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Maryland Legislature Approves Medical Marijuana Defense Bill

A bill that would allow Maryland medical marijuana patients to mount an affirmative defense against pot possession charges passed the House of Delegates Saturday after being amended and approved by the House Judiciary Committee Thursday. The amended measure was then approved by the state Senate Monday night, which had earlier passed its own version of the bill. The measure now heads for the desk of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), who has indicated he will sign it.

Patients could still be arrested, but not convicted under the proposed law. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
The bill, Senate Bill 308, builds on the 2003 Darrel Putnam Compassionate Use Act, which allowed for a medical necessity defense, but only to limit sentences. Under the 2003 law, qualified patients could still be found guilty and stuck with a misdemeanor conviction record, but could only be fined a maximum of $100.

SB 308 amends the 2003 law so that patients with "clear and convincing evidence" that they need to use marijuana for medical reasons are no longer found guilty and fined $100, but "if the court finds that the person used or possessed marijuana because of medical necessity, the court shall enter a finding of not guilty."

Unlike other medical marijuana states, patients are not protected from arrest and prosecution, but must instead defend themselves in court. Nor are there any provisions for them to grow their own medicine or buy it in dispensaries. But SB 308 does contain a provision that calls for a study group to ponder more comprehensive legislation for next year.

Sponsors of the measure had originally hoped to pass comprehensive medical marijuana legislation that would have established dispensaries throughout the state and protected patients from arrest, but that plan was derailed when the Secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene voiced concerns over cost of implementation. Now, the only costs will be $49,300 from the general fund to pay for one full-time employee to staff the study group.

"While we had hoped to see a full medical marijuana law on par with those in 15 other states, it's encouraging that the legislature is moving toward the goal of protecting patients from arrest and providing legal access to doctor-recommended medicine," said Dan Riffle, legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, which was among those lobbying for a stronger bill. "I congratulate the sponsors and committee leaders for their ability to compromise swiftly and shepherd this bill to the House floor. This vote is a major victory and paves a clear path to the Governor’s desk."

Medical marijuana is legal in 15 states and the District of Columbia, and is under consideration in a number of state legislatures this year.

Annapolis, MD
United States

Delaware Senate Passes Drug Sentencing Reform Bill

Major drug sentencing reform is on the verge of being enacted in Delaware. The state Senate April 5 approved the reform bill, House Bill 19. The bill has already passed the House, but must return to the House for a final vote after it was amended in the Senate. Gov. Jack Markell (D) has said he will sign the bill.

Delaware State House, Dover (image via wikimedia.org)
Under the bill, simple possession of small amounts of illegal drugs would be treated as a misdemeanor. Such offenses are currently felonies. The bill also does away with the current possession with intent to distribute and distribution offenses and replaces them with aggravated possession and drug dealing. Judges would exercise more discretion in sentencing, with sentences being increased if certain aggravating factors, such as proximity to a school or the involvement of juveniles, are present.

The bill also reduces the size of "drug-free zones" near schools, day care centers, or churches from 1,000 feet to 300 feet. The House version of the bill removed proximity to a church as an aggravating factor if the church does not have a school or day care center, but the Senate amended that language to include churches, synagogues, or other places of worship regardless of the presence of a day care center.

On the other hand, the bill creates a new felony offense of possessing firearms while possessing drugs. It also increases penalties for dealing prescription drugs.

Advocates of shrinking the "drug-free zones" said the 1,000-foot zone led to residents of Wilmington, the state's largest city, being disproportionately charged with felonies. "You end up with persons charged with felonies who live in cities who commit the exact same offense as persons charged with a misdemeanor out in the county," Chief Deputy Attorney General Charles Butler told the Senate. "That's why we shrunk the space."

Delaware is now just a procedural vote and a governor's signature away from joining the ranks of states enacting serious sentencing reform in recent years.

Dover, DE
United States

Poland Edges Toward Drug Decriminalization

In the Polish Sejm (parliament) April 1 members voted to amend their draconian, decade-old drug laws. The move is designed to draw a distinction between users and dealers, and could result in no charges being filed against users, but slightly stiffer penalties for dealers and people holding large quantities of dope.

Warsaw skyline (image via wikimedia.org)
Under the current law, people possessing even the smallest amounts of illegal drugs can be sentenced to up to three years in prison. The amendment would enable prosecutors to avoid bringing charges against people holding small amounts of drugs who have not been previously convicted of a drug crime. Prosecutors would also make a determination on whether a person is drug dependent, and could order treatment in lieu of prosecution and imprisonment.

