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Congressional Budget Deal Allows Federal Funding for Needle Exchange and Medical Marijuana in the Nation's Capital

US House and Senate negotiators in conference committee approved the finishing touches on the Fiscal Year 2010 budget Tuesday night, and they included a number of early Christmas presents for different drug reform constituencies. But it isn’t quite a done deal yet--this negotiated version of the FY 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act must now win final approved in up-or-down, no-amendments-allowed floor votes in the House and the Senate. What the conference committee approved: * Ending the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs--without previous language that would have banned them from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, and similar facilities. * Ending the ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchanges in the District of Columbia. * Allowing the District of Columbia to implement the medical marijuana initiative passed by voters in 1998 and blocked by congressional diktat ever since. * Cutting funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign from $70 million this year to $45 million next year. In a news release after agreement was reached, this is how the committee described the language on needle exchange:
Modifies a prohibition on the use of funds in the Act for needle exchange programs; the revised provision prohibits the use of funds in this Act for needle exchange programs in any location that local public health or law enforcement agencies determine to be inappropriate
Its description of the DC appropriations language:
Removing Special Restrictions on the District of Columbia:...Also allows the District to implement a referendum on use of marijuana for medical purposes as has been done in other states, allows use of Federal funds for needle exchange programs except in locations considered inappropriate by District authorities.
And its language on the youth media campaign:
National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: $45 million, $25 million below 2009 and the budget request, for a national ad campaign providing anti-drug messages directed at youth. Reductions were made in this program because of evaluations questioning its effectiveness. Part of the savings was redirected to other ONDCP drug-abuse-reduction programs.
Citing both reforms in the states--from medical marijuana to sentencing reform--as well as the conference committee’s actions, Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann stopped just short of declaring victory Wednesday. “It’s too soon to say that America’s long national nightmare – the war on drugs – is really over,” said Nadelmann. “But yesterday’s action on Capitol Hill provides unprecedented evidence that Congress is at last coming to its senses when it comes to national drug control policy.” But, as noted above, there are still two votes to go, and DPA is applying the pressure until it is a done deal. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans will get HIV/AIDS or hepatitis C if Congress does not repeal the federal syringe funding ban,” said Bill Piper, DPA national affairs director. “The science is overwhelming that syringe exchange programs reduce the spread of infectious diseases without increasing drug use. We will make sure the American people know which members of Congress stand in the way of repealing the ban and saving lives.” Washington, DC, residents got a two-fer from the committee when it approved ending the ban on the District funding needle exchanges and undoing the Barr Amendment, the work of erstwhile drug warrior turned reformer former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA), which forbade the District from implementing the 1998 medical marijuana initiative, which won with 69% of the vote. “Congress is close to making good on President Obama’s promise to stop the federal government from undermining local efforts to provide relief to cancer, HIV/AIDS and other patients who need medical marijuana,” said Naomi Long, the DC Metro director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “DC voters overwhelmingly voted to legalize marijuana for medical use and Congress should have never stood in the way of implementing the will of the people.” "The end of the Barr amendment is now in sight,” said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This represents a huge victory not just for medical marijuana patients, but for all city residents who have every right to set their own policies in their own District without congressional meddling. DC residents overwhelmingly made the sensible, compassionate decision to pass a medical marijuana law, and now, more than 10 years later, suffering Washingtonians may finally be allowed to focus on treating their pain without fearing arrest." Medical marijuana in the shadow of the Capitol? Federal dollars being spent on proven harm reduction techniques? Congress not micromanaging DC affairs? What is the world, or at least Washington, coming to?
Washington, DC
United States

