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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

Jerry Brown Vetoes California "Defelonization" Bill [FEATURE]

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) Saturday vetoed a bill that would have allowed prosecutors or judges to charge simple drug possession as a misdemeanor instead of a felony. The bill would have made drug possession a "wobbler," meaning it could be charged either way, based on judicial or prosecutorial discretion.

overcrowded California prison (supremecourtus.gov)
Some 10,000 people are convicted of drug possession felonies each year in California, and experts estimated that, under the bill, 15% to 30% of them would have been charged instead with misdemeanors. The exact number is unknown because the bill would have left those decisions up to prosecutors and judges. But in any case, the bill would have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in criminal justice system savings, which would have provided local governments with more flexibility to invest in drug treatment and mental health services and focus law enforcement resources on more serious offenses, along with lightening up on some of the people caught up in the criminal justice system.

The bill, Senate Bill 649, was sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and passed the legislature with bipartisan support, but was opposed by law enforcement and some prosecutors. Leno and supporters had argued that the bill would save the state money on incarceration and related costs.

The bill was premature, given that a broader criminal justice system reform is in the works, Brown said in a veto message. "We are going to examine in detail California's criminal justice system, including the sentencing structure," he said. "We will do so with the full participation of all the necessary parties, including law enforcement, local government, courts, and treatment providers. That would be the appropriate time to evaluate our existing drug laws."

Even after the state's vaunted prison realignment, California prisons remain overcrowded, and the more than 4,100 people currently imprisoned on simple drug possession charges only add to that burden. The cost of imprisoning them comes to $207 million a year.

Under current California law, which will now stay in place, simple possession of drugs such as cocaine, meth, and heroin is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison. Leno's bill left that maximum sentence in place, but would have given either judges or prosecutors the discretion to punish possession as a misdemeanor, with a year in jail as a maximum sentence. Similarly, under the Leno bill, judges or prosecutors could have diverted drug users to treatment or community programs in a bid to reduce recidivism.

Charging drug possessors with misdemeanors instead of felonies would also have created criminal justice system savings with each lower-level prosecution. That's because felony charges require a preliminary hearing, while misdemeanor charges do not.

But law enforcement groups, including the California State Sheriffs Association, the California Police Chiefs Association, and the California District Attorneys Association all opposed the bill, labeling it a threat to public safety. They argued that the bill would reduce incentives for drug possessors to voluntarily seek drug treatment because they would only face jail time, and the jails are so full -- thanks to prison realignment -- that people sentenced to jail time do only a tiny fraction of that time.

Brown could have let the bill become law without his signature, Leno noted in an interview with the Chronicle earlier this month, and pronounced himself "surprised" at the veto.

"It's quite surprising that the governor would veto a modest attempt at sentencing reform in light of our prison overcrowding crisis," Leno said Saturday.

Bill supporters, including the ACLU of California and the Drug Policy Alliance lambasted Brown's decision to veto the bill.

Jerry Brown
"By vetoing SB 649, Gov. Brown has thwarted the will of the voters and their elected representatives by rejecting a modest reform that would have helped end mass incarceration in this state," said Kim Horiuchi, criminal justice and drug policy attorney for the ACLU of California.

"California voters and the legislature recognize the urgent need to reevaluate our sentencing laws and enact smart reforms, especially for low level, non-violent drug crimes," Horiuchi continued. "Doing so will allow California to reduce its reliance on incarceration and free up limited resources for the sorts of community-based treatment, education and job training programs proven to reduce crime and create safe and healthy communities. Despite this, Gov. Brown remains inexplicably opposed to meaningful sentencing reform."

"The governor let down the people of California, the majority of whom support going even farther than this bill would have gone," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The vast majority of voters agree with the experts -- locking up drug users is stupid, unproductive, cruel and expensive."

Despite the opposition of the law enforcement establishment, California public opinion wants to see sentencing reform. A 2012 Tulchin poll found that 75% of Californians preferred prevention and treatment as an alternative to jail for nonviolent offenders and 62% agreed that possession of small amounts of drugs for personal use should be a misdemeanor.

Thirteen other states and the District of Columbia already have such laws, and an effort to pass similar legislation is gearing up in Washington state. But in Sacramento, Gov. Brown was listening to the cops instead of the people.

"Our system is broken," said DPA's Lyman. "Felony sentences don't reduce drug use and don't persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release -- three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities."

Sacramento, CA
United States

The Fall and Rise and Fall of a "Death to Meth" DA [FEATURE]

Special to the Chronicle by investigative reporter Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com. This is the 7th installment of Walker's series on prosecutorial misconduct in the war on drugs.

A Northern California attorney plunged into a full-blown methamphetamine addiction, then made a storybook recovery, running successfully for county prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" platform just a few years later. But now that attorney, Del Norte County District Attorney Jon Alexander, is on the ropes again, and it's not the drug itself but a different aspect of his meth mania that's doing him in.

Alexander fought back like Rocky Balboa, only to be defeated by himself.
Inspired by a burning passion to fight the meth industry in the county and to help meth users who reminded him of himself, Alexander ran as a big underdog on a "Death to Meth" platform. On the road to victory with Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" booming in the background, Alexander won strong support from law-abiding citizens, sheriff's deputies, judges, and even families of drug dealers and drug users that Alexander previously represented either as a solo defense attorney or public defender. And in a strange way many drug dealers he sent to prison as a former prosecutor threw their support behind him as well.

