearly failed when it comes to protecting teens," he argued. "Regulating alcohol and tobacco has resulted in significant decreases in use and availability among teens, and we would surely see similar results with marijuana. At the very least, this data should inspire NIDA and other government agencies to examine the possibility that regulating marijuana could be a more effective approach to preventing teen use."

Uruguay Legalizes Marijuana! [FEATURE]

The Uruguayan Senate voted Tuesday to approve a government-sponsored bill to legalize marijuana commerce. The Senate vote was the final vote needed for the bill to pass; all amendments to the bill were defeated previous to Tuesday's debate, so it now goes to the desk of President Jose Mujica, who supports it.

Once Mujica signs the bill into law, it will go into effect in 120 days.

The Broad Front coalition government headed by Mujica first introduced the plan to legalize marijuana a year and a half ago as part of a broader package of measures designed to reduce the crime and violence associated with the black market drug trade. After retooling in the face of significant opposition, the bill passed the lower chamber of Congress in July.

Uruguay now becomes the first signatory to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to break with the UN on the issue of marijuana legalization. The Netherlands has turned a blind eye to small-scale retail sales for decades now, but such acts remain formally illegal so the Dutch can remain in formal compliance with the treaty.

Under the bill, the Uruguayan government will regulate the importation, cultivation, harvesting, distribution, and sale of marijuana. Would-be pot smokers will have to register with the government in order to grow their own (up to six plants), grow it collectively in a club, or buy up to 40 grams a month at a pharmacy.

The bill was not without opposition. During debate Tuesday, Colorado Party Sen. Alfredo Solari, a former health minister, said that children and teens would be able to more easily obtain marijuana.

"The effects of this policy on public health will be terrible," he warned.

But Broad Front Sen. Roberto Conde retorted that easy access to marijuana is already the status quo.

"Marijuana is already established in Uruguay," he said. "It's a drug that is already seen as very low risk and enormously easy to get."

Opposition didn't just come from conservative lawmakers. Some marijuana users aren't very keen on the idea of having to register with the state in order to legally obtain their drug of choice.

Uruguayan President Jose Mujica
But President Mujica and the Broad Front argued that the bill would weaken drug traffickers and help reduce the estimated $80 million a year the country spends fighting drugs and imprisoning traffickers. The estimated 128,000 Uruguayan pot smokers (user groups have a higher estimate of around 200,000) make up the largest illicit drug market in the country.

The government is vowing to entice consumers with marijuana that is both cheaper and of higher quality than that produced by the black market, most of which comes from Paraguay, which produces plentiful but low-grade crops.

"We are keeping in mind the prices on the black market, until we start to dismantle the functioning of the market," said Julio Calzada, secretary of the National Drug Board.

"This law will return us to the vanguard of Latin America," added Broad Front Sen. Constanza Moreira. "For many of us, today is a historic day. Many countries in Latin America, and many governments will take this law as an example."

Uruguay's move to legalize the marijuana business won accolades from drug reformers around the globe. In an open letter organized by the International Drug Policy Consortium,114 civil society organizations from around the world welcomed the vote.

"The path taken by Uruguay establishes the basis for a new paradigm in drug policy," the groups said. "The organizations that have promoted these changes cannot ignore the efforts undertaken by the Uruguayan state. We will support Uruguay and every other state and jurisdiction as they seek to develop more sensible drug policies to tackle the problems related to health and security of their citizens, in full respect with international human rights treaties."

"It's about time that we see a country bravely break with the failed prohibitionist model and try an innovative, more compassionate, and smarter approach," said Hannah Hetzer, who is based out of Montevideo, Uruguay, as the policy manager for the Americas for the Drug Policy Alliance. "For 40 years, marijuana prohibition has been attempted and it simply hasn't worked. But rather than closing their eyes to the problem of drug abuse and drug trafficking, Uruguay has chosen responsible regulation of an existing reality. Let's hope others soon follow suit!"

"We applaud President Mujica and members of the Uruguayan General Assembly for their leadership on this important issue," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Support for regulating marijuana and taking it out of the underground market is not only growing in the United States, but also internationally. It will not be long before more states and nations decide to end marijuana prohibition."

"Marijuana prohibition creates underground markets that generate billions of dollars in tax-free revenue for violent drug cartels and traffickers," Riffle said. "Regulating marijuana will allow authorities to control it and ensure profits are being used to benefit communities instead of criminals."

Uruguay has just punched a big hole in the edifice of global marijuana prohibition. Who is going to be next?

Montevideo
Uruguay

DPA Files California Marijuana Legalization Initiative, But… [FEATURE]

A California marijuana legalization initiative backed by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) was filed Wednesday with the state attorney general's office. But the national drug reform group said it has not yet decided whether to campaign to get it on the November 2014 ballot.

The Control, Regulate, and Tax Marijuana Act would legalize up to an ounce and four plants for people 21 and over and create a statewide system of regulated marijuana commerce. It would also impose a 25% tax on retail sales.