Prosecution: No More Crack Pipe Felonies for Houston

Prosecution: No More Crack Pipe Felonies for Houston Beginning January 1, prosecutors in Harris County, Texas, will no longer file felony drug charges against people found with less than one one-hundreth of a gram of illegal drugs. Currently in Houston, people caught with trace amounts of drug or holding crack pipes with drug traces are routinely charged with felonies. But under a new policy promulgated by Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos, police are instructed to instead issue Class C misdemeanor tickets to people caught in possession of crack pipes or trace amounts of drugs. That means arrestees will face only a $500 fine, not the up to two years in state jail mandated by the felony charge. The cops are not happy. “It ties the hands of the officers who are making crack pipe cases against burglars and thieves,” said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union. “A crack pipe is not used for anything but smoking crack by a crack head. Crack heads, by and large, are also thieves and burglars. They're out there committing crimes,” he told the Houston Chronicle. But Lykos told the Chronicle there were good reasons to change the policy. Less than one-hundreth of a gram of a drug is not enough for more than one drug test, and defense attorneys often want to run their own tests, she said. The policy change also “gives us more of an ability to focus on the violent offenses and the complex offenses,” she added. “When you have finite resources, you have to make decisions, and this decision is a plus all around.” Last year, Harris County prosecutors filed 46,000 felony cases, with 13,713, or nearly 30%, for possession of less than a gram of controlled substances. It is difficult to say how many of those would not have been charged as felonies under the new policy because most were charged only as possession of less than a gram. While police are grumbling, defense attorneys are beaming. “It's a smart move and it's an efficient move and it lets us get down to the business of handling criminal cases of a more serious magnitude,” Nicole Deborde, president-elect of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, told the Chronicle.
Houston, TX
United States

Medical Marijuana: LA City Council Votes to Cap Medical Marijuana Dispensaries at 70

Under a measure passed Tuesday by the Los Angeles City Council, the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in the city will shrink by more than 90%. The council voted to cap the number of dispensaries at 70, while recent estimates put the number of actually operating medical marijuana outlets in the city at between 800 and 1000. The vote is only the latest in the council’s torturous and twisted four-year effort to regulate the city’s booming medical marijuana retail industry. There were four dispensaries in the city when the council first tackled the issue in 2005. By the time the council issued a moratorium on new dispensaries in 2007, there were 186. In the past two years, their numbers have increased four-fold from there. Of the dispensaries that legally registered with the city prior to the moratorium, officials believe 137 are still open. Those establishments will be allowed to stay open, but may have to move to comply with restrictions on where they may locate. "I think we should hold true to those that followed the rules," said Councilman Dennis Zine, explaining why he voted to reward dispensaries that were legally registered. If Los Angeles actually does cap dispensaries at 70, that will mean roughly one dispensary for every 50,000 residents. In Oakland, the only other large city in the state to impose a cap, four dispensaries serve 100,000 residents each. Other, smaller, California cities with caps include Berkeley (one dispensary for each 34,000 residents), Palm Springs (one for each 24,000 residents), West Hollywood (one for every 9,000 residents), and Sebastopol (one for every 3,500 residents). The council will continue working on its medical marijuana dispensary regulation ordinance tomorrow (Wednesday), and could even see a final vote then.
Los Angeles, CA
United States

Europe: Czech Government Decriminalizes Up To Five Pot Plants, 15 Grams

Beginning January 1, possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana or up to five marijuana plants will not be a punishable offense in the Czech Republic. Likewise, people will be able to possess up to 40 hallucinogenic mushrooms. The limits were announced Tuesday after they were decided on by the cabinet. Late last year, the Czech parliament approved a new penal code that specified no punishment for the possession of “small amounts” of drugs. But the code did not specify just what constituted a “small amount,” with the result that police sometimes charged people, especially home pot growers with more serious offenses. The task of formalizing those limits has been taken up by the Justice Ministry, which submits its proposals to the cabinet. The ministry has also proposed setting the “small amount” limits for ecstasy at four tablets and for hashish at five grams. Similarly, people could possess up to two grams of methamphetamine without fear of punishment. The cabinet will consider those proposals in two weeks. Possession of amounts greater than “small amounts,” but less than those assumed to indicate drug trafficking, will result of prison sentences of up to one year for marijuana and up to two years for other drugs. According to the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction‘s latest annual report, Czechs are among Europe’s leading pot smokers. Among young Czechs (age 16 to 34), 22% toke up at least once a year. The European average was 16%.
Czech Republic

Latin America: Top Honduran Anti-Drug Official Assassinated

The top Honduran anti-drug official was ambushed and killed today by hit men on motorcycles as he drove alone through the capital, Tegucigalpa. Former army Gen. Julian Aristides Gonzales, 57, director of the Office for Combating Drug Trafficking, died after being hit by multiple shots from the gunmen, who escaped. Gonzalez had complained of receiving death threats from drug traffickers in the past. He was set to retire in two months and move to Canada. "We regret the death of this man who offered his life for the welfare of Hondurans," national police spokesman Orlin Cerrato said. "By the decency of his actions, he unleashed a real battle against the main vice that besets humanity." Along with the other Central American republics, Honduras is a key transit country for cocaine smuggled out of South America and destined for the insatiable markets of the north. Gonzalez’s office this year has seized five tons of cocaine out of an estimated 100 tons that transit’s the country each year. Trafficking through Honduras is believed to have intensified since the June coup that overthrew President Mel Zelaya. After the coup, the US suspended anti-drug cooperation and development aid to the rump government of interim President Roberto Micheletti. Honduran police complain that they have detected more aircraft smuggling drugs from South America since the coup, but have had less ability to stop them without US helicopters and radar. Citing worries about the increase in drug trafficking, Gonzalez held a press conference yesterday to urge the public to help the fight by reporting suspicious activity. He was dead 24 hours later.

