(formerly The Week Online with DRCNet)
Issue #392 -- 6/24/05
"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"
Phillip S. Smith, Editor
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Table of Contents
DEA and IRS agents Wednesday raided three San Francisco medical marijuana dispensaries Wednesday and arrested 15 people in what they described as a vast marijuana and ecstasy trafficking conspiracy. The DEA advised eight other people it is seeking to turn themselves in. That same day, a well-known California physician and her husband were arrested and arraigned on federal marijuana charges some three years after she was raided by the feds and her certificate to prescribe drugs seized by the DEA.
In San Francisco, DEA and IRS agents, in some instances controversially accompanied by members of the San Francisco Police Department, searched 25 locations, including the Alternative Relief Co-Op and the Herbal Relief Center on Ocean Avenue and the Sunset Medicinal Resource Center on Judah Street in "Operation Urban Harvest," in connection with an indictment alleging that 19 people conspired to grow and traffic more than a thousand marijuana plants. Three people were arrested on Ecstasy conspiracy charges, while two of those same three were also arrested on money-laundering charges. (For on-the-scene reporting on the raids, visit journalist Annie Harrison's blog, On the Record.)
"Operation Urban Harvest uncovered a large-scale marijuana trafficking operation involving over 25 locations in the Bay Area, including three San Francisco marijuana dispensaries," said US Attorney Kevin Ryan Thursday. "Documents unsealed today allege that this trafficking organization used several marijuana dispensaries in its conspiracy to facilitate the sale and distribution of illicit drugs, money laundering and international bulk cash smuggling. Over the course of this two-year investigation, over 17,000 marijuana plants were seized. The federal, state and local law enforcement agencies involved in this operation have done an outstanding job," he added, giving himself and his crew the obligatory pat on the back.
Hours before the San Francisco raids began to unfold, federal agents came to the home Dr. Molly Fry and arrested her and her husband, Dale Schafer, on charges they grew and distributed marijuana from their offices at the California Medical Research Center in Cool, California, between 1999 and 2001. Fry and Schafer were indicted by a federal grand jury in Sacramento after the DEA presented evidence she had recommended marijuana to a potential patient despite the "lack of a medical record."
"We will not turn a blind eye to serious and flagrant disregard of federal law," Gordon Taylor, an assistant special agent in charge of Drug Enforcement Administration office in Sacramento, said in a statement. "There may be those who think we can disregard the court and Congress. DEA will not be among them."
"The federal authorities seem to be trying to portray this as cultivation for non-medical use hiding behind medical use," said Hilary McQuie, spokesperson for Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the grassroots advocacy group for marijuana patients. "But we will never know if that's true because the federal courts will not allow any evidence about the medical aspect to be introduced in a trial."
Regarding the charges of Ecstasy trafficking and money laundering, McQuie said, "If those allegations are true, and that remains to be proven, we certainly don't want to see that mixed up with medical marijuana." But she also pointed out that only three people out of those arrested faced those charges. "All the other people arrested were only involved in cultivation of medical marijuana, which is entirely legal here."
The cooperation of various state and local law enforcement agencies with the DEA on the raids was disturbing, said McQuie. "We are disappointed that state and local cops were working with the feds on this. We should be dealing with this in state court under state law, where people can present evidence they were in compliance with the law."
Concerns about police cooperation with the feds were only partially allayed when San Francisco city officials publicly expressed their continuing support for medical marijuana Thursday. Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the city attorney's office, told nearly a hundred people gathered on the steps of City Hall that the state's medical marijuana law still stands and San Francisco would "absolutely respect" the right of sick people to "the compassionate use of cannabis."
"I'm glad we had some city officials come up and say they aren't going to crack down on the dispensaries," said McQuie. "The feds are trying to intimidate us right now. They're making it seem like these cases are affected by Raich, when we know they're really not. There may be some investigations they held off on, so I wouldn't be surprised to see some more of this, but I don't think it's the beginning of a big federal crackdown."
Speaking of cases where the feds had held off until now, McQuie ripped the prosecution of Dr. Fry and her husband. "Going after Molly was just mean and unnecessary," she said. "I really don't understand why, of all the things they could be spending their energy and resources on, the US attorneys want to go after them."
"The DEA's initial spin has indicated that Wednesday's raids stemmed from a long-term investigation of organized crime involvement in medical marijuana dispensaries, not an attack on medical marijuana itself," said Marijuana Policy Project communications director Bruce Mirken Thursday. "While it is difficult to believe anything from an agency as habitually dishonest about medical marijuana as the DEA, such claims deserve examination. Simply put, if it is true that a few shady characters have gotten into the medical marijuana business, the blame for that situation lies squarely with the federal government," said Mirken, a San Francisco resident.
"No one wants to see the spirit of Prop. 215 violated or medical marijuana being used as a cover for activities that do not serve patients. The way to make sure medical marijuana dispensaries follow the law and serve patients properly is through effective local regulation such as San Francisco is trying to put in place," he added. But the problem, he said, lies not in San Francisco, but in Washington, DC.
"The question is, is this in fact the beginning of a major crackdown, or are the feds are just flexing their muscles," said Keith Stroup, legal counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "We fear this is the first step in a comprehensive effort to close down all the clubs. I hope I'm wrong," he told DRCNet. "I hope someone in the federal government will come to his senses and realize that the worst scenario is tens of thousands of seriously ill patients being forced into the black market to get their medicine."
