Drug War Chronicle #464 - December 8, 2006

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1. Drug Reform and the Democratic Congress: What's Going to Happen?

Will Democratic control of the Congress mean significant drug reform progress next year? Drug reformers certainly hope so, but the prospects are uncertain.

2. DRCNet Book Review: "Fatal Distraction: The War on Drugs in the Age of Islamic Terror," by Arnold Trebach (2006, Unlimited Publishing, 398 pp., $19.95 PB)

Arnold Trebach, the dean of American drug reform, is at it again with the publication of his latest book, "Fatal Distraction: The War on Drugs in the Age of Islamic Terror."

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

After a one-week hiatus, the corrupt cops stories are back, thanks in large part to the help of Chronicle readers -- we have a veritable potpourri of police misconduct with a heavy emphasis on the larcenous.

6. Sentencing: US Supreme Court Rules for Immigrants in Drug Possession Deportation Case

In a Tuesday decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that immigrants convicted of drug felonies under state law are not subject to mandatory deportation unless the offense is classified as a felony under the federal Controlled Substances Act.

7. Sentencing: US Supreme Court Lets Stand Pot Dealer's 55-Year Mandatory Minimum Sentence

Observers had hoped the court would use the case to address the excesses of mandatory minimum sentences, but no such luck.

8. Pain Patients: Richard Paey Loses Appeal, Wheelchair-Bound Man to Remain in Prison

Richard Paey, the wheelchair-bound pain patient serving a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence as a drug dealer under Florida law, will remain in prison after losing an appeal this week. But a sympathetic appeals court suggested he seek clemency from the governor.

9. Hemp: North Dakota Becomes First State to Legalize Industrial Production

North Dakota becomes the first state to legalize industrial hemp production, with licenses available beginning January 1. But someone is going to have to do something about the DEA's opposition, or nobody's going to be growing hemp any time soon.

10. Medical Marijuana: County Lawsuit Challenging California Law Thrown Out

Officials of San Diego, Merced and San Bernardino counties who are hostile to California's medical marijuana law lost a court battle.

11. Harm Reduction: New Jersey Needle Exchange Bill Moves to Final Floor Votes Next Week

New Jersey is the only state in the nation with neither needle exchange nor non-prescription needle sales, but that could change Monday as a needle exchange bill heads for final floor votes in both houses of the legislature.

12. Law Enforcement: Rev. Al Sharpton Calls for Congressional Hearings into Police Killings of Civilians

In the wake of a trio of high-profile police killings of civilians, African-American civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton is calling for congressional hearings on police violence.

13. Weekly: This Week in History

Events and quotes of note from this week's drug policy events of years past.

14. Job Opportunity: MPP New Hampshire Medical Marijuana Campaign

Granite Staters for Medical Marijiuana is back, and they may want YOU.

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1. Drug Reform and the Democratic Congress: What's Going to Happen?

To hear the buzz in drug reform circles, Christmas came early this year. To be precise, it arrived on Election Day, when the Democrats took back control of the Congress. There is a whole long list of drug reform-related issues that the Democratically-controlled Congress can address, and hopes are high that after a dozen years of Republican rule on Capitol Hill, progress will come on at least some of them. But will the Democratic Congress really turn out to be Santa Claus, bestowing gifts on a movement long out in the cold, or will it turn out more like the Grinch, offering up tantalizing glimpses of the goodies only to snatch them away?

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US Capitol, Senate side
Drug War Chronicle is trying to find out what's likely to happen, so we talked to a number of drug reform organizations, especially those with a strong federal lobbying presence and agenda, as well as with the offices of some of the representatives who will be playing key roles on Capitol Hill in the next Congress.

The list of drug war issues where Congress could act next year is indeed lengthy:

  • Sentencing reform -- whether addressing the crack-powder cocaine disparity or mandatory minimums or both, and other reforms;
  • Medical marijuana, either through the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment barring federal funds to raid patients and providers in states where it is legal or Barney Frank's states' rights to medical marijuana bill;
  • The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) is up for reauthorization;
  • The Higher Education Act (HEA) and its drug provision are up for reauthorization;
  • Removing drug offender restrictions from food stamp, public housing, and other social services;
  • The Washington, DC, appropriations bill, where Congress has barred the District from enacting needle exchange programs and a voter-approved medical marijuana law;
  • Plan Colombia;
  • The war in Afghanistan and US anti-opium policy;
  • The pain crisis and the war on pain doctors;
  • Prisoner reentry legislation, particularly the Second Chance Act;
  • Police raids.

While there is optimism in drug reform circles, it is tempered by a healthy dose of realism. The Congress is a place where it is notoriously difficult to make (or unmake) a law, and while some of the new Democratic leadership has been sympathetic on certain issues, drug reform is not exactly a high-profile issue. Whether congressional Democratic decision-makers will decide to use their political resources advancing an agenda that could be attacked as "soft on drugs" or "soft on crime" remains to be seen. But according to one of the movement's most astute Hill-watchers, some "low-hanging fruit" might be within reach next year.

