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Drug War Chronicle #784 - May 16, 2013

1. The IRS War on Medical Marijuana Providers [FEATURE]

The IRS's use of an obscure provision to deny standard exemptions to medical marijuana dispensaries is causing pain to patients and providiers, and inspiring some creative thinking among law professors.

2. Harm Reduction Makes Strides in North Carolina [FEATURE]

After several years of laying the groundwork, North Carolina harm reductionists have successfully shepherded one bill through the legislature already this year. Another one sailed through the House this week.

3. Donations Needed This Month for Drug War Chronicle needs your support to continue our work during the most important time in drug reform we've ever seen. We have gifts to send you too, with donations of $15 or more.

4. Internships: Legislative, Writing/Research, Web, IT, Admin/Finance, Communications

Interns are making an important difference fighting the good fight with us at

5. NYC Marijuana Arrests Declining, But Still Sky High

New York City arrested around 50,000 people for small-time marijuana possession a couple of years ago. This year, the number looks to be around 30,000, thanks to changes in policy and heightened public scrutiny.

6. VT Marijuana Decriminalization Heads to Governor

Vermont is about to become the 17th state to either decriminalize or legalize marijuana.

7. Medical Marijuana Update

The feds stay on the attack in California, and fallout from last week's state Supreme Court decision allowing local dispensary bans mounts. There's news from other states as well.

8. Colorado Legislature Passes Sentencing Reform

Colorado has taken another step down the path of drug sentencing reform with the passage of Senate Bill 250. The governor is expected to sign it into law.

9. China, Southeast Asia Vow More Better Drug War

China and Southeast Asian nations have renewed their vows in the fight against illegal drug use and the drug trade. The UNODC officiated.

10. Republic of Georgia Could Legalize Marijuana

Legal cannabis in the Caucausus? It could happen if some politicians in Georgia have their way.

11. East Bay Cops Shoot, Kill Fleeing Drug Suspect

There has been a questionable drug war killing in California's East Bay. An unarmed drug suspect was shot and killed as he fled police, who claimed they feared for their safety.

12. This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

If it weren't for crooked cops in the Land of Lincoln, this space would be blank this week. Instead, we have an Illinois corrupt cops twofer.

The IRS War on Medical Marijuana Providers [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by investigative reporter Clarence Walker, [email protected]

Dispensaries providing marijuana to doctor-approved patients operate in a number of states, but they are under assault by the federal government. SWAT-style raids by the DEA and finger-wagging press conferences by grim-faced federal prosecutors may garner greater attention, but the assault on medical marijuana providers extends to other branches of the government as well, and moves by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to eliminate dispensaries' ability to take standard business deduction are another very painful arrow in the federal quiver.

The IRS employs Section 280E, a 1982 addition to the tax code that was a response to a drug dealer's successful effort to claim his yacht, weapons purchases, and even illicit bribes as business expenses. Under 280E, individuals involved in the illicit sale of controlled substances -- including marijuana, even medical marijuana in states where it is legal -- cannot claim standard business expenses on their federal taxes.

"The 280E provision which requires certain businesses to pay taxes on their gross income, as opposed to their net income, is aimed at shutting down illicit drug operations, not state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access." Nonetheless, the Obama Administration is using Section 280E to push these local and state licensed facilities out of business."

The provision can be used to great effect. Oakland's Harborside Health Center was hit with a $2 million IRS assessment in 2011 after the tax agency employed Section 280E against. Harborside is fighting that assessment, even as it continues to try to fend off federal prosecutors' attempts to shut it down by seizing the properties it leases. Similarly, when the feds raided Richard Lee's Oaksterdam University that same year, it wasn't just DEA, but also IRS agents who stormed the premises. Lee said it was because of a 280E-related audit.

The attacks on Harborside and Oaksterdam were part of an IRS campaign of aggressive audits using 280E to deny legitimate business expenses, such as rent, payroll, and all other necessary business expenses. These denials result in astronomical back tax bills for the affected dispensaries, threatening their viability -- and patients' access to their medicine.

"Should the IRS campaign be successful; it will throw millions of patients back in to the hands of street dealers; eliminate tens of thousands of well paying jobs, destroy hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue; enrich the criminal underground; and endanger the safety of communities in the 17 medical cannabis states," said Harborside's Steve DeAngelo as he announced the 280E Reform Project to begin to fight back.

It's going to be an uphill battle. In the last Congress, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) introduced House Bill 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act, designed to end the 280E problem for medical marijuana businesses, but it went to the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee, where it was never heard from again.

Still, something needs to happen, said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, which this year is working with members of Congress to try to find a fix for the 280E problem.

"When Section 280E was created in the 1980s, no one imagined state-legal marijuana providers," Aldworth told the Chronicle. "Whether or not it is part of a larger effort to curtail the development of regulated models for providing marijuana, which is a model that is clearly preferable to leaving this popular and relatively safe medicine (or adult product) in the underground market, these onerous tax rates have severely hampered the development of the regulated market."

It's a brake on the overall economy, Aldworth said.