The situation is still unclear, Stroup said. "It's easy for the feds to start saying 'criminal conspiracy' and 'money-laundering,' but those dispensaries were dispensing to patients with a doctors' recommendation. It may be that the conduct of some of the dispensaries may not have been up to the standards we would like to see, and we need to determine the facts before we line up for a last stand."
Whatever the case, said Stroup, dispensaries should take note. "Whether this was just a warning shot or not, the clubs will have to begin to operate a little less openly. They may have to go back to the grey market, but then you have the problem of patients who don't know where to go."
One of California's best known medical marijuana physicians, Dr. Tod Mikuriya, had little doubt Wednesday's actions were only the beginning. "This was the Justice Department's 'pogromatic' response to the Raich decision," he told DRCNet. "They have been wanting to be let off the leash, and with that decision they have been given the clear signal to go sic 'em," he said.
"I hope that different California officials will step up to the plate to uphold our law," said Mikuriya, who accused Attorney General Bill Lockyer of "impotent posturing." While the feds had wanted Molly Fry for some time, he said, now they have her. "This is all connected to the DEA and their efforts to suborn the injunctive relief doctors won in the Conant case," he said. "We thought we had protection with Conant, but it's sort of like the leaky condom model of protection. It's a sad situation, both for the doctors and the dispensaries, but we will eventually win, because it is not regulated, and people in the black market are making it more like speakeasies from the days of alcohol Prohibition. It'll just be more low-key and harder to take down."
Rhode Island is one giant step closer to enacting a medical marijuana law this year after the House passed a medical marijuana bill Wednesday afternoon, by a 52-10 vote. The Senate previously passed a similar measure (SB 710) by a lopsided margin of 34-2. The bill, HB 6052, now goes back to the Senate for a procedural vote.
Under the bill, patients with certain specified illnesses -- cancer, HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis C, and glaucoma -- or conditions would be protected from arrest or prosecution if they have a recommendation from a doctor and have registered with the state health department. The bill provides similar protections for providers and doctors. Patients or designated providers could possess up to 12 plants or 2 ½ pounds of usable marijuana.
But despite broad public and professional association support for medical marijuana in Rhode Island and despite the legislature's overwhelming position in favor of making the herb available to sick people, Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri has vowed to veto the measure. A Marijuana Policy Project-sponsored advertising campaign last week urging people to call Carcieri and urge him to relent generated hundreds of calls, but he has shown no indication so far of changing his mind.
It may not matter. According to the bill's House sponsor, Rep. Thomas Slater (D-Providence), legislators have the votes to override a veto. Slater told the Pawtucket Times the governor "should take note of that and let it become law without his signature." And with the Rhode Island Medical Society, the Rhode Island Nurses Association, and AIDS Project Rhode Island endorsing the measure, legislators should be able to find sufficient backbone to stand firm. A Zogby poll from last year showing 69% of Rhode Islands favor medical marijuana may also help lawmakers' resolve.
While public clamor for the bill was critical, another reason for the strong legislative support was concessions made by the bill's sponsors as it moved toward votes in the House. The legislation now contains a sunset provision that would repeal it on June 30, 2007 absent a new vote by lawmakers. Registration cards must include a photograph, along with name, address, date of birth, and other identifying information -- early versions of the bill had no photograph requirement. And while the list of people registered will be confidential, sponsors assented to a provision requiring the state to inform state and local police about the number of registered patients in each locality.
The final version of the bill also says that caregivers cannot have a felony drug conviction. And it restricts medical marijuana grows to "indoor facilities," a sop to concerns that plants grown outdoors might be accessible to others.
"Governor Carcieri should listen to Rhode Island's medical community and the state's voters and reconsider his threat to veto this sensible, humane bill," said Neal Levine, MPP director of state policies. "The bill, as amended, addresses almost all of his concerns. He should show some compassion and sign this bill."
Officially designated the Edward O. Hawkins/Thomas Slater Medical Marijuana Act, the bill memorializes Hawkins, the nephew of Senate lead sponsor Rhoda Perry (D-Providence), who died of AIDS complications last year. He told Perry he was too frightened of being arrested or kicked out of his nursing home to use medical marijuana to relieve pain and wasting. Rep. Slater, who suffers from cancer, as noted earlier is the House bill's sponsor.
"I am very proud of my colleagues in the legislature today for passing this act by such an overwhelming margin," said Rep. Slater. "I call on Governor Carcieri to sign the medical marijuana Bill into law."
A New Jersey appellate court judge has issued a temporary injunction blocking the implementation of local government-sponsored needle exchange programs (NEPs) in two Garden State cities, Atlantic City and Camden. Although Judge Stephen Skillman issued the injunction June 16, it was not made public until Monday. The action came at the request of seven legislators -- six Republicans and one Democrat -- who oppose NEPs and who argued that former Gov. James McGreevey exceeded his constitutional powers when he signed an executive order permitting NEPs in up to three New Jersey cities hard hit by the HIV virus.
