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Medical Marijuana: Not in Iowa, Not This Year

There will be no relief for Iowa patients who could have been helped by medical marijuana. A bill that would have legalized the medicinal use of marijuana in the Hawkeye State died last week, after it failed to get reported out of committee in time for a legislative deadline.

Introduced by state Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City), SF 293 would have allowed patients with qualifying medical conditions to use medical marijuana upon a doctor's recommendation and registration with the state. The bill would also have provided for the creation of "compassion centers," which could produce medical marijuana for numerous patients.

"The bill is essentially an attempt to address the suffering that people are in," Bolkcom said during a hearing last week. "People with severe medical conditions are not being helped by conventional medications. Studies have found that marijuana is an effective treatment."

But Sen. Merlin Bartz (R-Grafton) said that while he supported the notion of medical marijuana, he thought the bill lacked "correct checks and balances." Bolkcom agreed that the bill was perhaps not perfect, but vowed to return to the issue in coming years.

The Upper Midwest has so far remained immune to the lure of medical marijuana, with the closest medical marijuana states being Michigan to the east and Montana to the west. But that could change this year. Although South Dakota legislators killed a bill last month, legislative efforts in Minnesota and Illinois are still moving ahead.

Medical Marijuana: New Hampshire Bill Wins Committee Vote, Heads for House Floor

A bill that would allow patients suffering from specified diseases and conditions to use marijuana for medicinal purposes passed the House Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday on a 13-7 vote. The bill is now headed for a House floor vote next week.

Medical marijuana came before the House in 2007, too. But after passing out of committee, it was defeated on a vote of 186-177.

Last time, the committee made a "do not pass" recommendation to the House as a whole. This time, proponents hope the "do pass" from the committee can take the measure over the top.

The bill, HB 648, would set up a registry for patients with qualifying diseases or conditions whose doctors certified that they would be helped by the herb. Patients or caregivers could grow six plants and possess up to two ounces of marijuana. They could also possess up to 12 seedlings. Plants would have to be grown in a secure facility indoors.

"This is truly a matter of compassion. People who are suffering, at least in our state of New Hampshire, ought not to be called criminals," said Rep. Roger Wells (R-Hampstead), one of two committee Republicans to vote for the bill.

If it passed the measure, the committee would be going against the advice of "national drug experts," warned Rep. Peter Batula (R-Merrimack). "There is no right way to do the wrong thing," he said.

"The committee studied the bill very diligently, and now it has placed its stamp of approval on a well-written, responsible bill," said Matt Simon, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, which supports the bill. "It was a good day for democracy."

It will be a better day for democracy if Granite State legislators enact the bill and the governor signs it into law. More than 70% of New Hampshire voters support medical marijuana, according to a 2008 Mason-Dixon poll.

Drug Raids: Cops Shoot Michigan Student Over "A Few Tablespoonfuls" of Marijuana

Grand Valley State University film student Derek Copp is an avowed marijuana aficionado, reform activist, and a "a left-wing hippie peace-keeping liberal," according to his Facebook page. As of last week, he is also a victim of the drug war, or, more precisely, of police heavy-handedness in enforcing what appears to be a petty violation of the marijuana laws. Copp was shot and seriously wounded March 11 by a police officer who was part of a task force raiding his residence with a search warrant.

According to a compilation of local media accounts of the shooting, an Ottawa County deputy coming through the apartment's back door shined a flashlight in Copp's face, causing him to raise his right hand to cover his eyes. The officer then fired one round, striking the student in the chest. Copp said he had no idea the man who shot him was a law enforcement officer.

"He never even had a chance to even see who was coming at him, with a bright flashlight in his face," said his mother, Sheryl Copp. "He had no clue. He heard someone knock on his door, and he had no clue."

According to the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office, Copp was shot in the chest by a sheriff's deputy acting as a member of the West Michigan Enforcement Team, which consists of Ottawa County deputies and members of the Michigan State Police. Police have not identified the deputy, nor is it known whether he has been suspended. Investigators said Copp, 20, did not threaten or confront police when they entered his home. Nor have they revealed the search warrant, what they were looking for, or what they found.