Europe: Mayor of Amsterdam Says Cities Need Different Coffee Shop Policy From Border Towns

As the Dutch federal government ponders its next moves in its campaign against the country’s famous cannabis coffee shops, the mayor of Amsterdam is advising against a one-size-fits-all policy. The needs of major cities are different from those of border towns, and policy needs to reflect those differences, Mayor Job Cohen said. Cohen’s remarks came in a letter sent Friday to Interior Minister Guusje ter Horst. In it, Cohen argued that Amsterdam differs markedly from border towns, which are tightening up on coffee shops in the face of an influx of drug tourists from more repressive neighboring countries. Tourists in Amsterdam behave differently than the border town shoppers, he said. "Tourists in Amsterdam usually visit the capital for several days and, in addition to many other activities, sometimes also go to a coffee shop," Cohen wrote. Cohen also staked out a position against requiring membership to be able to buy marijuana at a coffee shop. That has been a proposal floated by the national government. And Cohen rejected as ineffective a ban on coffee shops with 250 yards of schools. Underage age youth are already barred from entering coffee shops, he noted, adding that most teens usually have third parties procure their drugs for them.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

It's an odd mix this week: A cop with a gambling jones doing petty bribery, a pair of narcs misbehaving, and a Customs officer and a small town cop heading for prison are just the half of it. Let's get to it:

In Bridgeton, New Jersey, a state prison guard was arrested November 25 for allegedly smuggling marijuana into the South Woods State Prison, where he worked. Aikeem Williams, 24, is charged with a second-degree count of official misconduct, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of drug paraphernalia. Williams went down when he was searched upon reporting to work and coworkers found 4.2 ounces of marijuana divided into 16 individually wrapped baggies. He faces between 10 and 20 years in prison if convicted and is sitting in jail on a $250,000 bond.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, a Catawba County sheriff's deputy was charged Tuesday with conspiring to distribute cocaine. Brandon Lee Evans, 27, was a part-time courthouse bailiff from October 2008 until Monday, when he was interrogated and then arrested. According to the federal complaint, Evans accompanied another man on drug runs where they cooked ounces of cocaine into crack and he sold cocaine to some of a third man's drug clients, sometimes in uniform. He is charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute at least five kilograms of cocaine. Evans went down after one his partners was raided and arrested in September. He gets a bail hearing today.
US Customs border crossing sign (courtesy
In Cape Girardeau, Missouri, a former Cape Girardeau police officer was charged Monday with official misconduct and filing a false report for falsely reporting one of her checks stolen and for passing on information about a third party to a wanted drug offender. Michelle Gary, who resigned from the force three weeks ago under a cloud of suspicion, allegedly took $100 to help a wanted drug fugitive see whether there was an active warrant on the third party. Under interrogation, Gary claimed she only got $40, and it was intended for gambling, not payment for sensitive information. The other count involved an $800 check she wrote to pay off gambling debts. When it bounced, she falsely reported that the person who cashed the check had stolen it. Both charges are misdemeanors.

In Tampa, a former high-ranking Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent has agreed to plead guilty to charges he trafficked in cocaine and supplied drug traffickers with law enforcement information. Richard Padilla Cramer, once head of the Nogales, Arizona, ICE office, was arrested in Tucson in September. A federal criminal complaint alleged that he aided a Mexican drug trafficking organization move cocaine through the US. He was also accused of investing $25,000 with a cartel in a 300-kilogram shipment of cocaine from Panama to Spain that was seized by police. Cramer eventually quit his job to work directly for the cartel, for whom he supplied information on the workings of US law enforcement.

In Newark, New York, two Wayne County Sheriff's Department narcs are facing charges for forcing their way into a private residence. Sgts. Joe Ayotte and John Hall allegedly drove in an undercover vehicle to a residence to confront a man who had contact with Hall's girlfriend. They allegedly burst through the door without permission, saying they wanted to fight people. The resident called Newark Police, and the sheriff's narcs told the townie cops they were there to discuss an undercover operation. But the resident went to the State Police barracks in Lyon to file a complaint, and now Ayotte and Hall have been suspended. It is expected that they will be charged with second degree criminal trespass and harassment.