The measure passed the lower house
on a vote of 258 to 159, with six abstentions. It must still be approved by the upper house and signed into law by the president.

Progress on reforming Poland's drug laws came only after years of delay. A team of experts appointed by the former justice minister had drawn up the amendments more than two years ago.

The Sejm was also the object of a concerted civil society campaign to liberalize the drug laws. Celebrity chef Robert Maklowicz created a Facebook video, Cook Our Children a Better Future, arguing for reform, while at the same time, 71 Polish artists sent an open letter to the Sejm seeking a review of Polish drug policy.

Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, and renowned international human rights expert Wiktor Osiatyński also joined the fray, signing a January open letter coordinated by Krytyka Polityczna, an influential group of liberal thinkers. Over 100 organizations from Poland and worldwide recently signed a petition coordinated by the Polish Drug Policy Network.

For many advocates, the proposed reforms don't go far enough. There is also concern that the quantity guidelines for determining what constitutes personal use have yet to be set. But there are also rumblings of discontent from the other side of the issue. "Which mafia did you support today?" asked conservative Law and Justice Party member Beata Kampa.

[Editor's Note: Kampa's comment presumably was made without irony, but is actually highly ironic. While decriminalization without a legal supply won't undo the mafias, it is prohibition of drugs that allows mafias to earn illicit drug profits.]

Warsaw
Poland

Czechs Ban New Synthetic Drugs, Salvia, Ketamine

The Czech Parliament has moved to ban some 33 synthetic substances now being sold in the country, including synthetic cannabinoids and mephedrone, which is often marketed as bath salts and has stimulant effects similar to cocaine or amphetamines. Also included in the prohibitionist legislation is salvinorin A, the active ingredient in salvia divinorum, and the weird hallucinogen ketamine.

packaged synthetics (image via wikimedia.org)
The European Union banned mephedrone last November, while the US DEA banned synthetic cannabinoids effective March 1. The DEA considers mephedrone a drug of interest, but has yet to ban it. About 20 US states have banned synthetic cannabinoids, with action pending in others this year, while similar moves against mephedrone in the states are just getting underway.

The Czech Senate voted 67-0 April 4 to approve the legislation, which amends the Czech drug law. The House passed the bill last month. According to the Prague Daily Monitor, President Vaclav Klaus is expected to sign the bill into the law before the end of this month.

Some senators worried that rushing the legislation into effect would not allow merchants to get rid of their supplies in time, but that concern fell on deaf ears. Deputy Pavel Bem of the governing Civic Democrats, a sponsor of the legislation, argued that the ban should go into effect as quickly as possible.

The Czech government decriminalized drug possession
in personal use amounts in January 2010. It is unclear how these newly criminalized substances fit into the decriminalization scheme or whether personal use amounts for them have been set.

Prague
Czech Republic

Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 36,000 people, including more than 15,000 last year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest or killing of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

prohibition fuels violence (image via Wikimedia)
Thursday, March 31

In Ciudad Juarez, nine men and a woman were killed during an attack on a bar near the international bridge to the US. At least three car loads and as many as 16 gunmen arrived at the bar before entering and firing indiscriminately.

Some witnesses and internet posters later accused federal police of complicity in the attack on the bar. By some accounts, federal police established a cordon around the area while the attack was still in progress, and some say that a federal police officers were in the bar as little as three minutes before the attack, allegedly threatening the owner to close. Some accounts also say federal police impeded municipal police who were arriving at the crime scene.

Between 621 and 632 people were killed in Ciudad Juarez during the first three months of 2011, according to statistics kept by researcher Molly Molloy.

Friday, April 1

In Ciudad Juarez, four people were killed when gunmen attacked an outdoor food stand. Among the dead was the 10-year old son of the stand's owner. The shooting occurred in extremely close proximity to a school where children were playing in the yard, leading many nearby parents to grab their children and run for cover.

In total, 24 people were killed in a 24 hour period in Ciudad Juarez between Thursday and Friday.

In El Paso, two people were convicted for kidnapping an American dealer in El Paso. The two men, Cesar Obregon-Reyes and Rafael Vega stand accused of kidnapping Sergio Saucedo because he lied to his suppliers about the date on which a 670-pound marijuana load was confiscated. Saucedo was later found in Juarez with his hands chopped off.