"With meth, it's personal to me. I've been there. I know meth is a horrendously powerful drug. I've been to hell and back," a triumphant Alexander declaimed after winning the prosecutor's job. A former New Jersey resident, Alexander graduated in 1987 from Western State University College of Law in Orange County, California.

Like a former smoker turned anti-smoking zealot, Alexander turned his personal campaign against meth into a crusade. For nearly three years, he participated in "Meth Elimination" raids carried out by the sheriff's office and hammered meth dealers as the DA.

But now, the 63-year-old lawyer's enthusiasm has gotten the best of him, and the Northern California DA finds himself in trouble with the law again. It just another turn of the page in the real-life legal thriller that is the career of Jon Alexander.

Back in April, the State Bar of California recommended that Alexander, who had previously been disciplined for prosecutorial misconduct, be disbarred for interfering in a drug case. Although the judge in the case issued an order recommending Alexander's "right to practice" law be transferred to involuntary inactive status, the final decision to disbar the DA is up to the California Supreme Court.

To add insult to injury, the "miracle comeback lawyer" was served with a letter from the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors ordering him suspended without pay as a sheriff's sergeant unceremoniously escorted him from his office. He has been replaced temporarily by assistant prosecutor Katherine Micks as he exhausts his appeals.

Alexander went down over his interference in a meth case involving a female defendant, 24-year-old Michelle Taylor. Taylor met with Alexander in his office and told him that meth seized in a recent bust belonged to her and not her boyfriend, Damion Van Parks, who had been arrested with her and charged as a codefendant. The bar found that he had questioned her without her attorney present, that he failed to provide exculpatory evidence in a related case, and that he lied to his fellow prosecutors.

"Jon Alexander, reportedly the state's first sitting prosecutor to face removal from office, abused his prosecutorial power by communicating with Michelle Taylor, charged at the time, with methamphetamine possession," State Bar Court Judge Lucy Armendariz ruled. But there's more: "After Alexander learned from Taylor that she, not her co-defendant Van Parks, owned the illegal drugs, Alexander failed to disclosed the exculpatory evidence to the defendant's lawyer."

And still more. Judge Armendariz found that Alexander had lied to Assistant DA Micks, who was in charge of prosecuting the case, by telling her he had not spoken with the female defendant. But it gets worse.

When the accusations against him emerged, Alexander fired back, claiming he recalled that Taylor's attorney had given him permission to speak to her about seeking drug treatment. But, unknown to Alexander, Taylor had been wearing a wire, and on the recording of their meeting, there is no mention of her going to rehab.

Judge Lucy Armendariz (tjsl.edu)
"Michelle Taylor was denied basic protections under the Sixth Amendment when Alexander elicited information from her without her counsel," Judge Armendariz found.

Taylor refused to testify at Alexander's October 2012 State Bar trial unless she was granted immunity in her pending meth case. That didn't happen. Instead, she was eventually convicted and sentenced to a year in prison while the case against Van Parks was dropped.

Alexander had support during his State Bar trial, with numerous members of Del Norte County legal and law enforcement communities testifying to his good reputation as an elected DA. While he may have had shortcoming and might have committed some errors, they said, none of his misdeeds warranted criminal actions. But not everyone rallied to Alexander's support.

"I do not believe for a second that Alexander should be DA because I think his mental abilities continue to be adversely affected by his long-time meth use, even though he appears sober now," argued State Bar Deputy trial counselor Cydney Batchelor,

Although he has been recommended for disbarment by the State Bar for misconduct and at least temporarily removed from office, Alexander hasn't given up the fight. In addition to appealing the State Bar decision, he is also challenging the county Board of Supervisors' decision to suspend him without pay.

"I am the elected District Attorney of this county; I still believe I am," Alexander said in August.

He has hired Sacramento attorney Rudy Nolen, who has filed an appeal of the State Bar Court's decision to disbar him. Nolen is also challenging the county supervisors' decision to suspend Alexander, arguing that the board "acted out of its scope of jurisdiction on a number of grounds" when it suspended the befallen prosecutor, and violated his rights in the process.

"It did not have authority to fire Alexander because a sitting District Attorney is subject to removal only by Attorney General Office or by way of recall election or a grand jury accusation," Nolen argued. "The board did not provide Mr. Alexander with prior notice of planned actions and the board failed to provide Alexander with an open hearing or an opportunity to defend himself against the allegations."

"I continue to believe that the actions taken by the board were outside of their authority, which was, to me, an illegal attempt to remove Jon from his position," he told the Chronicle.

In his October 2012 lawsuit against the State Bar, Alexander's attorney claimed that "the accusations against him were not only politically motivated by fellow lawyers and DAs, whom he called enemies, but the accusations also were driven by incorrect factual allegations and bias against a former meth addict."

"My opponents are subjecting me to additional scrutiny and criticism because of my former drug addiction," Alexander argued.

It wasn't Alexander's recovery status, but his prosecutorial misconduct that did him in, though, Judge Armendariz held.

"Jon Alexander knew or should have known, as an experienced prosecutor, that there's no excuse for conversing with a defendant in the absence of retained counsel, regardless of whether she barged into his office and voluntarily made several incriminating statements during their conversation," she wrote in her decision to disbar him.