"Not only has it resulted in stymieing job development, but it also curtails other economic activity such as reinvestment in business and the rippling positive effects of that spending," she argued. "And in many cases, it has created a tax burden that is simply unbearable: many providers have had to close their doors and lay off their staffs because the tax burden was simply too great."

Because of this unintended application of 280E, medical marijuana providers are paying overall taxes at a rate two to three times those of other small businesses, Aldworth said.

"It's important to note that just as they want to apply for licenses, follow regulations, and otherwise participate in the legal business community, state-legal marijuana providers also want to pay their fair share of taxes," she pointed out. "Most small businesses pay an effective tax rate of between 13% and 27% on net income, according to the Small Business Administration. State-legal marijuana providers pay an average effective tax rate of 65-80%. An industry that can provide thousands of jobs is being held back by these crazy tax rates."

While the lobbyists look to Congress for a fix, one academic tax law expert thinks he has hit upon a novel solution, but not everyone agrees.

Benjamin Leff, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, raised eyebrows at a Harvard University seminar this spring when he presented his report,Tax Planning For Marijuana Dealers, where he suggested that dispensaries get around 280E by registering with the IRS as tax-exempt social welfare organizations, known as 501(c)(3)s or 501(c)(4)s.

The IRS has already ruled that medical marijuana providers can be exempt under 501(c)(3) because its "public policy doctrine" does not allow charitable organizations to have purposes contrary to law, but in the paper, Leff argued that "a state-sanctioned marijuana seller could qualify as tax-exempt under 501(c)(4), since the public policy doctrine only applies to charities, and 501(c)(4) organizations are not charities."

The organization would have to be operated to improve the social and economic conditions of a neighborhood blighted by crime or poverty, by providing job training, employment opportunities, and improved business conditions for commercial development in the neighborhood, just like many existing community economic development corporations that run businesses.

"When taxes get too high, you can drive compliant dispensaries out of business," Leff told the Chronicle.

Americans for Safe Access' Hermes would agree with that, but he's not so sure about Leff's idea.

"The concept of medical marijuana dispensaries registering with the federal government as a 501(c)(4) in order to sidestep section 280E is novel and may be hypothetically valid," he said. "However, the IRS will refuse to grant tax-exempt status to a business that the agency believes is violating federal law. Perhaps, it would be possible for a dispensary to obtain 501(c)(4) status under false pretenses, but such status would not very likely withstand an IRS audit."

There are better ways, he said.

"A much more realistic and sensible approach -- pending a change to the federal classification of marijuana for medical use -- is to amend the tax code to exclude state-lawful medical marijuana businesses from Section 280E," Hermes recommended. "This is the kind of legislation that Congress should pass in order to allow states to implement their own medical marijuana laws, without undue interference by the federal government."

"I agree with everything he said," Leff replied. "But it's not just the Obama administration that is using 280E this way. The Supreme Court has held that there is no exception to the Controlled Substances Act for state-level legal marijuana sales, and since 280E makes references to Schedule I controlled substances, it applies to legal marijuana unless Congress changes the law. I totally agree that Congress should amend 280E to exempt marijuana selling that is legal under state law. Congress could also amend the Controlled Substances Act to remove marijuana from it, which would probably also make sense," he added.

Whether it is by act of Congress, internal policy shifts, or creative thinking by law school professors, some way has to be found to exempt state-permitted medical marijuana providers from the clutches of 280E and its punitive tax burden aimed at dope dealers, or there may not be any medical marijuana providers.

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Harm Reduction Makes Strides in North Carolina [FEATURE]

When you hear the phrase "harm reduction," North Carolina isn't one of the first places that leaps to mind. But maybe it should be. After several years of laying the groundwork, North Carolina harm reductionists have successfully shepherded one bill through the legislature already this year, and another one just sailed through the House this week.

The people of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (
Last month, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) signed into law Senate Bill 20, an omnibus harm reduction bill that includes a 911 Good Samaritan provision for reporting drug overdoses, a naloxone provision increasing access to the overdose-reversal drug, and an alcohol amnesty giving underage drinkers the same protection from prosecution for reporting alcohol overdoses as the Good Samaritan provision provides for drug overdoses.

And this week, the House overwhelmingly (111-2) passed House Bill 850, a partial syringe decriminalization/needle-stick prevention measure. Under that bill, which must still make it through the Senate, people carrying syringes and sharps, who are stopped by police and asked if they are carrying syringes or sharps would not face criminal charges if they admitted that they were.

Although North Carolina may be a purple state when it comes to presidential politics, it is also a deeply conservative Southern state, and nowhere more so than in its Republican-dominated state legislature. So, how did this happen?

The harm reduction successes in Raleigh didn't come out of nowhere. Instead, savvy activists at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) and allied groups, such as overdose prevention-emphasizing Project Lazarus have been working for several years to build a consensus for harm reduction reforms.