Sunday, April 3

In Veracruz, six police officers were killed by a group of gunmen armed with AK-47’s. A message was left in a nearby patrol car calling the officers "traitors," although it is unclear what the perpetrators meant by this. The Mexican government has said that the criminal organization responsible is likely from the state of San Luis Potosi, although declined to say which organization they believe responsible.

Monday, April 4

In Tijuana, two men were killed as they waited in line to cross the San Ysidro border crossing into the United States. Kevin Romero, 28, and Sergio Salcido, 25, were in their vehicle when a gunman approached their car and shot them both dead with a 9 mm handgun. The motive is unclear.

In Mexico City, the government announced a plan to give rewards for information on suspected money laundering activities. Tipsters will be rewarded with up to 25% of funds or property that authorities seize. The Mexican government has in the past struggled to deal with money laundering and illicit cash flows.

In Acapulco, two gunmen and a soldier were killed during an intense fire fight in the city’s Emiliano Zapata neighborhood. Additionally, a soldier and a police officer were wounded in the clash. Sometime during the 30-minute gun battle, gunmen set fire to a local market and auto repair shop, which were both completely destroyed. Nobody was injured in the blaze.

Tuesday, April 5

In Veracruz, police discovered five bodies in an empty lot in the town of Carlos A. Carillo. All five had been badly beaten, tortured, and then shot once in the head.

[Editor's Note: We typically rely on El Universal to supply a weekly body count. They didn't provide one this week, so this week's figure is based only on our own research and may be revised upward.]

Total Body Count for the Week: 97

Total Body Count for the Year: 1,864

Total Body Count for 2010: 15,273

Total Body Count for 2009: (approx.) 9,600

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx): 4,300

Total Body Count for Calderon's drug war through 2010: 34,849

Total Body Count for Calderon's drug war to date: 36,713

Mexico

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Missing drug money, meth-dealing sheriffs, cocaine-snorting crooked cops, cops turned robbers -- it's just another week on the corrupt cops beat. Let's get to it:

prohibition corrupts (image via Wikimedia)
In Paris, Tennessee, the director of the 24th Judicial District Drug Task Force was suspended March 30 pending an investigation into missing drug money. Steven Lee, the director of the drug task force, was suspended with pay and a secretary within the task force fired, although the Henry County district attorney didn't say exactly why. He did say he called in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in early 2010 after $4,200 went missing from a drug seizure and the drug task force had no record of the money ever being seized. He said the investigation is continuing.

In Poughkeepsie, New York, a retired Poughkeepsie police officer was arrested March 31 for allegedly tipping off drug dealers in exchange for cocaine. Retired officer David Palazzolo, 47, is accused of using departmental computers to learn the identities and locations of undercover narcotics officers and turning that information over to admitted cocaine in return for some of their product.

In Van Buren, Missouri, the Carter County sheriff was arrested Saturday on methamphetamine distribution charges. Sheriff Tommy Adams, 31, went down after an investigation by the Van Buren Police, the FBI, the Missouri Division of Fire Safety, and the Missouri Highway Patrol. Adams' home burned down in January 2010, and authorities said at the time nothing suspicious was found, but they did not say if the fire prompted the meth investigation. An unnamed deputy sheriff was also arrested Saturday, but has not been charged. At last report, Adams was in jail trying to raise a $250,000 cash-only bond.

In Cincinnati, a Cincinnati police officer was arrested Tuesday on charges of obstructing justice and unauthorized use of a computer.  Officer Alvin Triggs was arrested by officers from the Regional Enforcement Narcotics Unit for an offense that took place January 28. The two counts are both felonies and carry maximum sentences of 2 ½ years each.

In Philadelphia, a former Philadelphia police officer pleaded guilty Tuesday to helping accused drug dealers rob a man they thought was a drug courier. Christopher Luciano, 23, pleaded guilty to robbery, conspiracy, kidnapping, official oppression, and possession of a drug with intent to deliver. Luciano and a fellow 25th District officer, Sean Alivera, 31, were arrested October 4. Alivera was scheduled to plead guilty on Wednesday. The pair went down after agents from the state Bureau of Narcotics Investigation heard from an informant that a Philadelphia drug dealer was bragging that Philadelphia police had helped him set up and rob drug couriers. Agents then set up a sting, and the pair bit. They are now looking at at least five years in prison and as many as 67. No sentencing dates have been set yet.

Drug Test Protestors Send Urine Sample to Florida Governor

A new political action group formed to protest Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) new drug testing policy for state employees is sending a jar full of urine to Tallahassee to save state officials the bother of traveling south to the Florida Keys.