One disgruntled attorney is former Del Norte Prosecutor Michael Riese, who gave Alexander a chance to work as a prosecutor in his office based on his excellent skillls as a trial lawyer. Alexander was fired from the DA office by Riese for improper behavior. But Alexander later rebounded to defeat Riese for the top spot. Riese filed a lawsuit against Alexander in July 2012, accusing him of malicious prosecution for allegedly trying to frame him for child endangerment and DUI. Both charges against Riese were later dismissed.

The Downward Spiral

Before Alexander won election as Del Norte County District Attorney, his dalliance with methamphetamine almost killed him. Burdened with emotional strain over the declining health of his parents and running a busy law practice, Alexander first used cocaine and then switched to snorting meth.

"I was doing meth to keep my practice going. I did meth while cranking out a bunch of work, then did some more to stay up. Then after a couple of days straight I took Ambien to sleep," he recalled in an interview with California Lawyer magazine. "Around 2000, I graduated to smoking meth," Alexander recounted. "If you think snorting meth gets its claws in you, then smoking it completely puts your head in the dragon's throat."

After losing a beautiful oceanfront home in 2002, expensive sports car, a loving girlfriend, and a thriving law practice due to a long-term suspension over fees owed to a client, police threw him in jail for driving while his license was suspended. Out of jail, but now broke and homeless, Alexander continued to find solace in meth.

He lived out of his car or in shelters before eventually winding up crashing beneath the crawl space of a friend's house in Laguna Beach, where he slept on a stained, filthy mattress. In a sad reminder of his lost career, Alexander kept his Italian suits wrapped in garbage bags hanging from a rusty pipe in the crawl space. As the world around him spun out of control, Alexander became so despondent that he jammed a .32 pistol in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger to end his brutal dependency on meth.

"I can still remember the metallic taste of the gun in my mouth," Alexander said.

What stopped him from committing suicide was his mother's dog, Prince, whom he kept as companion. Slowly he put the gun down, feeling obligated to fulfill the promise he made to his ailing mother to take care of Prince.

Then Alexander had a close brush with death at the hands of others. On a mission to score more meth, he was attacked at a motel, struck in the head and knocked unconscious. Alexander suffered a broken neck, requiring a steel rod and transplanted disc to hold him together.

"I didn't have the good sense to die," Alexander told the Sacramento Bee.

This violent episode convinced Alexander to make a decision: live or die. Never a quitter, and with the heart of a prizefighter, Jon Alexander dusted himself off, prayed hard, and regained the right to practice law again in December 2004 -- after completing the State Bar substance abuse program. To stay sober and busy, Alexander sponsored a Little League Team, led a weekly 12-step drug program and served as keynote speaker at the County Drug Summit. Serving as mentor for recovering addicts at Jordan's Recovery Center in nearby Crescent City, the residents there adored him as the "comeback lawyer" and a true friend.

"When these guys come to Jon, no matter how beat down they are, he always finds a way to build them up," Sandra Morrison, the facility administrator, told California Law.

Bouncing Back, Breaking Bad

In January 2005, then Del Norte County District Attorney Mike Riese hired Alexander as Assistant DA to give the former meth addict another shot at redemption as a public servant. It wasn't long before Alexander got into hot water, though. In June 2005, Alexander wrote a personal letter to a judge urging him to give a stiff prison term to a meth dealer who, ironically, had been previously represented by Alexander when he worked as a public defender for the county. The judge reported Alexander's improper behavior not only to the defendant's lawyer, but also his boss, DA Riese.

"I'm guilty of bad judgment, arrogance and overstepping my bounds," a contrite Alexander wrote in a letter of apology to DA Riese.

Unimpressed, Riese fired Alexander, and he found himself suspended once again by the State Bar, this time for three months. Reinstated to practice after 90 days, like the Energizer bunny, Alexander bounced back with a vengeance, running against Riese for the DA's post in 2006. He lost the race, but not his mission.

In 2010, Alexander tried again, accusing Riese of corruption and investing his life savings of nearly $100,000 in his "Death to Meth" campaign. He won, by 196 votes out of 10,000 cast.

And now, thanks to his misconduct, he's out again, but he's still vowing war on meth.

"Meth is ravaging this country and I intend to fulfill and deliver on those campaign promises, and I look forward to returning to those duties," he said.

Joe Alexander, a former meth addict, turned his life around, becoming the county's top prosecutor on a "Death to Meth" platform. But while he managed to kick the drug, he hasn't been able to kick his need to bend the rules to go after it.

Although Alexander's saga appears to be winding to a close, it's not quite over yet. In July, Del Norte County rejected his petition to reinstate his salary while his appeals conclude. And next week, he has a hearing on his request that the State Bar consider reversing Judge Armendariz's recommendation that he be disbarred. But for the time being, at least, the "Death to Meth" prosecutor is on the outside looking in.

Crescent City, CA
United States

"Defelonization"--The Next Step in Winding Down the Drug War [FEATURE]

Thirteen states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government have already passed laws making simple drug possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony, and the momentum appears to be growing. A bill in California to do something similar has passed the legislature and is currently sitting on the governor's desk, and efforts are afoot to push a defelonization measure through the Washington legislature next year.

An overcrowded California prison (supremecourtus.gov)
Such measures are designed to ease prison overcrowding, ease pressures on budgets, and help drug users by avoiding saddling them with felony convictions. They also reflect increasing frustration with decades of drug prohibition efforts that have failed to stop drug use, but have resulted in all sorts of collateral costs.