"We've been running a campaign since 2010," said NCHRC executive director Robert Childs. "For the first couple of years, we were just learning the advocacy and legislative ropes, and we learned really quickly that if you want to pass this kind of legislation, you have to have libertarian, conservative and Republican buy in. We did media marketing to all media -- liberal, moderate, and conservative -- and we also did a lot of talking on the conservative circuit, meeting with groups like the Young Republicans, American Future Foundation and the libertarian-leaning John Locke Foundation. A lot of key thinkers and legislators spend time with these groups and they are great places to explore harm reduction and drug policy with our conservative brothers and sisters," he explained.

"We really went out of our way to ensure that this wasn't seen as a traditional liberal issue, but one that effects everyone," Childs continued. "We really focused on creating politically neutral messages that everyone in the state can buy into, which wasn’t tough because this is a politically neutral issue, but it hasn't always been marketed as such."

The harm reductionists also took on -- or, perhaps more accurately, smartly played to the concerns of -- untraditional allies to harm reduction, law enforcement. If drug users want syringe decriminalization to avoid prosecution, police and sheriffs want syringe decriminalization to avoid getting stuck by dirty needles.

"The other angle we've been heavily focused on is law enforcement safety," Childs said. "We decided early on that we needed law enforcement participation, and we decided the way to that was to get them as involved as possible. It makes sense from a public health and public safety angle, as well as building positive relationships between syringe users and law enforcement. They often get left out the harm reduction conversation, but law enforcement need harm reduction, too, to remain safe on the job, too. From ideally wearing needle stick proof gloves, to taking their time on searches, officers need a harm reduction tool kit to stay disease exposure free and come home safe at the end of the day."

Two NCHRC staff members are retired law enforcement officers, one of whom has suffered a needle stick and one who is strongly committed to improving officer work safety conditions. This has helped build a bridge between law enforcement and harm reduction advocates.

"One out of three law enforcement personnel will get stuck during their career, with the danger of exposure to hepatitis B and C and a small chance of HIV exposure," Childs noted. "One of the ways we got law enforcement to become interested in our issue was officer safety, which is sometimes left out of the harm reduction conversation. We actually measured needle sticks and found they were a regular occurrence in departments across NC and then shared that information with law enforcement leadership across them the state.  We showed them that this is actually a big issue for officer safety, and we need to do something about it ASAP."

By the time HB 850 came for a vote Monday night, the work had paid off.

"The law enforcement lobbying groups came out in favor of the bill," said Childs. "Every former member of law enforcement who is currently serving as a legislator was a primary sponsor for the bill and voted in favor of it. It went really well."

Syringe decriminalization is even more important because North Carolina doesn't have any legal syringe exchange programs.

"We do currently have multiple underground syringe exchanges, including one of the nation's oldest programs in Asheville," he explained, "but there are no legal syringe exchange programs in the American South. They either operate illegally or with a law enforcement agreement in order to protect the health of the local law enforcement officers. But throughout the South, people are incarcerated for possessing needles. This leads to a lot of law enforcement needle sticks, since diabetics and syringe users are afraid to tell Southern law enforcement that they have syringes on them because they are afraid of the repercussions."

Legal syringe exchange has not had legislative success in North Carolina, Childs said, citing several Democratic-sponsored bills that never made it out of committee in the 2000s.

"A lot of legislators would like to support it, but view it as tough politically, so we are trying to do something a bit more progressive and a bit more conservative instead, which is to decriminalize syringe possession," he explained. "With syringe exchanges, there are limits. You have to be a member to reap the benefits. But with decriminalization, we can decriminalize syringes entirely, no matter the source, what it's being used for or where in the state you live.  So no matter if you have Addison’s disease, diabetes or are a injection drug user, you can carry syringes and do not have to be part of a government sponsored program to get benefits."

In addition to addressing law enforcement concerns, syringe decriminalization also goes with conservative values, Childs said.

"Decriminalization will decrease law enforcement needle sticks, but what really resonated with the legislature was its emphasis on less spending on costly diseases, greater reliance on the community members, personal accountability and responsibility," he said. "We stand in solidarity with our conservative allies on this issue by solving these public health and public order issues through deregulation."

With major military installations, such as the Army's Fort Bragg and the Marines' Camp Lejeune, veterans concerns are a major issue in the state. Legislators who may not be sympathetic to hard drug users are sympathetic to vets' concerns, and the NCHRC works hard to address those concerns and educate legislators about harm reduction needs of the armed services and veteran community.

"We have a high percentage of active service personnel and veterans, said Childs, "and what we see is a high percentage of them coming back with chronic pain, addiction and PTSD and self-medicating with substances. A large number of them are using opiates or opioids after they get out. This is also a vets' health issue -- they are disproportionately affected by addiction and chronic pain issues, as well as potentially acquiring medications illegally."

NCHRC has vets on its staff, including former Army Nurse Corps Officer Leilani Attilio, a registered nurse who also holds a master's degree in public health. Attilio played a key role in the passage of the Good Samaritan/naloxone/alcohol amnesty bill earlier this year, and she said there are real issues facing vets in the state.