But an attorney hired by Copp's family after the shooting said it was all over a very small amount of marijuana. In a Tuesday statement, attorney Frederick Dilley said: "I have been asked what drugs may have been seized by those executing the search warrant at Derek Copp's apartment. To my knowledge, the raid resulted in the seizure of a few tablespoonfuls of marijuana, and nothing more," Dilley continues, "The primary concern remains the manner in which this raid was carried out. And the apparent lack of any justification whatsoever for the use of force... much less deadly force in executing a search warrant."

Dilley is not alone in his concerns. The Grand Valley State University Student Senate issued a statement the same day wishing "Derek a full and complete recovery" and questioning police conduct. "Even though this incident took place off-campus," the statement said, "Student Senate is greatly concerned with the actions of the law enforcement team. Student Senate will await a full and complete explanation from the Michigan State Police. Like all students, we want to know why the West Michigan Drug Enforcement Team entered Derek Copp's apartment and why a firearm was used."

Even the university president demanded to know what had happened to one of his students. In a Monday e-mail to the university community, President Thomas Haas wrote: "The fact that this incident took place off-campus diminishes neither my interest nor my concern. The university's campus security staff was not involved. Like many of you, I await a full and complete explanation from law enforcement, and I have made a formal request for such information. I want to know what brought the Enforcement Team to Derek's apartment and why a firearm was discharged."

The shooting has also led to at least two protest demonstrations by students demanding answers. "Justify This Shooting!" demanded one sign held by a demonstrator. "We want answers!" read another. "Marijuana or not, unjust shot!" and "Our campus is not a war zone!", students chanted at a campus demo on Friday.

The Michigan State Patrol is investigating the shooting. That means the state police are investigating themselves, since the Western Michigan Enforcement Team consists of state police and Ottawa County sheriff's deputies.

Latin America: Peru to Export Coca Beer

A coca trade fair in Lima designed to demonstrate that coca is not cocaine showcased a number of products, but the star of the show was a coca leaf beer whose manufacturer has plans to export it to markets in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The fair was organized by the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys of Peru (CONPACCP), the country's largest coca growers' union.

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Cerveza Apu coca beer (photo from malamarxa.blogspot.com)
The coca beer, sold under the brand name Apu by the entrepreneurial Alarcón family of Andahuaylas, is already being sold (and eagerly consumed) in Peru's Andean region, as well as markets in Lima. General manager Manuel Alarcón told Living in Peru the beer was a big hit with tourists at Machu Picchu. But with a production capacity of 180,000 bottles a month, Alarcón is looking outside the domestic market.

Alarcon said the paperwork is already underway to export Apu to China, South Africa, Argentina, and Venezuela. That seems like a breach of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics, which sought to phase out use of the coca plant, excepting de-cocainized products such as Coca Cola. Some contest that interpretation of international law, however, and given that Venezuela has already inked deals with Bolivia to import coca products, it seems the treaty is sometimes observed only in the breach.

"Thankfully China is a country where coca leaves are accepted and its derivatives can easily enter the country," said Alarcón.

Peru is the world's second largest coca producer, after Colombia and ahead of Bolivia. While some of the country's hundreds of thousands of small producers are registered with the national coca monopoly and deliver their harvests to it, the majority of producers are not legally growing the plant, and much of it is destined for the insatiable international cocaine market.

The situation has led to years of conflict between coca growers and the Peruvian national government. If recent reports are to be believed, it is now leading to a resurgence of the Shining Path and an increasingly violent counterinsurgency operation by the Peruvian military in the Apurímac and Ene River valleys.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

This week, we have some drug cops whose misbehavior may not reach the standard of corruption, but is certainly worth noting. And then we have the usual corrupt cops. Let's get to it:

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too much drug cash can corrupt cops
In Orlando, Florida, Orange County Sheriff's Office narcs are under investigation for allegedly failing to turn up for drug searches after drinking cocktails for lunch as supervisors watched. The Sheriff's Office has confirmed it is investigating at least a half-dozen officers, including at least two sergeants, and there could be a "pattern" of bad behavior in the unit. The unit was already under fire after drug cases had to be dropped because officers got caught lying. This latest investigation came as a result of yet another investigation, this one of one of the narcotics sergeants involved and some missing evidence.