In California alone, even after Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) prison realignment scheme, more than 4,000 people remain in state prisons on simple drug possession charges. At $47,000 per inmate per year, that comes out to more than a $200 million annual bill to state taxpayers.

Under current California law, people convicted of a drug possession felony can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. More than 10,000 people are charged with drug possession felonies each year, although many of them receive probation if convicted.

California state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) moved to redress that situation with Senate Bill 649, which passed the legislature on the final day of the session. The bill is not a defelonization bill per se; instead, it makes drug possession a "wobbler," meaning it provides prosecutors with the flexibility to charge drug possession as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

"Our system is broken," said Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which supported the bill. "Felony sentences don't reduce drug use and don't persuade users to seek treatment, but instead, impose tremendous barriers to housing, education and employment after release -- three things we know help keep people out of our criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating into their families and communities."

Even Republicans got on board with the bill, helping to get it through the Assembly earlier this year.

California state Sen. Mark Leno (wikipedia.org)
"I am proud that we got bipartisan support in the Assembly," Leno told the Chronicle.

The bill currently awaits Gov. Brown's signature, and although his signature is not required for it to become law, Leno said he believed the governor would act on it, and he urged supporters to let the governor know now that they want him to sign it.

"Anyone can go to the governor's web site and offer support through an email communication," Leno said. "I am always hopeful he will sign it."

While Californians wait for the governor to act (or not), activists and legislators in Washington are gearing up to place a defelonization bill before the legislature there next year. Sensible Washington, the activist group behind the effort, says it has lined up legislative sponsors for the bill and will pre-file in December for next year's legislative session.

State Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo) will be the primary sponsor of this proposal in the House. Reps. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver), Jessyn Farrell (D-Seattle), and Chris Reykdal (D-Tumwater) have all signed on as official cosponsors, with more to be announced soon. Sensible Washington hopes to have a companion bill filed simultaneously in the Senate.

Under current Washington law, the possession of any controlled substance (or over 40 grams of cannabis) is an automatic felony. Under this new proposal, the possession of a controlled substance -- when not intended for distribution -- would be reduced from a felony charge, to a misdemeanor (carrying a maximum sentence of 90 days, rather than five years). Laws regarding minors would not be affected.

"Removing felony charges for simple drug possession is a smart, pragmatic approach to reducing some of the harms associated with the war on drugs," said Anthony Martinelli, Sensible Washington's communications director. "The goal is to stop labeling people as felons, filling up our prisons and ruining their lives in the process, for possessing a small amount of an illegal substance."

He elaborated in a Tuesday interview with the Chronicle.

"We support full decriminalization, like the Portuguese model, but defelonization is a big step forward, and we feel that the public and lawmakers are ready for it," he said. "We have to find a way to deal with the dangers of the war on drugs. Another reason is the massive disparity in our cannabis law -- an ounce is legal, but an ounce and a half is a felony. This would remove felonies for cannabis possession, but we don't think anyone should be hit over the head with a felony for personal drug possession."

Martinelli said Sensible Washington and its allies would be spending the next few months preparing to push the bill through the legislature.

"We will be building public and legislative support, continuing to work on garnering media attention, activating our base, and getting more lawmakers on board," he said. "We're really trying to form a bipartisan coalition and get other organizations involved as well."

One of those groups is the ACLU of Washington. Sensible Washington and the ACLU of Washington were bitter foes in the fight over the state's successful I-502 marijuana legalization initiative -- Sensible Washington opposed it as a half-measure that endangered medical marijuana, a claim that ACLU and other advocates contested -- but appear to be on the same page when it comes to this sentencing reform.

"We support the decriminalization of drug use", said Alison Holcomb, criminal justice project director for the ACLU of Washington. "We're looking forward to working in collaboration with Sensible and its allies to achieve that goal."

Martinelli said he could now announce that the proposed bill has picked up its first Senate sponsor, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D), to add to its growing list of House sponsors. Missing from that list of House sponsors is one of the most prominent drug reformers in the House, Rep. Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland), the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, but that's not because he opposes the idea, Goodman told the Chronicle Tuesday.

"As chair of the committee, it's important for me to be an honest broker to get legislation through," Goodman explained. "My position as chair is weakened if there is a potentially controversial issue and I'm seen as being on one side of it. It's not that I oppose it, and I certainly will hold a hearing on it and move it, but my role is more to facilitate negotiations on provisions of the bill without being an interested party," he said.

It is an idea that is certainly worth pursuing, he said.

"We need to reprioritize. The tough penalties we impose on people for merely possessing drugs is so arbitrary compared to the penalties for other offenses where there is direct physical harm perpetrated against others," Goodman said. "And by now, we all acknowledge that drug possession is not merely an indiscretion, but might be linked to behavioral health issues. Our approach should be to facilitate therapeutic interventions. We have deferred prosecution programs already, but only for alcohol. Those arrested for drug possession are not eligible because it's a felony. If we could make deferred prosecution available for drug cases, we could make much more headway on the problem," he said.

And doing so would only codify what is already often existing practices, he said.

"Many or most courts and prosecutors are already pleading down felony drug cases to misdemeanors because of budget constraints and space limitations in the jails," Goodman noted. "We can change the law to conform with that practice without an additional threat to public safety. Beyond that, we could remove the prejudicial effect of a felony conviction when it is so evident they hinder people from reintegrating into the community."

