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Latin America: Mexico City to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession?

While the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderón has signaled that it wants to decriminalize drug possession, legislators in Mexico City aren't waiting for the government to act. The left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has introduced legislation that would decriminalize marijuana possession in Mexico City and provide for the opening of establishments that would sell up to five grams per person, the same limit as Holland's famous marijuana coffee shops.

The legislation was presented by PRD Deputy and Federal District Legislative Assembly President Víctor Hugo Círigo on October 14. It includes a provision limiting the amount of pot one could possess without penalty to 30 grams, or slightly more than one ounce. Círigo said the legislation also envisions allowing people to grow up to five plants in their homes.

Under current law, marijuana is illegal, and the importation of seeds or other products derived from marijuana is also illegal. In Mexico City, people caught smoking marijuana are typically fined 21 to 30 days minimum salary (a common way of computing fines in Latin America) or jailed for 24 to 36 hours.

Círigo told a press conference he was proposing the legislation because of the therapeutic uses of the herb. He also cited its potential impact on Mexico's drug trafficking organizations. Nearly 4,000 people have been killed so far this year in prohibition-related violence as the various so-called cartels, Mexican state, local, and federal police forces, and the Mexican military engage in a multi-sided war over the illicit drug trade.

"In Italy and Canada they utilize it for therapeutic uses, and in other countries like Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and Portugal it is decriminalized," said Círigo.

Círigo said organized crime is making $13 billion a year off the drug trade. More than half of that -- $8 billion -- is derived from the marijuana business, he said.

"We are going to hit the drug traffickers where it hurts most, which is decriminalizing marijuana," he said.

If the measure were to pass in the local legislative assembly, it would then be sent to the federal congress, which could then amend federal health laws to allow for decriminalization. President Calderón called recently for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of all drugs, including up to two grams of marijuana, but Círigo called Calderón's proposal "weak and timid."

In response to a question during the press conference, Círigo said he had smoked pot as a youth, but no longer did so. "I smoked in my youth in the '70s," he said. "I was class of 1978, and of course I know what it is to smoke marijuana."

Latin America: US Drug Czar Supports Mexico Drug Decriminalization

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) has been vocal in its condemnation of various moves to decriminalize marijuana possession in the US, but it is now singing a different tune when it comes to a similar proposal in Mexico. Drug czar John Walters told the New York Times last Friday that he supported Mexican President Felipe Calderon's recent call to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all illicit drugs.

Under Calderon's proposal, people caught possessing drugs could avoid criminal sanctions if they agree to submit themselves for evaluation and treatment of their "drug problem." Calderon is touting the measure as a means of concentrating Mexican law enforcement efforts on the country's powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations rather than wasting time and resources picking on drug users.

"I don't think that's legalization," said Walters, who supports Calderon's tough approach to the drug trade and lobbied vigorously for the multi-year, multi-billion dollar anti-drug aid package for Mexico approved by Congress earlier this year.

That prompted the Marijuana Policy Project to issue a press release headed "Hell Freezes Over." "I can't believe I'm actually saying this, but John Walters is right," said MPP executive director Rob Kampia. "We heartily second his support for eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana users in Mexico, and look forward to working with him to end such penalties in the US as well," Kampia said.

"It's fantastic that John Walters has recognized the massive destruction the drug war has inflicted on Mexico and is now calling for reforms there, but he's a rank hypocrite if he continues opposing similar reforms in the US," Kampia continued. "The Mexican proposal is far more sweeping than MPP's proposals to decriminalize marijuana or make marijuana medically available, both of which John Walters and his henchmen rail against."

Not everyone was so excited. Writing for Reason magazine's Hit and Run blog, Jacob Sullum agreed with Walters that Calderon's proposal is not legalization. "In fact, it's a stretch even to call Calderon's proposal 'decriminalization,'" he wrote. "It is surely an improvement if illegal drug users don't go to prison, even if the alternative is a treatment program that may be inappropriate, ineffective, or both. Yet under Calderon's plan the threat of jail still hangs over anyone who violates the government's pharmacological taboos and is not prepared to undergo re-education, which entails identifying himself as an addict, even if he isn't, and playing the role of the drug dealer's helpless victim. Walters correctly sees that such compelled affirmation of drug war dogma, which he likens to the treatment-or-jail option offered in American 'drug courts,' poses little threat to current policy."

Sullum also noted that Calderon's predecessor, Vicente Fox, had supported a 2006 bill that would have lifted criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of drugs before he pulled it in the face of pressure from the Americans. At that time, a US embassy spokeswoman said the Mexican government should "ensure that all persons found in possession of any quantity of illegal drugs be prosecuted or be sent into mandatory drug treatment programs." As Sullum noted: "The Calderon proposal satisfies that criterion and differs little from current practice in many American jurisdictions, so it's not surprising Walters is on board."

