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The Week Online with DRCNet
(renamed "Drug War Chronicle" effective issue #300, August 2003)

Issue #71, 12/18/98

"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"

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TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Diana McCague Sentenced for Syringe Exchange (Including McCague's Statement to the Court and Links to Prior Coverage of the Chai Project)
  2. ACTION OPPORTUNITY: Protest On Steps of New Jersey Statehouse
  3. Bills Seeking to Decriminalize Marijuana, Legalize Medical Marijuana and Legalize Hemp Cultivation to be Introduced in New Hampshire Legislature in 1999
  4. Patient Who Was Denied Liver Transplant For Using Medical Marijuana Dies
  5. MEDIA SPOTLIGHT: Drug Smuggling by U.S. Marines a Growing Problem
  6. EDITORIAL: Unrighteous Indignation

(visit last week's Week Online)

or check out The Week Online archives


1. Diana McCague Sentenced for Syringe Exchange

Diana McCague, founder of the Chai Project of New Jersey, was sentenced this week (12/17) for the crime of distributing clean syringes to addicted individuals in New Brunswick. This was the second time that McCague had been arrested and convicted of the same charge.

At her first trial, in 1997, the judge called McCague "a modern day Joan of Arc" and said he'd be proud to have her as a daughter, though he claimed he was bound by the law and found her guilty, fining her $500 and suspending her drivers' license for 6 months.

This time, however, McCague was given a 90 day suspended jail sentence, plus fines of $750, another six months' license suspension and 100 hours of community service, which the judge has indicated he wants her to serve for the local DARE program.

"50,000 people in New Jersey are infected with the HIV virus" McCague told The Week Online. "Of those, half were infected by sharing a syringe, and another 25% were infected because they are the sexual partner or the child of an IV drug user. So what we are saying is that three fourths of New Jersey's HIV infections could have been prevented by the availability of sterile syringes."

The suspended sentence means that if McCague is caught with a syringe again, she faces certain jail time. Suspending her drivers' license was also painful because McCague has earned much of her income in recent years driving a cab. The community service will be problematic, she said, because 100 hours will be difficult to spare for someone who is struggling to make ends meet. But the suggestion that she might have to serve that service in the DARE program was the most shocking of all.

"I don't know, and even the judge doesn't know, whether he can make me do my service for DARE. I'll tell you though that I will not be made to say anything that I don't believe. If they want me to go into schools and do drug education, however, I'm going to go in there and tell the truth. And truth has nothing to do with what the state means when it talks about drug education."

Since her most recent arrest, the Chai Project has stopped exchanging syringes, though they are still doing outreach, providing condoms and legal safe drug use equipment, as well as providing information and treatment referrals. But if McCague has decided to obey the law of New Jersey, that doesn't mean that she respects it, or the people who write or enforce it.

"The facts being what they are, there is simply no excuse for the denial of sterile injection equipment to addicts. It's very simple: this law is killing people. Those in the legislature who support the law are murderers, the governor, who refuses to change the law, is a murderer, and the people who enforce this law are murderers. No one can dispute the fact that there are people in New Jersey right now who are addicted, who are sharing needles, and who are contracting HIV because we are no longer out there doing exchange. Those people are going to die. Plain and simple. And this law, and those who wrote and enforce it, are responsible for those deaths."

"They're throwaway people, according to the state" she added. "It's sad, but their lives apparently aren't as valuable as the political points that our esteemed governor is trying to make for herself."

McCague has provided DRCNet with her statement to the Court:

The Chai Project's mission is -- and always has been -- to reduce the harm of substance use and sexual activity. Always mindful of harm and the causes of harm, we have been diligent in assessing the effects of our activities. What sense would it make to work to reduce some harm only to produce other harm which might not otherwise have occurred? There is no evidence of our activities ever having caused damage -- either to an individual or to our community. The prosecutor may argue that the simple act of defying the law is harmful because it undermines the moral authority of the law. Assistant Prosecutor Bill Lamb made this argument before the appellate division in my first case and more recently in an op-ed piece that was published in the Home News Tribune. If this argument is accepted, we must define the activities of many Americans as having been harmful - including participants in the Boston Tea Party, those who facilitated the freeing of slaves via the Underground Railroad, Susan B. Anthony who voted when it was illegal for women to do so, and Rosa Parks who refused to give her seat on the bus to a white man.