While Sensible Washington and its allies are moving full steam ahead, passing the bill could be a multi-year effort, Goodman warned.

"I anticipate prosecutors saying that if we set a certain possession threshold, drug dealers will make sure they possess no more than that amount and will play the system," he said. "We have to figure out a way to find a threshold or divide possession cases into degrees. I hear the concern, but I'm not sure what the solution is. But this is a next important phase of drug policy reform: cranking down the drug war yet one more notch and doing what's rational and fiscally responsible."

There is lots of work to be done, Goodman said.

"We'll see how this plays out in the legislature. It's probably going to need more lobbying and more background discussion among more legislators," he predicted. "So far, it's not a real prominent topic, so it might end up being a work in progress. But who knows? It might catch on fire, and we'll get a quick consensus."

Health Canada Approves Heroin Maintenance [FEATURE]

Last Friday, Health Canada used some creative rule-reading to approve a program that would provide prescription heroin to a small number of hard-core users, and the Conservative health minister isn't happy. But doctors, advocates, and the users themselves are quite pleased -- and once again, Canada stays on the cutting edge when it comes to dealing smartly with heroin use.

Health Canada approved access to prescription heroin for at least 15 people who are completing their participation in Vancouver's Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Dependence (SALOME), which is testing whether prescribing heroin was more effective than prescribing methadone for users who have proven resistant to conventional treatments. The move came after participants and advocates have been calling for an "exit strategy" for the 322 people in the study.

SALOME began at the end of 2011 and has been enrolling participants on a rolling basis for a year at a time. The final group of participants will finish up at the end of next year. It built on the success of the North American Opioid Maintenance Initiative (NAOMI), a study in Vancouver and Montreal from 2005 to 2008. That study found that using heroin is cheaper and more effective than using methadone to treat recalcitrant heroin users.

While the Conservative federal government has been a staunch opponent of heroin maintenance, not to mention also fighting a bitter losing battle to close down the Vancouver safe injection site, Health Canada bureaucrats were able to find a loophole that will allow doctors to prescribe heroin to graduating study participants under the ministry's Special Access Program (SAP).

That program is designed to provide drugs to Canadians with life-threatening illnesses on a "compassionate or emergency" basis. The SAP includes "pharmaceutical, biologic and radiopharmaceutical products that are not approved for sale in Canada." The program covers diseases including intractable depression, epilepsy, transplant rejection and hemophilia, but heroin addiction isn't mentioned.

"Health Canada made a wonderful decision," said Scott Bernstein, Health and Drug Policy Lawyer for the Vancouver-based Pivot Legal Aid Society, which represents 22 SALOME participants and the BC Association of People on Methadone in order to advocate for their continued access to health care and the protection of their human rights. "The decision was one based on the evidence and not ideology. It means that those SALOME participants allowed access can live safer, more stable lives, lives free of crime and remaining under the care of doctors, not drug dealers."

But Health Minister Rona Ambrose appeared to have been caught flat-footed by the Health Canada decision. She issued a statement the same day decrying the move, saying that it contradicted the government's anti-drug stance.

Pharmaceutical diacetylmorphine AKA heroin (wikimedia.org)
"Our government takes seriously the harm caused by dangerous and addictive drugs," Ambrose said. "Earlier today, officials at Health Canada made the decision to approve an application under the Special Access Program's current regulations to give heroin to heroin users -- not to treat an underlying medical condition, but simply to allow them to continue to have access to heroin for their addiction even though other safe treatments for heroin addiction, such as methadone, are available."

The move is "in direct opposition to the government's anti-drug policy and violates the spirit and intent of the Special Access Program," Ambrose said, adding that she would take action to "protect the integrity of the (SAP) and ensure this does not happen again."

Ambrose's remarks prompted a Monday response from SNAP (the SALOME/NAOMI Patients Association), comprised of "the only patients in North America to be part of two heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) clinical trials" -- NAOMI and SALOME. SNAP noted that European heroin-assisted treatment trials had allowed participants to continue to be prescribed heroin on compassionate grounds after the trials ended and that "heroin-assisted therapy is an effective and safe treatment that improves physical and psychological health when the participants are receiving treatment."

"The Canadian NAOMI trial is the only heroin-assisted treatment study that failed to continue offering HAT to its participants when the trial ended in Vancouver," SNAP said. "We do not want to see the same outcome for the SALOME trial. Currently, SALOME patients are being offered oral hydromorphone when they exit the trial. However, there is currently no scientific evidence to support this treatment option for opiate addiction in the doses required; thus we urge you to reconsider your comments and to support Health Canada's decision to grant special access to heroin for patients exiting the SALOME trial. We also urge Canadians to support the immediate establishment of a permanent HAT program in Vancouver, BC."

Patients and their supporters weren't the only ones supporting the Health Canada move and criticizing Minister Ambrose for her opposition. New Democratic Party health critic Libby Davies also had some choice words for her.

Davies was "outraged" that Ambrose would "overrule her own experts," she said. "Medicalized heroin maintenance has been used very successfully in places like Europe. It's another example of the Conservative government ignoring sound public policy, instead making decisions based on political dogma."

Indeed, while Canada has been on the cutting edge of opiate maintenance in North America, being the scene of the hemisphere's only safe injection site and heroin-maintenance studies, similar moves have been afoot in Europe for some time. Prescription heroin programs have been established in several European countries, such as Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Now, it seems that Canada will join them, despite the health minister's dismay.