Drug War Chronicle Video Review: "Prince of Pot: The US v. Marc Emery," Directed by Nick Wilson (2008, Journeyman Pictures)

Let me say right up front that Marc Emery sometimes pays me money to write articles for his magazine, Cannabis Culture, so I am not a completely disinterested observer. That said, "Prince of Pot" director Nick Wilson has done a superb job of explaining who Emery is, where he came from, and what he is all about -- and in tying Emery's trajectory to the larger issues of marijuana prohibition, the drug war in general, and Canadian acquiescence to US-style prohibitionist drug policies.

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Marc Emery (courtesy Cannabis Culture magazine)
I assume that anyone reading these words already knows who Marc Emery is: Canada's most vocal advocate of marijuana legalization, founder of the BC Marijuana Party, publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine, operator of POT-TV, and former proprietor of the Marc Emery Seed Company. Emery made lots of money with his seed company, and plowed much of it back into the marijuana legalization movement, not only in Canada, but also bankrolling activists in the US Marijuana Party south of the border and putting some loonies (Canadian nickname for their one-dollar coin) into various Global Marijuana Marches. For Emery, the seed company was merely a means to an end, a method of raising money to subvert marijuana prohibition, or, as he nicely put it, to overgrow the government.

But all that came to a crashing halt three years ago, when Emery and two of his employees, Michelle Rainey and Greg Williams, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Seattle on marijuana trafficking charges for his seed sales. Now, the Vancouver 3, as they have come to be known, face up to life in prison in the US if and when they are extradited.

The documentary, which is available from Journeyman Productions, opens with some vintage Emery, addressing the crowd at a pro-legalization, anti-extradition rally in Vancouver, the headquarters of his operation. "The DEA says I am responsible for 1.1 million pounds of pot," he said to cheers from the crowd. "I would be happy to believe that. That's the problem -- the DEA and I agree on the facts."

"Prince of Pot" follows Emery's career from his beginnings as an Ontario bookstore owner who loathed stoners, but came to embrace their cause as he fought the Canadian government's censorship of "drug-related" magazines like High Times. Early on, Emery displayed the same qualities that propelled his meteoric rise to the heights of the pot legalization movement: a libertarian sensibility, "an ego that takes up 40% of his body weight," as one observer put it, an aggressive, abrasive personality, a penchant for the publicity stunt, and a mouth that never stops working.

The documentary also shows that Emery's exhibitionism isn't limited to the sphere of the political. Early on, viewers are treated to a shot of Emery's backside as he gets out of bed, and another scene shows him naked on a Vancouver nude beach being anointed with cannabis oil by his young wife Jodie in an experiment to see whether it could have an impact on "any cancerous or pre-cancerous cells." (No word on how that turned out.)

But if Marc Emery's ass is on the screen, it's also on the line, and this is where "Prince of Pot" really shines. The documentary makers interviewed the unrepentant US attorney in Seattle who indicted him and a Seattle DEA agent who justified the bust, and confronted DEA head Karen Tandy at a 2006 international DEA conference in Montreal.

"Prince of Pot" hones in with precision accuracy on Tandy's post-bust press release where she bragged about how Emery's arrest was "a blow to the legalization movement." That press release may be Emery's best long-shot chance at avoiding extradition because it provides evidence that his prosecution was politically motivated.

All of the feds, of course, deny that was the case, but, in tracing Emery's career, his succession of trivial arrests by Canadian authorities, and growing US frustration with Canada's seeming indifference to his activities, the documentarians make a strong case that Marc Emery was busted not because he sold seeds, but because he was a burr under the saddle of Washington.

The documentary also features a strong cast of Canadian supporters, including former Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell ("The drug czar is an idiot"), Vancouver East MP Libby Davies, Toronto attorney Alan Young, Ottawa attorney and criminal justice professor Eugene Oscapella ("Why should we emulate the failed drug policies of the United States?"). Vancouver activist David Malmo-Levine, shown smoking a foot-long joint at one point, makes a compelling observation, too: "They want to send him to prison for life," he exclaims, recounting the DEA's argument about the harm Emery has caused by promoting marijuana production. "What harm? Show me the bodies," he demands. "There has to be at least one body if they want to send him away for life. There has to be at least one person who suffered more than bronchitis."

