Decriminalization

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The Profit Motive for Arresting Marijuana Users

Here’s a fun article interviewing college students in Massachusetts about their opinions on the new marijuana decriminalization policy. Unsurprisingly, most of them are all for it, but check out this remarkably candid response from an opponent:

Ed Finch, a 20-year-old sophomore from Franklin, voted against decriminalization for a couple of reasons. One was "purely financial," he said. His father is a Boston police officer who gets a lot of overtime when he has to go to court after a marijuana arrest, Finch said.

Yeah, I guess that’s pretty cool if the drug war is paying your tuition, bro. Imagine my surprise that none of the police officers who campaigned bitterly against decrim ever mentioned how much overtime the new law would cost them. It took a college student to concede the rank selfishness that drives police to defend marijuana prohibition.

Of course, it’s not just about money. It’s also about spite:

But his other reason is based on his own experience.

"I was frustrated with my stoner friends. They’re obnoxious, but I put up with them," Finch said.

Well, maybe we should pass a law that says Ed Finch’s friends watch too much Family Guy and never introduce him to any cute chicks.

Marijuana: Chicago Heights Decriminalizes

The far south Chicago suburb of Chicago Heights, Illinois, has hopped on the marijuana decriminalization bandwagon. The town of just over 30,000 people acted Monday night to craft a local ordinance that it will use instead of prosecuting people under state law.

Under the ordinance approved under the city's home rule authority, people caught with less than 30 grams of marijuana will not face criminal charges, but will instead be ticketed and go through an administrative hearing in city court.

Making simple marijuana possession an ordinance violation rather than a crime will help "unclog" the criminal justice system, said City Attorney TJ Somer. It will also provide extra revenue to the city because the city does not have to share revenue from fines with the Cook County Circuit Court system, as it would have to do if it handled them under state law.

Feature: On the 75th Anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition, Reformers Ponder the Past and Look to the Future

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the repeal of alcohol Prohibition, when Utah -- Utah!--became the 38th state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, repealing the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act and drawing the curtain on America's failed experiment with social engineering. Repeal of Prohibition seemed unthinkable in 1930, but three years later it was history. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned as we commemorate that day.

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prohibition-era beer raid, Washington, DC (Library of Congress)
Prohibition engendered many of the same ills identified as plaguing drug prohibition today -- huge economic costs of enforcement, the criminalization of otherwise law-abiding citizens, the growth of criminal trafficking groups, corruption, deleterious public health consequences (bathtub gin, anyone?) -- and its repeal may be instructive for people working to end the drug war now. It is certainly an occasion worthy of note by anti-prohibitionists, and at least two groups, LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, used the anniversary to call this week for an end to drug prohibition.

At a Tuesday press conference in Washington, DC, LEAP unveiled a new project, We Can Do It Again!, where people are invited to send the anti-prohibitionist message to their federal representatives, and a report with the same title detailing and comparing the ills of Prohibition and current day drug prohibition. In its recommendations to policymakers, the report called for a national commission to study the true costs of drug prohibition, called on state and local legislatures and executive branches to reevaluate drug war spending, and urged "incremental reforms" and harm reduction measures in the short-term.

"In 1932, a majority of Congress realized that prohibition was ineffective," recalled Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, at the press conference, "In 1933, more than two thirds of Congress sent prohibition repeal to the States for ratification. We ended prohibition's ineffective approach to alcohol control then, and we can do it again for drug prohibition now."

The parallels between Prohibition and today's drug prohibition are many, said Sterling. "Congress embraced the term 'war on drugs' in the early 1980s as the Colombians drove the Cubans out of control of the cocaine traffic with machine gun battles on South Florida streets and shopping malls. The violence mimicked the street battles to dominate the beer and liquor trade in American cities in the 1920s, exemplified by the 1929 Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago," he noted. "In 1929 the ruthless violence of Al Capone was fueled by alcohol prohibition profits. Maintaining our current approach, in 2009, the violence of al Qaeda will be financed by drug prohibition profits. We have to stop this violence, as we did 75 years ago. In Colombia, for more than two decades, I have observed drug prohibition finance terror -- by both the enemies and the allies of the government -- that undermines the institutions of their society. Seventy-five years ago, we ended the violence of alcohol prohibition, and we must do it again. We can do it again."