Former Gov. McGreevey's executive order declaring a health emergency was the culmination of efforts by communities like Atlantic City to address the urgent public health problem. After ten years of state inaction on the matter, city officials in Atlantic City, spurred by the Drug Policy Alliance's New Jersey head, Roseanne Scotti, attempted an end run around state laws barring NEPs, only to be shot down in the courts. Then, a bill authorizing NEPs passed the state Assembly, only to be killed in the Senate.
But even then, it took McGreevey's realization that he was about to be forced out of office by scandal that gave him the courage to act. "Now it's not about good politics, but about good policy," his spokesman told DRCNet at the time.
While both Atlantic City and Camden were prepared to begin operating NEPs next month, now those plans are on hold pending further rulings in the case. "I'm obviously disappointed," said Atlantic City Health and Human Services Department director Ronald Cash. "We were moving to have the program in place early this summer, but now that will be delayed. We hope the courts will hear our argument and allow us to move forward," he told DRCNet.
The impact on public health in Atlantic City will be adverse, Cash said. "People are going to keep on shooting up and keep on dying. Each day that we are without a needle exchange is another day we have the chance of someone sharing a needle contaminated with AIDS," Cash explained. "Blocking the needle exchange is going to have an adverse impact not only on injection drug users, but on the women and children associated with them as well."
"How can anyone argue that there is no emergency in New Jersey regarding injection related HIV?" said DPA's Scotti. "More than 15,000 people have died and another 15,000 are currently infected due to the sharing of contaminated syringes. How many people have to die before our elected officials see that there is a crisis?"
But for NEP opponents it wasn't about public health but public morality. The ruling was "a victory for common sense," said Assemblymen Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), one of the legislators who went to court to block the programs. "These programs do not reduce the spread of disease, and they only encourage drug addicts to continue this self-destructive behavior. Dirty needles would continue to be exchanged and lives would continue to be destroyed under this program, but it would be with the endorsement of the state," he said after the ruling.
NEPs wouldn't help drug users, argued Sen. Thomas Kean (R-Union), another of the legislators who went to court. People who believe NEPs help "naively think that a heroin user -- for whom good judgment was the first casualty of their addiction -- will willingly forgo shooting up with a friend's needle until they can go to an exchange program to get a clean one," he said.
While Pennacchio offered nothing positive to counter his fantasy-based assessment of the efficacy of NEPs -- a position not shared by the World Health Organization or the US-based University of California at San Francisco's Center for AIDS Prevention, both of which say that NEPs clearly reduce infection rates -- Kean was at least politically astute enough to point in other directions. "The best answer for chronic intravenous drug users is creating more treatment opportunities and increased utilization of drug courts," he said.
"The only thing we're trying to do is save some lives," said Atlantic City Council President Craig Callaway, who sponsored the Atlantic City syringe exchange ordinance. "Let the people who are trying to save lives, save them."
Atlantic City health department head Cash was bit more hard-edged. "Until you've seen what AIDS does up close and personal, it doesn't ring with you," he said, alluding to the suburban Republican backgrounds of six of the seven legislators who sued to block the programs. "Those legislators must not have been touched by the virus. Needle exchange is working and saving lives everywhere else. New Jersey is woefully behind on this one, and it frustrates me to no end that those legislators from up there can tell us what's best for people in this community."
A spokesman for the state attorney general's office, which argued the case for the state, told Gannett News Service the office was "reviewing the court's order and considering our appellate options."
That's something Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Roberts would like to see, he told Gannett. "It's my expectation that the state will appeal, and I certainly would advocate that they should do that," Roberts said. "This is a matter of life and death. Every day that we delay joining the majority of other states in the nation in giving people access to clean syringes, we're costing people their lives."
For Scotti and the Drug Policy Alliance, the fight goes on. "We are disappointed in the court's order, but we will continue to fight. The ball is now in the legislature's court. The Assembly has passed two syringe access bills and now it is the Senate's turn to do the right thing and get those bills passed. We know how to prevent these infections. We know what works. Most other states allow access to clean needles to prevent the spread of HIV. It is a disgrace that New Jersey continues to let this deadly virus spread when we could be saving lives right now."
The Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) war without quarter against what it sees as corrupt, pill-dealing physicians who are fueling a crisis in prescription drug abuse came to Montana last month. But with the raid on Billings physician Dr. Richard A. Nelson, who has been treating patients with opioids for chronic pain from cancer, arthritis, and other conditions, that all-too-familiar narrative has been challenged. An uproar that has yet to die down has gotten the attention of local media and at least one US senator as patients complain bitterly of being left in the lurch and national pain advocates arrived to press for justice for Dr. Nelson and his patients alike.
The uproar began on April 20, when DEA agents arrived at Nelson's West End office and seized his medical records and prescribing certificate. The DEA did not tell Nelson at the time why he was being raided, except to say that agents served an "administrative inspection warrant." Nelson was not arrested or charged with any offense, although that could be coming. The agency was still keeping mum this week, with Denver regional DEA spokesperson Karen Flowers telling DRCNet only that "this is an ongoing investigation."
Nelson, who has been practicing medicine in Billings since the 1970s, has a spotless record with the state medical board. He does not prescribe the controversial but medically accepted mega-doses of opioids that have triggered DEA investigations of other pain treatment physicians. But two of his patients reportedly died from drug-related causes in the last year, perhaps drawing the interest of the DEA. Nelson's practice remains open, and the DEA returned his files 10 days later, but he now cannot prescribe the medications needed by his chronic pain patients. The practice limps along under the cloud of the DEA raid.