Washington state marijuana defense attorney Douglas Hiatt's brief appearance is also powerful and worth noting. Visibly angry at the injustice of the marijuana laws, Hiatt lashes out at prosecutors and the DEA. "If the DEA wants to talk about destroying families," he growls, "they can talk to me about the families they've destroyed for trying to use medical marijuana. The only thing I see ruining people's lives is the government's policies," Hiatt spits out. His righteous wrath is refreshing.

At one point in the documentary, film-maker Wilson says that for him, "It's not about seeds, it's about sovereignty." From the Canadian perspective, he's right, of course, but it's really about marijuana prohibition, and Wilson does a wonderful job of sketching its history and ugly current reality.

At the end, the documentary speculates about a possible deal for Emery to serve a shorter prison term in the US. That didn't happen. Neither did a proposed deal that would have seen charges dropped against Rainey and Williams and Emery serving a few years in a Canadian prison. Now, it's back to fighting extradition, and given that the decision to extradite is ultimately a political one made by the Justice Minister and given that the Canadian federal government is in bed with the US on drug policy, extradition remains the most likely outcome.

In a touching scene, Emery and his wife argue over whether he will serve his cause by martyring himself, something he seems determined to do. I have personally counseled him otherwise. I suggested that he become the marijuana movement's Osama bin Laden. No, not that he blow up DEA headquarters, but that he escape to a hidden cave complex somewhere in the Canadian Rockies and bedevil his enemies with communiques from his hidden sanctuary. I, for one, would rather see Marc Emery figuratively flipping the bird to the US government than disappearing, like so many others have, into the American gulag.

Check out this documentary. It's a good one. It'll give you goose bumps at some points, make you want to cry at some, and make you want to cheer at others.

Feature: Drug Policy Reform and Sentencing Initiatives on the November Ballot

With election day little more than a month away, it is time for a round-up of drug policy reform initiatives facing voters in November. Not only are there a number of state-level initiatives dealing with marijuana decriminalization, medical marijuana, and sentencing reform (or its opposite), there are also a handful of initiatives at the county or municipal level.

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November 4th is coming up
But after a spate of drug reform initiatives beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing into the beginning of this decade, the pace has slowed this year. Of the 139 statewide initiatives identified by the Initiative and Referendum Institute as making the ballot this year, only seven have anything to do with drug reform, and four of those seek to increase sentences for various drug offenses.

Drug reformers have had an impressive run, especially with medical marijuana efforts, winning in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, and losing only in conservative South Dakota. Reformers also scored an impressive coup with California's "treatment not jail" initiative, Proposition 36, in 2002. At the municipal level, initiatives making adult marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority have won in cities across California; as well as Denver; Seattle; Missoula County, Montana; Eureka Springs, Arkansas; and Hailey, Idaho. Detroit and several smaller Michigan cities have also approved municipal medical marijuana initiatives.

One reason for the slow-down in reformers' resort to the initiative process is that, as Marijuana Policy Project assistant communications director Dan Bernath put it, "We've already grabbed all the low-hanging fruit."

While medical marijuana initiatives have had an impressive run, the remainder of the 22 initiative and referendum states -- Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming -- present a more difficult social and political terrain, in most cases. Running a successful initiative is also costly, said Bernath.

"Only half the states have initiatives, so there are only so many places where reformers can push them," he said. "And it is an expensive process that is often complicated. On the other hand, you don't have to rely on timid politicians. The voters are often way out in front of politicians on marijuana reform initiatives, and with an initiative, you don't have to worry about those timid politicians tinkering with your legislation and taking all the teeth out of it," Bernath noted. "As a general rule, I think most reformers would prefer to see something passed by the voters, that gives it a lot of legitimacy."

And that's just what reformers are trying to do with medical marijuana in Michigan and marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts this year, both of which appear poised to pass. Likewise, in California, reformers are seeking to expand and deepen Prop. 36, but they also face a pair of sentencing initiatives aimed at harsher treatment of drug offenders. And next door in Oregon, anti-crime crusaders also have a pair of initiatives aimed at punishing drug offenders -- among others.

Here's a rundown of the statewide drug reform and/or sentencing initiatives:

CALIFORNIA: It's the battle of the crime and sentencing initiatives, with Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA) going up against a pair of initiatives headed in the other direction. Building on the success (and limitations) of 2002's Prop. 36, Prop. 5 would expand the number of drug offenders diverted from prison into treatment, expand prison and parole rehabilitation programs, allow inmates earlier release for participating in such programs, and cut back the length of parole. It would also decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Led by the Drug Policy Alliance Southern California office, the Yes on Prop. 5 campaign has won broad support from drug treatment professionals, with the notable exception of drug court advocates. But it also faces opposition, not only from the drug court crew and the usual law enforcement suspects, but also actor Martin Sheen and several prominent newspaper editorial boards. No polls on Prop. 5's prospects have been released. See our earlier in-depth reporting on Prop. 5 here.