"We believe there are significant similarities between alcohol Prohibition and the drug war prohibition we have going on right now," Richard Van Winkler, LEAP member and superintendent of a New Hampshire correctional facility, told the Chronicle Thursday. "Prohibition doesn't stop Americans from using any substance they choose to. We tried that in the 1920s, and it failed, and now we are trying it again. We advocate for drug legalization not because we advocate for drug use, but because as those drugs are prohibited, we will continue to fund a significant criminal element that is getting larger and more powerful every day."

Sterling and LEAP weren't the only people musing about the end of Prohibition this week. "There are significant parallels, but also dissimilarities," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "Both Prohibition and drug prohibition are products of the same Progressive Era, an era of intense temperance agitation on all levels, with a lot of religious fervor behind it. One lasted 13 years, the other is with us still."

Long-time marijuana activist Dana Beal of Cures Not Wars saw little reason for optimism in the end of Prohibition. "I think you're dreaming if you think you can apply to marijuana the experience of repeal of prohibition of the psychoactive sacrament of the Catholic Church," he said. "Think outside the box. The end of alcohol prohibition has almost zero lessons for how we get out of pot prohibition."

But his was a decidedly minority view. "One lesson we can draw from Prohibition is that it did not work very well," said Aaron Houston director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, "and we're seeing parallels to that today. In Mexico, the drug trade violence is spectacularly awful and increasingly vicious. Heads are rolling onto playgrounds there, and the cartels are coming to the US and kidnapping American citizens. By maintaining prohibition, we are giving our money to some very, very bad people, and there is a lesson there for our current prohibition policy; I call it the Al Capone lesson," he said.

"I think what many people don't realize is that what gave the Prohibition repeal movement muscle in 1930 was the Great Depression," said Houston. "Federal income tax revenues were declining significantly. Now, we are seeing similar economic problems. I think reformers should focus on the cost of marijuana prohibition. We have 13 states that are spending more than a billion dollars a year each on prisons, and what's the payoff?"

One big difference between Prohibition and drug prohibition is the level of debate, Gieringer said. "There was a huge public debate about Prohibition, it was a dominant issue for years, but there was very little debate about drug prohibition. Even now, drug prohibition is not that much of an issue. There is a lot of very ugly stuff going on in foreign countries, but that's not here. The last time drugs were a big issue here was 20 years ago, with the crack violence in the streets of America, and that got people riled up and not in an anti-prohibitionist way."

Some of the sunnier views of both the status quo and the prospects for change come from California, where the state's loosely-written medical marijuana law has created a sort of de facto personal legalization for anyone with a little initiative and $150 for a visit to the doctor's office for a recommendation. The state's network of dispensaries, now in the hundreds, has flourished despite the DEA's best efforts, creating a real world vision of what retail marijuana sales could look like. And now, the incoming president has promised to call off the dogs.

"After being involved in this issue since 1994, I think we're seeing a need for a lot of things to shift around to end prohibition, and the perfect storm may have arrived this year," said Jeff Jones, founder of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. "We have the alignment of a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president who has said he has used drugs, both soft and hard, and an economic recession. This could trigger a turn similar to that which we saw with the Great Depression and Prohibition."

Facts on the ground are creating a new reality, Jones said. "An end to prohibition is knocking at the door. There are new tax revenue streams being identified here, and public officials are starting to rethink this whole issue. And the Supreme Court's refusal to overturn the Kha case [where a California appeals court ruled that state and local police need not enforce federal drug laws; see story here] means it's over. We won with no fanfare. We don't get a badge or a checkered flag, but by default, we have won this week. It doesn't matter what the feds do. We're going to create infrastructure, jobs, and tax dollars, and we're going to change minds. The medicalization of cannabis has changed things forever, and there's no going back now," Jones prophesied.

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Speakeasy photo, with flappers (courtesy arbizu.org)
"I think with marijuana prohibition, developments on the ground can drive the lawmakers faster than anything else," said Gieringer. "We had medical marijuana in California before we ever passed Proposition 215, thanks to people like Dennis Peron. And now you have Oaksterdam and the efforts to promote that. Although that is still in embryonic form, the more we have it out there on the ground, the more people will come to accept it."