A year ago, in the wake of the legalization victories in Colorado and Washington, major players in the California marijuana reform movement, including California NORML, the Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, the ACLU of California, the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, and late drug policy reform funder Peter Lewis's representative, Graham Boyd, met in San Francisco and came to a tentative agreement that they would work together toward putting an initiative on the ballot in 2016.

Reluctant to risk another defeat at the ballot box like Proposition 19 in 2010, the movement heavyweights jointly decided to let other states take the lead in 2014 rather than act precipitously and potentially see the reform movement suffer a major blow with another defeat in the nation's most populous state.

But momentum in favor of marijuana legalization was growing quickly, as evidenced by a September Gallup poll's 58% in favor of legalization nationally and polls out of red states like Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas showing majority support. That was also the case in California, with a September Public Policy Institute of California poll showing 60% of registered voters favoring legalization and an October Tulchin poll that had support for legalization at 65% among likely voters.

Those numbers prompted some key players to reconsider, especially given that two other marijuana legalization initiatives -- not vetted by the heavyweights -- are already floating around. The first, the California Cannabis Hemp Initiative of 2014, the perennial effort by acolytes of the late Jack Herer, is in the signature gathering phase, but shows little sign of having the financial wherewithal to actually gather enough signatures to make the ballot. The second, the Marijuana Control, Legalization, and Regulation Act of 2014, described by its proponents as "the world's first open source initiative," is pending approval at the attorney general's office after its proponents handed in its second amended version Friday.

Now DPA has stepped in with its own 2014 initiative. "The Drug Policy Alliance is the primary force behind this and primary drafter of this initiative," said Steve Gutwillig, DPA's deputy director of programs. "We wanted to make sure that a responsible and well-drafted initiative would be available in 2014 should a full-fledged campaign become possible. Filing this initiative is making sure that there is a viable initiative vehicle if we go forward in 2014. We think it reflects what the voters will support."

Gutwillig emphasized that no decision to move forward had been made, but that one would be forthcoming early next year.

The clock is ticking. The deadline for gathering signatures for November 2014 is April, and given that state officials have up to 60 days to return a ballot summary and let signature gathering commence, that means the window for signature gathering could be as short as three months. With more than 500,000 valid signatures needed to make the ballot, that would be a daunting and very expensive prospect.

It may still be better to wait for 2016, said Dale Gieringer, the longtime head of California NORML.

"I don't see that this does much for patients or consumers," he said. "The fact that we have three initiatives proposed for 2014 shows a relative lack of unity and a lack of adequate consultation among the various groups. And it's really late in the day."

Gieringer pointed to language leaving the state's medical marijuana system intact as one issue. "We would have two systems, one with a special tax, one without," he noted. "Guess which one most people would patronize. The legislature might respond by getting rid of collectives or dispensaries. Medical marijuana regulation is the elephant in the room, and these are complicated issues that will require consultation by a lot of interest groups."

He also counseled patience.

"People started panicking when those strong poll numbers came out in the fall and started thinking 'Gee, this is really feasible,'" Gieringer said. "But it was so late in the day that people couldn't really get together and plan and vet to come up with a well-conceived plan. This is a stab in the dark, especially until we see how Colorado and Washington play out, especially the tax and regulate part. How is this going to work in the marketplace? Will people patronize highly taxed marijuana shops or not?"

The DPA effort may not be the perfect marijuana legalization initiative -- that elusive creature has yet to be spotted -- but it is out there now, at least as a place holder. The other two initiatives appear unlikely to actually make the ballot, so the decisions made early next year by DPA and its allies are likely to determine if California votes on marijuana legalization next year or not.

CA
United States

DEA Raiding Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in Denver! [FEATURE]

DEA and IRS agents backed up by Denver and other state and local law enforcement raided a number of Denver area medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations Thursday. The US Attorney for Colorado's office confirmed the raids were taking place.

a Denver medical marijuana dispensary (not one of those raided Thursday) (wikipedia.org)
"The Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations, the Denver Police Department and state and local law enforcement are today executing lawfully obtained search warrants and seizure warrants," said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the US Attorney for Colorado's office in a Thursday statement

"Although we cannot at this time discuss the substance of this pending investigation, the operation under way today comports with the Department's recent guidance regarding marijuana enforcement matters," Dorschner added. "As this is an on-going investigation, no additional information will be made available," he said.

Dorschner was referring to an August 29 Justice Department memorandum to federal prosecutors that said the Obama administration would not interfere with marijuana legalization provided certain boundaries were not crossed. US Attorney for Colorado John Walsh laid them out in his own statement that same day.

"Of particular concern to the US Attorney's Office are cases involving marijuana trafficking directly or indirectly to children and young people; trafficking that involves violence or other federal criminal activity; trafficking conducted or financed by street gangs and drug cartels; cultivation of marijuana on Colorado's extensive state and federal public lands; and trafficking across state and international lines," Walsh explained.