Vancouver
Canada

Senate Hearing Takes on Mandatory Minimums [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on mandatory minimum sentencing last Wednesday as Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and fellow committee member Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) sought to create momentum for a reform bill they filed together this spring, the Justice Safety Valve Act (Senate Bill 619).

Senate Judiciary Committee, hearing on mandatory minimums -- Rand Paul waiting to testify
The hearing comes in the face of a federal prison population that has increased seven-fold in the past 30 years, driven in large part by mandatory minimum sentences, the number of which has doubled in the past 20 years. Many of them are aimed at drug offenders, who make up almost half of all federal prisoners. Taxpayers are shelling out more than $6.4 billion this fiscal year to pay for all those prisoners.

Mandatory minimum sentencing reform has already won support from the Obama administration, with Attorney General Eric Holder last month issuing guidance to federal prosecutors instructing them not to pursue charges with mandatory minimums in certain drug cases and announcing last week that the shift would also include people who have already been charged, but not convicted or sentenced.

And it has support on the federal bench. The same day as the hearing last week, Judge Robert Holmes Bell, chairman of the criminal law committee of the US Judicial Conference, sent a letter to the committee expressing the federal judiciary's position that mandatory minimums lead to "unjust results" and its "strong support" for the Justice Safety Valve Act. The letter noted that the federal judiciary has a longstanding policy of opposing mandatory minimums.

The hearing began with an extended photo-op and media availability as Sens. Leahy and Paul chatted before the cameras in an exercise in bipartisan camaraderie.

"Senator Paul and I believe that judges, not legislators, are in the best position to evaluate individual cases and determine appropriate sentences," said Leahy. "Our bipartisan legislation has received support from across the political spectrum."

Leahy noted the Justice Department's recent moves on mandatory minimums, but said that wasn't enough.

"The Department of Justice cannot solve this problem on its own," Leahy said. "Congress must act. We cannot afford to stay on our current path. Reducing mandatory minimum sentences, which have proven unnecessary to public safety, is an important reform that our federal system desperately needs. This is not a political solution -- it is a practical one, and it is long overdue."

Paul, for his part, was on fire at the hearing. The libertarian-leaning junior senator from Kentucky decried not only the inequity of the harsh punishments but also of policies that disproportionately affect racial minorities.

"I know a guy about my age in Kentucky who grew marijuana plants in his apartment closet in college," Paul related. "Thirty years later, he still can't vote, can't own a gun, and when he looks for work, he must check the box, the box that basically says, 'I'm a convicted felon, and I guess I'll always be one.'"

It wasn't just white guy pot offenders Paul was sticking up for.

Pat Leahy
"If I told you that one out of three African-American males is forbidden by law from voting, you might think I was talking about Jim Crow 50 years ago," Paul said. "Yet today, a third of African-American males are still prevented from voting because of the war on drugs. The majority of illegal drug users and dealers nationwide are white, but three-fourths of all people in prison for drug offenses are African American or Latino."

As was the case with the Judiciary Committee hearings on marijuana law reform earlier this month, octogenarian Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) appeared to be the sole holdout for maintaining harsh war on drugs policies. Grassley, the ranking minority member on the committee, complained that the move to pull back on mandatory minimums ignored the fact that the law was originally written to address sentencing disparities based on judicial discretion.

"No longer would sentences turn on which judge a criminal appeared before," Grassley said before criticizing the Supreme Court for making federal sentencing guidelines advisory and the Obama administration for citing prison costs as a reason to reduce mandatory minimums. "So we have this oddity, this administration finally found one area of spending it wants to cut," Grassley complained.

Among witnesses at the hearing, only Scott Burns, formerly of the drug czar's office and currently executive director of the National District Attorney's Association, sided with Grassley. He said crime is down and it is a myth that the federal system is in crisis.

"Prosecutors have many tools to choose from in doing their part to drive down crime and keep communities safe and one of those important tools has been mandatory minimum sentences," Burns said.

But other witnesses, including former US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman, disagreed. Tolman told the committee that the mandatory minimum sentencing structure was inherently unfair because it put all discretion in the hands of prosecutors, who have a vested interest in securing convictions and harsh sentences. Political concerns of prosecutors rather than the public safety too often drive charging decisions, which should instead be left up to judges, he said.

Even conservative witnesses agreed that mandatory minimum sentencing had become excessive.

"The pendulum swung too far, and we swept in too many low-level, nonviolent offenders," said Mark Levin, policy director of the Right on Crime Initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading voice in the conservative criminal justice reform movement.

The bill has been filed, the hearing has been held, support has been made evident. Now, it is up to the Congress to move on the Justice Safety Valve Act and other pending sentencing reform legislation.

Washington, DC
United States

Hemp in the Time of New Federal Marijuana Policy [FEATURE]

It's not just medical and legal marijuana states that watched the Justice Department's announcement of its response to marijuana law reforms in the states with interest. Nine states have laws regulating the production of industrial hemp, and ten more have asked Congress to remove barriers to industrial hemp production.

Rep. Massie, Comm. Comer & Rep. Polis (Vote Hemp via youtube)
Hemp is also moving in the Congress. An amendment to the Farm Bill cosponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Jared Polis (D-CO) passed the House on a vote of 225-200 in July and will now go to a joint House-Senate conference committee. And the Industrial Hemp Farming Act (House Resolution 525 and Senate Bill 359) is pending in both chambers.