Coming out of the closet is both desirable and necessary, said Gieringer. "Most people are happy as long as drugs stay out of sight and mind, but as we've seen with the LA cannabis clubs, people have learned to be comfortable having them around. We need more of this. Drugs in general need more public visibility to gain more public acceptance," Gieringer argued. "People need to know the world isn't going to collapse, because they've forgotten what it was like a hundred years ago, when our 19th Century legal drug market worked very well."

"With alcohol Prohibition, people had living memories of life before Prohibition," agreed LEAP's Van Wickler. "The generation taking power now doesn't know life without drug prohibition. That makes the paradigm shift all the more difficult."

But even with what's going on in California, there is a long way to go, said Gieringer. Federal legalization of marijuana is unlikely, he said, and thus, so is outright legalization in the states. "I don't see any state passing legalization, in part because of the harsh federal response to medical marijuana. What we need to do is first create de facto, on the ground legalization," as is arguably or partially the case in Gieringer's home state.

The United States has pinned itself to perpetual prohibition through the UN Single Convention, Gieringer noted. Federal legalization would require modifying the convention, and that would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate. "That's a major project, given that we don't have even one senator who even supports medical marijuana, much less decriminalization," he noted dryly.

If the federal government appears unmovable in the near term, then it is going to be up to the states to push the envelope, despite the obstacles. "I think the end of marijuana prohibition is going to come with the states taking action first," said Dr. Mitch Earleywine, a leading academic marijuana expert and editor of Pot Politics. "As a number of states not only have good experiences, but also start bringing in the tax revenues, the cogs will begin to turn at the federal level. We're already seeing this in California, where the rough economic times are being buffered by medical marijuana cash."

But despite all the cautious prognostications, there is one final lesson of Prohibition that may warm reformers hearts. "One of the most cheering things about Prohibition was that even though it looked impossible to end for so long, it collapsed so quickly," Gieringer said. "In 1930, the prohibitionists said there was as much chance of ending it as a bird flying to the moon with the Washington monument tied to its tail, but within three years it was gone. The conventional wisdom of 1930 about Prohibition is the same as the conventional wisdom about repealing the drug laws now, but as we saw, things can happen very quickly."

So, tonight, toss down a cold one as you commemorate Repeal Day and hope we don't have to wait another 75 years to celebrate the end of drug prohibition. How about 7.5 years instead?

Not Arresting Marijuana Users is Too Confusing For Police

Voters in Massachusetts have overwhelmingly voted to stop small-time marijuana arrests, but the law-enforcement community doesn’t understand what that means:

BOSTON - Amid confusion among police and prosecutors, a voter-approved law to decriminalize the possession of marijuana goes into effect on Jan. 2, according to a spokeswoman for the state attorney general.

Agawam Police Chief Robert D. Campbell said there is a tremendous amount of confusion about the law.

"Somebody has to come up with a mechanism," the chief said.

Geline W. Williams, executive director of the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association, said there are some "very, very significant" problems with putting the law into effect. [The Republican]

Fortunately, an apparent super-genius named Terence J. Franklin has come up with a theory:

Amherst Town Meeting member Terence J. Franklin, who supports Question 2, said the new law should be easy to put in place.

"Why not just leave people alone?" Franklin added. "What's the big deal? That will solve all the worries."

Now that’s what I’m talking about. Maybe we should let this guy write the ballot language from now on.

Seriously though, it’s understandable that police are entering into some new territory here. Still, there’s no question what the voters have in mind. Most people don’t think possessing marijuana should get you arrested and charged with a crime. There may be some details to iron out, but it’s really pretty silly to act like this is gonna turn the criminal justice system upside down. To even argue that is basically to admit that marijuana enforcement rules your world.

Opponents of Question 2 campaigned tirelessly to convince voters that marijuana enforcement was a low priority and that penalties were lenient. If there was even a shred of truth to any of that, then implementing decrim should be simple.