The Thursday raids come less than two months before state-legal marijuana retail stores open for business on January 1.

The Denver Post reported that the number of sites hit was "about a dozen," while the alternative weekly Westword put the number at fewer than 20, although that number is tentative. Among businesses mentioned by "reliable sources within the scene" to Westword are VIP Wellness, Cherry Top Farms, marQaha, and Swiss Medical in Boulder. Westword printed a photo of police cars in the parking lot of marQaha, while the Post printed a photo of piles of uprooted marijuana plants lying in the snow outside Swiss Medical.

Westword also reported that the owner of Swiss Medical told it that the raid there was prompted by one person among multiple tenants using its space, but that the raiders seized all the plants belonging to anyone who had a grow there. That's similar to what happened at Cherry Top Farms in 2011, when federal raiders targeting one grower seized all the plants on the scene.

"We do not yet know the details of these latest federal actions, so it is too soon to say what inspired them," said Denver-based Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert. "The Justice Department said it would respect states' rights to regulate marijuana, and that it would not go after businesses as long as they are complying with state laws. We hope they are sticking to their word and not interfering with any state-regulated, law-abiding businesses."

Tvert emphasized that at this point he does not know whether any of the businesses struck are accused of violating state laws.

"Colorado has demonstrated that regulating marijuana works," Tvert said. "Those businesses that are in clear compliance with state laws are meeting the needs of the community and not causing problems. As a result, they have not faced much in the way of federal interference. If a business is suspected of violating state laws, they will likely face increased scrutiny, and if they are found to be in violation, they will likely face consequences. That is how our society treats alcohol, and that is how we expect to see marijuana treated."

Denver-based attorney and marijuana activist Rob Corry was less diplomatic. He told the Post the Justice Department was acting like a bully and targeting "mostly mom-and-pop businesses."

"That is true to form, the DOJ, behaving like the classic schoolyard bully picking on the little guy," he said. "The DOJ needs to explain in a logical fashion why they are picking and choosing, going after only some of these entities when every one of them selling marijuana is running afoul of the federal law."

Denver, CO
United States

A Clean, Well-Lit Place to Shoot Dope -- In Your City, Soon? [FEATURE]

The only existing supervised injection site for hard drug users in North America is Vancouver's Insite, but panelists at a session of the International Drug Reform Conference in Denver last month said activists in a number of US cities are working to be next. (Plans are also afoot in a couple of Canadian cities.)

client at Vancouver's Insite supervised injection site (vch.ca)
Supervised injection sites (SIS) are a proven public health and harm reduction intervention that can save lives by preventing overdoses, bring a measure of stability to the sometimes chaotic lives of addicts, reduce the spread of bloodborne infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C, and reduce crime and disorder in the community.

SISs also exist in a number of European countries and Australia, but face both legal and political hurdles in the US. Still, advocates are ready to push the envelope here in a bid to bring the life-, health-, and money-saving innovation here.

Donald Macpherson, executive \director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and former head of Vancouver's Four Pillars drug policy program explained the prehistory of Insite, offering hints of possible courses of action in the US.

"We had a public health disaster," he said, referring to the city's escalating heroin problem in the 1990s. "Drug users themselves opened an SIS in 1995, and the police watched it, but didn't shut it down. A second opened in 2002. A year later, another non-sanctioned injection site opened up. It was really messy and it took years."

But in the end, Vancouver ended up with Insite and has managed to keep it open despite the best efforts of the Conservative federal government in Ottawa.

"Insite survives because it has an exemption from Canadian drug laws," Macpherson explained. "We won in the British Columbia courts, we won in the Canadian Supreme Court, which instructed the health minister to issue a permit. But we still barely have Insite, and though other cities are working on it, there is a big chill in Canada right now and we're just trying to hang on to what we've got."

Plans for SISs in the US face similar obstacles, but that isn't stopping advocates in a number of cities -- notably Austin, New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle, as well as somewhere in New Mexico -- from pressing forward with plans to open them there.

"I don't know if we'll be first, but we'll be one of many," said Robert Cordero, president and chief program officer of Boom! Health in the Bronx.

Boom! Health, which resulted from the merger of Bronx AIDS Services and Citiwide Harm Reduction, is a multi-service organization with a three-story building that includes a pharmacy, pharmacists with a harm reduction orientation, and a seven-day-a-week drop in center.

"Safe injection would be embedded with all these other services," he said.

"I don't know if we want to be first, but we want to be one of many," said Olivia Sloan, outreach and education associate for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in New Mexico, which has been working patiently to bring cutting edge programs like SISs to the state. "We passed harm reduction, including needle exchange, through the state legislature, but it's not working," Sloan said. "We have overdose deaths at four or five times the national average."

Advocates in New Mexico have been and continue to lay the groundwork for SISs, Sloan said.