"Some of the easiest things to achieve in the new Congress will be the HEA ban on aid to students with drug violations, because the Democrats will have to deal with HEA reauthorization, and the ban on access to the TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) to public housing, because they will have to deal with welfare reform," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "There is also a chance of repealing provisions in the DC appropriations bill that bar needle exchanges and medical marijuana. These are the low-hanging fruit."

For Piper, there is also a chance to see movement on a second tier of issues, including medical marijuana, sentencing reform and Latin America policy. "Can we get the votes to pass Hinchey-Rohrabacher in the House and get it to the Senate?" he asked. "There is also a good chance of completely changing how we deal with Latin America. We could see a shift in funding from military to civil society-type programs and from eradication to crop substitution," he said. "Also, there is a good chance on sentencing reform. Can the Democrats strike a deal with Sen. Sessions (R-AL) and other Republicans on the crack-powder disparity, or will they try to play politics and paint the Democrats as soft on crime? Would Bush veto it if it passed?"

Clearly, at this point, there are more questions than answers, and time will tell. But the political ground has shifted, Piper noted. "We are no longer playing defense," he argued. "Now we don't have to deal with folks like Souder and Sensenbrenner and all their stupid bills. This puts us in a really good position. For the first time in 12 years, we get to go on offense. And unlike a dozen years ago, the Democrats who will control the key committees are really, really good. This is probably the first time since the 1980s that drug policy reform has been in a position to go on the offensive."

Representatives sympathetic to drug law reform will fill key positions in the next Congress, led by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), who will be the incoming chair of the crucial House Judiciary Committee. Replacing HEA drug provision author and leading congressional drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) as chair of the important Government Reform Committee Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources will be either Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) or Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL) -- the assignment isn't yet set -- while Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) will chair the Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security, the key subcommittee when it comes to sentencing reform.

While it is too early to get firm commitments from committee heads on hearings next year, a spokesman for Rep. Conyers told Drug War Chronicle sentencing reform is definitely on the table. "Congressman Conyers is certainly interested in these issues, he's been quite outspoken on this, and it is something he will address, but we haven't come out with our agenda and we don't have a timeline yet," said House Judiciary Committee press officer Jonathan Godfrey. "But this will definitely be an issue for the committee," he added.

Conyers and the new Democratic Congress may not yet have established their agendas, but the drug reform movement certainly has, and sentencing reform, whether through addressing the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity or through a broader assault on the federal mandatory minimum sentencing scheme, is front and center. Perhaps not surprisingly, many leading reformers said addressing the crack-powder disparity was not enough.

"There's been a lot of discussion about eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, or even removing the definition of crack from the guidelines entirely," said DRCNet executive director Dave Borden. "We of course support that, but we also hope the issue of mandatory minimums themselves, and the sentencing guidelines, are also taken up. Those are far bigger problems, affecting far more people than that one controversial but small piece of them. It may be that only small changes are possible at this time, even with our best Congressional friends in important positions. Nevertheless, the opportunity should be taken to raise the larger sentencing issues, to organize around them, build support, attract cosponsors for mandatory minimum repeal bills, all the things that go with any legislative campaign -- what better time than now?"

"While we of course favor reforming the crack-powder cocaine disparity, we need to stop thinking small," said Julie Stewart, executive director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "We need to be looking at sentencing reform as a whole. We will be asking for legislation to address the crack-powder disparity, but we will also be asking for hearings on the repeal of mandatory minimum sentencing," she said. "Whether we can get that is another question, but it's time to ask for the sky."

Stewart's sentiments were echoed and amplified by Nora Callahan, executive director of The November Coalition, a drug reform group that concentrates on winning freedom for federal drug war prisoners. "What we need is an omnibus crime bill," Callahan said. "Otherwise we'll be picking this thing apart for the next five decades. An omnibus bill would open the door to broad hearings where we could address the myriad negative effects of the drug war, from imprisoning huge numbers of people to depriving students of loans and poor people of housing and other federal benefits, and from police corruption to police violence. If we try to deal with all these problems one by one, the prison population will have doubled again by the time we get it done."

Of course, sentencing reform isn't the only drug policy issue activists will be pushing next year. Medical marijuana remains on the agenda, with the biggest push likely to be around the Hinchey-Rohrabacher amendment, which would bar the use of federal funds to raid patients and providers in states where it is legal. "We will be looking for meaningful protections for medical marijuana patients," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project. "We will judge progress by the extent to which patients can use the medicine that works best for them without fear of federal arrest or prosecution. We need meaningful reforms, not ones that sound meaningful but are not, like rescheduling," he added.

"Our legislative priorities in the past have been Hinchey-Rohrabacher, the states' rights to medical marijuana bill, and the Truth in Trials Act, which would allow for an affirmative defense in federal court," said Houston. "Of these, we expect that we should be able to pass Hinchey. Last year, we had 167 votes, and we picked up 19 new members in November who we think are supportive. And when Speaker-elect Pelosi assumes the gavel in January, it will be the first time we have a strong medical marijuana supporter at the helm of the House of Representatives."

Those numbers are encouraging, but not quite enough to win yet. It takes 218 votes to win a majority in the House if everyone votes.