Feature: No Post-Election Pause in Colorado -- Activists Attend Marijuana Boot Camp

This month's national elections are over, but marijuana reformers in Colorado are taking no breaks. Just 11 days after red state Colorado turned dramatically blue, nearly 300 activists and would-be activists gathered last Saturday morning at Regis University in Denver for the 2008 Colorado Marijuana Reform Seminar and Activist Boot Camp, designed to make them more effective and to pave the way for more marijuana law reform in the Rocky Mountain State.

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There is plenty to build on. Colorado has been a medical marijuana state since 2001 and a decrim state since the 1970s. In the past few years, activists like Mason Tvert of SAFER (Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation) and Brian Vicente of Sensible Colorado have been building an impressive movement for a new set of reforms. In 2005, SAFER won a Denver vote to legalize marijuana possession, and after that was ignored, came back in 2007 with a winning lowest law enforcement priority initiative in Denver.

But while Denver appears ready to embrace legal weed, the rest of the state is not quite there yet, and a 2006 statewide legalization initiative ultimately came up short with 41% of the vote. A big part of the focus of the boot camp was to ensure that next time a legalization initiative appears on the ballot, it goes over the top.

To that end, SAFER and Sensible Colorado assembled a series of panel for the day-long seminar. Beginning with "Colorado's Marijuana Laws: Past, Present & Future," and "Everyone Can Agree: Colorado Needs Reform," "Citizen Lobbying: Reaching & Influencing Elected Officials," "The Media: How It Works, How We Can Use It, & Why It Matters," and culminating with "Taking Action: Building Support & Maintaining Momentum," organizers created a very full plate indeed for the assembled activists. The panels featured scientists, liberal and conservative public policy analysts, media representatives, and seasoned activists.

One big catch for the boot camp was House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann (D-Louisville), who explained the necessity and the how-to of lobbying elected officials to bring change. "We frankly just listen to each other unless there's an effort for people to get a hold of us," Weissmann said. It is more effective to build long-term relationships with elected officials than to make a campaign donation, he said. "The people who I remember more aren't folks who wrote a check, but the people who went door-knocking," he said.

"The 2008 campaign season only just ended for most people," said SAFER executive director Mason Tvert. "But for the growing number of Coloradans committed to reforming state and local marijuana laws, the 2009 campaign season has already begun. Our first goal -- to disprove the myth that marijuana makes people less motivated -- has clearly already been accomplished."

The boot camp filled an identifiable need among Colorado activists, said Tvert. As groups who had led campaigns and garnered considerable notoriety, it fell on SAFER and Sensible Colorado to address that need, he said.

"Because of all the work we've done around the state and all the media coverage we've received, we frequently hear from people who want to get involved; there are some every week," Tvert explained. "We wanted to find productive things for these people to do and we wanted to create a more supportive environment for ballot measures, so we identified areas where people can make a difference and developed materials so they can do things more effectively and understand the whys and wherefores," he explained. "The boot camp brought everyone together to provide them with the materials and some training. The point of the panels was to give them first-hand information that will help them be better, more effective activists," he added.

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"We didn't realize it would garner this much interest," said a clearly pleased Tvert. "We got people from all around the state. There were students, there were professionals, there were retirees. There were medical marijuana people there, but this wasn't about medical marijuana; it was about broader marijuana policy reform."

"The boot camp was an unqualified success," declared Sensible Colorado's Brian Vicente. "We thought we might pull in 75 people on a Saturday morning, but I think we actually had 283 register. That shows there is an overwhelming interest in this issue in Colorado. We had lots of people from the Front Range because that's where most of the people are here, but we also had dozens of people from areas considered less friendly, like Colorado Springs and out on the West Slope."

That's important because even in unfriendly environments, votes matter, he said. "Whether it's someplace friendly, like Boulder or Fort Collins, or someplace unfriendly, if we can pick up even a couple of percentage points, that can make the difference in a statewide vote," he said.

"It was really inspiring to see everybody there focusing on the same goal, even people who don't necessarily smoke marijuana, but see it as a civil rights issue and want to help out victims," said Andrew Stephens, a 20-year-old student at Fort Lewis College in Durango, a seven-hour drive over the mountains from Denver. "I was outraged watching those federal raids on the California dispensaries -- that's what motivated me to get involved -- so I started a NORML chapter this year to work with other organizations and chapters to change marijuana policies."

