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Drug War Chronicle
(formerly The Week Online with DRCNet)

Issue #419 -- 1/20/06

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


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"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"

Phillip S. Smith, Editor
David Borden, Executive Director

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Table of Contents

    Will Switzerland legalize marijuana?
    Alaska Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski and his allies are pulling out all the stops to pass a bill that would recriminalize marijuana possession in the state.
    With Canada's Conservative Party expected to take power in Monday's election and leader Steven Harper taking the tough on drugs and crime line, observers of drug policy are wondering how bad things might get.
    A year and a half after conservative opposition in Switzerland's lower chamber blocked a measure that would have legalized marijuana, proponents have gathered enough signatures to force a nationwide referendum on the issue.
    While we tend to focus on individual cases of corruption, this week the rot has spread and the stench takes on institutional form, with departments on both coasts having big problems and a big city jail where it seems like everyone was in on the illicit action.
    In a decision handed down Tuesday, the US Supreme Court upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law, ruling the feds can't use the drug laws to punish doctors who prescribed drugs to help people kill themselves in states that permit the practice. Pain treatment took a hit in Oregon when they tried eight years ago.
    The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to challenge California's medical marijuana law in federal court, and has resisted a state mandate to create a medical marijuana patient registry. Now, members may be about to pay the ultimate political price for ignoring the will of the voters.
    In a surprise move, Gov. Bill Richardson has included a pending medical marijuana bill on his agenda for the state's 30-day legislative session begun this week.
    In a pair of rulings, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld a state law making "exposure to" illicit drugs evidence of child endangerment, but drew the line at charging a mother under the law for breast-feeding her baby while admitting to smoking marijuana twice in a three-week period.
    Actress Mary Louise Parker, who plays suburban pot-dealing mom Nancy Botwin in the Showtime TV series "Weeds," beat out a quartet of Desperate Housewives to win best comedy actress at Monday night's nationally-televised Golden Globe awards, and she used the occasion to call on the US government to legalize marijuana.
    British Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced Thursday that marijuana will remain in the less-punished class of illegal drugs.
    In the wake of widely publicized allegations that drug-running rightist paramilitary groups are using their cocaine profits to buy their way into Colombia's political system, President Alvaro Uribe has ordered an investigation into the campaign finances of two of his allies in the Senate.
    Events and quotes of note from this week's drug policy events of years past.
    Showing up at an event can be the best way to get involved! Check out this week's listings for events from today through next year, across the US and around the world!

(Chronicle archives)

1. Feature: Alaska Bill to Recriminalize Marijuana Fast-Tracked, Passes Senate

Alaska Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski and his allies in law enforcement and the legislature are pulling out all the stops to pass a bill that would recriminalize marijuana possession in the state -- and so far, it's working. The Alaska Senate Thursday overwhelmingly approved the measure after being in session for only 10 days, and it is now headed for a House floor vote, bypassing the committees where it was killed last year.

Although notice of the Senate vote had not appeared on the Alaska legislature web site by late Thursday afternoon, staffers for Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis (D-Anchorage) confirmed to DRCNet that the measure had indeed passed.

"They don't want to have to vote on this, but if it comes to a roll call vote, they'll vote for it," predicted Bill Parker, a former state deputy corrections commissioner who is lobbying against the bill for the Marijuana Policy Project and its local affiliate told DRCNet Thursday morning as he awaited senate action on the measure. By later that afternoon, Parker had been proven correct, with the bill passing on a 17-1 vote.

Frank Murkowski and drug czar John Walters
Thanks to a 1975 state Supreme Court ruling that was reaffirmed in 2004, Alaska is the only state in the union to legalize the possession of marijuana. The court has held that the state constitution's privacy provisions allow adults to possess up to a quarter-pound of pot for their personal use in the privacy of their own homes. That has driven Gov. Murkowski and his allies to distraction, with Murkowski vowing to overturn the law and making his marijuana bill one of his "must pass" measures.

That would be only the first step in actually overturning existing law, though. The bill, if passed, would be unconstitutional under the state constitution on its face, given the Supreme Court's 1975 and 2004 decisions. In those cases, the court held that any deleterious health effects of marijuana were so slight they did not justify the invasion of privacy the law created. But the court also held that if it were presented with a substantially different finding of fact about the harms of marijuana, it might reweigh the issue and conclude the herb is so harmful that outlawing its personal use at home would be constitutionally justified. That means if the bill becomes law, it will be quickly challenged and held in abeyance while the case is appealed back up to the Supreme Court.

Last year, Murkowski and his allies were first bushwhacked and then stymied in the legislature. When they attempted to include in the bill a lengthy and unscientific finding stating that marijuana was much more dangerous than when the Alaska Supreme Court decided its case 30 years ago, reformers were able to mobilize a cadre of experts to put the lie to such claims. While last year's bill was able to get through the Senate, organized opposition brought it to a dead stop in the House.

This year, Murkowski and his allies are using every procedural trick in the book to get the bill approved before opposition can gel. Last week, Murkowski henchwoman Sen. Lyda Green (R-Wasilla) hurried the bill through the Senate Finance Committee, then combined it with an anti-methamphetamine measure that already passed the House last year. The move was a double-whammy, tying the controversial marijuana bill to the more popular meth bill and, because the meth bill had already passed the House, allowing the bill to move toward a full House vote without having to go through the committees where it died last year.

"There are evil deeds going on as we speak," MPP communications director Bruce Mirken told DRCNet as the Senate was preparing to vote. "We have folks stalking the halls of the capitol trying to keep an eye on things, and we will be complaining loudly to the press as this shotgun process unfolds," he said. "It would really short circuit the legislative process if something this extreme gets through. They are trying to minimize debate and discussion and controversy because they know if this thing had a proper light shined on it, people would not like it."