I am not so arrogant as to rank myself among these incredibly courageous people. In fact, there are many activists in the United States who have taken exactly the risks that I have taken in order to save the lives of drug users and their families by giving out clean syringes in defiance of the law. It is their lead that I have followed during the past five years -- though with radically different results: to date, no one who has been arrested in the U.S. for dispensing syringes in an effort to protect the public health has been punished to the degree that I have -- including those who have been charged and convicted more than once. Furthermore, in every city and/or state where people have taken the lead on this issue by getting out onto the street to save lives, the government -- sometimes local authorities and sometimes state authorities -- has always followed by making syringe exchange legal. I was hopeful that my government would follow as others have and would acknowledge that the statute which I am accused of violating was never intended to condemn drug users and their loved ones to chronic disease and death. What's more, I thought my government
would surely acknowledge that the statute was never intended to punish those who were engaged in emergency prevention efforts.

In April of 1996, when I was arrested on this charge for the first time, my resolve was strengthened. I would continue no matter what. In August of 1997 my commitment was further reinforced when, during my trial in this very courtroom, I admitted that the Chai Project's activities had continued. Judge Brenner did not admonish me to stop -- in fact he commended our work by calling it noble. I believed then that, armed with the truth, my personal fortitude could withstand the power of the state. Recently, however, the state has unleashed its power in greater measures.

The seizure of the Chai Project's van, the establishment of a high bail, and the threat of a felony charge have had their intended effect
-- my resolve has been broken, and consequently I have announced publicly through the press and in other forums that I will no longer distribute syringes and that as long as the Chai Project is running under my direction, the organization will refrain from this activity as well. I would add that this was a difficult and painful decision; I am convinced that what we have been forced to discontinue is a public health service that has saved lives.

I believe there is no purpose then, to punishing me to a greater extent than the criminal code requires. Certainly I've received the intended message and responded clearly. Indeed, everyone watching this situation has gotten the message -- further violations will result in ever harsher sanctions. Despite the fact that much political mileage would be gained were I to be sentenced to a jail term I know that it would be contrary to my own best interests and the interests of the Chai Project and those it serves for me to be incarcerated.

The Chai Project continues in its mission to reduce the harm associated with drug use and sexual activity by engaging only in legal activities. We continue to practice Harm Reduction, which compels us always to act peacefully and non-judgmentally. We will continue to distribute safer sex and legal safer drug using materials and information. We will continue to support our participants as they seek out other services, including drug treatment. We will continue to educate our participants and the community about how to be as healthy and safe as possible under current conditions. In fact, since our ability to collect used and potentially deadly syringes has been removed, we have established a plan to work with the New Brunswick Police Department to clean up inappropriately discarded syringes under the supervision of law enforcement officials -- resulting in the continued protection of our community from accidental needlesticks.

For us to continue our work and to function at the most efficient possible level I must be present and available, I must be able to drive, I must be able to move about at will.

Finally, I ask for leniency for my own sake. It's been months since I've known a sense of joy or contentment -- I'm exhausted and broke. My family and friends worry about my ability to endure additional stress and hardship. Over the past three months, an inordinate amount of my time and resources have been focused on these legal difficulties: I want to get back to my work and move forward; I want to fulfill my part in the mission of the Chai Project.

Previous DRCNet coverage of the Chai Project:
http://www.drcnet.org/wol/069.html#chaiproject
ALERT: Show of Support Needed for New Jersey Needle Exchange, 12/4/98

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/061.html#chaibust
New Jersey Needle Exchange Busted Again, 10/2/98

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/058.html#whitman
Whitman, AIDS Council Still at Odds Over Needle Exchange, 9/11/98

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/052.html#chaiproject
NJ NEP Workers' Conviction Upheld in Appeals Court, 7/31/98

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/048.html#njpoll
On Polling Numbers and Syringe Exchange in New Jersey, 7/2/98

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/030.html#chaiproject
Needle Exchange Volunteer Arrested in New Jersey, 2/20/98

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/019.html#chai
NJ Needle Exchange Continues Legal Battle, 11/15/97