And as DPA's Piper noted above, the HEA reauthorization bill next year should be a good opportunity to finally kill Souder's drug provision once and for all. "We have a tremendous opportunity here with the Democrats taking control and deciding which legislation moves forward," said Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "Rep. George Miller (D-CA) will chair the House Education Work Force Committee, and he's a cosponsor of the RISE Act. Also, one of our biggest supporters, Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ), is in line to chair the subcommittee that handles higher education, which is where the RISE Act sits right now."

But Andrews may not end up with the chairmanship, Angell warned. "He's a supporter of for-profit colleges, and the Democratic leadership doesn't like that, so he might not get it," he said.

"We'd like to see the HEA drug provision repealed, and we think it's possible in the new Congress," said DRCNet's Borden. "There just isn't a lot of passion from very many members of Congress for keeping the provision, even among those who have voted to do so. We'd like to see legislation to repeal similar provisions in welfare and public housing law -- we have a coalition of over 250 organizations that have signed on to repealing the HEA drug provision, and activating that network and building it to take on more issues is definitely on our agenda."

The RISE (Removing Impediments to Students' Education) Act would repeal the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision, SSDP's key congressional goal. While Angell was optimistic about prospects in the next Congress, he was also looking for early indicators. "The introduction of the bill, the number of cosponsors, and the top names behind it will be a good indication of how likely we are to repeal the penalty," he said. "I'm looking for that to happen early in the session. We had 84 lobbying meetings on Capitol Hill during our annual conference last month, and we will be following up on those and working closely with the staff of the education committee."

But repealing the HEA drug provision isn't SSDP's only goal on Capitol Hill, said Angell. "We are hoping to be working with DPA and MPP to reduce or eliminate funding for the ONDCP media campaign and we will be working to reduce or eliminate funding for student drug testing grants," he explained. "Besides HEA, those are our big issues."

One issue that has emerged as a hot topic in recent weeks is the issue of police violence. With the killing of Atlanta senior citizen Kathryn Johnson in a "no-knock" drug raid and the killing of New York City resident Sean Bell a few days later in a volley of more than 50 shots fired by NYPD officers, policing in America is under the spotlight. Civil rights activist and former presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton called this week for congressional hearings on the issue. Sharpton said he had already been in contact with Rep. Conyers about the possibility.

That's something DRCNet's Borden would like to see, too. "We'd like to see action taken to rein in these paramilitary police forces and not have SWAT teams breaking down people's doors in the middle of the night when there is not an emergency situation. I think there should be hearings in Congress, as well as state legislatures, with victims of bad drug raids playing a prominent role, as well as police experts, civil rights experts, and the like. We are considering launching a petition calling for all of this," he said.

And then there is the US drug war abroad. With Plan Colombia about to enter its seventh year, and the flow of cocaine unabated despite massive aerial spraying of herbicides, congressional Democrats will seek to cut back or redirect US spending to emphasize development instead of drug war. And although Congress has not yet come to grips with the serious contradictions inherent in waging war on poppies at the same time it seeks to wage a war on terror in Afghanistan, facts on the ground suggest it will be unable to continue to ignore them.

This should be a year of change in our drug policy abroad, said DRCNet's Borden. "We'd like to see the coca and opium eradication programs stopped. They are useless; all they do is move the cultivation from place to place," he noted. "In Afghanistan, it's driving people into the arms of the Taliban for protection, and that's disastrous for our national interests and potentially for global security. There are credible plans put forward, by the UN and other international bodies, and by experts in the nonprofit sector, that don't rely on eradication; let's look at those."

Borden also urged Congress to act to address the crisis in pain care in the context of the administration's war on prescription drug abuse and prosecutions of pain doctors. "Last but not least, something must be done about the pain doctor prosecutions," he said. "I believe the law in this area has been fundamentally warped. Conyers has supported important work being done in this area. Now he's in a position to kick it up a notch."

Drug reformers have a mighty busy agenda for Congress in the next two years. Congressional Democrats have said they are interested in reforms; now that they will be in power, we will see if they are as good as their word and we will have the chance to prod them to act.

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2. DRCNet Book Review: "Fatal Distraction: The War on Drugs in the Age of Islamic Terror," by Arnold Trebach (2006, Unlimited Publishing, 398 pp., $19.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor, Drug War Chronicle

The grand old man of American drug reform is at it again. Retired American University professor and head of the International Antiprohibitionist League Arnold Trebach returns to the fray with "Fatal Distraction," and a fine addition to the literature it is. While the book is a reworking of his contribution to the 1993 pro-and-con "Legalize It? Debating American Drug Policy" (with James Inciardi), Trebach has greatly expanded that material and includes much that is new. In doing so, he has created what is in essence a primer for ending drug prohibition.

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And make no mistake about it, legalization is precisely what Trebach wants. Although he complains that he was unfairly labeled a legalizer earlier in his career, Trebach now embraces the label. In "Fatal Distraction," he calls for the repeal of federal drug laws, especially the 1970 Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, and the dismantling of the DEA. The federal government would get out of the drug prohibition racket and, as was the case with alcohol after Prohibition, leave it to the states to set their own drug laws, Trebach writes.