"We took a political and academic approach, and our conversation about injection facilities started a few years ago," she explained. "We have mobile syringe exchanges. We drafted legislation last year and the Senate passed a memorial to require we study the feasibility of SISs in New Mexico. We have partnered with the University of New Mexico and are looking for a principal investigator."

In San Francisco, preliminary discussions with local officials about SISs have been going on for some time, but the San Francisco Drug Users Union may follow the path taken by organized Vancouver drug users, as well as many of the needle exchange pioneers in the US, and just do it.

"We have a committee very committed to an SIS that meets every Monday for two hours," said Holly Bradford, the union's coordinator. "We're really on the verge. We have a very active bathroom here; you just open the door," she smiled. We're bringing it to San Francisco," she said. "It might not be sanctioned or aboveground, but it's going to happen."

Whether underground or not, SISs face a hazard-strewn trek. State, local, or federal officials can throw up any number of obstacles, said Lindsay LaSalle, a Berkeley-based law fellow for DPA.

"Drug possession remains illegal and could impact any SIS user, although probably not the staff or operator because they're not handling the drugs," she explained.

"Then there are the crack house laws, which both the federal government and some states have. They make it illegal for anyone to maintain, own, lease, or rent a property where drugs are used, consumed, or manufactured. These laws could cover SISs, and this could impact both clients and staff and operators alike," she elaborated.

"Then there are civil forfeiture statutes. They've used them to go after medical marijuana dispensaries," she enumerated.

Winning local official support reduces some risks, but not all, LaSalle said.

"If SISs were sanctioned at the local level, many of the legal risks dissipate, but state actors could still choose to prosecute," she warned. "In most states, local officers are deputized to enforce state law, so they could still go after an SIS. If authorized at the state level, that would be an incredible victory, but we would still have to deal with the federal government."

While acknowledging that lawyers can be "a buzzkill," LaSalle also hastened to add that things can change faster than we think.

"These legal barriers are not so different from the challenges we've faced with other drug policy issues, like syringe exchanges," she noted. "They were seen as completely radical, but now we have an almost universally accepted public health intervention with the exchanges."

Part of the process of initiating a supervised injection site is selling it to other stakeholders. Panelists had a number of ideas about messages that worked.

"For business people, you tell them this is how we clean up the neighborhood," said a Seattle activist.

"It is a very incremental change from syringe exchange to supervised injection sites," said LaSalle. "Position it as a very small change in an organization that provides all these other services to drug users."

"There's always 'what we're doing is not working,'" said Sloan.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," suggested Cordero. "But don't go straight to the SIS conversation. Let people see what we're doing, and then they say 'you're doing God's work' and second, 'Holy shit! Where would all those people be if you weren't open?'"

The obstacles to implementing supervised injection sites in the US are formidable, but the need to do so is urgent and increasingly understood, as are the benefits. With activists and advocates in a number of American locales pursuing SISs through a variety of means, the question is not whether it will happen here, but when and where.

New Daily Roundups from Drug War Chronicle

If you've been following Drug War Chronicle on our web site the past week, you have probably noticed a new, daily feature, "Chronicle AM." The AM is a roundup of stories that have hit the news wires. As Phil noted in his award speech two weeks ago, there is too much happening now to be able to give it all even medium-level coverage, much less to do so quickly. Chronicle AM is a way to survey a lot of the important stories each day, and we continue to publish our usual features and newsbriefs on a daily basis too. The following are the stories we noted in Chronicle AM installments during the past week.

Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Marijuana Legalization Bill Dies in Committee. House Bill 492, which would have taxed and regulated marijuana like alcohol was defeated in the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee Wednesday on an 11-7 vote. The action came just a week after a state poll showed 60% supported the bill.

Federal Judge Cuts Marijuana Sentences. Maryland US District Court Judge James Bredar Monday handed down sentences lighter than called for in federal guidelines in a major marijuana smuggling case, saying such offenses are "not regarded with the same seriousness" as they were just a few decades ago. Bredar also noted that the federal government's decision to largely leave marijuana sales in legalization states raised "equal justice" concerns.

Amendments Filed to California Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Americans for Policy Reform, the people behind the 2014 Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act initiative, Wednesday filed amendments to the proposed law. They include strengthening some penalties and clarifying medical marijuana patient ID card requirements. This is one of two initiatives aiming at 2014 in California, neither of which have big donor support.

Portland, Maine, Marijuana Legalization Initiative Draws Late Opposition. Small signs urging Portlanders to "Vote No on Question 1, NO to POTland" have begun popping up just days before the city votes on legalization next week. Who put them up is a mystery; no group has filed paperwork at city hall opposing the initiative. The initiative would not legalize marijuana per se, but would allow people 21 and over to "engage in activities for the purposes of ascertaining the possession of marijuana and paraphernalia."

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel Tuesday rejected the ballot title for a proposed legalization initiative, saying the language was ambiguous. This is the second time he has rejected the measure, which can still be rewritten and resubmitted.