"Because of the backlog in the VA system, there are a lot of vets who can't get the care they are entitled to, even things like substance abuse counseling," said Attilio. "One of my friends is a vet and was addicted to prescription meds. He sought help and was told to come back in six-seven weeks. Another vet I know who is injecting heroin was told six months. When people need rehab, they need it right then not six to seven weeks from now and definitely not in six months. Until we can get them in rehab, it's important that have harm reduction so they don't overdose or contract HIV or viral hepatitis from injecting drugs."

“Republican and Democratic Legislators can easily support harm reduction approaches if you make it relatable to them," said Attilio. "It's a matter of telling them that this is happening everywhere, showing them the prevalence in their districts. And it's also cost-saving legislation. We are reducing the number of vets who will be incarcerated for low-level, non-violent drug crimes, we are spending less money on hospital stays and autopsies. We are finally focusing on this as a public health issue and not criminalizing it."

As patterns of drug abuse shift, so must harm reductionists' responses. Another bill working its way through the state legislature would enact prescription monitoring in a bid to crack down on doctor-shopping. But Attilio warned that such measures could possibly push some pill users to heroin.

"They're trying to address supply, but there is research that shows that in states that crack down on pain pills, people are switching to heroin," she said. "We've had law enforcement here say the same thing: We're taking away the prescription meds, but something else is taking their place, and that's sometimes street drugs like heroin. Unless we link such measures to harm reduction, all we are accomplishing is a shift in addiction, not necessarily a reductionor elimination of the problem."

Passing the syringe decriminalization bill is one thing, but injection drug users will have to be aware of it to know they can avoid arrest by admitting they're carrying injection paraphernalia. Attilio said NCHRC had that angle well in hand.

"We're pretty well-organized," she said. "We have active and retired users in our networks who can disseminate the information across the state. We also do training in rehabs, at methadone clinics, in jails and prisons. We can get the word out in lots of places. We also have a plan to train law enforcement officers across the state if the law goes through, so they know the nuances of the law to protect their safety."

The American South can be a tough place to get drug reform legislation of any sort approved, let alone laws allowing drug users to carry syringes or -- God forbid! -- helping them to avoid dying from drug overdoses. But harm reductionists in North Carolina are showing that it can be done. That's a message that needs to be heard from Richmond to Little Rock, and beyond.

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Donations Needed This Month for Drug War Chronicle

Dear friend, needs your help to continue our programs -- like this newsletter, Drug War Chronicle -- during this most important time in the cause there has ever been. Click here for some examples of how activists around the world rely on Drug War Chronicle in their work.

As our thanks for your support, we continue our full set of membership offers, some of them available with donations of $15 or greater to our organization. We also continue to offer, with donations of $35 or more, "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know," authors of which were recently hired to consult with the state of Washington on implementing legalization there.

The newest item is a pair of reports that highlight the US and international legal landscapes as legalization becomes a mainstream issue. (We'll send you both for the $15.) Though the text of each report can be found online, for $15 or more you can hold the nice printed copies -- the history in the making -- in your hands. They are:

  • "On the Limits of Federal Supremacy: When States Relax (or Abandon) Marijuana Bans," a Cato Institute Policy Analysis by Vanderbilt law professor Robert Mikos, explores the limits in federal law and resources for enforcing marijuana prohibition in states that have legalized.
  • "Governing the Global Drug Wars," a special report by London School of Economics IDEAS, details the history of the global prohibition regime; the obstacles it poses to nations seeking to explore legalization and other reforms, and efforts by nations and agencies to transform the system into one respecting public health and human rights.

We are also pleased to continue offering the following items (while supplies last), now also with donations of $15 or more:

  • Emperor of Hemp DVD, about the life and work of Jack Herer (memorial tribute edition)
  • strobe light
  • stamp and ink pad
  • mouse pad

Though we offer many items for $15, I hope you will consider making a larger donation if you are able, or supplementing your initial gift with a monthly one. If the gifts are not important to you, I hope you'll consider sending a donation that's just for our work.

Donations can be tax-deductible, supporting our educational work, or non-deductible, supporting our lobbying work. (Note that selecting any gift items reduces the amount of your donation that is deductible -- which with a smaller gift amount can be most of it.) They can be made online on our web site by credit card or PayPal, or sent by mail to P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036. If you are donating by check, please make it payable to DRCNet Foundation (if tax-deductible) or Drug Reform Coordination Network (if not deductible).

If you wish to donate stock, the information to give your brokerage is Ameritrade, (800) 669-3900), DTC #0188, and account number 781926492 for tax-deductible gifts or 864663500 for non-deductible gifts -- please make sure to contact us if donating in this way.

Thank you for standing with us to stop the drug war's cruelties and meet the opportunity this time offers to make a brighter future. As recent events show: Time, and the truth, are on our side!


David Borden, Executive Director
Washington, DC

back to top Internships: Legislative, Writing/Research, Web, IT, Admin/Finance, Communications works for an end to drug prohibition worldwide and an end to the "drug war" in its current form. We believe that much of the harm commonly attributed to "drugs" is really the result of placing drugs in a criminal environment. We believe the global drug war has fueled violence, civil instability, and public health crises; and that the currently prevalent arrest- and punishment-based policies toward drugs are unjust. Please visit our web site, and please read more about us.