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/016.html#mothers
Mothers March on New Jersey State Capitol, 10/24/97

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/009.html#editorial
Needle Exchange is Still Illegal... but That Doesn't Make it Wrong, 8/29/97

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/007.html#chai
Media Alert: Needle Exchangers Convicted, 8/15/97

http://www.drcnet.org/rapid/1997/8-13-1.html
Action Alert: Needle Exchangers Convicted, 8/13/97

http://www.drcnet.org/rapid/1996/3-19-2.html
URGENT: Prosecutors Targeting NJ Needle Exchange Program, 3/19/96

For the latest information on the extent of injection-related AIDS in the African American and Latino communities, read the Dogwood Center's Health Emergency 1999 report, online at http://www.drcnet.org/healthemergency/.


2. ACTION OPPORTUNITY: Protest On Steps of New Jersey Statehouse

On Tuesday, January 12, at twelve noon, citizens of New Jersey and surrounding regions will gather on the steps of the statehouse in Trenton to protest Governor Christine Whitman's intractability on the issue of syringe exchange. The protest will coincide with Whitman's State of the State address and will be sponsored by the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition, the New Jersey chapters of the National Organization for Women and American Civil Liberties Union, the New Jersey Collegiate Consortium for Health in Education, ACT-UP Philadelphia, and ACT-UP New York among others.

New Jersey has the nation's third-highest rate of injection-related AIDS.

If you are in the area, please make an effort to attend this one-hour demonstration. Donations to defray transportation and other expenses are welcome. Checks can be made out the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition and sent to NJHRC, P.O. Box 1459, New Brunswick, NJ 08903.

For further information, call NJHRC at (732) 247-3242.


3. Bills Seeking to Decriminalize Marijuana, Legalize Medical Marijuana and Legalize Hemp Cultivation to be Introduced in New Hampshire Legislature in 1999

Scott Ehlers, Drug Policy Foundation
The state that lives by the motto "Live Free or Die" will decriminalize marijuana, legalize medical marijuana and permit farmers to grow hemp if Rep. Timothy N. Robertson has his way. The Democrat from Keene will introduce legislation in the New Hampshire legislature early next year to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, as well as legislation to permit a patient and his/her caregiver to possess and cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The decriminalization legislation will reduce marijuana possession offenses from a class A misdemeanor to a violation, the same status as a parking ticket.

"It's time we put some sense into our drug policies," says Robertson, who doesn't believe in putting people in jail for "getting high in different ways than most people." According to Robertson, current drug policies "haven't accomplished much except throw a lot of people in prison."

In regard to medical marijuana, Robertson noted that "California legalized medical marijuana in 1996 and the world didn't come to an end and everyone hasn't become a drug addict like Republicans predicted." He believes that the medical marijuana initiative victories across the country prove that "politicians have to catch up with the people" on the medical marijuana issue.

This isn't the first time that Robertson has introduced legislation to reform New Hampshire's marijuana laws. In the last House session he introduced similar bills to decriminalize the possession of 1 1/2 ounces or less of marijuana and legalize the medical use of the plant. He also sponsored a hemp legalization bill that passed the agriculture committee but not the full House.

This year other legislators are doing much of the work on behalf of the hemp bill so as to separate the issue of hemp, which is not psychoactive, from the pharmacologically-active marijuana.

While Rep. Robertson believes there is a good chance that the hemp bill will pass the House, he concedes that the marijuana decriminalization and medical marijuana bills will have a harder time making it through the legislature. He is hopeful that they will be passed out of committee, though, because of the momentum created by the drug policy reform victories around the country.

"The press and the people are becoming more liberal on drug policy reform issues. It may take a while for these bills to pass, but I believe it will eventually happen."

(Scott Ehlers is Senior Policy Analyst at the Drug Policy Foundation, and can be reached at [email protected]. Visit http://www.dpf.org or http://www.drugpolicy.org to find DPF on the web.)


4. Patient Who Was Denied Liver Transplant For Using Medical Marijuana Dies

Dale Gieringer, California NORML
California NORML is sorry to note the death of Ed Plotner, who was removed from a liver transplant list for using medical marijuana. Plotner, who suffered multiple hepatitis infections, had used marijuana to combat severe appetite and weight loss. He was accepted but then dropped by a liver transplant program which demanded that he pass a drug test for marijuana.