Indeed, Alaskans have shown strong support for marijuana law reform, even as far as outright legalization. While legalization has yet to win at the polls, an overambitious 2000 initiative that would have legalized pot and granted amnesty won 41% of the vote, and in 2004, another, more carefully crafted legalization initiative crept up to 44% voter approval.

"This train may be moving so fast we won't be able to stop it," said Mirken. "If push comes to shove, we will do everything we can to assist the inevitable legal challenge to it. They are trying to write into law that today's marijuana is more dangerous than 30 years ago, and we are ready to refute all that."

That may be part of the reason the bill is moving so quickly. "We were all ready to line up an impressive array of written testimony, scientific articles, and expert witnesses to refute the state's claims like we did last year," said MPP's Mirken. "The question is whether they have any interest in actually listening to the evidence."

To find an answer to Mirken's question, all one has to do is look at the lengths to which Murkowski and his supporters have gone to avoid open debate this year. Still, the battle is not over yet, and even if the bill emerges into law, the battle over legal marijuana in Alaska will just have been rejoined.

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2. Feature: With Conservatives Poised to take Power, Canadian Drug Reform Ponders an Unfriendly Future

By all accounts, Canada's long-ruling Liberal Party is about to be replaced in Ottawa by the opposition Conservatives when voters go to the polls Monday. With Conservative leader Steven Harper talking tough on drugs and crime, it looks like Canada's experiment with progressive drug policy reform is about to come to end -- at least at the federal level. The questions now facing observers are how bad it will be, and whether the Liberals' thrashing at the hands of voters will be so thorough that the New Democratic Party (NDP), with the most progressive drug policy of any major party, will emerge as a strong alternative.

For American readers, the Conservatives are roughly comparable to Republicans and the Liberals to Democrats, while the NDP is analogous to the Democratic Party's labor wing mixed with a dollop of leftish dissidents and a sprinkle of drug reformers attracted by its stance on drug policy. A fourth party, the separatist Bloc Quebecois, has no analog in US politics, but could be compared to a "Texas Party" or "California Party" whose primary plank is independence.

Under Canada's parliamentary system, a party needs a majority of the 308-seat House of Commons to govern on its own. The Liberals currently rule as a minority government, with 135 seats to 99 for the Conservatives, 54 for the Bloc, and 19 for the NDP, with one independent. But according to seat projections based on the latest polls, which show the Conservatives running five to 10 points ahead of the Liberals and 15 to 20 points ahead of the NDP (the Bloc is irrelevant everywhere except Quebec), the political landscape is about to shift dramatically.

Based on six polls released this week, Conservatives will win somewhere between 135 and 178 seats. Half the projections show the Conservatives winning more than 154 seats -- enough to form a majority government. Liberal fortunes are predicted to decline dramatically from their current 135 seats, to somewhere between 33 and 84 seats, while the NDP is projected to win between 30 and 40 seats, up from its current 19. The Bloc is projected to maintain roughly the same level of support it currently has, winning somewhere between 50 and 60 seats.

With numbers like these, Monday's election will be a nail-biter. A Conservative victory seems clear, but the real issue will be whether the party can win enough seats to govern alone. An unvarnished Conservative majority in parliament would be very bad news for drug reform, while a Conservative minority government would merely be bad news.

The Conservative platform on drug policy tells us why: "The Liberals have put Canada on the road to drug legalization. This must stop," the platform reads. "Parents and police officers alike know that the last thing Canada needs is more drugs on our streets. Under the Liberals, the number of marijuana grow-ops has increased dramatically, as has the production and distribution of drugs such as crack cocaine, crystal meth, and ecstasy."

The platform calls on the party to kill the Liberals' long-standing marijuana decriminalization bill and for mandatory minimum sentences for pot growers and people who traffic over six pounds of the weed. Harper and the Conservatives also call for mandatory minimum sentences for methamphetamine and crack cocaine sellers. In a shot at American marijuana refugees like Rene Bojee and Steve Kubby, the platform also calls for the expedited deportation of non-citizens convicted of trafficking, smuggling, or growing marijuana. While harm reduction initiatives like the Vancouver safe injection site and the heroin maintenance trials are not addressed in the platform, Harper and his spokesmen have said they do not intend to use federal funds to pay for such programs.

The Liberal campaign agenda does not even mention drugs, but it joins the Tories in the call for mandatory minimum sentences, at least for gun and gang crimes. And while NDP leader Jack Layton will say if asked that approaches to marijuana should not be punitive -- the party platform in 2004 all but called for legalization -- marijuana is not mentioned in the NDP's current platform, and the only mention of drugs comes in NDP calls for restrictions on methamphetamine precursors and increased funding for drug treatment.

But while Canada is largely viewed as lax on marijuana enforcement, more than 48,000 people were arrested on possession charges last year, according to Statistics Canada. That's a 15% increase over 2003. Another 14,000 were arrested on marijuana growing or trafficking charges.

pro-Emery, anti-extradition protest
(courtesy Cannabis Culturemagazine)
In the meantime, Canada's federal Marijuana Party seems to have withered away. Party founder Boris St. Maurice has joined the Liberals, while other party stalwarts have allied themselves with the NDP, despite its mealy-mouthed approach to the drug issue this time around. In British Columbia, Marc Emery's BC Marijuana Party has effectively become a pro-NDP campaigning organization, with Emery out hitting the hustings for the New Democrats.

Canadian drug reformers are watching anxiously. "I'm concerned about the rhetoric coming out of the Harper campaign," said Eugene Oscapella of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy. "They always seem to be talking about tougher criminal laws, mandatory minimum sentences, and the like. This is very frightening because anyone who has examined this knows mandatory minimum sentences are a disaster, and not just for drugs. If the Conservatives win a majority government, I fear they will perpetuate here the disaster we see south of the border," he told DRCNet.