While Nelson and his newly hired legal team wait to see what the DEA will do next, some 75 of his patients have been left out in the cold. Without Dr. Nelson, said patient Glen Wilkinson, Billings pain patients are finding adequate pain treatment hard to come by. "I ended up with Dr. Nelson as a last resort," said Wilkinson, who suffers from chronic pain related to two herniated and nine broken discs in his spinal column. "I had no place else to go. He's a good, honest doctor, but now I am being denied medical care based on my affiliation with him. My primary care physician told me he wouldn't see me again after I went to Dr. Nelson."
Wayne Nott, a retired rock quarry worker from Bridger suffering from a variety of painful complaints, including arthritis, multiple lipomas, and varicose veins who also lives with a titanium plate in his neck, is another patient of Dr. Nelson's who is having trouble finding a doctor to treat him. He told DRCNet he traveled more than a hundred miles to go to an appointment with a doctor who had agreed to see him, but when he arrived he was turned away.
"When I got to the doctor's office and told them I had an appointment, the receptionist asked for my name, then told me 'You did have an appointment, but you don't now.' She told me she got a phone call 10 minutes before I arrived saying not to treat any patients from Dr. Nelson's office. When I asked her who had told them that, she wouldn't say, but I know it must have been the DEA," Nott said.
"She told me I had to leave the building," said Nott. "She acted like I was some kind of psycho. People think that people who went to Dr. Nelson are junkies. I'm no junkie. I hate to even take the stuff I'm taking, but I have to for my chronic pain."
The physician in question, Dr. Ahmed Madi of Roundup, refused Thursday to discuss his reasons for turning Nott away. "I'm not interested, thank you very much. Bye," was his response to a DRCNet inquiry.
Nott has related his account of his encounter with Dr. Madi's office in a deposition provided to Dr. Nelson. He has also since managed to find a doctor to care for him, but in a telling indication of the atmosphere of fear and intimidation created by the DEA raid on Dr. Nelson, he asked that that doctor not be publicly named.
"This is horrible, I don't know how it could get any worse," said Dr. Nelson's wife, Jerrie Lynn, an acupuncturist who shares her husband's practice. "This is just unbelievably sad for the patients. The DEA is telling doctors not to see our patients," she charged, "and telling drug stores not to fill our prescriptions."
While patients who spoke with DRCNet backed Ms. Nelson's charge that the DEA is intimidating physicians and pharmacies, with some saying local doctors told them as much, it is a difficult charge to prove. DEA spokeswoman Flowers flatly denied it. "Absolutely not," she said. "That's false. If these people have medical problems, they should seek medical help. The medical community is obligated to help people who are sick."
Several patients told DRCNet St. Vincent Healthcare had turned them away, but the hospital denied both being told not to treat Dr. Nelson's patients and that it was turning them away. "St. Vincent Healthcare assesses and treats all patients on an individual basis. We follow guidelines and protocols for treatment based on established criteria. There is no policy or practice to refuse care to any of Dr. Nelson's patients," said Nancy Kallern, vice-president for patient affairs. "No," the hospital has not received notice from any agency advising it not to treat Dr. Nelson's patients, she told DRCNet.
"I have no reason to believe those claims are false, but the problem is in confirming it," said Siobhan Reynolds, executive director of the pain patients and physicians advocacy group the Pain Relief Network (PRN), who traveled to Billings last week to meet with Dr. Nelson and his patients. "Every time a doctor says this to a patient, they also say 'You didn't hear that from me.' The intimidation is complete," she said.
"Everyone is getting into the game," Reynolds continued. "Pharmacies are turning down Dr. Nelson's non-controlled scripts and insurance companies are declaring the doctor's demise, despite the fact Dr. Nelson is still in possession of an unblemished record with Montana's Board of Medical Examiners and is still practicing."
Typically in cases where physicians are accused of prescription wrongdoing, they are left dangling in the wind while DEA agents and prosecutors use their access to the media to paint a one-sided picture of pill-mills and Dr. Feelgoods. Reynolds was determined not to let that happen in Billings, and her strategy has paid off -- at least in public relations terms. In the last two weeks, the Billings Gazette has run at least three stories on the raid and its consequences, with titles such as "In Search of Relief: Pain Sufferers Caught in Medical Controversy" and "DEA Accused of Targeting Pain Doctors."
The third article was provoked by a very unusual event in Billings. Last Friday, after letters to US Senators Max Baucus (D) and Conrad Burns (R) were ignored, Reynolds and three dozen patients went to Baucus' Billings office to seek a meeting after his office turned down a request for a meeting the previous day. Standing outside the building until a staffer agreed to meet with them, they protested the DEA's nationwide pattern of going after pain doctors and its local impact, and demanded their representatives do something about it. "We want him to call for and help organize a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on this issue," said Reynolds. "We want to see an investigation into what the DEA has been doing, and we need the subpoena power of the Senate to get behind the veil and find out what is going on."
"The feds and the state authorities can't both be responsible for the regulation of Montana's doctors," said patient Gregg Wilkinson during the protest. "The medical board says Nelson is impeccable, while these Washington bureaucrats are saying he's criminal. Somebody isn't telling the truth."