Colorado to Vote Tuesday on Marijuana Tax. Colorado voters will decide Tuesday whether to impose a 15% excise tax on marijuana sales to pay for school construction and a 10% sales tax to pay for marijuana regulation. The tax vote wasn't included in Amendment 64 because state law requires any new taxes to be approved by the voters. The measure is expected to pass despite opposition from some marijuana activists.

No Pot in Washington Bars, State Regulators Say. The Washington State Liquor Control Board Wednesday filed a draft rule banning any business with a liquor license from allowing on-site marijuana use. The state's pot law already bars public use, including in bars, clubs, and restaurants, but some businesses have tried to find loopholes allowing customers to use on premise, such as by having "private clubs" within the establishment.

DC Marijuana Reform Moves Could Spur Congress to Ponder Legalization. The DC city council appears set to approve decriminalization, and DC marijuana activists are pondering a 2014 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. That could set the stage for Congress to finally turn its sights on federal marijuana legalization, Bloomberg News suggested in this think piece.

One-Fourth of Americans Would Buy Legal Weed, Poll Finds. At least one out of four Americans (26%) said they would buy marijuana at least on "rare occasions" if it were legal, according to a Huffington Post/YouGov poll released Thursday. Only 9% said they buy it on rare occasions now. One out of six (16%) of respondents said they never buy it now, but might if it were legal.

Dispensaries like this one could become marijuana retail stores in Colorado.
Let A Hundred Pot Shops Bloom… in Colorado. The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division reported late last week that it has received applications from 136 people seeking to open adult use marijuana retail stores. By law, only people currently operating medical marijuana businesses could apply. Those who applied by the end of October will have decisions on their applications before year's end, meaning they could open on January 1, the earliest date adult marijuana sales will be allowed in the state.

NYC Subway Vigilante Bernie Goetz Busted in Penny Ante Marijuana Sting. The New York City man who became a national figure after shooting four teens who asked him for money on the subway back in 1984 was arrested last Friday over a $30 marijuana sale. Bernie Goetz is accused of selling the miniscule amount of marijuana to an undercover officer.

Colorado Voters Approve Marijuana Taxes. Colorado voters approved a taxation scheme that will add 25% in wholesale and retail taxes to the price of legally sold marijuana in the state. Proposition AA was winning with 64% of the vote at last report.

Three Michigan Cities Approve Marijuana Measures. Voters in the Michigan cities of Lansing, Jackson, and Ferndale handily approved local measures to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults 21 and over. The measures passed with 69% of the vote in Ferndale, 63% in Lansing, and 61% in Jackson. The trio of towns now join other Michigan cities, including Grand Rapids and Detroit, that have municipally decriminalized pot possession.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Lawmakers Oppose Medical Marijuana Initiative. Florida House and Senate leaders said late last week that they will join Attorney General Pam Bondi (R) in asking the state Supreme Court to block a medical marijuana initiative from going to the ballot. "We certainly don't want a situation like they've got in Colorado," explained state Rep. Doug Holder (R-Venice). Petitioners have gathered only about 200,000 of the more than 600,000 signatures they need to make the ballot. They have until February, unless the state Supreme Court puts the kibosh on the effort.

Florida Governor Candidate Supports Medical Marijuana Initiative. Candidate for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination Nan Rich said last Friday she supports a proposed medical marijuana ballot initiative. "I've seen the research, I've studied the issue, and I've met with patients who clearly benefit and desperately need medically prescribed cannabis," Rich said in a statement. "That's why I'm signing the petition to get this important measure on the ballot in 2014 and I'm calling on all of my friends and supporters to do the same. There is simply no reason patients should suffer when an effective, safe, and organic remedy is readily available."

Washington State Regulators to Hold Hearing on Controversial Medical Marijuana Plans. The Washington state Liquor Control Board announced last Friday it will hold a hearing November 13 in Lacey to take public testimony on proposed changes to the state's medical marijuana system. Regulators have issued draft recommendations that would reduce the amount of medical marijuana patients could possess and end their ability to grow their own, among other things.

Search and Seizure

Federal Appeals Court Blocks Judge's Ruling on NYPD Stop-and-Frisk. The 2nd US Court of Appeals in New York City blocked an order by District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin requiring changes in the NYPD's much criticized stop-and-frisk program. In an unusual move, the appeals court also removed Judge Scheindlin from the case, saying she had violated the code of conduct for federal judges by giving media interviews and publicly responding to criticism of her court. Scheindlin had found that NYPD violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of people by subjecting them to stop-and-frisk searches based on their race.

New Mexico Man Sues over Forced Anal Drug Search. A Deming, New Mexico, man detained for running a stop sign allegedly had his buttocks clenched when ordered out of his vehicle by police, leading them to suspect he had drugs secreted in his rectum. Police obtained a search warrant from a compliant judge, then had medical personnel forcibly subject the man to repeated anal probes, enemas, and a colonoscopy in a futile attempt to find any drugs. In addition to the unreasonableness of the invasive searches, they also took place outside of the jurisdiction where the warrant was issued and after the timeline specified in the warrant. The victim, David Eckert, ought to be picking up a nice check one of these years.