"The Conservatives seem to be saying they just want to rely on the criminal law, and that would be marching backwards on some very important harm reduction measures," said Oscapella. "I'm hoping this is just rhetoric to get elected, but having seen some of these Members of Parliament in action, they may actually believe this nonsense."

"I think Harper is absolutely serious about cracking down on marijuana and sending people to prison. If it was up to him and his party it would happen," said former Cannabis Culture editor Dana Larsen. "If they had a majority government, they would pass stricter drug laws, cut back on social programs, and invest billions in prisons and war machines. He might find himself fiscally unable to live up to those promises, but I think he is sincere," Larsen told DRCNet.

Whether the Conservatives win an outright majority will be critical for the future of Canadian drug policy. Without a parliamentary majority, a Conservative government would have to win votes elsewhere to pass tough new drug legislation, and those could prove hard to come by. "The only party making any sense on drug policy is the NDP, and maybe the Greens, and if the Conservatives form a minority government with the NDP, I'm less worried about drug policy issues," said Oscapella. "Likewise with the Bloc Quebecois. The Bloc is sensible on these issues. The Liberals weren't exactly stellar on this themselves," he said.

"It looks like a minority Conservative government, and that will make a big difference," said Larsen. "They will have to get another party to agree with them on drug bills, and that will limit their ability to do anything radical. A majority Conservative government would be worse for our movement," he said. "I think the best we can hope for is a Conservative minority government with a strong NDP showing."

Even though Layton and the NDP have downplayed drug policy, Canadian reformers are willing to grant them some slack. "I don't fault the NDP for not hitting on drug policy reform so much this year," said Oscapella. "They're tying to get elected, and they know it could be used against them, and it's just not a major issue in the campaign."

But even if the NDP isn't talking a lot about drug policy, that hasn't stopped the Conservatives from attacking. In one TV spot aired this week in British Columbia, Layton's trademark mustache was superimposed over a "normal" Canadian voter saying "I want to legalize drugs."

"I wouldn't say their drug policy is awesome, but the NDP is light years ahead of everyone else," said Larsen. "While Layton hasn't talked much about marijuana this campaign, whenever he is asked about it he says that real decriminalization is not punitive, and in the ridings, a number of candidates have spoken out forthrightly."

"What's most important is how well the NDP does," said Larsen, who left the Marijuana Party to join the NDP and who now heads up an informal NDP anti-prohibitionist caucus. "The Liberals and Conservatives traditionally take turns, but this time the Liberals could really get routed. People have tended not to vote NDP because they want to win, but this time progressives and the left just might go NDP instead of Liberal."

"The BC Marijuana Party is doing something similar to 2004, we're supporting the NDP," said Kirk Tousaw, BCMP campaign manager. "It's the only one of three major parties that we think has the right stance on cannabis policy reform. We've openly supported them, printed out some campaign cards, and Marc is out campaigning for them right now," he told DRCNet.

A Conservative government would also be bad news in Marc Emery's battle to avoid extradition to the United States, where he faces up to life in prison on charges related to his marijuana seed-selling business. "There is no chance a Conservative justice minister would deny surrendering Marc to the US," said Tousaw. "Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler had no difficulty signing off on Rene Bojee's extradition, but we still have a slim chance. With the Conservatives, that chance would be zero."

But Tousaw is looking ahead to a Conservative government. "If we are going to be dealing with the Conservatives, it's a matter of getting them to understand that ending prohibition fits conservative objectives such as reducing the size of government and government spending," said Tousaw. Tousaw also took faint cheer from the fact that Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, author of a Canadian Senate report calling for legalization, is a Harper campaign advisor. "The one good thing is at least there are guys like Senator Nolin who would act as a check on any crazy legislation," he said.

While the Conservatives appear headed for victory, it isn't because of drug policy, Larsen said. "I don't think most Canadians are voting Conservative because of drug policy; it's just that they don't like the Liberals anymore. If it came to a popular referendum on these issues, I don't think the Conservatives would win."

As for the Liberals' decriminalization bill, which would have subjected small-time pot possessors to fines but not a criminal record, no one was especially broken up at the thought of its demise. "That bill was simply not enough," said Larsen.

Oscapella was another who wasn't sad to see the end of the Liberals' decrim bill. "It wasn't very good," he said. "Some people think it's better to take small steps than no steps at all, but I'm afraid if we got that bill, it might suppress debate on the issue for a long time."

"The decrim bill is not a big loss," said Tousaw. "The bill was flawed. If you're going to do reform, let's make it real. What's more troubling is the idea that any progressive marijuana law reform would be dead under a Conservative government."

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3. Feature: Swiss Marijuana Legalization to Go to Voters... Unless Parliament Acts First

A year and a half after conservative opposition in Switzerland's lower chamber blocked a measure that would have legalized marijuana, proponents of reform have succeeded in gathering enough signatures from Swiss voters to force a nationwide referendum on the issue. A coalition of political figures, cannabis activists, doctors, psychologists, and celebrities united under the banner "For Child and Youth Protection Against Drug Crime," and assisted by an army of volunteer signature gatherers handed in more than 105,000 signatures to federal authorities in Bern last Friday.

marijuana banner in Basel's Fasnacht festival
While Switzerland has developed a reputation as a cannabis-friendly country with high use rates -- there are an estimated 500,000 users -- recent years have seen some backsliding. There have been crackdowns on shops selling cannabis (artfully marketed as hemp "potpourri"), arrests of prominent activists, and efforts by Christian conservatives in parliament to tighten up the pot laws. Those same parliamentary conservatives were responsible for blocking the 2004 reform measure.

"Our aim is to decriminalize cannabis consumption under strict rules, and encourage parliament to draft its own compromise solution," parliamentarian Ursula Wyss, one of the movers in the coalition, told the Swiss news service Swissinfo.