Drug reform groups that refuse to embrace ending prohibition, who are afraid to say the word "legalization," are part of the problem, Trebach declares. For reformers today to avoid calling directly for full legalization is to Trebach analogous to "the Abolitionist movement of the 1800s having worked not to free the slaves, but to provide better housing and health care for them." Like slavery, Trebach notes, drug prohibition is "a true evil institution, one that needs destroying -- not improving."

Trebach spends about the first third of "Fatal Distraction" demonstrating just how and how horribly drug prohibition has failed, and as he does so, he takes the reader on a guided tour of the drug war, from the bloody streets of our inner cities to our overflowing prisons, from the damage done to the freedoms enshrined in our Constitution to the inherently corrupting asset forfeiture laws, from the crisis in pain relief to the mini-concentration camps masquerading as drug treatment centers for our kids. To all of this, Trebach brings decades of experience, observation, and thoughtful pondering, and he builds a devastating case against prohibition.

Much of Trebach's argument and many of his examples will be familiar to serious students of drugs and drug policy, but Trebach's comprehensive vision helps bring the convoluted mass of intersecting issues around drug policy into clear focus. It also helps that Trebach presents his material in easily digested, bite-sized chunks of three or four or five pages.

But, as "Fatal Distraction's" subtitle -- "The War on Drugs in the Age of Islamic Terror" -- suggests, Trebach has more on his mind that simply ending drug prohibition. Obviously deeply affected by the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Trebach argues that the war on Islamic fundamentalist violence is so critical to America's future that continuing to divert energy and resources into the war on drugs could threaten our very existence.

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Arnold Trebach
The ranks of drug reformers will doubtless produce diverse reactions to this contention. Trebach is undoubtedly correct that the war on drugs is a diversion and distraction from the war on terror. But one could also argue that it is a diversion and distraction from the need for social justice or the fight against global warming. Trebach points out that skills honed by the many agents currently employed in drug enforcement could be effectively applied to investigating and rooting out terrorist cells instead. True, but also against other kinds of violent crime. Is the concept of "war" more apt when applied to a tactic (terror) or an ideology (Islamic fundamentalism) than to a war on inert substances (drugs)? This reviewer is himself among the ranks of the unconvinced on those points; and as Trebach has so artfully shown, drug prohibition is a failure on its own terms and does not require juxtaposition with a more recent threat to be recognizable as such.

Nevertheless, while the theme of fighting Islamic terrorism appears sporadically throughout "Fatal Distraction," most of that material appears within a handful of chapters near the end of the book. Perhaps its presence will get some new people to think about the drug laws who haven't done so before. The remainder of "Fatal Distraction" -- the distillation of a life's work in the trenches of drug law reform -- makes this a book grizzled reformers and bright-eyed newcomers to the cause alike will want to read and absorb.

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

Careful readers will have noted that there was no corrupt cops story in Drug War Chronicle last week. That's because we couldn't find any. One of our primary sources, Bad Cop News, had essentially gone silent, and my Google alerts on various drug-related words and phrases had turned up nothing. I appealed to my readers in a blog post on Friday, however, and thanks in part to their responses, we have more corrupt cops stories this week. I have revised and widened my Google alerts, but I'm still calling on readers to send me any local corrupt cops stories they come across. I may have seen them already, but maybe not. Just visit my contact page at http://stopthedrugwar.org/user/psmith and put "corrupt cops" in the subject line to send them along.

This week, it's a veritable potpourri of police misconduct with a heavy emphasis on the larcenous. Let's get to it:

In Chicago, three police officers were charged Monday in a widening probe into allegations Chicago police shook down drug suspects. Officers James McGovern, 40, Frank Villareal, 38, and Margaret Hopkins, 32, all members of the department's special operations section, are charged with official misconduct, and Villareal and Hopkins are also charged with home invasion. Four other Chicago police officers were arrested on similar charges in September. All are accused of robbing, kidnapping, and intimidating drug dealers and using their badges to gain access to homes. So far, the arrests have forced prosecutors to drop more than 100 drug cases.

In Norwalk, Iowa, an assistant fire chief is accused of stealing drugs and covering it up. Assistant Fire Chief Michael Wenger, 41, was arrested last Friday after admitting stealing opiate pain relievers used for EMS calls, including morphine, Tordal, and Fentanyl, and altering logs to hide his thievery. He is charged with fraudulent practices and two counts of possessing a controlled substance. Norwalk, which has been without a fire chief for the past year, now lacks an assistant chief, too.

In Las Vegas, New Mexico, a New Mexico Highlands University security officer has been charged with drug trafficking. Police allege they found cocaine in Officer Michelle Espinoza's purse last week. According to a university spokeswoman, Espinoza, 35, has been placed on leave pending resolution of the case.

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, a Pittston Township police officer was charged in federal court last Friday with felony drug and weapons offenses. Officer Michael Byra, 28, recently testified he had made at least 60 drug busts, but it appears he had problems leaving the evidence alone. He is charged with possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of a firearm during a felony drug trafficking transaction and possession of a stolen firearm. The charges came after the DEA investigated missing evidence -- heroin, cocaine, marijuana, guns, $10,000 in cash, files, and a log book. Byra now faces up to life in prison.