We are seeking LegislativeWriting/ResearchWeb ContentInformation Technology, and Admin/Finance interns (potentially still this semester, depending on your interests, definitely for the summer). Communications may also be applicable to current organizational projects. Preference will be given to applicants with some demonstrated experience the relevant fields, and to applicants in the Washington, DC area. However, consideration will also be given to enthusiasm for drug policy and criminal justice reform.

Note that internships are unpaid. We reimburse for metro fare. Please also note that the organization has functioned as a "virtual office" environment since spring 2011. Staff will meet with interns on a regular basis during the semester, and can be available to meet and work together on a weekly or even daily basis, but this will happen in places like coffee shops or campuses.

In order to help our interns forge ties with the larger community, we are organizing intern networking social hours with other organizations in drug policy and justice reform. We are also arranging tours of the DC courts and possibly jail, and public health and other programs that have bearing on drug policy. Interns are also welcome to join us at the frequent legislative working group meetings that take place on our issues here in Washington.

Please send cover letter, resume, and any supporting material you'd like to include, to executive director David Borden, at [email protected]. (We recommend using a return receipt to ensure your emails are not blocked by any filters.) Thank you, and we look forward to hearing from you. Information on our specific intern positions follows below.


Legislative interns will help, and in some cases play a leading role, on the following organizational projects:

  • Bill and vote tracking, at the federal and state level, including write-ups for our web site's legislative center (possibly in collaboration with Writing interns);
  • Creating action alerts on current legislation and other advocacy priorities, to be distributed through our web site and email list (possibly in collaboration with Writing and Web Content interns); and
  • Coalition outreach to secure partners for organizational sign-on letters to Congress.

Interns may also join us at working group meetings on issues including but not limited to sentencing reform, drug policy including marijuana law reform; collateral consequences of criminal convictions; and reinvigorating the presidential clemency/pardon system. Spanish-language skills may be useful.


Writing/Research interns will have the following opportunities:

  • Assist Drug War Chronicle editor Phillip S. Smith with ongoing article collection and research for feature articles on our web site (which are frequently reprinted on major news sites such as
  • Assist with research on special topics, the goal of which is the publication of special reports. Likely projects include but are not necessarily limited to follow-up research on US drug war killings (see our recent report here); procuring drug arrest data and possibly arrest reports from various jurisdictions for various months and years, to evaluate the results of recent policy reforms, particularly for marijuana.
  • Bill and vote tracking, at the federal and state level, including write-ups for our web site's legislative center (possibly in collaboration with Legislative interns);
  • Creating action alerts on current legislation and other advocacy priorities, to be distributed through our web site and email list (possibly in collaboration with Legislative interns);
  • Updating an archive of SWAT raids and other paramilitarized policing activity that went wrong (possibly in collaboration with Web Content interns); and
  • Assisting with updating or creating various special sections of our web site (possibly in collaboration with Web Content interns).

Interns with Spanish-language skills may be involved with reporting on the Mexican drug war.

Web Content

Web Content interns will assist with the following work:

  • Daily link and other content postings;
  • Development or maintenance of special sections of our web site (possibly in collaboration with Writing interns); and
  • General social media work, including a number special social media projects.

We may also initiate an informal web video series, for which intern assistance would be invaluable, but this has not been decided yet.

Information Technology

IT interns will assist with the following projects:

  • Backend web site programming, primarily involving streamlining of our donations processing system;
  • Server migration to a "cloud" arrangement;
  • Security including PCI compliance;
  • Selection and set up of needed software and services; and
  • Database-related projects.


Admin & Finance interns may assist with the following organizational needs, among others:

  • Bookkeeping;
  • Nonprofit accounting including intra-company allocations and 990 preparation;
  • Budget & cash flow analysis;
  • Membership administration;
  • Database work.

Admin & finance interns will gain familiarity with a significant range of nonprofits' administrative activities, and depending on schedule may have the opportunity to sit in on portions of board discussions or meetings with advisors.


As noted above, communications skills are applicable to a number of facets of our work this semester, and communications majors are encouraged to apply. We have not listed communications as a separate internship this semester, because we have not decided whether to engage in specific outreach efforts to mainstream media this semester. Along with the possibility that we will do so, other work of relevance to communications can be found in our Legislative, Writing, and Web Content internships.

Thank you for considering an internship with our organization. We look forward to hearing from you.

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NYC Marijuana Arrests Declining, But Still Sky High

Thanks to aggressive policing strategies, New York City has for more than a decade been the world's leader in marijuana possession arrests, but now those numbers are starting to go down.

According to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, some 10,078 people had been arrested on pot possession charges through April 23, about a 20% decrease over the same period last year. And last year saw a 22% overall decline in possession arrests over 2011.

That means that if the current trend continues, New York City will still see more than 30,000 small-time marijuana busts this year. But that's better than the 50,000 of a couple of years ago or the 40,000 last year.