"All Swiss initiatives change the constitution," said Judith Laws, secretary of Droleg, a Swiss group favoring drug reform ("Droleg" = "drug legalization"). "If the initiative is successful, parliament would then have to write new laws" to comply with the newly amended constitution, she told DRCNet.

"This initiative is necessary to push the discussion on hemp, which was frozen after parliament blocked the 2004 reform," said Laws. "Now the discussion is back on the table, and many people are happy. Things move slowly, but they do move," she said. The referendum is already sparking renewed discussion, Laws said. "There was already one program on Swiss official TV this week talking about it and the question of drug use among youngsters," she said.

Wyss told Swissinfo the initiative was not calling for the outright legalization of the marijuana trade, but that may be a little disingenuous. According to the wording of the referendum, "the consumption of psychoactive substances in the hemp plant as well as their possession and acquisition for personal use will be free of punishment." A separate article states that cannabis cultivation will also be free of punishment. And a third article says "the government shall issue regulations about the cultivation, production, import, export, and commerce involving psychoactive substances of the hemp plant." A final article says that youth will be protected and advertising will be prohibited.

"I think very restrictive rules have to be set to protect children and youth. It must be clear that the measures are enforced, for cannabis and alcohol alike," said Wyss, hammering on a theme critical for the measure's success. With high youth use rates and the rising popularity of cannabis since the 1990s, the issue of youth and drugs is a wedge issue for the conservative opposition.

"Switzerland has been too liberal in its drugs policy," the rightist Swiss People's Party spokesman Roman Jaggi told Swissinfo. "We welcome increased police efforts to close illegal hemp shops. But clearly more needs to be done to stop children as young as 12 smoking cannabis. We're against liberalizing cannabis. There is ample scientific proof gathered over the past 40 years to show that pot smoking is not conducive to your health," Jaggi added.

While the People's Party was instrumental in blocking action in parliament in 2004, reformers like Wyss said they were confident her center-left Social Democratic Party could build a broad alliance with center-right Radicals and Christian Democrats to set the stage for a political compromise. If a consensus is reached in parliament, a deal could be struck before voters even have a chance to endorse the measure. In the Swiss political process, it could be as long as two years before the initiative comes before the voters.

"Two years is normal for an initiative," said Laws. "The government has to discuss this and make a recommendation either in favor of or against the initiative. It can also create its own proposal, and then voters would have to choose between the initiative and the government's solution to the problem, or they could just vote no if they want no change. If the government is scared the initiative would pass, it may try to work for something more 'moderate' or 'digestible," Laws explained.

The initiative or a deal brokered by parliamentarians would probably have the backing of the Swiss Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Abuse. While the government body declined to comment on the specifics of the initiative, it has supported decriminalization in the past. "It also makes it easier to treat addicted pot smokers and the patients in turn don't face major obstacles when they're looking for help," spokeswoman Janine Messerli told Swissinfo.

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4. Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Not enough dope in the evidence room in Berkeley, too much dope in the locker room in Baltimore, and too much dope in the jail in Pittsburgh this week, and a couple of coke-peddling Pennsylvania cops just to round things out. While we tend to focus on individual cases of corruption, this week the rot has spread and the stench takes on institutional form, with departments on both coasts having big problems and a big city jail where it seems like everyone was in on the illicit action.

In Berkeley, California, Police Chief Doug Hambleton last week ordered a criminal investigation into how police store and track seized drugs after an audit found unspecified problems with the way drugs are stored. Police have refused to say when the audit was done, why, or what it uncovered. While no officers have yet been accused of wrongdoing, Hambleton ordered the investigation "to determine if any improper or illegal conduct may have occurred," according to the Berkeley Police Department. Alameda County District Attorney Tom Orloff told the Associated Press his office had appointed an inspector and prosecutor to join the investigation into what he called "irregularities" and "potential criminal violations."

In Baltimore, Police Commissioner Leonard Hamm attempted Monday to stem the bleeding in a scandal involving one of the city's police "flex" units. The specialized flying squads are tasked with various crime-fighting initiatives, and the unit in question specializes in drug investigations. Two weeks ago, one of the squad's members, Officer Jemini Jones, 28, was arrested on charges he detained a 22-year-old woman, took her to the Southwest Baltimore station house and forced her to have sex in order to win her freedom. The woman and an 18-year-old friend were then given bags of marijuana and released, according to police affidavits. Two other officers are also charged with rape in that case. In a subsequent search of the squad's offices, police found cocaine and marijuana in officers' lockers, and police affidavits say officers in the squad planted drugs to make arrests. The entire squad, including its commander, Sgt. Robert Smith, has been suspended, and Baltimore prosecutors are saying hundreds of drug and other cases are now in jeopardy. Hamm and Mayor Martin O'Malley announced Monday that from now on, officers wanting to join the unit will have to pass a polygraph test and a drug test and that officers will be rotated out after three years. Meanwhile, the investigations continue, including one announced this week by the FBI.

In Pittsburgh, four current and two former Allegheny County Jail employees were arrested Tuesday and charged with smuggling drugs into the jail and selling them for several years. That's only the latest problem at the jail, where two guards and a jail doctor were arrested for participating in an Oxycontin distribution ring in December and 13 male guards were arrested earlier in a sex-for-favors scandal, according to the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office. Another former jail guard and a federal prison inmate were expected to be arrested this week on the drug smuggling charges. The jail guards face various charges of selling marijuana, Ecstasy, heroin, cocaine, and Oxycontin, as well as a standard drug distribution conspiracy charge.

In Vandergrift, Pennslvania, police officers Robert Wright and Eric Decroo were arrested this week on cocaine distribution charges. In a statement, Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett said the officers were using and selling cocaine at Pittsburgh area bars. Wright allegedly attempted to sell cocaine to an undercover officer last August, while Decroo allegedly told another officer he and Wright were peddling the powder. The dynamic duo face up to 35 years in prison.