While Sen. Baucus was not present, office communications director Barrett Kaiser did come down to listen to patients' concerns and promised to relay them to the senator. But, he told the crowd, it is hard to say what Baucus will do. The senator supports the justice system and has a policy of not interfering with criminal investigations or legal policies, Kaiser said.
It remains unclear what action, if any, Baucus will take. Kaiser failed to respond to any of DRCNet's four calls seeking comment on the matter this week, and the office has made no other public remarks on the issue.
"Senator Baucus stonewalled us," said Wilkinson. "Thirty-five people marched to his office, but he won't even dignify us with an answer."
"I'm watching people have their lives destroyed," said Reynolds. "There are patients who were functional under Dr. Nelson who now can't work or walk or even play with a two-year-old. The implications of this for these people are staggering. It is mind-boggling, but what is perhaps even more distressing is that their senators don't seem to think it's a problem," said Reynolds. "They are stonewalling," she told DRCNet. "I am just dumbstruck by the lack of concern displayed by elected officials here."
Update: Late Thursday, Sen. Baucus responded -- sort of -- in a letter to Reynolds. Baucus reiterated his "policy of not interfering with criminal investigations" and did not address the larger question of the DEA's aggressive behavior or the call for hearings in the Senate. But in a nice constituent service touch, he did contact the Deering Clinic in Billings on the patients' behalf, which "has given assurance that all patients will be afforded the opportunity to be assessed by their staff for a continued pain management care plan."
While that pledge is no guarantee of adequate opioid treatment for Dr. Nelson's patients, the Pain Relief Network will be watching closely, said Reynolds. "We will be overseeing the care of these patients and will be providing the clinic with expert advice in the event they fail to treat patients appropriately."
And while Sen. Baucus did not immediately acknowledge demands for a congressional look at the broader issues involved, his response was a first, said Reynolds. "This is a major step in the right direction. It's the first time a US senator has acknowledged the humanity of people in pain," she said.
While Dr. Nelson has the support of his patients, his colleagues in the medical profession have stayed largely silent or have been critical. The head of the Montana Medical Association, Dr. Joan McMahon of Lewistown, professed to be unfamiliar with the case and declined comment, saying only that "physicians have to follow DEA regulations."
Dr. Bill Rosen, a specialist in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Deaconness Billings Clinic scoffed at the use of opioids as pain medications. "Narcotics have never been shown to heal anything," he told the Billings Gazette. "All you're doing is putting a Band-Aid on a wound that will never heal." While opioids may be appropriate in limited cases, he said, doctors are too quick to prescribe them for patients who could be helped in other ways. "People come in and tell me they are disabled by their pain," Rosen said. "I say you are disabled from your inability to cope with your pain."
Dr. Joseph Talley, a North Carolina physician whose practice was shut down by the state, found opioids useful for patients, but warned that doctors around Billings may decline to treat Dr. Nelson's patients with them for fear of becoming a magnet for patients and ultimately the next target for the DEA. "An opioid prescriber will be swamped with patients, good and sinister, from near and far," he told DRCNet. "As soon as the word gets out that a doctor will treat pain in adequate doses (which eliminates most doctors who prescribe at all) and will do so without making patients feel like dirty criminals (which eliminates all but a very tiny few of those remaining), the practice of those very few doctors will change drastically, and it will take on a form upon which the DEA can capitalize. He will have cars with out-of-state plates, desperate patients who couldn't get an appointment milling around his door, and when he treats one desperate patient, he is likely to get 10 desperate calls from her friends, neighbors, and relatives wanting help themselves," Talley said.
Unlike other prominent cases of physicians under the federal gun, Dr. Nelson was not prescribing massive amounts of opioids to patients, said his wife. "He doesn't really go outside the guidelines," she said. "He would prescribe maintenance doses and other prescriptions, but not the really high doses."
"The DEA needs to be held accountable -- at the very least it should be paying the medical bills for these people who have been adversely affected," said Nelson. "People can't function without their pain medications. Some have had to quit their jobs. One of our patients now has to have a person come in and care for him. And they are being treated like criminals when they go to the hospitals in search of relief."
In the meantime, it appears that Billings-area physicians are already aware of Dr. Talley's lesson and are staying away from opioids and patients who need them. "I was surviving on what Dr. Nelson gave me," said Nott. "Now all I can do is lay in bed all day."
Busy, busy, busy. Relationships with their snitches proved problematic this week for several law enforcement officers, while another had a problematic romance with an alleged dealer, and yet another resorted to good old armed robbery to get his share of the loot. Oh, and there's some pot on the loose down South. Let's get to it:
In Chicago, retired police sergeant Larry Hargrove, 60, was convicted Wednesday of being part of a four-man team that specialized in robbing drug dealers. One of the four, former police sergeant Eddie Hicks, has vanished, while two others, former police mechanic Lawrence Knitter and Matthew Moran, a friend of Hicks, are cooperating with prosecutors. During the trial, the latter pair testified that between 1993 and 1999 the fearsome foursome had ripped off at least 35 alleged drug dealers at gunpoint, making off with drugs and money. The four were popped in a joint sting operation by the FBI and the Chicago Police internal affairs unit. Hargrove, a retired 31-year veteran of the force, was jailed pending sentencing. He faces up to 45 years in prison.
In Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office announced June 17 that seven pounds of marijuana and a small quantity of methamphetamine have gone missing from the department's narcotics division. The announcement was accompanied by a shake-up of the narcotics squad, with eight officers, including the squad's leader, demoted and one officer, Corporal Kenneth Black, resigning rather than take a polygraph about the missing dope. Despite Black's suspicious behavior, the department does not expect to file criminal charges, saying it would be difficult to establish probable cause. The evidence room problem this month comes less than six months after another Sheriff's Office employee, Lt. Gwendolyn Carroll, was fired and arrested for ripping off cocaine, marijuana, guns, and more than $200,000 from the evidence room.
In Union County, New Jersey, veteran undercover narc State Police Sgt. Moises Hernandez was suspended from duty June 15 as authorities probed his relationship with the target of a drug probe. The investigation began when police wiretapping a phone conversation overheard the suspect discussing "possible illegal activities" involving himself and Hernandez, the Newark Star-Ledger reported. The suspect was one of Hernandez' confidential informants, but he was also the target of an ongoing DEA investigation. Union County authorities obtained a search warrant and searched his home last week, but have made no announcements about the results.
In Greeneville, Tennessee, Cocke County Deputy Sheriff Larry Joe Dodgin was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute after being busted June 17 with three kilos of coke and $60,000 in cash, WATE-TV 6 in Knoxville reported. An affidavit written by an FBI agent charges that Dodgin has a longstanding relationship with alleged drug dealer Jeremy Jones and adds "other confidential sources have advised that Dodgin has provided information to the known drug trafficker concerning law enforcement activities." The affidavit adds that Jones supplied Dodgin with drugs for his personal use and that Dodgin has told cooperating witnesses he sold drugs. Dodgin is behind bars awaiting a grand jury hearing next month.
Warning ominously that there has been "a drift toward lesser sentences" since the US Supreme Court upended the federal sentencing structure with its January decision making federal sentencing guidelines advisory rather than mandatory, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales called Tuesday for more mandatory minimum sentences. Cases in which federal judges sentenced people below statutory minimum sentences had increased from 7.5% of cases in 2003 to almost 13% since the Supreme Court ruling, Gonzales complained.
Gonzales' fear of excessive leniency in federal sentencing comes as the federal prison population is at an all-time high of more than 184,000, with more than half of them doing time for drug offenses. Thousands are doing multi-decade sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, including many whose participation in the offenses was marginal at best.
Sentences outside the guidelines have increased from 30% in 2003 to 37% since the January ruling, Gonzales said in remarks prepared for a speech to the National Center for Victims of Crime. "This trend is troubling to me and should be troubling to all victims of crime. I have come to the conclusion that the advisory guidelines system we currently have can and must be improved," he said.
"Our sentencing system works best when judges have some discretion, but discretion that is bounded by mandatory sentencing guidelines created through the legislative process," Gonzales added. But for the attorney general, who was making his first remarks on the issue since he took office in February, judicial discretion would be limited to imposing higher sentences, while mandatory minimums would set rigid boundaries beyond which judges could not go.
Persons who are caught growing hallucinogenic mushrooms in the Land of Enchantment cannot be prosecuted under the state's drug trafficking and manufacturing statute, the New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled last week. In handing down the decision, the court overturned the felony conviction of an Alamogordo man for growing psilocbye cubensis mushrooms in his home.
That law defines manufacture as "the production, preparation, compounding, conversion or processing of a controlled substance or controlled substance analog by extraction from substances of natural origin or independently by means of chemical synthesis or by a combination of extraction and chemical synthesis and includes any packaging or repackaging of the substance or labeling or relabeling of its container."
The appellant, David Ray Pratt, was convicted of drug trafficking by manufacture after police raided his home in 2002 and discovered a mushroom grow in progress. In his appeal, his attorney, assistant appellate public defender Cordelia Friedman argued that growing mushrooms was outside the scope of the law. The felonious fungi were in "a natural state of mushroomness when their 'cob-like' structures were ripped out of their mason jars by police," she told the court, in what was undoubtedly the first use of the word "mushroomness" in New Mexico jurisprudence. The psilocybin they generated was not manufactured, but naturally produced, she argued. "Genetic material in a seed or spore, brought to fruit by provision of soil and water, is not 'manufacturing' as contemplated by the Legislature" in the drug-trafficking law, Friedman wrote.
Prosecutors from the New Mexico attorney general's office argued that Pratt fell within the scope of the manufacture statute because he used "special equipment" to "artificially" grow the mushrooms. That "special equipment" is the standard stuff used in the fungus field -- glass jars, a foam cooler, and syringe with spores for inoculating the medium used to grow the mushrooms.
But the Court of Appeals wasn't buying it. "Because there is no evidence that defendant engaged in 'extraction from substances of natural origin or... chemical synthesis' as defined by (the drug-trafficking law)... his acts of cultivating or growing mushrooms, even if by artificial means, are not prohibited" by state law, the court said in an opinion written by Judge James Wechsler. In that opinion, Wechsler also noted that while New Mexico's drug laws were patterned after federal laws, they did not include a provision in federal law that explicitly says the "planting, cultivation, growing or harvesting of a controlled substance" constitutes drug manufacture. "We believe the Legislature acted intentionally when it omitted a similar definition" in New Mexico's drug laws, Wechsler wrote.