Proposition 6, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, is primarily aimed at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, but also includes provisions increasing penalties for methamphetamine possession, possession with intent, and distribution to be equal to those for cocaine, and provides for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. The measure also mandates increased spending for law enforcement. Read the California League of Women Voters' analysis of Prop. 6 here.

Proposition 9, also known as the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, unsurprisingly is concerned mostly with "victims' rights," but also includes provisions that would block local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the state fund corrections costs as much as necessary to accomplish that end. It would also lengthen the amount of time a prisoner serving a life sentence who has been denied parole must wait before re-applying. Currently, he must wait one to five years; under Prop. 9, he must wait three to 15 years. Prop. 9 would also allow parolees who have been jailed for alleged parole violations to be held 15 days instead of the current 10 before they are entitled to a hearing to determine if they can be held pending a revocation hearing, and stretches from 35 to 45 the number of days they could be held before such a hearing. These last two provisions, as well as one limiting legal counsel for parolees, all conflict with an existing federal court order governing California's procedures. Read the California League of Women Voters' analysis of Prop. 9 here.

Ironically, both "tough on crime" initiatives have received significant funding and support from Henry Nicholas, the co-founder and former CEO of Broadcom. Nicholas has reportedly contributed at least $5.9 million to the initiatives. That was before he was indicted in June on federal fraud and drug charges. His indictment alleges that he kept properties for drug parties, supplied methamphetamine and cocaine to friends and prostitutes, and spiked technology executives' drinks with Ecstasy.

MASSACHUSETTS: The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy is sponsoring an initiative that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Known as Question 2 on the November ballot, the initiative builds on nearly a decade's worth of work by local activists who ran dozens of successful ballot questions directed at individual representatives. Question 2 looks like almost a sure winner; it garnered 72% support in a mid-August poll. Still, late-organizing opposition has formed, primarily from the usual suspects in law enforcement and prosecutors' offices. See our earlier analysis of Question 2 here. (Massachusetts also has medical marijuana voter questions on the ballot in four towns.)

MICHIGAN: Michigan is poised to become the first medical marijuana state in the Midwest. An initiative sponsored by the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care and appearing on the ballot as Proposition 1 would allow patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, MS and other conditions as may be approved by the Department of Community Health to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. It would require the department to create an ID card system for qualified patients and their designated caregivers and would allow patients and caregivers to grow small amounts of marijuana indoors in a secure facility. It would also permit both registered and unregistered patients and caregivers to assert a medical necessity defense to any prosecution involving marijuana. A poll released this week showed the measure gaining the approval of 66% of voters. Read our earlier analysis of the initiative and campaign here.

OREGON: While medical marijuana activists are working on a dispensary initiative for 2010, perennial Oregon "crime fighter" Kevin Mannix is once again looking to throw more people in prison. Ballot Measure 61, "Mandatory Sentences For Drug Dealers, Identity Thieves, Burglars, And Car Thieves," is pretty self-explanatory. It would impose mandatory minimum sentences for the manufacture or delivery of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine of 36 months in some cases and 30 months in others. It also lays out similar mandatory minimums for the other criminal offenders listed above. Mannix originally included a provision attempting to supplant the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, but dropped it when it became apparent it could drag down the entire initiative.

Another measure initiated by the legislature and referred to the voters, Ballot Measure 57, would also increase penalties for the sale or distribution of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy. It sets a sentencing range of 34 months to 130 months, depending on the quantity of the drug involved. The measure would also require drug treatment for certain offenders and impose sanctions for those who resist, provide grants to local jurisdictions for jails, drug courts, and treatment services, and limit judges' ability to reduce sentences.

LOCAL INITIATIVES: In addition to the statewide initiatives mentioned above, there are also a handful of municipal initiatives on the November 4 ballot. Here they are:

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA: In Berkeley, Measure JJ seeks to broaden and regularize medical marijuana access. Supported by the Berkeley Patients Group and at least two city council members, the measure would expand the non-residential zones where dispensaries can locate, create an oversight commission including representatives from each of the three existing collectives to promulgate standards and determine whether relocating or future operators are in compliance, issue zoning certificates by right if operators meet standards, and bring Berkeley possession limits in line with recent state court rulings determining that such limits are unconstitutional. The ballot argument in favor of the measure can be viewed at the link above; no ballot argument opposing the measure has been submitted.

FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS: The local grassroots organization Sensible Fayetteville is sponsoring an initiative that would make enforcement of adult marijuana possession laws the lowest law enforcement priority. It also includes language mandating city officials to write an annual letter to their state and federal representatives notifying them of the city's position and urging them to adopt a similar one. If the measure passes, Fayetteville will become the second Arkansas community to adopt such an ordinance. Nearby Eureka Springs did so in 2007.

FERNDALE, MICHIGAN: Ferndale passed a medical marijuana initiative in 2005, but this year a shadowy group known as the National Organization for Positive Medicine has placed an initiative on the ballot that would allow for the distribution of medical marijuana, but only by the National Organization for Positive Medicine. The initiative is not affiliated with the statewide medical marijuana initiative.

HAWAII COUNTY, HAWAII: Hawaii's Big Island (Hawaii County) will be voting on an initiative making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. Ballot Question 1 not only makes adult possession offenses the lowest priority, it would also bar county law enforcement officials from accepting federal deputization or commissions to enforce laws in conflict with the initiative, prohibits the County Council from accepting or spending funds to enforce adult marijuana possession laws, and bar the County Council from accepting any funds for the marijuana eradication program. The initiative is sponsored by Project Peaceful Sky, a local grassroots organization whose name alludes to the disruption of tranquility caused by law enforcement helicopters searching for marijuana.

Alright, potential voters, there you have it. See you at the polls November 4.

Feature: Beyond 2008 -- Looking Past the November US Elections

With the November 4 elections now less than two weeks away, most people, drug reformers included, are focused on the near term. Drug reformers in particular are watching with great interest as Michigan voters decide on medical marijuana, Massachusetts voters decide on marijuana decriminalization, and California voters decide whether to approve a groundbreaking treatment-not-jail initiative.

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(chart appears courtesy MPP)
But some are looking past next month's elections and plotting the future of drug reform. Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project is one of them. At last weekend's National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) conference in Berkeley, Kampia laid out his vision for the next few years.

But before that, he bluntly predicted success in Massachusetts and Michigan. "We are looking at a pair of major victories on November 4," he told the cheering crowd.

With a dozen medical marijuana states already and Michigan poised to be the breakthrough state in the Midwest, MPP will be aiming at placing medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot in three more states in 2010 -- Ohio, Massachusetts, and Arizona, Kampia said.

He also listed nine states where MPP is working to move medical marijuana forward through the legislative process. In four of them -- Illinois, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and New York -- significant progress has already been made, and MPP will attempt to build on that. In five other states -- Delaware, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia -- work is just getting started in the legislature.

How successful MPP will be in the near future depends greatly on the outcome of next month's national election, warned MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "The overarching thing is we will push ahead with as much of this as we can, but it will all be affected by next month's election," he said. "That will either give us a major push or make our lives much more complicated. We're hopeful it will be the former."

But regardless of what happens in November, MPP will also be returning to Nevada in what would be a third bid to actually legalize marijuana possession there. "We will try to file a legalization initiative in Nevada in 2012," Kampia said.

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(chart appears courtesy MPP)
"Nevada is definitely on the agenda," said Mirken. "We've always considered Nevada to be an ongoing project, we got significantly closer on our last attempt, and we're definitely looking at going back."

One clear sign of MPP's intentions in Nevada is their latest hiring announcement. It includes five positions in the state.

MPP isn't the only national reform organization eyeing the future. "We have a lot planned," said Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) executive director Ethan Nadelmann, "but the bigger question right now is what will happen with California's Proposition 5 (related story here). It contains a marijuana decriminalization provision, and if it passes, it will affect a larger number of people than any decrim measure ever."

But while the outcome of Prop. 5 will have an immediate impact, it will also set the course for DPA's future work in the Golden State. "What we do next in California depends on Prop. 5," he said.

Whatever happens in California, DPA will be continuing to work on medical marijuana legislative efforts in three states -- Alabama, Connecticut, and New Jersey -- as well as implementing the hard-won New Mexico medical marijuana law's distribution provisions, and working with local activists in Maine to get a medical marijuana initiative on the ballot there. The Connecticut legislature passed a medical marijuana bill last year, only to see it vetoed by Republican Gov. Jodi Rell. None of the efforts in the other states have gotten that far yet.

"We will go back and push for medical marijuana in Connecticut," said Nadelmann. "But again, it will depend on our ability to get Gov. Rell to be more flexible. Our legislative sponsor in Alabama has said she is prepared to run with it again, and our New Jersey office has lined up a bunch of legislators to support medical marijuana," he added.

Meanwhile, while MPP is eyeing another legalization run in Nevada four years from now, activists in Oregon's fractious cannabis community are preparing a pair of competing initiatives for the 2010 ballot. Oregon NORML is working on the Oregon Tax Act of 2010, which would regulate and tax adult sales, license the cultivation of marijuana for sale in state-run liquor stores and adults-only businesses, allow for adults to grow their own and farmers to grow hemp without a license, and remove taxation from medical marijuana.