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5. Supreme Court Ruling: Administration Cannot Use Federal Drug Laws to Block Oregon's Assisted Suicide Law -- Attempts Increased Pain Levels Among Dying

In a decision handed down Tuesday, the US Supreme Court upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law, ruling that the Bush administration could not use the nation's drug laws to punish doctors who prescribe drugs to help people kill themselves. Splitting 6-3, the court held that former attorney general John Ashcroft exceeded his authority under the Controlled Substances Act when he ruled that doctors who prescribed lethal doses of drugs would lose their federal prescription privileges covered by the act.

The United States Supreme Court
Oregon is the only state to allow physician-assisted suicide for patients facing terminal illness, with voters twice approving the state's Death With Dignity Act before it took effect in 1997. The act limits the right to suicide to people who have less than six months to live and who are mentally competent. Doctors must advise patients of alternatives to suicide, such as improved pain management or hospice care, and the doctor who prescribes the lethal drugs cannot administer them. More than 300 patients had received prescriptions by the end of last year and 208 actually used them to kill themselves.

Oregon's law stuck in the craw of John Ashcroft, who had opposed it even before he was attorney general. In an effort to block the will of Oregon voters, Ashcroft used his position as attorney general to rule that the Controlled Substances Act allowed him to jerk the licenses of doctors who prescribed for suicides. The Bush administration's effort to undo the law continued under Ashcroft's successor, current attorney general Alberto Gonzales.

Ashcroft's was not the first federal action taken against the Oregon law, however, nor did it originate in the Bush administration. In 1997, a week after the initiative was enacted, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under administrator Thomas Constantine and Clinton era attorney general Janet Reno threatened punishment of Oregon's doctors who assisted in suicides under the new law.

The threat took an immediate if unintended toll: A study done at Oregon Health Sciences University released in June 2000 reported that the level of pain suffered by the dying in Oregon increased sharply during November and December of that year. An article in the Associated Press reported that some observers believed the increased under-treatment of pain in the dying was probably caused by the DEA threat. Ann Jackson, head of the Oregon Hospice Association, told the AP, "I think that it's very likely that there's a connection here."

Concern for ordinary pain treatment -- which relies heavily on opioids, drugs that can also be used for assisted suicide -- drove a broad coalition of medical and patient groups, divided on the assisted suicide issue but distrustful of the DEA's baneful effect on pain treatment, to oppose federal legislation, the 1998 "Lethal Drug Abuse Prevention Act," that would have authorized the DEA to revoke the federal prescription licenses of doctors prescribing for the purpose of assisting a suicide. Allowing the DEA to scrutinize medical decisions would further discourage physicians from treating pain adequately, part of a more divided community argued in the context of the 1999 "Pain Relief Promotion Act," which also went nowhere.

The Clinton administration similarly attempted to use the Controlled Substances Act to punish doctors who recommended marijuana to patients in states where it is legal, an effort the courts found violated the First Amendment rights of doctors. Again, the CSA would have been used as a club against state policies disfavored by the feds.

Writing for the majority in Gonzales v. Oregon, eight years and two months after the Oregon law was first passed, Justice Anthony Kennedy acknowledged the "political and moral debate" surrounding assisted suicide, but noted that the issue facing the court was a more limited one -- the scope of the Controlled Substances Act, and whether Ashcroft exceeded his powers in applying it. While the act "gives the attorney general limited powers, to be exercised in specific ways" to fight drug abuse, those powers do not include the power to declare illegitimate "a medical standard for care and treatment of patients that is specifically authorized under state law," Kennedy wrote.

The federal government cannot simply run roughshod over state laws on medical issues, the court said, and interpreting prescriptions for suicide drugs as "drug abuse" was a stretch. In fact, wrote Kennedy, the law's language calls for the attorney general to defer to the secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare on some medical issues, and the administration's argument that Ashcroft made a legal decision -- not a medical one -- did not withstand scrutiny. "All would agree, we should think, that the statutory phrase 'legitimate medical purpose' is a generality, susceptible to more precise definition and open to varying constructions, and thus ambiguous in the relevant sense," he wrote.

Justice Antonin Scalia dissented strongly. "If the term 'legitimate medical purpose' has any meaning, it surely excludes the prescription of drugs to produce death," wrote the Catholic conservative. Citing medical authorities from Hippocrates to the American Medical Association, Scalia scorned the very idea of physician-assisted suicide. "The entire legitimacy of physician-assisted suicide "ultimately rests, not on 'science' or 'medicine,' but on a naked value judgment," he wrote. Joining Scalia in dissent were Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas.

At a Tuesday news briefing, White House spokesman Scott McClellan lamented the ruling. "The president remains fully committed to building a culture of life, a culture of life that is built on valuing life at all stages," McClellan said. That disappointment was echoed by the conservative American Center for Law and Justice. "This is a disappointing decision that is likely to result in a troubling movement by states to pass their own assisted suicide laws," he told the Associated Press.

But Oregon State Solicitor Mary Williams had a different reaction. "For Oregon's physicians and pharmacists, as well as patients and their families, today's ruling confirms that Oregon's law is valid and that they can act under it without fear of federal sanctions," she told the AP.

While assisted suicide is not a drug issue per se, on multiple levels the issues are intertwined, as is so often the case. And the scope of the Controlled Substances Act is not unlimited, no matter how badly some might wish it were so. With a ruling that relied at least in part on federal statute, however, federal legislation could again threaten Oregon's law, with patients wanting relief from pain getting snared further in the crossfire.

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6. Medical Marijuana: San Diego Term Limits Initiative Filed in Response to Supervisors' Attacks on State Medical Marijuana Law

Last month, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to challenge California's medical marijuana law in federal court. Now, board members may be about to pay the ultimate political price for ignoring the will of the voters. On Wednesday, two county residents, a nurse and a medical marijuana patient, filed a notice of intent with county authorities to circulate a ballot initiative setting a two-term limit for supervisors.