In Phoenix, a former US Customs and Border Protection officer and his wife were sentenced last Friday to 37 months in federal prison for arranging to allow vehicles loaded with Ecstasy pass through his inspection lane at the Yuma port of entry. They admitted earning $33,000 in the scheme. Henry Gauani, 41, and his wife, Flora, 46, earlier pleaded guilty to federal Ecstasy distribution charges.

In Weston, Kansas, a former Weston police officer was sentenced Monday to 15 months in state prison for selling prescription drugs in Atchinson. Former Officer Kyle Zumbrunn earlier pleaded guilty to distribution of a controlled substance and illegal use of a telephone. He was arrested in September after he sold 80 pills to a Kansas Bureau of Investigation undercover officer. Prosecutors agreed with defense requests for probation, but Judge Martin Asher wasn't buying. Asher said he could not disregard the fact that Zumbrunn was a police officer when he committed the crime and that he deserved to go to prison.

In Craig, Colorado, a former Craig police officer was sentenced Tuesday to a one-year deferred jail term for stealing $500 in drug buy money from the All Crimes Enforcement (ACET) drug task force. Former Officer Bob Brabo pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor theft and was sentenced to serve 48 hours community service and pay $484.50 in fines. Ironically, Brabo was appointed to ACET in March after his predecessor was arrested for giving a department laptop computer to a woman with whom he was having a sexual relationship.

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal 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 over 12,000 people, with a death toll of over 5,000 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several 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:
anti-drug patrol by Mexican soldiers
Friday, November 27

Twenty-three people were killed in drug-related violence in the state of Chihuahua. Eight of these killings occurred in the capital city of Chihuahua, and 12 occurred in Ciudad Juárez. In Chihuahua, four men and a teenager were killed when the vehicle in which they were traveling was ambushed by a group of gunmen. In another part of the city, an eight-year old boy was killed after being hit by a stray bullet. Among the dead in Ciudad Juárez was a woman who was badly burned after an explosive device went off in the brothel in which she was thought to work.

Saturday, November 28

An army officer and six gunmen were killed in two separate gun battles in Zacatecas and Michoacan. In Zacatecas, the army repelled an attack by gunmen, killing five and capturing eight. They also seized five vehicles, weapons, clothing and food. In Michoacan, an army officer was killed after a military convoy was ambushed by gunmen in a hillside community. Two other people were killed in drug-related violence in Michoacan, six in Ciudad Juárez, and one in the greater Mexico City area.

Sunday, November 29

At the Calexico, CA border crossing, authorities seized more than 6,000 pounds of marijuana hidden in a shipment of door knobs. Dogs alerted officers to the truck in which more than 458 wrapped packages of marijuana were found. A 30-year old Mexican national was taken into custody.

In Tijuana, three men were shot and killed by suspected cartel gunmen wielding AK-47s. The killings came just hours after a firefight between soldiers and drug traffickers at a gas station left one soldier wounded in the foot. In another part of Baja California, six men were arrested on suspicion of being tied to a known drug trafficker, Raydel Lopez Uriarte, aka "El Muletas" ("crutches").

Seven people were killed in Chihuahua, six of whom were killed in Ciudad Juárez. One of the murders occurred just feet from soldiers that were guarding the city's main plaza, where national security officials were meeting to analyze drug-related violence. In Chiapas, an anti-mining organizer was killed by a gunman on a motorcycle. Mariano Abarca was head of the Mexican Network of Communities Affected by Mining.

In Reynosa, police rescued a US citizen who had been kidnapped a week earlier in McAllen, Texas. Raul Alvarado, 36, was forced into a vehicle at gunpoint and taken to a safehouse in Reynosa, where he was bound and beaten. His abductors demanded a ransom of $30,000 and two luxury cars. It is unclear if any ransom was paid. There has been an increase in kidnappings on the US side of the border, most of them linked to illegal activity.

Tuesday, December 1

In Mexico City, a protected state witness was gunned down in a Starbucks. Edgar Enrique Bayardo, a former federal policeman, was killed by two gunmen wearing dark suits. His bodyguard was seriously injured in the attack, and a customer at a nearby table was also wounded. Bayardo was arrested last year on suspicion of being employed by the Sinaloa Cartel. Bayardo, whose lavish lifestyle raised suspicion, was made a state witness under the protection of the attorney general's office. He had apparently been followed by gunmen for several days, and it is unclear why he was not better protected or out in public.