A top Colombian military commander told the Associated Press last week that leaders of the rightist paramilitary militias are hurriedly selling-off huge amounts of cocaine before they demobilize under a sweetheart deal with the Colombian government. The paramilitary leaders want to retire as rich men before they accept a proposed amnesty from the government.
The paramilitaries have for nearly two decades fought in a three-cornered conflict with the leftist guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the Colombian state. While Colombia's four-decade-old civil war predates the paramilitaries, they emerged as especially vicious players in the conflict, responsible for terrible massacres and numerous atrocities in a fight that increasingly came to be a struggle over control of coca, cocaine, and its profits. While formerly working in alliance with the Colombian military -- doing much of its dirty work -- the paramilitaries have in recent years been targeted by Bogota, although links with the Colombian military remain.
They have also been targeted by Washington. At least 18 paramilitary leaders are listed as among Colombia's top cocaine traffickers, and US officials say the paramilitaries are responsible for most of the coke snorted in the US, and for assassinating politicians and killing thousands of peasants.
Leaders of the paramilitaries have been involved for months in peace talks with the government, and under a plan approved Wednesday by the Colombian congress, the paramilitaries would demobilize in return for reduced prison sentences. President Alvaro Uribe is expected to sign the bill into law within a matter of days.
But according to critics like Human Rights Watch, convictions would be hard to come by under the proposal. It includes provisions requiring prosecutors to file charges within 24 hours after receiving statements from demobilized paramilitaries and limits investigations to 30 days after charges are filed.
"This gives benefits to people who have committed the worst crimes, and we get nothing in return," said Gina Parody, a leading congresswoman and ally of Mr. Uribe who nevertheless proposed much tougher legislation. "The message we are sending to Colombian society is that crime does pay," she told the New York Times Wednesday.
With demobilization of the 13,000 soldiers in the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) set for the end of this year, the chieftains are cashing in now, said Navy chief Admiral Mauricio Soto. The AUC chiefs are emptying their warehouses ahead of turning in their guns, he said, and as a result, seizures are going through the roof. The Colombian Navy has seized 63 tons of cocaine this year, more than half belonging to the AUC, Soto said.
"The paramilitaries are desperate. They urgently need to sell what they have," Soto told the AP. "They need the money, because if they are going to demobilize, what interests them is the cash."
Nice transition, if they can pull it off: from war criminal to country squire.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, an appropriations bill that would allocate another $700 million for Plan Colombia, the US effort to wipe out Colombian coca and cocaine that has eaten up $4 billion since 2000 -- which is now well past its five-year shelf life -- is moving through the House. Foes of the plan's heavily militarized approach and environmentally callous embrace of aerial crop eradication with herbicides will offer amendments next week aiming to pare back the amount.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) will offer an amendment to cut part of the Andean counternarcotics military assistance. And Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) will offer an amendment that will shift at least $20 million from military assistance to development assistance for Colombia. But even if those amendments passed, the US drug war in Colombia will continue essentially unchanged.
Malaysia hangs drug traffickers, but when it comes to preventing the spread of HIV, the Malaysian government doesn't mind providing needles and condoms for injection drug users. In repeated announcements this month, the Health Ministry has confirmed that it will begin a six-month pilot program in October providing needles and condoms to some 1,200 registered addicts who are receiving methadone maintenance.
According to the Health Ministry, Malaysia (pop. 22 million) has more than 61,000 people with HIV infections, with 9,000 more having AIDS. Health Minister Dr. Chua Soi Lek told a June 2 press conference more than 75% of all Malaysian HIV cases were related to injection drug use.
"We've to consider the needle exchange approach. We are providing them the needles so that they will not share needles. In many countries, the results are good in reducing HIV infection rate," he told reporters. "The risk of being infected with HIV among those sharing needles is seven times higher than those not sharing needles," he said.
At that press conference, Dr. Chua said only that the government was "seriously considering" the pilot program, citing good results from needle access programs in Europe and expressing concern that moralistic views not impede the measure. "Don't exploit the plan for political mileage. It has nothing to do with politics but for the interests of HIV sufferers and to protect Malaysia's image. We do not want Malaysia to be known as a developed nation but with the highest number of HIV carriers in Asia," he added.
But by last weekend, the government had moved from "serious consideration" to the first steps of implementation. According to a Saturday report from the Malaysian News Agency, the Health Ministry has already drafted rules and regulations for the pilot program to get underway. Persons wishing to participate in the program must sign up with the Health Ministry and agree to follow the ministry's program, and they must get a medical exam to test for diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C.
"This is a major step for Malaysia, said Adeeba Kamarulzamam, acting head of the Malaysian AIDS Council. "There will be negative reaction from the community and the public, but I think our job will be to explain misconceptions and misunderstandings," she told Agence-France Press.
Earlier this month, China announced plans for needle exchanges. Now Malaysia is moving in the same harm reduction direction. If only it could happen in New Jersey.
June 24, 1982: During remarks about Executive Order 12368 made from the White House's Rose Garden, President Ronald Reagan says, "We're taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts. We're running up a battle flag."