Stephens said he was going to apply some of what he learned at the boot camp back home in Durango. "I'm interested in getting a lowest law enforcement priority initiative passed in Durango like there is in Denver," he said. "That would help give law enforcement more resources and time to spend on more important matters and lift a burden on college students who face persecution from law enforcement," he added, practicing his talking points.

Panelist Pam Clifton, outreach director for the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, also called the event a success. "It was really well attended, people were really excited, and people stayed put in their seats," said Clifton. "It was a great event, very diverse, and there was a lot of energy in the air."

For Clifton, marijuana law reform is part of a broader criminal justice agenda. "We're about working to stop mass incarceration in Colorado, and recidivism and drug policy are really driving a lot of that, so a lot of our fight is about stopping the drug war," she said. "We want people to make the connection between how a marijuana conviction can affect the rest of their lives and changing those laws, and since we do a lot of grassroots activism, this event gave us an opportunity to reach out to these people."

The interest in last weekend's Marijuana Boot Camp may reflect not only the years of activism by the likes of Tvert, Vicente, and their allies, but also changing Colorado demographics and political attitudes. For the first time in decades, Colorado voted for the Democratic presidential candidate this year.

"You're certainly seeing more progressives and Democrats getting into power here, and that bodes well for marijuana reform," said Sensible Colorado's Vicente. "Also, Colorado had a very strong grassroots machine in place that helped Obama win a traditionally red state, so there's something to be said for people power. And the fact that almost 300 people showed up on a Saturday morning a week after the election to talk marijuana reform politics is also a very good sign."

"The atmosphere has really changed quite a bit," said Clifton. "We're really blue these days. Last year, the legislature passed an act creating a governmental commission on criminal justice. They have to reduce the prison population in this state, so they looked at recidivism, next is some juvenile justice stuff, and then sentencing. But measures to reduce the prison population are the low-hanging fruit. I think only after that we will have a real opportunity to make changes around the marijuana and other drug laws."

Part of what makes marijuana law reform a relatively lower priority, said Clifton, is that Colorado's marijuana laws are already quite liberal for simple possession. Under current state law, possession of less than an ounce is already decriminalized with a maximum sentence of a $100 fine.

But the fact that Colorado has relatively progressive marijuana laws already is no reason to slow down down, said Tvert. "Whether it's more local initiatives or another statewide one in 2010 or 2012, we want to get these people active in their communities spreading our message," said Tvert. "We made 25,000 four-page business cards with our marijuana is safer than alcohol message on one page, that it should be treated that way on the next, how to contact elected officials on the third, and lastly, how to contact us."

While the legislature and other sections of the criminal justice reform community may have their attention elsewhere, an army of activists is now haunting the streets of Denver and Boulder, the high plains of Eastern Colorado, and the snowy peaks of the Rockies, laying the groundwork to take it to the next level.

Marijuana: Narrow Majority of Arkansans Favor Decriminalization, Poll Finds

A recent Zogby International poll commissioned by the Arkansas-based Drug Policy Education Group has found that a slight majority of respondents favor decriminalization of the adult use and possession of marijuana. The poll was conducted November 7-11 and was based on a Zogby online panel of 436 voters deemed by Zogby to be representative of the state's adult population. The margin of error was +/- 4.8%.

Respondents were asked the following question: "In 2007, over 7,400 adults were arrested in Arkansas for misdemeanor possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, over half the state's total drug arrests. According to a national 2005 study, state and local governments spend an average of $10,400 per arrest on police, courts, and jails. Based on that estimate, 2007 marijuana arrests will cost Arkansas taxpayers nearly $77 million dollars. Knowing this information, would you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose a law that would eliminate the penalties for adult marijuana possession of one ounce or less?"

Slightly more than 35% strongly supported changing the pot laws, with another 17% somewhat supporting it, for a total of 53% in favor of decriminalization. On the other side of the coin, 38% strongly opposed and 7% somewhat opposed decrim, for a total of 45%. Three percent weren't sure.