At a Tuesday Capitol Hill briefing organized by the industry group Vote Hemp (video embedded below), state and federal elected officials said they thought the Justice Department's policy directive on marijuana opened the door not just to regulated medical and legal marijuana, but also to industrial hemp production. Some states intend to move forward, they said.

"That Department of Justice ruling pertained to cannabis," said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner John Comer, "and hemp has always been banned because it's in the cannabis family. The Department of Justice ruling pertained to states with a regulatory framework for cannabis, and we feel that includes hemp as well. Our legislation set up a regulatory framework."

The legislation Comer is referring to is Kentucky Senate Bill 50, the Bluegrass State's industrial hemp bill, which passed the legislature with bipartisan support, gained endorsements by both of the state's Republican US senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and became law without the governor's signature in April. It establishes an Industrial Hemp Commission and sets up procedures for licensing farming and processing.

"We have a hemp commission meeting Thursday, and we are going to request that Rand Paul send a letter to the DEA telling them we intend to get going next year unless the Department of Justice tells us otherwise," Comer said. "We are taking a very proactive stance in Kentucky. We've been trying to replace tobacco, and hemp is an option not only for our farmers, but it could also create manufacturing jobs in our rural communities."

The commission did meet Thursday, and it voted unanimously to move forward with industrial hemp production, aiming at producing hemp next year.

"That's our first goal, to get the crop established. Then, once companies and industries see that we have a crop here established and growing, we believe industries will start coming here looking for it instead of importing it from other countries," said Brian Furnish, chairman of the Industrial Hemp Commission, after the Thursday vote.

According to Vote Hemp, Kentucky isn't the only state planning on moving forward with hemp next year. Vermont just released its Hemp Registration Form that allows farmers to apply for hemp permits and the Colorado Department of Agriculture is developing regulations to license hemp farmers in 2014. North Dakota has issued permits for several years now.

Imported hemp is now a $500 million a year industry, Vote Hemp's Eric Steenstra said.

Congressman Thomas Massie (R-KY), who also played an important role in passing the Kentucky bill and who is a cosponsor of the House hemp bill, said he was encouraged by the Justice Department policy directive, but that it was not enough.

"We need more than a Justice Department ruling," he told the press conference. "As a farmer and entrepreneur, I want some certainty. I want a legislative remedy for this, and that's why I continue to push hard for our bill, which would exclude hemp from definition as a controlled substance."

Vote Hemp's Eric Steenstra
But while the House hemp bill now has 47 cosponsors, it still has a long row to hoe. The hemp amendment to the Farm Bill, which would allow hemp production for university research purposes, has already passed the House and awaits action in conference committee.

"If you can attach an amendment to a spending bill, then you can get action," said Massie. "I have to give credit to Rep. Polis for doing this. This is a farm issue, not a drug issue. And while there was debate over whether it was wise to even have a vote, it passed. People decided spontaneously to vote for it as an amendment."

While the Senate has not passed a similar provision, Massie said he was hopeful that it would make it through conference committee.

"There is no equivalent in the Senate, there is no companion amendment, but we do have [Senate Minority Leader] Mitch McConnell, who is all for it," he said. "I'm hopeful it will survive, and we'll continue to work on the standalone hemp bill."

"It was important to get the House language in the Farm Bill," said Polis. "Not only does it allow universities to do research that is needed, but it also symbolically moves forward with embracing the potential for industrial hemp production."

Polis said he was cheered by the Justice Department's policy directive when it came to hemp.

"They listed eight enforcement priorities, and industrial hemp isn't even on the enforcement radar," the Boulder congressman said. "We see no federal interest in going after states or hemp producers. The risk is minimal. But minimal isn't good enough for some folks, and that's why we want to continue to gather support for the Industrial Hemp Farming Act. You don't want to have to depend on a federal prosecutor or the attorney general not getting up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning."

Industrial hemp may be an afterthought for Justice Department policy setters, but the recent guidance has emboldened hemp advocates to push forward faster than ever. Getting hemp research approved in the Farm Bill would be a good first step; passing the Industrial Hemp Act would be even better. But it doesn't look like some states are going to wait for Congress to act.

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Senate Holds Hearing on State Marijuana Legalization [FEATURE]

The Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday afternoon held a hearing on marijuana legalization and conflicts between state and federal marijuana laws. Led by committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the hearing featured testimony from the deputy attorney general who has set Justice Department policy, two officials in states that have legalized marijuana and one critic of marijuana legalization.

The hearing marked the first time Congress has grappled with the issue of responding to state-level marijuana legalization and was notable for its emphasis on making legalization work in states where it is legal. It was also notable in that of all the senators present, only one, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), bothered to dredge up the sort of anti-marijuana rhetoric that had in years and decades past been so typical on Capitol Hill.

"Marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug," said Grassley, who turns 80 next week. "It's illegal under international law as well, and the treaty requires us to restrict its use to scientific and medical uses. These [legalization] laws flatly contradict our federal law. Some experts fear a Big Marijuana, a Starbucks of marijuana," he lamented.

Grassley's lonely stand reflects changing political realities around marijuana policy. The other senators who spoke up during the hearing -- Democrats Leahy, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island -- all represent states where voters have already expressed support for medical marijuana and a region where support for outright legalization is high. They were all more interested in removing obstacles to a workable legalization than in turning back the clock.