Second New Mexico Anal Drug Search Victim Emerges. Yesterday, the Chronicle AM noted the case of Deming, New Mexico, resident David Eckert, who was subjected to anal probes, enemas, x-rays, and colonoscopies without his consent after being pulled over for running a stop sign. The cops suspected he had drugs. He didn't and is now suing the police, the county, and the medical personnel who participated. Now, a second victim has emerged. Timothy Young was stopped for failure to use a turn signal. As was the case with Eckert, a drug dog -- Leo the K-9 -- alerted, but as was the case with Eckert, no drugs were found, despite the extensive invasive searches. Turns out the drug dog has not been certified for more than two years and has a history of false alerts, and the hospital where the searches were conducted was not within the jurisdiction of the search warrant. It looks like another New Mexico resident will get a big check at the taxpayers' expense one of these days.

Drug Testing

Truckers Object to Federal Bill to Allow Hair Drug Tests. A bill pending in Congress, House Resolution 3403, the "Drug Free Commercial Driver Act of 2013," is drawing opposition from an independent trucker group, the association's organ Landline Magazine reports. The bill would allow trucking companies to use hair testing for pre-employment and random drug tests. Currently, federal regulations mandate urine testing and allow hair testing only in conjunction with urine tests, not as a replacement. Hair-based testing can reveal drug use weeks or months prior to the testing date. The independent truckers accuse bill sponsors of carrying water for larger trucking firms that want to undercut their competition.

Michigan Governor Signs Unemployment Drug Testing Law. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) Tuesday signed a bill that denies unemployment benefits to job seekers who fail employer drug tests. The law is in effect for one year as a pilot program.

Drug Testing Provision Stripped from New Hampshire Hep C Bill. A bill written in the wake of an outbreak of Hep C infections linked to an Exeter Hospital employee will not include random drug testing for health care employees. The bill, House Bill 597, originally contained such language, but it was stripped out in the House Health, Human Services, and Elderly Affairs Committee. Federal courts have held that drug tests constitute a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and thus require probable cause, except in limited circumstances.

Psychedelics

New Group Formed to Assure Sustainability of Psychedelic Plants. The Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council was launched at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver last weekend. It will concentrate on "assuring the sustainability and safe use of traditional plants," and prominently mentioned ayahuasca in its formation announcement.

Sentencing Reform

Bipartisan Mandatory Minimum Reform Bill Introduced in US House. On Wednesday, Reps. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would significantly reform mandatory minimum drug sentencing policies. Companion legislation in the Senate, Senate Bill 1410, was introduced in July. The bills would halve mandatory minimum sentence lengths and expand safety valve access, as well as extend retroactivity under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

Study Shows Way to Louisiana Sentencing Reform. A study released Tuesday by the Reason Foundation, the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, and the Texas Public Policy Foundation details how Louisiana can reduce its prison population and corrections spending without lessening public safety by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders and reforming its habitual offender law. The study, "Smart on Sentencing, Smart on Crime: Reforming Louisiana's Determinate Sentencing Laws," is available online here.

International

At Least Five Dead in Mexico Vigilante vs. Cartel Clashes. Attacks in the Western Mexican state of Michoacan, home of the Knights Templar cartel, between anti-cartel vigilantes and cartel members left at least five dead and thousands without electric power last weekend. The fighting erupted after anti-cartel "self defense forces" marched Friday in the Knights Templar stronghold of Apatzingan and accelerated over the weekend. Vigilantes said they saw the bodies of at least 12 cartel members.

UNODC Head Says Afghan Opium Crop is Thriving, Spreading. In remarks in advance of the release of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's annual Afghan opium survey early in November, UNODC head Yury Fedotov warned that the poppy crop will increase for the third straight year and that cultivation had spread into formerly poppy-free areas under central government control. Afghanistan accounts for about 90% of the global illicit opium supply.

New Zealand to Host International Conference on Drug Reform Laws. The country has drawn international attention for its innovative approach to new synthetic drugs -- regulating instead of prohibiting them -- and will be the site of a March 20, 2014 "Pathway to Reform" conference explaining how the domestic synthetic drug industry began, how the regulatory approach was chosen and how it works. International attendees will include Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann and Amanda Fielding, of Britain's Beckley Foundation.

Canada SSDP to Hold National Conference in Vancouver. Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (CSSDP) will hold its sixth annual conference on November 22-24 in Vancouver, BC. Featured speakers will include Donald McPherson, head of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition; Dana Larsen, director of Sensible BC and the Vancouver Dispensary Society; and Missi Woolrdige, director of DanceSafe, among others.