There's plenty more where this came from, governor. (Image via Wikimedia)
Last month, Scott signed an executive order mandating random drug testing of state employees. The state legislature is also considering a bill that would require drug testing for welfare and food stamp recipients.

The newly formed Committee for the Positive Insistence on a Sane Society (PISS) said it was sending the urine sample to Scott to peacefully protest against his drug testing policy. It accused Scott of wasting tax dollars on unjustifiable intrusions into the privacy of state workers.

"In one breath our CEO professes to be focusing on cutting wasteful government spending and laying off tens of thousands of state employees, while at the same time he announces a program to drug test state employees without any legitimate basis for such an invasion of privacy," wrote attorney Robert Clinton in a PISS press release.

The sample will be "kept under lock and seal" until it can be transported to Tallahassee. "In this way, the committee will save the Florida taxpayers from the expense of paying for individual drug testing in Key West," according to the press release.

Florida Gov. Scott is not, of course, the only American politician calling for drug testing of various segments of the population. Bills calling for drug testing of welfare or unemployment recipients are active in a number of states this year. Perhaps other activists will emulate the example of PISS.

FL
United States

Maine Marijuana Decriminalization Bills Die

A pair of bills that would have decriminalized the possession of up to five ounces of marijuana or six pot plants died last week when the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted unanimously to kill them. Maine has already decriminalized the possession of up to 2.5 ounces.

No growing your own, you Mainers! (Image courtesy of the author)
The bills, LD 750 (plants) and LD 754 (ounces), were introduced by Rep. Ben Chipman (I-Portland). Passing them would be a matter of basic justice, he told the committee during a hearing last month.

"It is my fundamental belief that people who use marijuana for personal use on a recreational basis are not criminals," Chipman said.

But opponents, led by the Maine Prosecutors Association, said that Maine already had a progressive marijuana law. And the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency warned that the bill decriminalizing up to six plants would allow people to grow enough pot to impact street sales without threat of criminal charges.

Augusta, ME
United States

Marijuana Legalization Bill Dies in Washington State

A bill that would have legalized marijuana in Washington state has died. It failed to move out of committee by Friday, a legislative deadline for action.

Will voters take matters into their own hands now? (Image via Wikimedia)
The bill, House Bill 1550, sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson (D-Seattle), would have legalized the possession and sale of marijuana, with sales regulated by the state Liquor Control Board. The bill would have imposed a 15% per gram tax on marijuana sales, which supporters said would bring hundreds of millions of dollars into state coffers in coming years.

The bill had the support of the entire Seattle legislative delegation, as well as the Seattle Times editorial board. But that wasn't enough to move it out of committee.

The legislature's failure to act clears the way for an effort to take the issue directly to the voters. Sensible Washington is already gathering signatures for a legalization initiative to go before the voters in November.

They need 241,000 valid signatures by July 8, a target they missed by some 50,000 signatures last year after failing to win the support of some key players in Evergreen State pot politics.

Olympia, WA
United States

New Zealand to Regulate Rather Than Prohibit Synthetic Marijuana

The government of New Zealand plans to regulate and restrict access to legal synthetic cannabinoids, government spokesmen said last week. Under the plan, synthetic cannabinoids could not be sold to people under 18, and they would face regulation of their packaging, marketing, and sales.

New Zealand takes a reasoned approach to fake pot. (Image via Wikimedia)
The government is following the advice of the Expert Advisory Committee on Drugs, which reviews controlled drugs and other psychoactive substances and recommends how such substances should be classified. The committee found no basis for banning fake pot, but said it was unacceptable for the products to be available without regulation.

Products containing synthetic cannabinoids have appeared in markets worldwide in recent years, typically sold as "incense" under brand names including Spice and K2. A number of European governments have responded by banning the substances, as has the US DEA, which imposed an emergency ban earlier this year.

Americans states have responded similarly, with more than a dozen of them imposing bans before the DEA acted, and moves are afoot in other state legislatures this year to enact more bans. California, however, responded similarly to what is proposed in New Zealand, banning it only for minors.

Under the New Zealand proposal, in addition to the ban on minors, sales would be banned in places where minors gather and there would be restrictions on advertising. Fake pot products would have to be sold in child-resistant containers and would have to be labeled with the synthetic cannabinoids they contain.

Moving synthetic cannabinoids from an unregulated substance to a restricted substance under the Misuse of Drugs Amendment Act of 2005 will require parliamentary approval.

Auckland
New Zealand

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