In Ashland, Kentucky, a former state trooper pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges he stole $180,000 from police drug buy funds. Former trooper Louie Podunavac Jr., 41, was a sergeant responsible for the narcotics division in Boyd, Greenup, and Lawrence counties in eastern Kentucky until he retired in July upon being questioned by investigators hunting for missing funds. He admitted in court that he used his access to a state bank account to take money designated for drug buys and transfer it to an account in his own name. Podunavac will be sentenced March 12. He also faces six state charges of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. Podunavac's attorney, David Mussetter, explained that Podunavac broke his ankle in 2003, got strung out on Lortab, and stole the money to buy painkillers.

Near Boston, a Malden Police officer was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison on November 15 for ripping-off a drug dealer. Officer David Jordan, a 19-year veteran of the force, participated in a scheme with a local drug dealer to stop a rival dealer and steal three kilograms of cocaine valued at $81,000. Jordan's co-conspirator, Anthony Bucci, 43, of Wakefield, got 22 years the same day.

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6. Sentencing: US Supreme Court Rules for Immigrants in Drug Possession Deportation Case

In a decision issued Tuesday, the US Supreme Court made it easier for some immigrants convicted of drug possession under state laws to avoid deportation. Under the Immigration and Naturalization Act, immigrants convicted of an aggravated felony face mandatory deportation. In this case, the court held that even if a conviction for drug possession is considered a felony under state law, if it is not considered a felony under the federal Controlled Substances Act, it cannot be an aggravated felony for immigration purposes.

The ruling came in the case of Lopez v. Gonzalez. Jose Antonio Lopez, who was born in Mexico, was a 16-year legal permanent resident of the US with a wife and children and a family business when he was arrested in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and charged with aiding and abetting cocaine possession. Under South Dakota law, that's a felony. Lopez pled guilty and was sentenced to five years in state prison. Upon finishing his prison sentence, he was deported to Mexico in January 2006.

Lopez appealed his deportation by an Immigration and Naturalization Service judge, but in a 2005 opinion, the US 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis denied him. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and now Lopez has a chance to come back to his new home in the US.

The ruling came on an 8-1 vote, with Justice Clarence Thomas alone in the dissent.

The Bush administration argued that Congress left the door open to counting such offenses as aggravated felonies, but Justice David Souter, who wrote the opinion, and the court weren't buying it. In a passage where he accused the government of "incoherence," Souter added that "the government's way... would often turn simple possession into trafficking, just what the English language tells us not to expect and that result makes us very wary of the government's position."

With some 12 million permanent resident immigrants living in the country, the Lopez ruling is likely to affect thousands of immigrants with minor drug-related convictions.

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7. Sentencing: US Supreme Court Lets Stand Pot Dealer's 55-Year Mandatory Minimum Sentence

The US Supreme Court Monday refused to hear an appeal of a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence for a Salt Lake City marijuana dealer who carried a pistol in his boot during his transactions. The decision not to hear the case disappointed observers in the legal community who hoped it would lead to a constitutional review of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Weldon Angelos was a would-be rap music empresario and father of two children who also peddled pot. He was indicted on multiple marijuana distribution charges and, because of the gun in his boot, multiple charges of possession of a weapon during the commission of a felony. There is no evidence Angelos ever shot or killed anyone with his weapon, or even brandished it. But federal law requires a mandatory five-year sentence for a first weapons count, followed by mandatory 25-year sentences for each additional count.

Angelos refused a plea deal and was found guilty of the marijuana dealing counts and three weapons counts. When sentencing Angelos to the mandatory minimum 55 years in 2002, US Circuit Court Judge Paul Cassell issued a lengthy opinion protesting the injustice of sentencing the 26-year-old to a life behind bars.

Angelos appealed, but in a January 2005 opinion, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver rejected his argument that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. When he appealed to the Supreme Court, Angelos was joined by more than 140 top former justice officials from across the country, including four former US attorneys general, a former FBI director and other former federal judges and prosecutors who sided with him in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the court in October.

By refusing to take the case, the Supreme Court has signaled that it views decades-long prison sentences for nonviolent marijuana dealers as okay, and that wasn't okay with a substantial segment of the legal community. "We are very disappointed that the Supreme Court refused to hear this case in which a low-level marijuana offender received what is effectively a life sentence," said Jeff Sklaroff, an attorney representing the group that filed the brief, in remarks reported by the Deseret News.

Angelos' attorneys were similarly unhappy. "We are extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court did not agree to hear the case," University of Utah law professor Erik Luna said. "This case presented a great opportunity for the Supreme Court not only to correct this miscarriage of justice but also to clarify the scope of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment."

"We hope that Congress will realize the injustice caused by its mandatory-minimum scheme and dispose of it without the court having to intervene," said attorneys Troy Booher and Michael Zimmerman, a former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, in a statement Tuesday.

But federal prosecutors were happy. "We are pleased that the Supreme Court denied the petition," US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said. "Congress has determined that armed drug trafficking is a particularly serious offense that warrants severe punishment."

Now, Angelos is facing decades in prison. He can appeal his conviction and sentence in a writ of habeas corpus, but such an appeal would go before the same courts that have already upheld them. Or he can seek a presidential pardon.

Or, when sanity finally comes to American drug sentencing practices, we can make sure to write in retroactivity for still-serving prisoners like Angelos.