Democrats and independents supported decrim by a margin of two-to-one, but only 29% of Republicans supported it. Intensity is on the side of Republicans, with 63% strongly opposed compared to 49% of both Democrats and Independents who are strongly in support.

A slim majority of voters under 64 would support decrim, with the highest proportion among the under-30 group. Among the young, 58% supported decrim. Majorities of both whites (51%) and African Americans (64%) said they would support such a law, while women (59%) were more likely than men (46%) to say they would support it.

A similar, but slightly differently worded poll commissioned by the Drug Policy Education Group in 2006 had similar findings. In that poll, which asked voters if they would support "reducing" the penalties for adult marijuana possession offenses, 61% said yes, while 35% said no.

Arkansas has been the scene of drug reform activism, mainly around marijuana, for several years now. Initiatives making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority passed by two-to-one margins in Eureka Springs in 2006 and in the college town of Fayetteville this month. State drug reform groups like the Drug Policy Education Group and its predecessors have also been tilling the ground in the Razorback State. Reform bubbles up in the most surprising places, and these poll results suggest Arkansans may be more receptive than most people imagined.

Europe: British Public Opinion Headed in Wrong Direction on Drug Policy, Poll Finds

If a comprehensive poll released last weekend is accurate -- and there is no reason to think it isn't -- British public opinion on drug policy is headed in the wrong direction. The poll conducted by ICM Research for the Observer and the Guardian newspapers found that public attitudes toward drug use, drug users, and drug sellers had grown decidedly more hard-line in recent years.

According to the poll, the proportion of people who think drug laws are "too liberal" has increased from 25% in 2002 to 32% now. At the same time, the number of people who think the drug laws are "not liberal enough" has dropped from 30% to 18%, and support for decriminalizing soft drugs has declined from 38% to 27%.

Respondents showed little sympathy for people who distribute drugs, whether they be professional drug dealers or merely sharing them with friends. About 70% said that all dealers should be treated the same -- with prison sentences. And 63% said drug addicts should be imprisoned.

Somewhat paradoxically, there is strong, though not majority, support for decriminalizing drug possession (38%) and making drugs available to addicts by prescription (44%).

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told the newspapers hardening public attitudes were driven in part by concerns about stronger strains of cannabis. Both the Labor government and the British tabloid media have been engaged in a sometimes hysterical campaign to whip up fears about "skunk" in particular, as if that specific high-potency strain were somehow different from "regular" marijuana.

"This is a very important determinant of our decision to reclassify [cannabis from a Class C to a Class B drug]. This is a different drug even to that which was reclassified from B down to C [in 2003]," she claimed. "People are now beginning to recognize this isn't just some kind of harmless thing, but can have a serious impact on young people's mental health." People also realized marijuana production involved organized crime, she added.

But Martin Smith, the director of Drugscope, told newspapers the media and the government had falsely portrayed the drug problem as worse than it really was. "Although overall illegal drug use has been falling and significant progress has been made in tackling drug-related crime, many people believe the problem at best is getting no better," he said.

Europe: Czech Lower House Approves Lower Marijuana Penalties

The Czech lower house of parliament Tuesday approved changes in the country's penal code that distinguish between hard and soft drugs and make possession of small amounts of marijuana only a low-level offense. The reform must now pass the upper chamber and be signed by the president of the republic.

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Old Town Square, Prague, Czech Republic
Under current Czech law, the production and sale of any sort of illicit drug is punishable by five to fifteen years in prison. Under the reforms approved by the lower house, while those possessing more than personal use amounts of most drugs would face up to two years in prison, those found possessing large amounts of marijuana would face up to one year in prison and those caught growing larger amounts of pot would face up to six months.

The Czech government has already issued a draft decree effectively decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs, including up to 20 joints or three pot plants, 25 magic mushrooms, 0.3 grams of Ecstasy and morphine, 0.2 grams of heroin, a half-gram of cocaine, and 0.005 grams of LSD. But that draft is not yet binding on the courts.

Passage of the reform measure didn't come without clashes among junior members of the ruling coalition. The Greens proposed the complete legalization of marijuana use and production for adults, while the Christian Democrats argued against any differentiation between soft and hard drugs. Both those measures were rejected.