Claudia Little, RN, and patient Rudy Reyes, who uses medical marijuana to treat pain and muscle contractions from burns he received in the October 2003 wildfires, are being backed by two national marijuana reform organizations, Americans for Safe Access and the Marijuana Policy Project. A third group not linked to drug reform, US Term Limits, has expressed interest in supporting the move should it qualify for the November ballot.

demonstration honoring Steve McWilliams, medical marijuana
provider who took his own life while facing federal prosecution
The supervisors have been outspoken in their opposition to the state's Compassionate Use Act. Two months ago, they refused to initiate a state-mandated registry for medical marijuana patients and providers, saying it would "send the wrong message" to the county's young people. Last month, in addition to threatening federal court action to challenge the law, supervisors also sat by silently as county law enforcement personnel worked hand in hand with DEA agents to raid every dispensary in the county.

"As a San Diegan and a pain management specialist, I am appalled that our Board of Supervisors is defying the will of county voters, and doing it in order to wage a war on the sick," said Little. "This initiative is necessary because our supervisors are dangerously out of control."

"We don't usually get involved in term limits initiatives, but this situation is extraordinary," said MPP Legislative Analyst Karen O'Keefe. "We cannot just sit idly by while the San Diego County supervisors try to deny patients the medicine that they need, completely ignoring the will of the voters who put them in office."

MPP must like the numbers in a poll released last week. According to that sounding, conducted by the Evans/McDonough Company, 78% of county voters agreed that "The San Diego County Board of Supervisors should not be spending taxpayer money suing the state to try to overturn California's medical marijuana law." Support for a measure to term limit supervisors was even higher, with 84% saying they would vote for such a proposal.

They may soon have the chance.

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7. Medical Marijuana: New Mexico Governor Puts Compassionate Use Act on Legislative Agenda

In a surprise move, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) announced Wednesday night that despite earlier statements to the contrary, he will include a pending medical marijuana bill, the Lynn Pierson Compassionate Use Act, on his legislative agenda for the 30-day short session that began Tuesday. The bill sailed through the Senate on a 27-11 vote and moved easily through House committees before falling victim to unrelated political squabbles and dying in the House last year.

Earlier in the week, Richardson had disappointed patients and advocates by saying he would heed the pleas of House Speaker Ben Lujan (D-Nambe) to not include the measure in the short session. Typically devoted to budget measures, the short session in alternating years is jam-packed with fast-paced legislative action. Lujan told Richardson there was not enough time to consider the bill.

But Wednesday night, Richardson made clear he disagrees. "After speaking with many seriously ill New Mexicans, I have decided to include this bill on my call. This issue is too important, and there are too many New Mexicans suffering to delay this issue any further," he said in a statement.

The medical marijuana bill would allow patients suffering from certain serious illnesses to get recommendations from their doctors and apply to register as protected patients with the state Department of Health. The department would be charged with drafting regulations regarding safety, security, distribution, and the licensing of producers.

"We are so proud to have a Governor who's willing to stand up for compassion," said Reena Szczepanski, Director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, which has taken the lead role in moving the legislation forward. "We are so thrilled to have a chance this year and we have every reason to expect success."

"I thank the Governor for giving me another chance at life," said Essie DeBonet, who suffers from serious side effects due to HIV/AIDS medications. "I pray for him, and I'm so thankful because I might not have another year to wait for this bill."

As of today, there are now 27 days left for the legislature to act in this year's session.

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8. Mothering: Utah Appeals Court Overturns Child Endangerment Charge in Marijuana Breast-Feeding Case, But Upholds Law Itself

In a pair of rulings last week, the Utah Court of Appeals upheld the state's law making "exposure to" illicit drugs evidence of child endangerment, but drew the line at charging a mother under the law for breast-feeding her baby while admitting to smoking marijuana twice in a three-week period. In both cases, local officials brought charges related primarily to marijuana in the family home.

In Utah v. Nieberger, Karen Nieberger was arrested on child endangerment charges after police raided her home and charged her husband with selling marijuana. Nieberger admitted to occasional use, and police found pot, bongs, a pot pipe, and a single Valium when they searched the house. According to court records, the drugs and drug-related items were not easily accessible to Nieberger's children, ages two and three, nor did authorities allege any particular harm to the children.

Nieberger appealed the trial court decision to bind her over for trial on the endangerment charges, arguing that the Utah law was unconstitutionally vague because it did not define "exposure to" illicit drugs or require any finding of actual harm. But while the appeals court held that the evidence could be construed that Nieberger had taken "reasonable precautions" to protect her children from illegal drug use and sales in the home, state court rules required the court to interpret the law "in the light most favorable to the state."

From that perspective, the state law making unspecified "exposure to" illegal drugs sufficient for a child endangerment was not unconstitutionally vague and need not show actual harm because state legislators had expressly removed language requiring "risk" and replaced it with language mandating only "exposure," the court held,

But in Utah v. Draper, the court ruled that even under that friendly reading of the law, a trial judge should not have bound over Becky Lynne Draper to face child endangerment charges merely for breast-feeding her infant while admitting to smoking marijuana twice. Police had come to the residence with a marijuana sales warrant for her husband and then called Child and Family Services to interview Draper. During the interview, Draper admitted smoking twice in a one-month period, then proceeded to breast-feed her six-month-old infant. The investigator discussed with Draper "the danger of marijuana and breast-feeding," but did not request a drug test of Draper or take any action at that time. Instead, when her husband was arrested three weeks later, Draper was too -- charged with child endangerment.