Wednesday, December 2

In the Ciudad Juárez area, nine suspected assassins were arrested in an operation carried out by the army. The men are all suspected of working for El Chapo Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and its enforcement arm, La Linea.

Total Body Count for the Week: 144
Total Body Count for the Year: 6,882

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

Marijuana: California Tax and Regulate Cannabis 2010 Initiative Suspends Signature Gathering -- Because They Have Enough

The Tax and Regulate Cannabis 2010 initiative, sponsored by Oakland medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee, has laid off its paid signature gatherers, saying they already have sufficient signatures to qualify for the November 2010 ballot.
Richard Lee, in front of Oaksterdam University gift shop (courtesy
Lee told the Chronicle Thursday that more than 650,000 signatures have been turned in, and that he expects an additional 50,000 or so to dribble in during the coming weeks. Precisely 433,971 valid signatures of registered California voters are required for an initiative to be approved for the ballot. That leaves Lee and the initiative a substantial cushion of about a quarter-million signatures to make up for any invalid ones.

The campaign will wait to turn in signatures until January 15. If they were turned in this month, the initiative would appear on the June ballot, not the November ballot. Lee and the campaign prefer the latter.

Lee's initiative, which would allow individuals up to 25 square feet to grow their own and would allow counties and municipalities to opt to tax and regulate marijuana sales on a local basis, is controversial. Some national figures believe it is premature and risks going down in flames at the polls, thus setting the movement back, while some California activists believe it does not go far enough and does not entice voters with potential revenues for the crisis-ridden state budget.

But it will be on the November 2010 ballot, provided the signatures are certified by election officials in February. It may not be the only legalization initiative on the ballot. At least two other signature-gathering campaigns for competing initiatives are under way.

Law Enforcement: Man Trying to Snuff Joint at Checkpoint Ends Up Dead -- Attorney Accuses Police

A Worcester, Massachusetts, man who died after being taken into custoday at a sobriety checkpoint last week was beaten by as many as 20 police officers, an attorney for his family said Monday. Kenneth Howe, 45, died at the Andover State Police barracks when police noticed he "became unresponsive" during booking.

The official version of the story, promulgated to the local media by Essex County District Attorney's Office spokesman Steven O'Connell is that Howe, a passenger in a vehicle stopped at the checkpoint, made "furtive movement," then "jumped out of the vehicle, struck the trooper, and fled." After a brief chase on foot and an "ensuing struggle," Howe was handcuffed and charged with assault and battery on a police officer.

O'Connell said that Howe was taken to the Andover barracks, and, while being booked "slumped over and became unresponsive." He was taken to Lawrence General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:45am last Thursday.

But today, attorney Frances King, hired by Howe's widow to represent her and her three young children, painted a starkly different picture of the events leading to Howe's death. Citing the testimony of the driver of the vehicle in which Howe was riding, King said Howe was pulled out of the truck, beaten by police, and dragged before he collapsed next to a police cruiser. The driver has made a taped statement about what he saw that night, King said.

The "furtive movements" were Howe attempting to snuff out a marijuana joint and put on his seat belt, King said. A female state trooper approached the truck, and Howe held up his hands and tried to explain that all he had in his hand was the joint. The trooper then reached into the truck, pulled Howe out, and screamed that he had assaulted her, King continued.

"Our position is that he never assaulted her," King said. Quite the contrary, she maintained: "It appears there were at least 10 to 20 officers all over the deceased, hands flailing." Howe was also "seen handcuffed and slumping to the ground, dragged over to the cruiser," she said.

The sobriety checkpoint was staffed by Massachusetts State Police, North Andover police and the Essex County Sheriff's Department. It was stopping every vehicle for a "threshold observation" to check for impaired drivers, a practice upheld by the US Supreme Court.

The Essex County District Attorney's Office is investigating, said O'Connell. An initial autopsy has been performed, but the cause of death has not been determined. Toxicology results are also pending. Police said they found one oxycodone tablet on Howe, for which he had a prescription.

"At this point, we're confident the Essex County DA's office is conducting a thorough investigation and that they are taking the case very seriously," King said. "I think it's only fair to allow the DA to conduct an investigation."

You don't need a crystal ball to see the lawsuit waiting to be filed here. But that won't come until after the Essex County District Attorney's Office investigates and exonerates the officers involved.

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