In Manitowoc, Wisconsin, a Manitowoc DARE officer was arrested March 2 for driving while intoxicated. Officer Michaelyn Culligan, 40, was arrested after the car she was driving got stuck in snow bank. Culligan has resigned from her DARE position, but is still on the force pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

In New York City, a New York prison guard was arrested March 4 after being caught with 15 kilograms of cocaine. Officer Edinson Rosales, 29, was ensnared in a sting operation by the DEA, NYPD, and Department of Corrections investigators, and agreed to carry the cocaine to Detroit for $15,000. He was to return from Motor City with $400,000 in cash proceeds from the sale of the cocaine, for which he was to have earned another $5,000. Now he faces charges of criminal possession of a controlled substance and eight to 20 years in state prison.

In Boston, an MIT police officer was arrested Saturday upon taking possession of a Fedex package containing 340 OxyContin tablets. Fedex workers had become suspicious of the package and notified police it contained a large quantity of prescription drugs. Officer Joseph D'Amelio was in uniform and driving an MIT police cruiser when he went to pick up the pills -- and Boston police were waiting for him. He is now charged with trafficking more than a hundred grams of OxyContin, for which he faces a mandatory minimum 10-year prison sentence if convicted.

In New York City, a former Customs and Border Protection supervisor at JFK International Airport pleaded guilty March 12 to charges relating to bribery and drug importation. Walter Golembiowksi, 66, was arrested during a long-term investigation into the trafficking of large quantities of hashish, other drugs, and other contraband into the US through JFK. The feds seized more than 600 pounds of hash and arrested 60 people involved in the ring. Golembiowski was caught on tape on multiple occasions accepting bribes from co-conspirators to allow illegal drugs and counterfeit goods to pass through Customs without inspection. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import narcotics, conspiracy to commit bribery, and conspiracy to commit bribery during an undercover sting operation (who knew?). He's looking at up to 50 years in prison.

Latin America: Mexico Prohibition Violence Catches Washington's Eye, New Initiatives Pending

When lawmakers in Washington managed to tear themselves away from the AIG bonus scandal, much of their attention this week was focused on Mexico. With prohibition-related violence there showing no sign of a let-up -- more than a thousand people have been killed already this year -- legislators held a number of hearings this week to assess the threat and see what the Obama administration plans to do about it.

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DEA Spanish-language poster targeting Mexican trafficking organization (2007)
At a joint hearing of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control and a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) warned that Mexican drug trafficking organizations posed a direct threat to the US. Citing a recent Justice Department report, he said they have a presence in at least 230 US cities.

But Durbin also said some of the blame resides north of the border. "The insatiable demand for illegal drugs in the United States keeps the Mexican drug cartels in business every day," he said.

"The facts about what is going on in Mexico are staggering, imposing an enormous threat to the United States," concurred Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

In the face of increasingly shrill congressional demands to "do something," Air Force Gen. Gene Renuart, who oversees the border as head of the Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee the administration is working on an integrated plan to address the seemingly unending violence, much of it taking place in the border towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and the Mexican cities on the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

He said likely measures would include efforts to clamp down on the flow of guns into Mexico, tightening border security, and increased support for the Mexican military. "I think we'll have good plans come out of this work this week," he said.

Renuart also hinted that the new plan could involve more boots on the ground in the border region. "Certainly, there may be a need for additional manpower," he said. "Whether that is best suited or best provided by National Guard or additional law enforcement agencies, I think, this planning team will really lead us to," he told the committee.

Mexican President Felipe Calderón has deployed some 50,000 troops in his war against the cartels, including some 8,500 who occupied Juárez and took over policing duties there last week. But Calderón's two-year-old offensive has only led to increasing levels of brutal and exemplary violence. More than 2,000 people died in the cartel wars in 2007, more than 5,000 last year, and the pace of killings this year should yield similar numbers.

But DEA chief of intelligence Anthony Plácido told the joint committee that the escalating violence was a "desperate attempt" by traffickers to fight off the government offensive. "DEA assesses that the current surge in violence is driven in large measure by the government of Mexico's offensive against these traffickers who, in turn, perceive themselves as fighting for a larger share of a shrinking market," he said.

With passage of last year's Mérida Initiative, the US has pledged some $1.4 billion in anti-drug aid to Mexico over the next three years. The first tranche of that aid has already been delivered, providing Mexico with helicopters and sophisticated surveillance equipment.