While the Tax Act would do away with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA) by rendering it redundant, Voter Power, the group of activists who got OMMA passed a decade ago, have their own initiative in the works. The Voter Power initiative would allow for dispensaries and Patient Resource Centers (PRCs) to sell smokeable marijuana, edibles, tinctures, and lozenges to patients, for growers to legally sell marijuana to dispensaries and PRCs, and for 10% of gross revenues to go back into the Oregon Medial Marijuana Program.

But wait, there's more: According to Kampia, the ACLU is organizing for decriminalization efforts in Montana and Washington, and activists in five additional states -- Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin -- are working on medical marijuana efforts in their state legislatures.

Right now, all eyes are on November 4, but reforming the drug laws is a work in process, and that process is set to advance in the coming years.

Latin America: Honduran President Joins Drug Legalization Chorus

During a conference in Tegucigalpa bringing together UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) officials and drug ministers from 32 Latin American and Caribbean nations, the conference host, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya called for legalizing drug use. In so doing, he joins a growing list of Latin American leaders singing the same tune.

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Manuel Zelaya
Legalizing drug use, or more accurately, decriminalization, would de-fang international drug trafficking organizations and free Honduras of the financial burden of attempting to impose drug prohibition, Zelaya said. "The trade of arms, drugs and people... are scourges on the international economy, and we are unable to provide effective responses" because of the global drug prohibition regime, Zelaya said Monday at the opening of the 18th meeting of regional leaders against drug trafficking.

Drug users should be considered patients, not criminals, Zelaya said. Drug users could be treated by health care professionals instead of arrested or harassed by police. And the state could stop throwing money down a rat hole, too, he added. "Rather than continue to kill and capture traffickers, we could invest in resources for education and training," the Honduran leader said.

Like the rest of Central America, Honduras is plagued by illegal drug syndicates typically using the country as a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine headed for the North American market. It is also seeing increasing drug use levels as some of the product inevitably falls off of the back of the truck.

With his remarks Monday, Zelaya is joining what could become an emerging Latin American consensus. Just days ago, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, whose country is plagued with prohibition-related violence, called for the decriminalization of small amounts of drugs. The government of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is actively pushing decriminalization there. In Brazil, the courts are leading the way to decriminalization. Meanwhile, Bolivia and Venezuela are openly feuding with the US, in part over drug policy issues. In August, officials of the left-leaning Mexican PRD, the largest opposition party, asked party legislators to consider calling for drug legalization as part of a 'grand national accord' to deal with violence and insecurity in the country.

The talk of legalization by Latin American political leaders is often imprecise -- do they mean decrim or legal, regulated production and sales? -- and to the degree they are really talking only about decriminalization -- not legalization -- the enactment of such policies will fail to reduce some of the harms associated with drug prohibition, although they will reduce certain harms suffered by drug users. But Latin America appears to be on the verge of showing its northern neighbor a thing or two when it comes to humane and effective drug policies.

Europe: Dutch Judges Say Legalize It

More than half of Dutch judges surveyed by the newsweekly Vrij Nederland think marijuana should be legalized, according to a report from the Netherlands Information Service. The weekly interviewed 489 judges, 22 apprentice judges, and 140 prosecutors.

More than half (52%) said "soft drugs," such as marijuana or hashish (and possibly psychedelics) should be legalized. More than one in ten (12%) said even the use, possession, or dealing of "hard drugs," such as cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine, should not be criminally prosecuted.

Although marijuana sales are regulated and taxed in the Netherlands' famous coffee shops under Dutch "pragmatism" policies, the sale or manufacture of marijuana officially remains a crime under Dutch law. The current conservative Dutch national government has attempted to shut down the coffee shops, but without popular support for such a move has had to settle for tightening regulations on the marijuana outlets and gradually reducing their numbers.

The Dutch judges are apparently a fairly liberal bunch. According to the survey, in addition to supporting anti-prohibitionist drug policies, nearly half (48%) thought anti-terrorism measures had gone too far, 41% were concerned about the privacy of citizens, and 10% believe that the Netherlands is on the path to becoming a police state.

Mexican President Proposes Decriminalizing Drug Use

We covered this in The Drug War Chronicle, but I think it needs more discussion:

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Felipe Calderon, locked in a bloody battle with drug cartels, wants to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of street drugs in a plan likely to irk Washington.

Calderon, a conservative in power nearly two years, sent a proposal to Congress on Thursday that would scrap the penalties for drugs including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, opium and marijuana.