This is in a state that decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977. The arrests occur because possession in public view is not decriminalized, and for years, the NYPD followed a practice of police directing people to produce what they were carrying, then charging them with misdemeanor possession instead of citing them for the civil offense of possession.

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a memo in fall 2011 directing the force to stop arresting people for that, which undoubtedly accounts for some of the decline. Increased public scrutiny of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which saw some 600,000 people a year searched -- the vast majority of them young people of color -- has probably also played a role in forcing the numbers down.

Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people arrested for small-time possession would no longer be sent to Central Booking, where they typically spend 24 hours before being released, but would instead be given a desk appearance ticket. That move reduced the pain somewhat, but not the arrest numbers.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has proposed decriminalizing possession in public view. If that law had been in effect last year, 39,257 of the 40,661 pot possession arrests in 2012 would have gone up in smoke.

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VT Marijuana Decriminalization Heads to Governor

A bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana has made it through the Vermont legislature, winning final approval Monday. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has said he supports it. If he indeed signs it, Vermont will become the 17th state to either decriminalize or legalize marijuana.

Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Sen. Joe Benning, and House Bill 200, sponsored by Rep. Chris Pearson, would impose a civil fine on possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Under H. 200, a person under 21 who is found in possession of up to an ounce of marijuana would have to undergo substance abuse screening and possible treatment. That language was carried over in the final votes.

Under current state law, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense and up to two years in jail for a subsequent offense.

"We applaud the Vermont Legislature for adopting this much-needed legislation and setting an example for other states in the region and around the country," said Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The exceptionally broad support demonstrated for this measure reflects the progress our nation is making toward adopting a new and more sensible approach to marijuana policy."

The Marijuana Policy Project has spent years lobbying for marijuana reform in Vermont.

"The days of criminalizing people simply for using a substance less harmful than alcohol are coming to an end,” Simon said.

That's already the cost in most of the states in the region. Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island have all decriminalized pot possession. In New England, New Hampshire is now the lone hold-out.

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Medical Marijuana Update

The feds stay on the attack in California, and fallout mounts from last week's state Supreme Court decision allowing local dispensary bans. There's news from other states as well. Let's get to it:


Last Monday, US Attorney Melinda Haag moved to seize a building housing a San Francisco dispensary. Targeted is the Shambala Healing Center, a city-approved dispensary. Under federal pressure, Shambala's landlords earlier sought to evict it, but failed because it complies with state laws. While Haag has moved to seize buildings in Oakland, Berkeley and Marin County because they housed cannabis dispensaries, this is the Justice Department's first forfeiture action against a San Francisco landlord. Shambala was one of eight San Francisco dispensaries whose landlords received asset forfeiture threat letters starting in the fall of 2011.

Last Tuesday, the city of Garden Grove told dispensaries in the city they must shut down. The city sent out a cease-and-desist notice to dispensary operators, warning they must close this week or face $1,000 a day fines. The city had banned dispensaries in 2008, but turned to a registration process in 2011, then stopping registering dispensaries last year as it awaited the state Supreme Court's ruling on whether locales can ban them. After the high court upheld local bans, Police Chief Kevin Raney sent out a letter calling on all of the more than 60 dispensaries within Garden Grove to close no later than Tuesday. Dispensary owners who do not comply could face criminal charges, the letter said, as well as fines or civil lawsuits.

Last Wednesday, US Attorney Melinda Haag defended her use of lawsuits against dispensaries. Lawsuits against landlords of medical marijuana dispensaries and letters threatening the landlords have been reasonable and are supported by educators, addiction specialists, police officers, clergy, parents and others who are "negatively affected by marijuana," Haag said in a statement. "The marijuana industry has caused significant public health and safety problems in rural communities, urban centers and schools in the Northern District of California. Because some believe marijuana has medicinal value, however, we continue to take a measured approach and have only pursued asset forfeiture actions with respect to marijuana retail sales operations very near schools, parks or playgrounds, at the request of local law enforcement, or in one case, because of the sheer size of its distribution operations."

Also last Wednesday, the Berkeley Patients Group vowed to fight Haag's efforts to shut it down. "We intend to vigorously defend the rights of our patients and the citizens of Berkeley to be able to obtain medical cannabis from a responsible, licensed dispensary," said Sean Luse, the chief operating officer of the Berkeley Patients Group. The previous week, Haag filed suit against the dispensary's landlord seeking to seize the San Pablo Avenue retail space. Haag had previously forced the Berkeley Patients Group to move by threatening to seize its old locale because it was too close to a school. The Berkeley Patients Group, founded in 1999, is the oldest  continuously operating medical marijuana dispensary in the Bay Area and  serves more than 10,000 patients.

Also last Wednesday, a Thousand Palms dispensary shut down after last Monday's state Supreme Court ruling. The ruling upheld the right of localities to ban dispensaries, and the owner of the Hazy Colitas dispensary said he was closing his doors on his attorney's advice -- before Riverside County sheriff’s deputies did it for him. In nearby Palm Springs, the owner of the CCOC dispensary said he feared he would have to close his doors as well. Palm Springs is the only city in Riverside County that allows dispensaries, but it limits the number of city-approved permits to three. Plans to allow a fourth are on hold. The city has already shut down 12 non-permitted operations and will continue to work on closing five dispensaries still operating without proper permits, said Palm Springs City Attorney Doug Holland. CCOC doesn't have a permit.