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8. Pain Patients: Richard Paey Loses Appeal, Wheelchair-Bound Man to Remain in Prison

Richard Paey, the Florida pain patient serving a 25-year sentence as a drug dealer after being convicted of fraudulently obtaining pain medications, will remain in prison after losing an appeal Wednesday. Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld his conviction and sentence on a 2-1 vote.

But in a highly unusual act, the appeals court offered some sympathy and advice. Paey should seek a commutation of his sentence from the governor, the court suggested. "Mr Paey's argument about his sentence does not fall on deaf ears," wrote Judge Douglas Wallace, "but it falls on the wrong ears."

While the two judge majority in the case was sympathetic but said its hands were tied, the lone dissenter on the bench, Associate Judge James Seals, disagreed. In a blistering dissent, Seals made a multi-point case that Paey's mandatory minimum sentence was both "cruel and unusual" and absurd in light of the shorter sentences given for many real crimes. (Click here to read an excerpt.)

Paey who was severely injured in an automobile accident in the 1980s, was arrested by the DEA and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office after buying more than 1,200 pain pills with fake prescriptions. Although agents watched Paey roll up to pharmacies in his wheelchair to fill the prescriptions, he was charged as a drug dealer under a Florida law that says anyone possessing more than an ounce is a dealer. Paey rejected a plea bargain before he was tried, saying it was against his principles.

While other appeals remain open to Paey, his attorney, John Flannery II, told the St. Petersburg Times he would take the appeals court up on its suggestion. Flannery filed a commutation petition Wednesday. It's unlikely that outgoing Gov. Jeb Bush will act on it before his term ends as year's end, but Flannery said he wanted to start the process for Governor-elect Charlie Crist.

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9. Hemp: North Dakota Becomes First State to Legalize Industrial Production

Industrial hemp production becomes legal under North Dakota state law as of January 1, making it the first US state to do so. But while the state Agriculture Department is ready to start handing out licenses next month, it cautions potential farmers that they can't actually begin growing hemp until they are licensed by the state and are approved by the federal government.

Given that the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) remains opposed to legalizing the production of the marijuana relative -- the two plants are different cultivars of the cannabis plant, one grown for its oils, seeds, and fibers and the other to get you high -- North Dakota wheat, beet, and soybean farmers probably shouldn't be thinking about switching over anytime soon. That despite the fact that their cousins on the other side of that line in the trackless prairie that marks the US-Canada border in the area are growing it like crazy, sending it across the border, where it can be processed and sold as hemp products, and taking their US dollar profits back home.

In several bills passed since 1999, the North Dakota legislature has approved industrial hemp cultivation. Last month, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem gave his approval to implementing rules crafted by the Agriculture Department, whose head, Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson, has been a leading proponent of the potential new cash crop. On Monday, the rules won final approval in the legislature.

"The administrative rules committee of the Legislative Council has reviewed the rules and has not recommended any changes," Commissioner Johnson said in a press release Monday. "After Jan. 1, 2007, North Dakotans will be able to apply for licenses to grow industrial hemp."

But he also warned that the feds remain an obstacle. "Our rules clearly state that persons who hold licenses to grow industrial hemp must also obtain permission from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). It will be up to the DEA to allow producers to compete with other countries for the profits from this potentially valuable crop."

Under the North Dakota rules, producers must consent to a criminal background check and document the amount of harvested hemp sold. Their fields must be provided with geopositioning instruments to track their location, and planted hemp seed must contain less than 0.03% THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis.

Johnson told the Associated Press he had no illusions of hempen hills in North Dakota anytime soon, but that he hoped to pressure the DEA to act. "We'll see where it goes," he said. "Hopefully, North Dakota will be the first state where producers can grow hemp for legitimate uses. Nobody has ever put something like this in front of the DEA," he said. "We want to make industrial hemp happen. We have put these rules together in such an airtight fashion that we know we are not going to have illicit drugs being grown in North Dakota," Johnson said.

The DEA doesn't care. Hemp contains traces of THC and thus falls under the purview of the Controlled Substances Act, DEA Washington spokesman Steve Robertson told the AP. "There is no differentiation between hemp and marijuana," Robertson said. "The regulations for hemp are the same as they are for marijuana." [Ed: Robertson of course is lying -- yes, lying -- the CSA clearly gives DEA the authority to grant hemp growing licenses.]

But perhaps some frustrated North Dakota farmer with a hemp license will take the agency to court. And then perhaps the US can join the list of civilized countries that allow hemp production, with North Dakota in the vanguard.

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10. Medical Marijuana: County Lawsuit Challenging California Law Thrown Out

San Diego Superior Court Judge William Nevitt, Jr. on Wednesday threw out a challenge to California's medical marijuana law, saying there was "no positive conflict" between state and federal law. The ruling came against a lawsuit filed by San Diego County in February and later joined by San Bernardino and Merced counties. County officials in all three jurisdictions were hostile to Proposition 215 (the Compassionate Use Act) and SB 420, which set up a state Medical Marijuana Program (MMP) with a system of county-administered ID cards.

The medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project, and the Drug Policy Alliance jointly intervened to block the lawsuit. It was a September 1 motion argued by ASA Chief Counsel Joe Elford that resulted in the favorable ruling.