Under Calderon's plan, people carrying up to 2 grams (0.07 ounces) of marijuana or opium, half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin or 40 milligrams of methamphetamine would face no criminal charges.

Where shall I begin?

1. President Calderon himself has endorsed this. He is the golden boy of the U.S.-subsidized Mexican drug war and after accepting our financial support, he now does something certain to enrage the American Drug Czar.

2. Calderon’s predecessor, Vicente Fox, tried the same thing and backed down due to pressure from Washington, D.C. Now that Calderon has established his drug war credentials, he’s picking up where Fox left off. Obviously, Mexico intends to decriminalize simple possession and won’t stop until it is done.

3. The timing of this move appears designed to circumvent negative attention from Washington, D.C., which is horribly distracted right now for obvious reasons. I’ve been unable to find a response from the Drug Czar or anyone else. Amazing.

Mexico is plagued by drug trade violence, the likes of which we’ve never seen within our borders, and its political leadership is calling for an end to petty drug arrests. It won’t end the bloodshed – not even close – but it is a dramatic shift away from the U.S. drug war mentality that we must continuously pursue and arrest drug users in order to "win" the war on drugs. This is remarkable to say the least.

Latin America: Mexican President Moves to Decriminalize Drug Possession

Faced with a mounting death toll in his war with powerful drug trafficking organizations, Mexico President Felipe Calderón has moved to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of drugs, according to a Reuters report Thursday afternoon. The only other source reporting the news Thursday evening was the Mexican news agency Notimex.

The measure comes as part of a public security proposal aimed at combating the traffickers with better coordination among security forces. But Calderón's moving to decriminalize drugs was a surprise move. His predecessor, Vicente Fox, sent a similar bill to congress in 2006, only to pull it in the face of pressure from the US and critics in both countries who said it would create "drug tourism."

Under the proposed legislation, people carrying up to 2 grams (0.07 ounces) of marijuana or opium, half a gram of cocaine, 50 milligrams of heroin or 40 milligrams of methamphetamine would not face criminal charges -- if they voluntarily agreed to undergo medical treatment "for their pharmaco-dependency." Those amounts are considered "for immediate personal consumption."

"What we are seeking is to not treat an addict as a criminal, but rather as a sick person and give them psychological and medical treatment," said Sen. Alejandro González, head of the Senate's justice committee.

People caught possessing up to a thousand times the personal dose units (about 4 ½ pounds of pot, a bit more than a pound of cocaine, or about two ounces of heroin or speed) would face criminal charges as drug possessors by the Common Public Ministry (or local courts). People caught possessing quantities larger than that would be treated as drug traffickers and dealt with by the Federal Public Ministry (or federal courts).

The idea is to free up police to go after the drug traffickers -- in other words, to intensify the deadly battle against the drug gangs. Prohibition-related violence has killed more than 3,000 people in Mexico this week, including nine persons whose executed bodies were found in Tijuana Thursday morning, making a total of 33 people killed in the last four days.

Feature: Drug Policy Reform and Sentencing Initiatives on the November Ballot

With election day little more than a month away, it is time for a round-up of drug policy reform initiatives facing voters in November. Not only are there a number of state-level initiatives dealing with marijuana decriminalization, medical marijuana, and sentencing reform (or its opposite), there are also a handful of initiatives at the county or municipal level.

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November 4th is coming up
But after a spate of drug reform initiatives beginning in the mid-1990s and continuing into the beginning of this decade, the pace has slowed this year. Of the 139 statewide initiatives identified by the Initiative and Referendum Institute as making the ballot this year, only seven have anything to do with drug reform, and four of those seek to increase sentences for various drug offenses.

Drug reformers have had an impressive run, especially with medical marijuana efforts, winning in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, and losing only in conservative South Dakota. Reformers also scored an impressive coup with California's "treatment not jail" initiative, Proposition 36, in 2002. At the municipal level, initiatives making adult marijuana offenses the lowest law enforcement priority have won in cities across California; as well as Denver; Seattle; Missoula County, Montana; Eureka Springs, Arkansas; and Hailey, Idaho. Detroit and several smaller Michigan cities have also approved municipal medical marijuana initiatives.

One reason for the slow-down in reformers' resort to the initiative process is that, as Marijuana Policy Project assistant communications director Dan Bernath put it, "We've already grabbed all the low-hanging fruit."

While medical marijuana initiatives have had an impressive run, the remainder of the 22 initiative and referendum states -- Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming -- present a more difficult social and political terrain, in most cases. Running a successful initiative is also costly, said Bernath.