On Wednesday, in the week's first concrete action to crack down on the border, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was sending 50 Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms agents to the border to try to cut down the flow of weapons headed south.

Marijuana: Pot Prohibition Causes Harm While Not Achieving Goals, Report Finds

Marijuana prohibition has not achieved its goals, but has inflicted significant costs on society and individuals, a pair of University of Washington researchers concluded in a report released last week. And all for naught, they suggest, because decriminalizing pot or deprioritizing marijuana law enforcement does not appear to lead to higher levels of marijuana use.

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
The report, The Consequences and Costs of Marijuana Prohibition, was written by sociologist Katherine Beckett and geographer Steve Herbert, both associate professors in the University of Washington's Law, Societies, and Justice Program. Using data analysis and in-depth interviews, they compared the fiscal, public safety, and human costs of marijuana prohibition.

The scholarly duo found that the domestic portion of the federal drug control budget more than doubled in the 1990s, to more than $9.5 billion in 2001, with marijuana arrests accounting for nearly all the increase in drug arrests in that decade. With some 28,000 people imprisoned on marijuana charges in state or federal prison, that's an additional $600 million a year in incarceration costs borne by state and federal governments.

Despite the spike in marijuana arrests in recent years -- now more than 800,000 a year -- marijuana prohibition has signally failed to produce the desired results. Instead, the researchers found, the price of pot has dropped, the average potency has increased, as has availability, and use rates have often increased despite escalating enforcement.

"The report finds that the 'war on marijuana' is quite costly in both financial and human terms, and the prohibition of marijuana has not measurably reduced its use. This is a clear call for us to reconsider our laws and policies on marijuana," said Alison Holcomb, ACLU of Washington drug policy director.

What does not cause marijuana use rates to increase, said the researchers, are reformist policies. Areas that have decriminalized simple possession, deprioritized marijuana law enforcement, or that allow for medical marijuana have not seen increases in use rates, they found.

Medical Marijuana: Minnesota Bill Passes Another Senate Hurdle, Wins First House Vote

The Minnesota medical marijuana bill has survived a third state Senate committee vote and won its first House vote. The Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division passed the measure Tuesday on a divided voice vote. The following day, the House version of the bill passed the House Civil Justice Committee on a voice vote with no dissenting votes.

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Minnesota State Capitol
The bill, SF 97, would allow qualified patients or their caregivers to possess up to 2 1/2 ounces of usable marijuana and 12 plants. People suffering from cancer, glaucoma, AIDS, Hep C, or Tourette's Syndrome or a chronic or debilitating disease or its treatment that produces wasting syndrome, intractable pain, severe nausea, seizures, or spasms whose doctors approve of their use would qualify.

A previous version of the bill passed the Senate and every House committee vote during the 2007-2008 session, but died without a House floor vote. It faced the strong opposition of law enforcement and a veto threat from Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty's position has not changed, but bill supporters are hoping it will.

"I am increasingly confident that this will be the year that Minnesota joins the 13 other states that have acted to protect medical marijuana patients from arrest," said bill sponsor Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing). "This is an issue where science, compassion and simple common sense come together."

Now the bill goes to the Senate Finance Committee. Its companion bill is awaiting further action in the House.

Asset Forfeiture: Highway Robbery in Texas

Police in small town Tenaha, Texas, near the Louisiana line, have found a way of turning law enforcement into a lucrative racket. According to a recently filed federal lawsuit, police there routinely stopped passing motorists -- the vast majority of them black -- and threatened them with felony arrests on charges such as money laundering unless they agreed to sign over their property on the spot.

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teaching evil: US Dept. of Justice assets forfeiture program logo
More than 140 people accepted that Hobson's choice between June 2006 and June 2008, according to court records cited by the Chicago Tribune, which ran a lengthy article on the practice this week. Among them was a black grandmother who handed over $4,000 in cash and an interracial couple from Houston who handed over $6,000 in cash after police threatened to arrest them and send their children to foster care. Neither the couple nor the grandmother were charged with any crime.

The waiver form that the couple signed giving up their rights is particularly chilling. "We agree that this case may be taken up and considered by the Court without further notice to us during this proceeding. In exchange for this agreement, no criminal charges shall be filed on either of us as a result of this case, and our children shall not be turned over to CPS."