June 25, 1923: During a speech in Denver, Colorado, Senator Morris Shepard, a wily old Texan who helped install prohibition of alcohol, says, "There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."
June 26, 1936: The Convention for the Suppression of the Illicit Traffic in Dangerous Drugs is signed in Geneva.
June 27, 1991: The Supreme Court upholds, in a 5-4 decision, a Michigan statute imposing a mandatory sentence of life without possibility of parole for anyone convicted of possession of more than 650 grams (about 1.5 pounds) of cocaine.
June 27, 2002: In Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, the Supreme Court decides 6-3 to uphold the most sweeping drug-testing policy yet to come before the Court -- a testing requirement for any public school student seeking to take part in any extracurricular activity, the near-equivalent of a universal testing policy.
June 28, 1776: The first draft of the Declaration of Independence is written -- on Dutch hemp paper. A second draft, the version released on July 4, is also written on hemp paper. The final draft is copied from the second draft onto animal parchment.
June 30, 1906: Congress passes the "Pure Food and Drug Act."
Please submit listings of events concerning drug policy and related topics to [email protected].
June 28, New York, NY, An Opiate Overdose Prevention Conference, sponsored by the Harm Reduction Coalition and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Admission free, space limited, please RSVP to secure your space. At the Holiday Inn Conference Center, W. 32nd St. & Broadway, contact Paula Santiago at (212) 213-6376 ext. 155 or [email protected].
June 30-July 30, San Francisco, CA, "Confessions of a Dope Dealer," solo performance by Sheldon Norberg. Thursday, Friday & Saturday evenings at 8:00pm, at the Climate Theater, 285 9th St. (at Folsom), visit http://www.adopedealer.com for further information.
July 8-9, 7:00pm, New Brunswick, NJ, "Waiting to Inhale," screenings of new medical marijuana documentary, at the New Jersey International Film Festival. At Rutgers University, Scott Hall #123, 43 College Ave., visit http://www.njfilmfest.com for info.
August 12-13, Washington, DC, "Over 2 Million Imprisoned – Too Many!", March on DC, sponsored by Family and Friends of People Incarcerated (FMI). Reception Friday evening, march Saturday morning from 9:00am to noon. Contact Roberta Franklin at (334) 220-4670 or firstladytms©aol.com, or visit http://www.journeyforjustice.org for further information.
August 12-28, New York, NY, "Confessions of a Dope Dealer," solo performance by Sheldon Norberg. At the International Fringer Festival, visit http://www.adopedealer.com for further information.
August 13, Washington, DC, "Million Family Members and Friends of Inmates March," sponsored by Family Members of Inmates. Contact Roberta Franklin at (334) 220-4670 or [email protected] for further information.
August 19-20, Salt Lake City, UT, "Science and Response in 2005," First National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV and Hepatitis C. Sponsored by the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Harm Reduction Project, visit http://www.harmredux.org/conference2005.htm after January 15 or contact Amanda Whipple at (801) 355-0234 ext. 3 for further information.
August 20-21, 10:00am-8:00pm, Seattle, WA, Seattle Hempfest 2005. At Myrtle Edwards Park, Pier 70, admission free, visit http://www.hempfest.org or (206) 781-5734 or [email protected] for further information.
August 28, 11:00am-9:00pm, Olympia, WA, Third Annual Olympia Hempfest. At Heritage Park, visit http://www.olyhempfest.com for further information.
September 17, Boston, MA, "Sixteenth Annual Fall Freedom Rally," sponsored by MASSCANN. On Boston Common, visit http://www.masscann.org for updates, or contact (781) 944-2266 or [email protected].
September 23-25, New Paltz, NY, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Northeast Conference. At SUNY New Paltz, contact Jenny Loeb at [email protected] for further information.
September 25-29, Kabul, Afghanistan, "The 2005 Kabul International Symposium – Drug Policy: Challenges and Responses." Sponsored by the Senlis Council, at Kabul University, visit http://www.senliscouncil.net/modules/events/kabul/ or e-mail [email protected] for further information.
October 2, noon, Madison WI, "Great Midwest Marijuana Harvest Festival." At the UW Campus Library Mall, visit http://www.weedstock.com for further information.
November 9-12, Long Beach, CA, "Building a Movement for Reason, Compassion and Justice," the 2005 International Drug Policy Reform Conference. Sponsored by Drug Policy Alliance, at the Westin Hotel, details to be announced. Visit http://www.drugpolicy.org/events/dpa2005/ for updates.
November 13-16, Markham, Ontario, "Issues of Substance," Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse National Conference 2005. At Hilton Suites Toronto/Markham Conference Centre & Spa, visit http://www.ccsa.ca/pdf/ccsa-annconf-abstract-2005-e.pdf for info.
February 9-11, 2006, Tasmania, Australia, The Eleventh International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), coordinated by Justice Action. For further information visit http://www.justiceaction.org.au/ICOPA/ndx_icopa.html or contact +612-9660 9111 or [email protected].
April 5-8, 2006, Santa Barbara, CA, Fourth National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics. Sponsored by Patients Out of Time, details to be announced, visit http://www.medicalcannabis.com for updates.
April 30-May 4, 2006, Vancouver, BC, Canada, "17th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm," annual conference of the International Harm Reduction Association. Visit http://www.harmreduction2006.ca for further information.
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