Unlike other drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and alcohol,
marijuana is not a risk factor for hepatitis. Even though many patients find medical marijuana is useful -- not only for weight gain, but also for helping to avoid drugs that are toxic to the liver -- it is banned in most transplant programs.

California NORML attorney Eric Shevin attempted to get Plotner restored to the transplant list, but his efforts proved too late. After being kept off the list a year, Ed expired on November 21.

"Ed was a tragic victim of drug testing abuse," says California NORML coordinator Dale Gieringer. "He was killed by the anti-marijuana bigotry and ignorance of medical 'experts' who should have known better."

Ironically, Plotner, who was from Redding, California, had sought treatment in San Francisco, where voters overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana by 80%-20%.


5. MEDIA SPOTLIGHT: Drug Smuggling by U.S. Marines a Growing Problem

Last Sunday (12/13) the Los Angeles Times reported that more than fifty members of the U.S. military have been investigated for drug smuggling in recent years. The piece highlights the realities of prohibition enforcement and the fact that even the world's strongest military is not immune from corruption. This was a concern that was voiced strongly by numerous military leaders during the debate, in the 1980's, over whether or not America's military ought to be deployed in service to the Drug War.

You can find the Los Angeles Times article online at http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/STATE/UPDATES/lat_marines1213.htm.


6. EDITORIAL: Unrighteous Indignation

Adam J. Smith, DRCNet Associate Director

This week, while the House continued to debate articles of impeachment against the President, Bob Livingston, the speaker-elect, announced that he had been unfaithful to his wife of 33-years, conducting a long-term affair. Livingston indicated that his revelation came under pressure from unnamed people who had been "investigating" him, and vowed that he would nevertheless be undeterred from his duty regarding impeachment.

Bob Livingston was not the first member of Congress to make an embarrassing admission during this process, and the rumors around Washington are that as the process continues, more will follow. It may be that there are people who are loyal to the President, perhaps people in the administration itself, who are attempting to use the dark secrets of President Clinton's Republican inquisitors against them in an effort to swing votes.

These admissions in advance of imminent disclosure are nothing new. Several years ago there were a rash of admissions, by then-speaker Newt Gingrich and Vice President Al Gore among others, to "youthful experimentation" with marijuana. Now it's sex.

The problem here is not that our elected leaders are human, or even somewhat twisted, as no doubt some of them are. The problem is that despite their own "indiscretions," these people insist upon passing laws regulating, even prohibiting the private consensual behavior of others. And they are willing, even eager to see that the private conduct of American adults be punished, and punished severely.

Last year in America, approximately 600,000 people were arrested for the possession of marijuana. Tens of thousands of others were arrested for the possession of other banned substances. The majority of those people had not harmed anyone, save arguably themselves. And every year, from Capitol Hill, bastion of morality and virtue, comes the call for harsher sentences, more prisons and greater police powers in order that the state might better find, sentence and incarcerate these wayward Americans to the satisfaction of our elected hypocrites.

No one, of course, is kicking in the doors of our legislators, or of their well-to-do neighbors, in the hopes of finding some forbidden substance. In fact, none of the members of Congress, nor their social and economic peers, have much to worry about at all from the state-sponsored terrorism masquerading as vice-law enforcement. Any invasion of privacy that they suffer now is borne solely of their own volitional rise to public office, and the circus that they have created of our political reality. The laws they pass are for other people. Those of us not upstanding or trustworthy enough to determine what is best put in our bodies, or to hold public office.

We have come to a point in our history when our leaders pass laws which punish humanity itself, with the full force of the prison state behind them. And the full knowledge that they themselves, and many of their friends and colleagues, would fail the test of their own punitive puritanism if only they were subject to its dictates. Today, in Washington DC, our leaders are grudgingly confessing to things that would otherwise become public anyway. These are the same leaders who, with righteous indignation and contempt for the weakness of others, have declared war on the private, consensual acts of the citizens of this nation. These leaders are sinners beyond redemption. Not for being human, with all of the messiness that the condition entails, but rather for having the nerve to legislate while shamelessly pretending that they're not.


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