Hong Kong Docs Criticize Government Drug Testing Plan. The Hong Kong Medical Association said Monday that a government plan to allow police to test anyone for drug use based on "reasonable suspicion" is flawed and violates basic human rights. The local government began a four-month consultation on the plan in September, and now the doctors have weighed in. The association said that drug testing was an unproven method of reducing drug use and resources should instead be devoted to prevention and education campaigns and cooperation with mainland police against drug trafficking.

India to Greatly Expand Opiate Maintenence Centers. Responding to an increase in the number of injection drug users, the Indian government is moving to expand the number of its Opiate Substitution Therapy (OST) centers six-fold, from a current 52 to 300 by the end of the year. Drug user groups, including the Indian Drug Users Forum, and harm reduction groups, such as Project Orchid have been involved in planning the expansion. It's not clear what drug the Indians are using in OST.

Ireland Parliament to Debate Marijuana Legalization This Week. A private motion by independent Dail, or Irish parliament, member Luke "Ming" Flanagan will be debated on Tuesday and Wednesday. Flanagan's bill would make it legal to possess, grow, and sell marijuana products.

Cartel Violence Flares in Mexican Border Town. Sunday shootouts between rival drug trafficking organizations and between traffickers and soldiers left at least 13 people dead in the Mexican border town of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande River from Brownville, Texas. Four men and a woman were killed in clashes between rival gangs, and eight more died in fighting with Mexican Marines. Somewhere north of 75,000 people have been killed in violence since former President Felipe Calderon called out the armed forces to wage war on the cartels six and a half years ago. Meanwhile, the drugs continue to flow north and the guns and cash flow south.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford (wikipedia.org)
Toronto Mayor Admits He Smoked Crack, But Says He's Not an Addict. Months after rumors of a video showing Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine emerged, but only days after Toronto police said they had a copy of that video, Ford told reporters Tuesday that he had indeed smoked crack, but that he did so "in a drunken stupor" and that he wasn't an addict. Time will tell if his political career survives the revelation.

Marijuana Legalization Debate Looms in Morocco. Moroccan activists and politicians are close to firming up a date later this month for the parliament to hear a seminar on the economic implications of legalization hosted by the powerful Party of Authenticity and Modernity. Morocco is one of the world's largest marijuana producers, with output estimated at 40,000 tons a year, most of which is transformed into hashish and destined for European markets.

Czech Police in Mass Raid on Grow Shops. Although the Czech Republic has a reputation as a pot-friendly destination, recreational marijuana use remains illegal. Czech police served up a reminder of that reality Tuesday, raiding dozens of stores that sell growers' supplies. Police seized fertilizer, grow lights, and marijuana growing guidebooks and said they suspected store owners of violating drug laws by providing people with all the equipment they needed to grow their own. There was no mention made of any arrests.

New Zealand Court Says Employer Can't Force Workers to Undergo Drug Tests. New Zealand's Employment Court has ruled that companies cannot impose random drug tests on workers, nor discipline them for refusing such a test. Mighty River Power Company had a collective bargaining agreement with workers, which allowed testing only under specified circumstances, but initiated random drug tests later. If the company wants random drug test, the court said, it would need to negotiate a new provision in the collective bargaining agreement.

Mexican Military Takes over Key Pacific Seaport in Bid to Fight Cartels. The Mexican military has moved into the major port of Lazaro Cardenas and the adjoining town of the same name in the violence-plagued state of Michoacan. Soldiers are now responsible for policing duties, and all 113 police officers in Lazaro Cardenas have been sidelined until they undergo drug testing and police training. The port of Lazaro Cardenas is the main entrepot for precursor chemicals used in the manufacture of methamphetamine, which is produced in the state by the Knights Templar cartel. The Knights are also engaged in ongoing fighting with vigilante "self-defense" forces in the state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cop v. Drug Dealer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They took everything I had," he explained.

Baltimore, MD
United States

The Next States to Legalize Marijuana [FEATURE]

After last weekend's International Drug Reform Conference in Denver, a clear picture is emerging of which states are likely to be the first to follow Colorado and Washington down the path of marijuana legalization. And while some recent polls suggest the American public is getting ahead of even the leading marijuana reform honchos, well-laid plans already in place point to the possibility of a 2014 trifecta, with Oregon following Alaska to legalization through the initiative process and Rhode Island becoming the first state to legalize through the legislature.

Reformers hit the 16th Street Mall in Denver last weekend. (Phil Smith)
While activists in a number of other states -- including Arizona, California, and Wyoming -- are already working on legalization initiatives for next year, reform leaders cautioned that 2016 remains a better prospect. But they also acknowledged that recent favorable shifts in public opinion, most notably last week's Gallup poll showing an historic 58% in favor of legalization, could accelerate matters.

"We've been saying wait for 2016, but we seem to be changing our minds, at least a little," said Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) executive director (and key funding conduit) Ethan Nadelmann.