Officials in Tenaha, which sits on a heavily traveled highway between Houston and popular gambling destinations in Louisiana, said they were fighting drug trafficking and were operating in accord with state asset forfeiture law, which allows local police agencies to keep drug money and other goods used in the commission of a crime.

"We try to enforce the law here," said George Bowers, mayor of the town of 1,046 residents, where boarded-up businesses outnumber open ones and City Hall sports a broken window. "We're not doing this to raise money. That's all I'm going to say at this point," he told the Tribune.

But civil rights attorneys said what Tenaha was doing amounted to highway robbery and filed a federal class action law suit to halt the practice. Tenaha officials "have developed an illegal 'stop and seize' practice of targeting, stopping, detaining, searching and often seizing property from apparently non-white citizens and those traveling with non-white citizens," according to the lawsuit, which was filed in US District Court in the Eastern District of Texas.

One of the attorneys involved, David Guillory of Nacogdoches, told the Tribune he combed through county court records and found nearly 200 cases where Tenaha police had seized cash and property from motorists. In only 50 of those cases were drug charges filed. But that didn't stop police from seizing cash, jewelry, cell phones, and even cars from motorists not found with contraband or charged with any crime.

The practice was so routine in Tenaha that Guillory was able to find pre-signed and pre-notarized police affidavits, lacking only the description of the "contraband" to be seized.

"The whole thing is disproportionately targeted toward minorities, particularly African-Americans," Guillory said. "None of these people have been charged with a crime, none were engaged in anything that looked criminal. The sole factor is that they had something that looked valuable."

It's not just Tenaha, and it's not just blacks. Hispanics in Texas allege they are the victims of discriminatory highway stops and seizures, too. The practice is especially prevalent on the handful of US highways heading south from the I-10 corridor toward Mexico.

One prominent state legislator, Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said police across the state are increasingly relying on seizures to fund their operating budgets. "If used properly, it's a good law-enforcement tool to see that crime doesn't pay," said Whitmire. "But in this instance, where people are being pulled over and their property is taken with no charges filed and no convictions, I think that's theft."

Whitmire said the problem extends beyond Tenaha, and he's going to do something about it. On Monday, he filed a bill that would require police to go before a judge before attempting to seize property under the asset forfeiture laws. Ultimately, he said, he is looking for a law that allows police to seize property only after a suspect is charged and convicted in court.

"The law has gotten away from what was intended, which was to take the profits of a bad guy's crime spree and use it for additional crime-fighting," Whitmire said. "Now it's largely being used to pay police salaries -- and it's being abused because you don't even have to be a bad guy to lose your property."

Law Enforcement: Cops Go Phishing for Dope at Virginia Concerts, Reel in Plenty

The jam band Phish played a three-night show at the Hampton Coliseum in Hampton, Virginia, over the weekend -- their first appearance anywhere in five years -- but it was just like old times as local police and a surprising array of other law enforcement agencies arrested at least 267 people on drug charges and seized a reported $1.2 million worth of drugs. Hampton police reported 194 arrests, while police in neighboring Newport News reported 73 more.

Hampton police reported 81 felony arrests resulting in 119 charges and 113 misdemeanor arrests resulting in 126 charges. Newport News police didn't provide a breakdown of arrests, but said most resulted from operations targeting fans staying at local motels and hotels. The Newport News operation came "in anticipation of increased violations" of state drug laws, the department said, and a "majority of those arrested were Phish concert attendees."

Hampton police reported seizing marijuana, cocaine, heroin, Ecstasy, and various prescription drugs, as well as $68,000 cash. Newport News police reported seizing 17 grams of cocaine, 369 grams of marijuana, and small amounts of hashish, mushrooms, methamphetamine, Ecstasy, and OxyContin.

Big bust numbers at Phish Shows in the Hampton Roads are nothing new. When the band played Virginia Beach in 1998, police arrested 136 people, and when the band returned for a one-night show at the Coliseum in 2004, 100 people got busted.

The concerts drew about 17,000 people each night, and with such a target-rich environment, local police called their colleagues to get in on the action. In addition to Hampton, Poquoson, and Newport News police, other agencies working the show included the Hampton Sheriff's Office, the Virginia State Police, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the DEA, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the Army's Criminal Investigations Division, and the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations.

Substance using or peddling Phish fans: You're not paranoid. They are after you.

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