But the appeals court threw out the charges against Draper because prosecutors relied solely on the case worker's contention that Draper's breast milk contained marijuana. "The State did not present any expert testimony at the preliminary hearing that marijuana can contaminate breast milk, of the degree or duration of that contamination, or whether the milk would be contaminated with a controlled substance or merely the metabolite of a controlled substance," the court found. Without such evidence, the court held, there is no reasonable inference that the baby was exposed to marijuana through his mother's breast milk.

"The presence of marijuana in Draper's breast milk at the time she nursed [the infant] is the heart of the State's case against Draper," the opinion noted. "Without some expert testimony suggesting that Draper's breast milk was likely to have contained a controlled substance at any particular time, there is no probable cause to believe that she violated" the child endangerment law.

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9. Marijuana: "Weeds" Actress Mary Louise Parker Wins Golden Globe, Says "Legalize It"

Actress Mary Louise Parker, who plays suburban pot-dealing mom Nancy Botwin in the Showtime TV series "Weeds," beat out a quartet of Desperate Housewives to win best comedy actress at Monday night's nationally-televised Golden Globe awards, and she used the occasion to call on the US government to legalize marijuana.

The series, now in its second season, stars Parker as a divorced housewife who turns to the weed in order to pay her bills, and is only the latest small screen show to turn a kind eye toward the kind bud -- much to the outrage of moralists. For a few years, marijuana was either not portrayed on TV or portrayed only as a dangerous drug, but since the advent of "That '70s Show," whose lead characters spend much time smoking and laughing in the basement," the weed has made a TV comeback.

But being accepted by television audiences is only the beginning for the herb, Parker said in comments reported by the British entertainment web site "I'm really in favor of legalizing marijuana," Parker said after winning the award. "I don't think it's that controversial. "I thought people would be more offended by this than they are. I'm surprised they weren't."

In something of a surprise, Parker beat out Desperate Housewives stars Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, and Eva Longoria to win the award. "I thought Felicity would win. I think we're all desperate housewives. My character is just a little bit more desperate than theirs."

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10. Europe: Britain Will Not Reclassify Cannabis as a More Harmful Drug -- Advisory Council Calls Risk of Mental Illness "Very Small"

British Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced Thursday that he will not reclassify marijuana as a Class C drug. The drug was downgraded from Class C status to the less harmful (and less punished) Class B in 2004, but Clarke had the country on tenterhooks for the past few months as he publicly agonized over rescheduling pot, citing alleged mental health problems and the confusion supposedly engendered by making possession merely a ticketable offense in most cases.

Last year, Clarke asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to reexamine cannabis in light of charges its use could lead to schizophrenia or psychotic episodes, especially among young users. The council issued its recommendation in November, and Clarke has not released the report, but leaks to the British press suggested the council had stood by its earlier decision to support classifying cannabis as a less harmful, Class B drug.

Clarke admitted as much as he told parliament cannabis would stay where it is. "I have decided to accept the Advisory Council's recommendation, which is supported by the police and by most drugs and mental health charities to keep the current classification of cannabis," he said. Instead of stiffening penalties for marijuana, the government will undertake a public awareness campaign for users and a crackdown on growers and dealers, he said.

"Everyone needs to understand that cannabis is harmful and it is illegal. Our education and health campaigns will clearly transmit that message," Clarke said.

The Guardian newspaper reported Thursday that the advisory council had found the risk of someone developing schizophrenia as a result of marijuana use was "very small" and that marijuana was a "substantially less" harmful substance than other Class B drugs, such as amphetamines and barbiturates.

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11. Latin America: Colombian President Forced to Probe Paramilitary Influence-Buying

In the wake of widely publicized allegations that drug-running rightist paramilitary groups are using their cocaine profits to buy their way into Colombia's political system, President Alvaro Uribe has ordered an investigation into the campaign finances of two senators who are Uribe allies. Uribe was forced to act after the two senators, Miguel de La Espriella and Juan Manuel Lopez, nearly came to blows over the issue during a meeting with Uribe January 3 -- a dust-up that ended up gracing the pages of the country's most important newspaper, El Tiempo, last week.

"Democratic legitimacy and institutional credibility must be fundamental to the transparency of the elections," said a statement posted on the presidential web site.

Uribe, who is seeking reelection to a second four-year term in May, has long been accused of going easy on the rightist militias, which have been linked to numerous atrocities since their formation two decades ago in the midst of an ongoing civil war between the Colombian state and leftist guerrilla formations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). In a controversial deal with the Uribe government, about half of the 20,000 paras have turned in their weapons in return for protection from serious punishment for crime including mass murder, kidnapping, and drug trafficking.

Evidence has been mounting for months that the demobilized paras are using the amnesty to plow their drug profits into the political system in an effort to retain influence while continuing to operate drug production and smuggling rings. On Wednesday, Colombian anti-narcotics police announced they had raided and destroyed eight cocaine labs run by the paramilitary United Self-Defenses Forces in Santander province.

"Most paramilitary power is still intact and it is logical to think they will gain power as they go from being a military force to a political and economic force linked to the cocaine trade and other criminal enterprises," German Espejo, analyst at Bogota think tank Seguridad & Democracia told Reuters this week.

"The government should long ago have started encouraging investigations of paramilitary political and financial networks," Maria McFarland, a lawyer for New York-based Human Rights Watch told the news agency.

While Uribe may use the investigation to polish his anti-crime credentials, analysts said public pressure forced his hand. "Once the incident became public Uribe needed to take this step in order to combat charges that he and his allies are linked with the paramilitaries," said Mauricio Romero, political analyst at Bogota's Rosario University. Still, Uribe's ploy may serve a larger good, he said. "The motive for the investigation is political but it could be very positive in that it could finally legally prove the influential role that the paras are playing," he told Reuters.