In his ruling, Judge Nevitt concluded that "neither the Compassionate Use Act nor the MMP is preempted by the Supremacy Clause, by the CSA (Controlled Substances Act), or by the Single Convention." Nevitt also found that, contrary to the arguments by the recalcitrant counties, the voluntary ID card program "does not interfere" with the stated purpose of the Compassionate Use Act, which is to "ensure that seriously ill Californians have the right to obtain and use marijuana for medical purposes."

ASA executive director Steph Sherer declared the decision a victory for California's medical marijuana patients. "For the tens of thousands of seriously ill Californians who depend on medical marijuana, this victory could not be more significant," she said. "San Diego Supervisors sought clarification from the courts and now, with this ruling, we encourage San Diego and counties across California to move forward with implementing state law."

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11. Harm Reduction: New Jersey Needle Exchange Bill Moves to Final Floor Votes Next Week

After more than a decade of struggle and thousands of preventable HIV/AIDS cases, New Jersey is on the brink of passing the first bill that would allow needle exchanges to take place in the state. After winning a final Assembly committee vote Monday, the measure now advances to final floor votes in the Assembly and the Senate next Monday.

The bill, A1852, the Bloodborne Disease Harm Reduction Act, would allow up to six Garden State municipalities to begin needle exchange programs for injection drug users in a bid to reduce HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C infection rates. It also appropriates $10 million in "seed money" for drug treatment programs.

With legislative action in Maryland and Delaware in recent years, New Jersey is the only state that allows neither needle exchanges nor the non-prescription sale of needles. A bill that would allow for non-prescription needle sales, A2839, has also passed all committee hurdles in both houses and will go to an Assembly floor vote next Monday, but is unlikely to be voted on in the Senate until next year.

Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office was guardedly optimistic about the needle exchange bill's chances for passage in e-mails to supporters. While noting that the bill had already passed the Assembly once in 2004 and would probably pick up support in that chamber this time around, the Senate fight will be "very tough."

"This is a positive development that could put New Jersey back into the mainstream of other states that have approved clean-needle exchanges and other strategies to reduce the transmission of AIDS among drug addicts, their partners and children," said the bill's sponsor, Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts Jr. (D-Camden).

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12. Law Enforcement: Rev. Al Sharpton Calls for Congressional Hearings into Police Killings of Civilians

Standing at a rally in front of the home where Atlanta senior citizen Kathryn Johnston was shot and killed by police serving a "no-knock" drug warrant after she opened fire on the intruders, the Rev. Al Sharpton on Sunday called for congressional hearings into the police killing of civilians. The case of Johnston, who was killed November 21, along with that of Sean Bell, the New York City man gunned down by police on his wedding date a few days later, and the case of Patrick Strickland, the North Carolina man killed by police investigating the robbery of a Playstation3, have once again put the simmering issue of police violence on the front burner.

"Something stinks in this case. And something stinks to high heaven," Sharpton said. "In fact, it smells so bad, I smelled it in New York and came to Atlanta this morning." Sharpton condemned "this new sense of police recklessness, whether it is a 88-year-old mother here in Atlanta, with questionable circumstances that led to the warrant that gave them entry into her home, or whether it is over 50 bullets shot at three unarmed men in Queens," said the prominent black activist and former presidential candidate.

"There seems to be a new spirit in law enforcement that they can become the judge, jury and executioner of the law on the scene," Sharpton said. "Police apprehend suspects; they don't kill them. This cannot be tolerated in a civilized society."

While the Justice Department is conducting investigations of both the Johnston and Bell killings, Sharpton said they were only the latest in a pattern of killings and individualized inquiries were not enough. "The pattern is not under investigation," Sharpton said. "They are investigating whether there was criminal activity. The pattern of policing, which should be set by the US Congress in a federal standard, is not going to come out of either one of those investigations."

Sharpton said he had been talking with US Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the incoming head of the House Judiciary Committee about holding hearings on what he called a national pattern of police shootings. He isn't the first to ask Conyers to act on the issue. Outgoing US Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) sent Conyers a letter last week asking him to hold hearings.

According to the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics, police kill between 300 and 400 people each year. After peaking at nearly 450 police killings of civilians in 1994, the number declined to just over 300 in 2000 before climbing again to about 370 last year. Only a tiny fraction of police killings are found by police to be questionable; most are found to be "justifiable homicides." In only a tiny fraction of cases are officers indicted in a killing, and then, only a tiny fraction are convicted.

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13. Weekly: This Week in History

December 8, 1929: Col. Levi G. Nutt, Head of the Narcotics Division of the US Treasury Dept., declares, "I'd rather see my children up against a wall and see them shot down before my eyes than to know that any one of them was going to be a drug slave."

December 11, 1942: The Opium Poppy Control Act is enacted, making possession of the opium poppy plant or seeds illegal.

December 12, 1981: The report of the Task Force on Cannabis Regulation to the Center for the Study of Drug Policy -- Regulation and Taxation of Cannabis Commerce is issued, reading "It has been observed that marijuana is one of the largest tax-exempt industries in the country today and regulation would end that exemption."

December 12, 1995: Director Lee P. Brown announces his resignation as head of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy.