Last Thursday, San Bernardino police raided and closed one dispensary and raided a second only to find it had already shut down. City officials reported that 18 of the 33 dispensaries in the city had already shut down in the wake of last week's California Supreme Court ruling. The city had ordered them to close last Tuesday. City officials vow to shut down the rest, too.

Also last Thursday, the Stockton city council took its first step toward banning dispensaries just three years after it moved to allow them. The council moved after city staff warned that by allowing dispensaries the city could leave itself open to federal enforcement measures. At the Thursday meeting, the Planning Commission voted 5-2 in favor of the ban. One already permitted dispensary may be allowed to stay open.

Last Friday, San Bernardino police raided a dispensary that had previously been ordered to close but had quietly reopened, staying closed during the day, but doing business in the evening. City officials said they weren't interested in making arrests, but in closing down dispensaries.

On Monday, the Riverside County Democratic Central Committee passed a resolution calling on state legislators to "enact statewide regulations and licensing requirements that will provide for the safety and concerns of local communities as well as fulfill the mandate of Proposition 215... 'for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients in medical need of marijuana.'" The committee said strong community support is needed to boost statewide regulation efforts at the capitol in Sacramento.

Also on Monday, San Diego's draft law on dispensaries was given to the mayor and city council. The proposal builds on an ordinance passed two years ago. Medical marijuana advocates considered the zoning law component too restrictive, however, and collected enough petition signatures to get it rescinded, but ended up with dispensaries being made illegal in the city. Mayor Bob Filner has made getting regulated dispensaries back in the city a priority. The newly drafted ordinance would allow dispensaries to operate legally for five years under a conditional use permit. A 100-foot buffer would be required between dispensaries and residential zones. It also forbid dispensaries within 1,000 of public parks, playgrounds, child care centers, schools, churches, municipal libraries, residential care facilities and other pot shops.


On Sunday, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon came out in favor of a pending medical marijuana bill, saying that testimony from seriously ill veterans and other patients helped change her mind. The bill has passed the Illinois House and awaits a Senate vote. The bill would allow patients with more than 30 medical conditions to seek recommendations for medical marijuana, but also requires background checks of both caregivers and patients, limits patients to purchasing 2.5 ounces at a time, and bars them from growing their own. They would have to go to state-regulated dispensaries.


On Monday, a dispensary workers union filed a complaint against Wellness Connection of Maine, the state's largest dispensary operator. The complaint filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers with the National Labor Relations Board accuses the company of subjecting employees to unfair labor practices, including retaliation for participating in union activity. The NLRB’s regional director in Boston will investigate the claims and determine whether they should lead to formal action.


Last Wednesday, the Public Health Council finalized medical marijuana regulations. They are set to go into effect May 24. The regulations leave the determination of appropriate medical marijuana use to doctors and patients, rather than restricting it based on an arbitrary list of conditions, restricts patients to 10 ounces every two months (but allows doctors to recommend more), allow patients to visit doctors other than their primary care physician for recommendations, allow patients to use multiple dispensaries, and sets a financial hardship threshold at 300% of the federal poverty line. Dispensaries are set to open next year.


Last Friday, Attorney General Bill Schuette ruled that parents who use medical marijuana aren't disqualified from child custody or visitation. That immunity isn't absolute, however, Schuette clarified. Judges can determine if use presents unreasonable dangers to children, but they can't independently decide if a parent is qualified to use medical marijuana. Schuette's opinion came in response to a question from a state legislator.

On Monday, it was revealed that the state Medical Marijuana Review Panel was dissolved after the state admitted it erred in setting it up. "After a careful review of the Medical Marihuana Act… the make-up of the current Medical Marihuana Review Panel does not meet the administrative rule requirements… As a result, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs will be appointing a new panel that complies with the law. No further meeting of the review panel will be held until the new panel is appointed," the state said.

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Colorado Legislature Passes Sentencing Reform

In the final week of Colorado's legislative sessions, while all the attention was focused on passing marijuana commerce regulations, the state legislature quietly passed a measure designed to reduce the number of drug offenders sent to prison and save the state money. Senate Bill 250 had passed the Senate in April, the House passed it with amendments last Friday, and the Senate concurred with the House version Monday.

The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation.

It also creates an "exhaustion of remedies" requirement for some drug offenders. That means they must have already participated in several other forms of treatment and sentencing before being sentenced to prison.

Those and other reform provisions in the bill will save the state of Colorado $5 million a year, according to the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. Some 550 offenders a year will be able to avoid prison sentences for their drug offenses under the new law, according to a legislative analysis.

"It's been a long time coming," said Sen. Steve King (R), sponsor of the bill. "It starts to deal with addiction issues and getting them off drugs."

The governor is expected to sign the bill shortly.