The paramilitaries originally emerged as militias to defend wealthy landowners from leftist rebels, but they now have their own interests to protect. With various paramilitary leaders indicted in the US for drug trafficking offenses, they seek power in the Colombian congress to block relentless US demands that they be extradited. The nature of the punishments they will endure for their atrocities as armed combatants will also continue to be a contentious issue in the country that suffered their depradations.

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12. Weekly: This Week in History

January 20, 1997: The Lymphoma Foundation calls for rescheduling of marijuana as a medicine and the reopening of the Investigational New Drug compassionate access program.

January 20, 2000: John Warnecke, former friend and colleague of Al Gore at The Tennessean, contradicts Gore's characterization of his past marijuana use as minimal.

January 21, 1943: The New York Times reports that swing-band leader Gene Krupa pleaded innocent to a charge that he contributed to the delinquency of a minor by asking 17-year-old John Pateakos to fetch marijuana cigarettes from his hotel room for him.

January 21, 2003: Ed Rosenthal's federal trial for marijuana cultivation begins. Rosenthal was growing medically with authorization from the city of Oakland, California, but his legal team is barred by Judge Charles Breyer from informing the jury of this. Rosenthal is ultimately convicted but sentenced to one day.

January 22, 1992: The California Research Advisory Panel concludes that drug prohibition has a more harmful effect on society and the individual than illegal drugs.

January 23, 1912: In the Hague, twelve nations sign a treaty restricting opium and coca production.

January 23, 1996: President Clinton nominates General Barry McCaffrey to become the nation's fourth drug czar.

January 24, 2005: The US Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision, rules that police do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they use drug-detecting dogs to locate illegal drugs in the trunks of cars during a legal traffic stop.

January 25, 1993: Based on a tip that drugs were on the premises, police smash down the door and rush into the home of Manuel Ramirez, a retired golf course groundskeeper living in Stockton, California. Ramirez awakes, grabs a pistol and shoots and kills one policeman before other officers kill him. No drugs are found.

January 26, 2000: Rockefeller drug law prisoner Elaine Bartlett, subject of the book "Life on the Outside: the Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett," is set free after sixteen years in Bedford Hill prison for a first time, low-level, cocaine selling offense.

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13. Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

Please submit listings of events concerning drug policy and related topics to [email protected].

January 21, 9:00am-noon, San Diego, CA, "The War on Drugs 101," forum with Ethan Nadelmann. Sponsored by St. Paul's Cathedral and A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing), at St. Paul's Cathedral, 2728 6th Ave., admission free. Visit for further information.

January 21, 4:00pm-3:00am, Brickell, FL, "8th Annual Medical Marijuana Benefit Concert," benefit for Florida NORML hosted by Ploppy Palace Productions and Tobacco Road. At Tobacco Road, 626 South Miami Ave., admission $10, 21 years or over with ID, visit or e-mail [email protected] for further information.

January 28, 6:00pm, West Hollywood, CA, fundraiser supporting San Diego Cannabis Buyers Clubs raided last year. Hosted by Los Angeles NORML, donation $50, visit or contact Laurie at (619) 405-4299 or LA NORML at (310) 652-8654 for further information.

January 28-29, Toronto, CA, "Peace Summit II & Social Weedend," cannabis conference sponsored by Puff Mama, contact Matt Mernagh at [email protected] or (905) 704-1170 for further information.

February 3, Oakland, CA, NORML Winter Benefit Party, at the Oakland Sailboat House, Late Merritt. Admission $60, advance reservations required, visit for information.

February 9-11, Tasmania, Australia, The Eleventh International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), coordinated by Justice Action. For further information visit or contact +612-9660 9111 or [email protected].

February 16, 8:00pm, New Paltz, NY, "Know Your Rights" forum, screening of "Busted: The Citizen's Guide to Surviving Police Encounters," Q&A with attorney Russell Schindler and a speaker on racial profiling. Sponsored by New Paltz NORML/SSDP, Student Union Building, Room 100, admission free, refreshments served. For further information, visit or contact [email protected], (845) 257-2687 or (646) 246-8504.

March 3-5, Columbia, MO, Students for Sensible Drug Policy Midwest Regional Conference. At the University of Missouri, contact Joe Bartlett at [email protected] for further information.

March 29, 6:00pm, New York, NY, "Drug Policy for the Union Man," forum for members of the Local 375 District Council 37, presented by LEAP, DPA, CJPF and ReconsiDer. At 125 Barkley St., two blocks north of Old World Trade Center, contact Mike Smithson at (315) 243-5844 or [email protected] for further information.

March 30, 8:00pm, Los Angeles, CA, MPP Party at the Playboy Mansion, tickets $500, visit for further information.

April 5-8, Santa Barbara, CA, Fourth National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics. Sponsored by Patients Out of Time, details to be announced, visit for updates.

April 7, Charleston Beach, SC, launch of "Journey for Justice Number Seven: Cross Country Bicycle Ride for Medical Marijuana Safe Access," by medical marijuana patient Ken Locke. Visit for further information.

April 9, noon-6:00pm, Sacramento, CA, "Cannabis at the Capitol," medical marijuana rally sponsored by the Compassionate Coalition. At the California State Capitol, west steps, visit or contact Peter Keyes at (916) 456-7933 for info.

April 20-22, San Francisco, CA, National NORML Conference, visit for further information.

April 30-May 4, Vancouver, BC, Canada, "17th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm," annual conference of the International Harm Reduction Association. Visit for further information.

May 6-7, worldwide, Million Marijuana march, visit for further information.

June 3, 1:00-11:00pm, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 10th Legalize! Street Rave Against the War on Drugs. Visit or contact Jonas Daniel Meyerplein at +31(0)20-4275626 or [email protected] for info.

July 4, Washington, DC, Fourth of July Rally, sponsored by the Fourth of July Hemp Coalition. At Lafayette Park, contact (202) 887-5770 for further information.

August 19-20, Seattle, WA, Seattle Hempfest, visit for further information.

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