"I keep getting surprised," agreed Graham Boyd, counsel to Progressive Insurance founder Peter Lewis (and key funding conduit). "Activists in any number of states are saying they can win now, and we're hearing this from multiple states, and polls in multiple states are also coming in much more favorable."

While groups like DPA and the Marijuana Policy Project (another key funding conduit) have a game plan for the next few years that largely emphasizes 2016 for initiative states, the movement needs to be flexible enough to take advantage of emerging opportunities, Boyd warned.

"The main thing is growing public support. I think you can look at the list of 2016 states and argue that any of them could go in 2014," he said. "If the public is ready in 2014 and something happens before 2016 and that lift tails off, we may find ourselves saying we missed the wave."

Among those initiative states where the plan had been to wait for 2016 are Arizona, California, Maine, and Montana. In Arizona, a signature gathering campaign for 2014 is underway, but appears to be running up against the clock, while in California, two separate initiatives have been filed for 2014, but so far lack the access to big money required to actually make the ballot.

Major marijuana reform players in California led by the ACLU of California also recently attempted to set the stage for a 2016 initiative (and perhaps smother the 2014 efforts, some activists feel) with the formation of a blue ribbon panel to study policy issues around marijuana regulation, taxation and legalization. The panel would study and deliberate for the next two years, meaning their recommendations would not be ready by 2014.

"We put together a panel of experts headed up by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the highest-ranking official to come out in support of taxing and regulating marijuana," explained ACLU of California criminal justice and drug policy director Allen Hopper. "We tried to bring together a group of experts who right now may not advocate for legalization -- including doctors, an elected sheriff, and the California Society of Addiction Medicine -- to begin to tackle some of the policy issues that need to be resolved in California. We haven't asked people to write ballot language, but we have a range of folks who can talk to their communities. We support legalizing, but in terms of how we talk about it and how a ballot initiative campaign would be run, you have to meet the people where they are."

While even the reform movement leaders concede that things could move faster than they think, the three surest bets for a legalization effort next year are Alaska, Oregon, and Rhode Island.

In Alaska, a tax and regulate marijuana initiative that would also allow adults to grow up to six plants has been certified and is now in the signature-gathering process. Proponents have until next June to gather 30,169 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot.

Alaska already allows for adults to possess small amounts of marijuana in their homes under the state Supreme Court's interpretation of the state constitution's privacy provisions. If the initiative makes the ballot and passes, Alaska will be the next state to legalize through the ballot box simply because under state law, ballot initiatives are voted on during primary -- not general -- elections, and thus will be a done deal before Oregon gets a chance to vote.

In Oregon, the oft-fractious marijuana reform community appears to have largely coalesced around a control, regulate, and tax initiative from New Approach Oregon filed with secretary of state's office last Friday. As important as a unified movement is financial support from big funders, and the Oregon effort appears to have it. The campaign has already collected more than $120,000 in early funding from DPA's political action arm, Drug Policy Action; Peter Lewis; and the Oregon-based 501(c)(4) nonprofit American Victory Coalition.

"New Approach Oregon is doing a legalization campaign in 2014, and based on the polling data, we think this is viable and there is a really good chance of this happening, and we've secured some funding. so I think Oregon is the next state to legalize," predicted New Approach founder Travis Maurer.

Back east in Rhode Island, initiatives aren't an option, so activists there are looking to make it the first state to legalize via the legislative process. And they're getting some help from MPP, which thinks the prospects are good.

"I think Rhode Island will be next, followed by Alaska next year and Oregon soon after," said MPP director of state policies Karen O'Keefe.

"We've had medical marijuana for seven years and got decrim in 2012," explained Rebecca McGoldrick, executive director of the Providence-based Protect Families First, which has stepped in to do drug reform advocacy in the state. "Last year was the first year we focused exclusively on regulation, and the conversation is changing; even our opponents are coming around, and we believe the governor is likely to sign a bill if it's done in the right way."

Those are the three states reform leaders deem most likely to legalize next year, although, as noted above, the situation remains fluid -- especially if public opinion continues to shift as dramatically as it has been doing in the last couple of years, and particularly since the victories in Colorado and Washington last year.

One long-shot is Missouri, where Show-Me Cannabis Regulation has been building the marijuana reform movement for the past two years. Show-Me activists are busily holding educational meetings across the state this year, and have plans in the state legislature, but they're also eyeing the initiative process.

"I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Missouri," said Boyd. "There is a lot of belief there that they are in striking range."

"People say 'Missouri…really?' but Missouri is in the middle of the country, and the country is ready," said Show-Me's Amber Langston. "There's a slight possibility for 2014. We have the language pretty much wrapped up and ready; we'll see what the poll numbers look like. If not 2014, we'll do it in 2016."

The race to legalize is on. The early favorites are set, but there's still time for other entrants to join the race, and there may be some surprises. It's going to be an interesting next 12 months.

Denver, CO
United States

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