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China, Southeast Asia Vow More Better Drug War

At a meeting in Myanmar Thursday, China and five Southeast Asian nations vowed to redouble their efforts and boost cooperation in an effort to get a grip on illegal drug use and trafficking, which they called "a significant threat" to the region.

opium poppy (UNODC)
China was joined by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam), along with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), for the Ministerial Meeting of the Signatory Countries to the 1993 Memorandum of Understanding on Drug Control in the Greater Mekong Sub-Region.

"Consumption and production of narcotic drugs continues to grow rapidly within the region and worldwide, constituting a significant threat to the East Asian region," according to a joint statement adopted at the meeting.

The countries and the UNODC pledged to heighten cross-border cooperation, examine alternative development programs, and share experiences in drug treatment, prevention, and public awareness.

"This agreement marks the continued commitment of the six MOU countries in supporting drug control in the region, and the celebration of 20 years of partnership and collaboration," said Myanmar representative Home Affairs Minister Lt. Gen. Ko Ko at the signing ceremony. "The MOU Member States re-affirm our commitment and assure the international community of our efforts to eliminate the drug problem in our region."

Southeast Asia has been a hotbed of methamphetamine production in recent years, and Myanmar is now the world's second largest producer of opium -- although its production is only about one-tenth that of world leader Afghanistan.

"Major challenges persist," said John Sandage, UNODC director of treaty affairs. "The resurgence of opium poppy cultivation, the dramatic spread of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), the influx of drugs new to the region and increased levels of addiction. UNODC looks forward to working with the MOU states to implement plans that help us better understand the threat and challenges, build technical capacity and lead to greater cooperation across borders and among agencies."

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Republic of Georgia Could Legalize Marijuana

The government of the former Soviet republic of Georgia is considering legalizing marijuana, the country's Labor, Health, and Social Affairs minister said Friday.

"As far as drugs are concerned, ban-related mechanisms very often entail a ricochet effect, which means strengthening and development of other directions and etc.," David Sergeyenko told the local Novosti-Georgia news agency. Dealing with drugs requires "a well-considered strategy" and "the legalization of marijuana could be a part of it," he said.

But don't start torching up in Tbilisi just yet, Segeyenko said.

"The fact that we are now discussing this issue does not mean that we will wake up one day and see marijuana at supermarkets. Of course, it will not happen this way," he said, leaving unclear just exactly what he did envision.

Under current Georgian law, people convicted of illegal drug possession face up to a year in jail, a fine, or community service.

This isn't the first time there has been legalization talk in Georgia. In 2005, the head of the Georgian Council for Drug Policy, Tamara Sirbiladze, called for marijuana legalization, saying it could "reduce the number of drug-related crimes."

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East Bay Cops Shoot, Kill Fleeing Drug Suspect

An Antioch, California man under surveillance for a drug warrant was shot and killed by police as he fled after the vehicle in which he was a passenger struck a police vehicle. Charles Burns, 21, becomes the 12th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, citing police sources, Concord police had a warrant for Burns' arrest for drug sales and were conducting surveillance on his Antioch home Friday evening when Burns came out of his home and got into a truck driven by another man.

As detectives "tried to contact" Burns, the driver of the truck "accelerated rapidly and rammed an occupied police vehicle," according to Concord Police Lt. Steve Dyer. Burns then ran from the truck. "Two officers, fearing for their safety, fired at the suspect, striking him," Dyer said.

Burns died at the scene. Police did not mention recovering any weapons, and since Burns had left the vehicle and was fleeing the scene, it is unclear why the officers claimed they feared for their safety. It is also unclear whether police were in uniform or plain clothes.

Perhaps answers will be forthcoming, if not from Antioch and Concord police investigations, possibly from a Contra Costa County district attorney's office review or a coroner's inquest.

Burns' father, a grief-stricken John Burns wasn't waiting for investigations. Police did not have to kill his son, who would have turned 22 on Mothers' Day, he told the Chronicle.

"They should be in prison," the elder Burns said through sobs and expletives, referring to the officers who opened fire. "I wish I knew what happened."

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This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

If it weren't for crooked cops in the Land of Lincoln, this space would be blank this week. Instead, we have an Illinois corrupt cops twofer. Let's get to it:

In Caseyville, Illinois, the Caseyville police chief was arrested last Wednesday on charges he kept a seized drug vehicle for his own use. Chief JD Roth faces two felony counts of official misconduct, and prosecutors have told town officials to keep him away from criminal investigations because his lack of credibility would hurt cases. Casey had been suspended in March after village records showed he had not sold the seized 2003 Dodge Ram pickup, but instead kept it for his own personal use. To add insult to injury, Roth also billed the village $6,000 for maintenance for the truck.

In East St. Louis, Illinois, an East St. Louis police detective was indicted last Friday, one of seven people accused of operating a cocaine distribution ring. Detective Orlando "Monte" Ward is charged with possession and conspiracy to possess more than five kilograms of cocaine. The 12-year police veteran was being held in jail pending a bond hearing set for Wednesday.

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