Europe: Swiss to Vote on Marijuana Decriminalization, Heroin Prescription

Swiss voters will go to the polls November 30 to decide whether to approve marijuana decriminalization and the government's ongoing "four pillars" drug strategy, which includes the prescription of heroin to hard-core addicts. A Swiss Broadcasting Corporation poll late last month showed the decriminalization effort in a virtual dead heat, leading 45% to 42%, with 13% undecided, while the referendum on the broader strategy appears headed to easy victory, with 63% in favor, 20% opposed, and 17% undecided.

The referendum on marijuana policy envisages its legalization for personal use, with its cultivation and sale being regulated by the state. It comes a decade after Swiss voters narrowly rejected a similar proposal. An attempt to decriminalize through parliament failed in 2004.

While the vote on decriminalization looks to be close, the effort is supported by a 1999 government advisory committee report and the governing coalition, and it is picking up some unexpected allies. Regulation would protect young people, argued the Social Democrats. Somewhat surprisingly, the effort is also supported by the center-right or libertarian Radical Party and the respected daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung, which described both the decrim effort and the amended drug law as steps in the right direction.

"A policy which is only based on abstinence, bans and repression ultimately leads to more spending on welfare. It also is against the spirit of liberalism and leaves no room for people to take responsibility for themselves," the newspaper editorialized.

But not everyone is jumping on the decrim bandwagon. The rightist Swiss People's Party remains staunchly opposed. "Switzerland would become the drug Mecca of Europe," said People's Party parliamentarian Andrea Geissbühler.

The government's four-pillars drug strategy appears much less controversial, especially after a decade of pilot heroin prescription programs that have proven effective. Even the grassroots of the rightist parties approve, according to the poll.

"The number of drug-related deaths per year dropped from 400 at the beginning of the 1990s to 152 last year," said Felix Gutzwiller, a Zurich Radical Party senator, adding that each year some 200 addicts graduate from heroin maintenance to methadone maintenance. "It is telling that drugs issues are no longer top of the list of public concerns, unlike 20 years ago," he said.

Feature: Big Day for Pot -- Decriminalization Wins in Massachusetts, Medical Marijuana in Michigan, All Local Initiatives Win, Too!

Barack Obama wasn't the only big winner in Tuesday elections; marijuana polled just as well, if not better. A medical marijuana initiative in Michigan -- the first in the Midwest -- and a decriminalization initiative in Massachusetts both won by convincing margins, and scattered local initiatives on various aspects of marijuana policy reform all won, too.

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marijuana plants
In both the statewide initiatives, reform forces overcame organized opposition on their way to victory, mostly from the usual suspects in law enforcement and the political establishment. Michigan enjoyed the dubious distinction of a visit from John Walters, the drug czar himself, who popped in to rail against medical marijuana as "an abomination."

"We could be seeing a sea change in more ways than one in this election," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which backed both state initiatives. "These are not just wins, but huge wins. In two very blue states, marijuana reform outpolled Barack Obama. At this point, we can look members of Congress in the eye and ask them why exactly they think marijuana reform is controversial."

The results are also an indicator of the decreasing influence of the drug czar's office, said Mirken. "A clear public mandate has emerged, and it's particularly noteworthy coming as it does after eight years of the most intense anti-marijuana campaign from the feds since the days of Reefer Madness," he said. "Despite all the press releases and press conferences, despite all the appearances and campaigning Walters has done to try to convince Americans that marijuana is some sort of scourge, the voters just said no."

In Michigan, the medical marijuana initiative organized by the local Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care and backed in a big way by MPP won a resounding 63% of the vote. Michigan's new medical marijuana law will go into effect quickly -- ten days after the elections are certified, with the Department of Community Health having 120 additional days to come up with regulations for a registry.

The law will allow patients suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and other conditions to obtain a doctors' recommendation to cultivate, grow, and possess marijuana without fear of prosecution under state law. Registered patients may possess up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana and have up to 12 plants in a secure indoor facility, or they may designate a caregiver to grow it for them.