December 13, 1995: In response to a December 1 rally held outside the offices of Boston radio station WBCN to protest the airplay of the NORML benefit CD Hempilation, the National Writers Union and the Boston Coalition for Freedom of Expression issue statements condemning the actions of rally organizers, the Governor's Alliance Against Drugs (GAAD). Both groups are highly critical of the overall nature of the protest and specifically of the alleged use of state power and finances to help institute the rally. Reports note that protesters arrived in state vehicles, attendees were encouraged to "bring their squad cars," and an individual identified as a Boston liaison to the DEA accompanied Georgette Wilson, Executive Director of the GAAD, as she entered the station. "These sort of actions, when performed [and sponsored] by government agents, are specifically [prohibited] by law," charges Bill Downing, president of NORML's Massachusetts chapter.

December 14, 2001: While signing a new anti-drug bill that expands the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, President George W. Bush makes his first official mention that the Administration would begin leveraging its political successes with the War on Terrorism back into the War on Drugs when he says "If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terrorism… It's so important for Americans to know that the traffic in drugs finances the work of terror, sustaining terrorists, that terrorists use drug profits to fund their cells to commit acts of murder."

December 9, 2002: The Canadian House of Commons Special Committee on Non-medical Use of Drugs releases reports that call for safe injection sites, pilot heroin maintenance programs, decriminalization of cannabis, among other reforms.

December 13, 2002: A disabled, deaf, wheelchair-bound British charity worker returns home after spending two years in a primitive Indian prison after being found guilty of trafficking drugs even though it was a physical impossibility. Stephen Jakobi, director of Fair Trials Abroad, described the case against him as absurd. "There are things that just scream out to you," he said. "I have never actually been presented with a case where the guy is physically incapable of acting in the manner suggested by police."

December 9, 2004: Rep. Barney Frank keynotes DRCNet Foundation's John W. Perry Fund reception in Boston, MA, delivering a humorous yet passionate address. He says repeal could be achieved, even in a Republican-controlled Congress, if his bill to do just that could actually get to the floor. He mentions, "This issue is ripe… My colleagues in Congress are ready to move on this and other issues." Also addressing larger national drug policy, Frank notes, "The damage done by this mindless assault on drug users is a terrible, terrible problem."

December 13, 2004: Hungary's Constitutional Court restricts the use of diversion to drug treatment for some drug offenders, narrowing the scope of reform legislation enacted in 2003. In so doing, it also explicitly rejects an argument that the laws against drug possession are unconstitutional.

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14. Job Opportunity: MPP New Hampshire Medical Marijuana Campaign

The Marijuana Policy Project is hiring a campaign manager to run Granite Staters for Medical Marijuana (GSMM), MPP's year-long effort to influence the presidential candidates to take positive positions on medical marijuana during the presidential primary campaign in New Hampshire. The position is based in New Hampshire, begins in early 2007 (no later than April) and will terminate after the January 2008 New Hampshire primary. Salary is $40,000 to $60,000, depending on experience. Benefits are negotiable.

The campaign manager must have excellent oral and written communication skills, an understanding of politics and public policy, and experience working with reporters and doing media interviews. In addition, the campaign manager must be highly organized, energetic, a hands-on manager, and able to work the long hours that a campaign requires.

Campaign experience -- particularly experience working for a candidate or on statewide field programs -- is strongly preferred.

The campaign manager is responsible for executing the campaign's field plan and directly overseeing all field operations, including:

  • Recruiting, organizing, and managing a volunteer workforce of perhaps several hundred people throughout the state;
  • Ensuring that the candidates are asked for their positions on medical marijuana at every available opportunity, with the goal of garnering public statements on the issue;
  • Coordinating a campaign presence at candidate forums in the state, including volunteers with signs outside and volunteers inside asking the candidates questions;
  • Directly lobbying campaign staffers and providing candidates with documentation on the medical benefits of marijuana;
  • Acting as spokesperson for media interviews, pitching stories to reporters, and generating positive news coverage;
  • Writing a weekly e-newsletter for campaign volunteers; and
  • Writing and issuing news releases every time a candidate issues or changes his or her position on medical marijuana.

While MPP's headquarters in Washington, DC will be able to provide a small amount of staff support for the campaign's activities, ultimately the campaign manager is responsible for executing all aspects of the campaign. The campaign manager will report to MPP's director of government relations in DC, who reports to MPP's executive director in DC. Visit http://www.mpp.org/jobs/process.html for information on applying for the campaign manager position.

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15. Announcement: New Format for the Reformer's Calendar

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With the launch of our new web site, The Reformer's Calendar no longer appears as part of the Drug War Chronicle newsletter but is instead maintained as a section of our new web site:

The Reformer's Calendar publishes events large and small of interest to drug policy reformers around the world. Whether it's a major international conference, a demonstration bringing together people from around the region or a forum at the local college, we want to know so we can let others know, too.

But we need your help to keep the calendar current, so please make sure to contact us and don't assume that we already know about the event or that we'll hear about it from someone else, because that doesn't always happen.

We look forward to apprising you of more new features of our new web site as they become available.

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Permission to Reprint: This issue of Drug War Chronicle is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Articles of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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