"Last November, the people of Colorado and Washington voted to legalize marijuana, and these new laws are just the latest example of the growing tension between state and federal marijuana laws and the uncertainty about how such conflicts are resolved," Leahy said as he opened the hearing. "Marijuana use in this country is nothing new, but the way in which individual states deal with it continues to evolve. We all agree on the necessity of preventing distribution to minors, on preventing criminal enterprises from profiting, and on drugged driving. But I hope that there might also be agreement that we can't be satisfied with the status quo."

The first witness was Deputy Attorney General James Cole, author of last month's policy directive notifying state governments that the Justice Department would not seek to preempt their marijuana laws and instructing all federal prosecutors to leave legal marijuana alone -- with a number of exceptions. Sales to minors, the use of guns or violence, profiting by criminal groups, a marked increase in public health consequences like drugged driving, and distribution of marijuana into non-legal states are all among the factors that could excite a federal response, Cole's directive noted.

On Tuesday, Cole reiterated and went over the policy directive for senators, but the most striking part of his testimony was his admission that the federal government could not effectively put the genie back in the bottle.

"It would be very challenging to preempt decriminalization," Cole conceded in response to a question from Leahy. "We might have an easier time preempting the regulatory scheme, but then what do you have? Legal marijuana and no enforcement mechanism, which is probably not a good situation. You would also have money going to organized criminal enterprises instead of state coffers."

The three Democratic senators all prodded Cole and the Justice Department to do something about the legal marijuana (and medical marijuana) industry's problems with banks and financial services. Because of federal pressure, such institutions have refused to deal with marijuana, leaving those businesses drowning in cash. The senators also questioned reports that the DEA had been telling armored car companies not to do business with marijuana businesses.

"What about the banking industry?" asked Leahy. "A cash only business is a prescription for problems. We're hearing that DEA agents are instructing armored car companies to stop providing services to medical marijuana companies. It's almost as if they're saying 'let's see if we can have some robberies.' What is the department going to do to address those concerns?"

"The governors of Colorado and Washington raised this same issue," Cole acknowledged. "There is a public safety concern when businesses have a lot of cash sitting around; there are guns associated with that. We're talking with FinCEN and bank regulators to find ways to deal with this in accordance with laws on the books today."

"There should be specific guidance to the financial services industry," a not-quite-mollified Leahy replied.

The committee then heard from King County (Seattle), Washington, Sheriff John Urquhart. "The war on drugs has been a failure," the sheriff said bluntly. "We have not reduced demand, but instead incarcerated a generation of individuals. The citizens decided to try something new. We, the government, failed the people, and they decided to try something new."

Urquhart saw no great tension between the federal government and legal marijuana states, and he, too, brought up the issue of banking services.

"The reality is we do have complementary goals and values," Urquhart said. "We all agree we don't want our children using marijuana. We all agree we don't want impaired drivers. We all agree we don't want to continue enriching criminals. I am simply asking that the federal government allow banks to work with legitimate marijuana businesses who are licensed under this new state law."

The committee also heard from Kevin Sabet of Project SAM (Smart About Marijuana), the voice of 21st Century neo-prohibitionism.

"In states like Colorado," he said, "we've seen medical marijuana cards handed out like candy, we've seen mass advertising. At the marijuana festival in Seattle we saw 50,000 people smoking marijuana publicly; it's the public use of marijuana that worries me. I don't see the evidence of trying to implement something robust, especially in the face of an industry that will be pushing back against every single provision. In a country with a First Amendment and alcohol and tobacco industries that profit off addiction, I worry that, inevitably, American-style legalization is commercialization, no matter the interests of state officials and regulators."

But nobody except Grassley seemed to be listening.

Marijuana legalization advocates and drug law reformers liked what they heard Tuesday.

"It feels like there's a paradigm shift underway in the Justice Department's interpretation of federal drug control law," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "They seem to recognize that drug control should be first and foremost about protecting public health and safety, and that smart statewide regulatory systems of the sort that Colorado and Washington are proposing may advance those objectives better than knee-jerk enforcement of federal prohibitions."

"For years, the legalization movement has been gaining traction as people learn this is neither a fringe issue nor a partisan one, but one responsible for deep inequities in our justice system, the expansion of criminal gangs and the increase in unsolved violent crimes," said Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) board member and former Denver cop Tony Ryan. "There's a long road ahead, and this hearing leaves many questions unanswered, but this historic discussion means we are on our way to a more rational and effective drug policy."

"The Department of Justice is finally taking seriously the dangers that a lack of access to simple banking services poses to consumers, employees and business owners," said Aaron Smith, director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. "We are encouraged that the growing consensus among essentially all stakeholders is that banking access must be available to legal businesses. It portends a quick reform to this dangerous and unnecessary situation."

"The era of robust state-based regulation is here," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Legalizing marijuana and shrinking the number of people behind bars in the US is an issue the left and right can join together on. Like the repeal of alcohol prohibition, the repeal of marijuana prohibition will save taxpayer money, put organized crime syndicates out of business, and protect the safety of young people."

But at a time when marijuana prohibition remains the federal law of the land, perhaps former Seattle police chief and LEAP member Norm Stamper had the most down-to-earth take.

"While I would have liked to have seen a substantive change in policy, what we were really listening to in that hearing was the sound of a changing political climate," said Stamper. "People who can't agree on any other political issue are coming together over this one, and politicians on both sides of the aisle ignore that at their own peril."

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