"Michigan voters have clearly signaled in no uncertain terms their support for a compassionate medical marijuana law," the committee said in a victory statement Tuesday night. "Our opposition threw the kitchen sink at us, hoping one of their false claims and outright lies would cost enough votes to tank this effort. But Michigan voters saw through the deception, and soon numerous seriously ill patients across the state will no longer need to live in fear for taking their doctor-recommended medicine."

Tuesday's win makes Michigan the 13th medical marijuana state, and, more importantly, the first one in the Midwest. The Michigan victory means planned or ongoing efforts in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, and Illinois just got a little easier.

In Massachusetts, Question 2, the marijuana decriminalization initiative, overcame the opposition of every district attorney in the state to win a resounding 65% of the vote. Now, instead of an arrest and possible six months in jail, people in the Bay State caught with less than an ounce of marijuana will face a simple $100 fine. Equally importantly, small-time possession offenders will not be saddled with a Criminal Record Information Report (CORI), a state arrest report that lingers long after the offense and can impede an offender's ability to obtain jobs, housing, and school loans.

Again backed by MPP, the Bay State's Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy (CSMP) took the organizing lead in Massachusetts this year. Building on nearly a decade's worth of winning local questions on marijuana policy reform by groups like the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts and the state NORML affiliate, MassCann/NORML, the committee was able to go over the top statewide with decrim this year.

"It's great to see the people of Massachusetts were able to see what a sensible, modest proposal Question 2 is," said CSMP head Whitney Taylor. "It's going to end the creation of thousands of new people being involved in the criminal justice system each year and refocus law enforcement resources on violent crime."

While some prosecutors are already whining about having to implement the will of the voters, there appears little chance that legislators will attempt to step in and overturn the vote, as they could do under Massachusetts law. A spokesman for House Speaker Sal DiMasi told local WBZ-TV as much Wednesday afternoon.

"Question 2 now has the force of law and the Speaker sees no reason to consider a repeal or amendment at this time," said David Guarino, DiMasi's deputy chief of staff.

Statewide decrim wasn't the only marijuana-related issue on the ballot for some Massachusetts voters. Continuing the tradition of placing questions on representative district ballots, voters in four districts were asked: "Shall the state representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of legislation that would allow seriously ill patients, with their doctor's written recommendation, to possess and grow small amounts of marijuana for their personal medical use?"

As with past medical marijuana questions, the question passed overwhelmingly in all four districts.

The question passed with 74% In the 1st Middlesex Representative District (R – Robert S. Hargraves), 71% in the 21st Middlesex Representative District (D – Charles A. Murphy), 73% in the 13th Norfolk Representative District (D – Lida E. Harkins), and 71% in the 6th Plymouth Representative District (R – Daniel K. Webster).

Meanwhile, in other local marijuana-related initiatives:

  • Berkeley, California's, Measure JJ, essentially a zoning initiative that would allow dispensaries operating in the city to expand into more non-residential districts, won with 62% of the vote. The campaign was organized by Citizens for Sensible Medical Cannabis Regulation.
  • In Hawaii County, Hawaii (the Big Island), a lowest law enforcement priority initiative for adult marijuana possession won with 66% of the vote. The campaign organized by Project Peaceful Skies was an outgrowth of the movement to end intrusive marijuana eradication raids.
  • In Fayetteville, Arkansas, another lowest priority initiative passed. Some 62% of voters in the Northwest Arkansas college town agreed with Sensible Fayetteville and its director, Ryan Denham, that police had better things to do than bust pot smokers. Sensible Fayetteville itself is an umbrella organization including the Alliance for Drug Reform Policy in Arkansas, The Omni Center for Peace, Justice & Ecology, the Green Party of Washington County, University of Arkansas NORML and the Alliance for Reform of Drug Policy in Arkansas Inc.

"We think these election results send an extremely important message," Denham told the Northwest Arkansas Times Wednesday. "I'm not surprised since national statistics say that 70% of Americans feel that misdemeanor marijuana offenses should be a low priority. It clogs courts and jails and puts a burden on taxpayer resources."

Election day was a good day for marijuana reform. Let's hope that activists and politicians alike are now prepared to press for more in the near future.

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