"Only half the states have initiatives, so there are only so many places where reformers can push them," he said. "And it is an expensive process that is often complicated. On the other hand, you don't have to rely on timid politicians. The voters are often way out in front of politicians on marijuana reform initiatives, and with an initiative, you don't have to worry about those timid politicians tinkering with your legislation and taking all the teeth out of it," Bernath noted. "As a general rule, I think most reformers would prefer to see something passed by the voters, that gives it a lot of legitimacy."

And that's just what reformers are trying to do with medical marijuana in Michigan and marijuana decriminalization in Massachusetts this year, both of which appear poised to pass. Likewise, in California, reformers are seeking to expand and deepen Prop. 36, but they also face a pair of sentencing initiatives aimed at harsher treatment of drug offenders. And next door in Oregon, anti-crime crusaders also have a pair of initiatives aimed at punishing drug offenders -- among others.

Here's a rundown of the statewide drug reform and/or sentencing initiatives:

CALIFORNIA: It's the battle of the crime and sentencing initiatives, with Proposition 5, the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA) going up against a pair of initiatives headed in the other direction. Building on the success (and limitations) of 2002's Prop. 36, Prop. 5 would expand the number of drug offenders diverted from prison into treatment, expand prison and parole rehabilitation programs, allow inmates earlier release for participating in such programs, and cut back the length of parole. It would also decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Led by the Drug Policy Alliance Southern California office, the Yes on Prop. 5 campaign has won broad support from drug treatment professionals, with the notable exception of drug court advocates. But it also faces opposition, not only from the drug court crew and the usual law enforcement suspects, but also actor Martin Sheen and several prominent newspaper editorial boards. No polls on Prop. 5's prospects have been released. See our earlier in-depth reporting on Prop. 5 here.

Proposition 6, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, is primarily aimed at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, but also includes provisions increasing penalties for methamphetamine possession, possession with intent, and distribution to be equal to those for cocaine, and provides for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. The measure also mandates increased spending for law enforcement. Read the California League of Women Voters' analysis of Prop. 6 here.

Proposition 9, also known as the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, unsurprisingly is concerned mostly with "victims' rights," but also includes provisions that would block local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the state fund corrections costs as much as necessary to accomplish that end. It would also lengthen the amount of time a prisoner serving a life sentence who has been denied parole must wait before re-applying. Currently, he must wait one to five years; under Prop. 9, he must wait three to 15 years. Prop. 9 would also allow parolees who have been jailed for alleged parole violations to be held 15 days instead of the current 10 before they are entitled to a hearing to determine if they can be held pending a revocation hearing, and stretches from 35 to 45 the number of days they could be held before such a hearing. These last two provisions, as well as one limiting legal counsel for parolees, all conflict with an existing federal court order governing California's procedures. Read the California League of Women Voters' analysis of Prop. 9 here.

Ironically, both "tough on crime" initiatives have received significant funding and support from Henry Nicholas, the co-founder and former CEO of Broadcom. Nicholas has reportedly contributed at least $5.9 million to the initiatives. That was before he was indicted in June on federal fraud and drug charges. His indictment alleges that he kept properties for drug parties, supplied methamphetamine and cocaine to friends and prostitutes, and spiked technology executives' drinks with Ecstasy.

MASSACHUSETTS: The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy is sponsoring an initiative that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Known as Question 2 on the November ballot, the initiative builds on nearly a decade's worth of work by local activists who ran dozens of successful ballot questions directed at individual representatives. Question 2 looks like almost a sure winner; it garnered 72% support in a mid-August poll. Still, late-organizing opposition has formed, primarily from the usual suspects in law enforcement and prosecutors' offices. See our earlier analysis of Question 2 here.

MICHIGAN: Michigan is poised to become the first medical marijuana state in the Midwest. An initiative sponsored by the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care and appearing on the ballot as Proposition 1 would allow patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis C, MS and other conditions as may be approved by the Department of Community Health to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. It would require the department to create an ID card system for qualified patients and their designated caregivers and would allow patients and caregivers to grow small amounts of marijuana indoors in a secure facility. It would also permit both registered and unregistered patients and caregivers to assert a medical necessity defense to any prosecution involving marijuana. A poll released this week showed the measure gaining the approval of 66% of voters. Read our earlier analysis of the initiative and campaign here.

OREGON: While medical marijuana activists are working on a dispensary initiative for 2010, perennial Oregon "crime fighter" Kevin Mannix is once again looking to throw more people in prison. Ballot Measure 61, "Mandatory Sentences For Drug Dealers, Identity Thieves, Burglars, And Car Thieves," is pretty self-explanatory. It would impose mandatory minimum sentences for the manufacture or delivery of cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine of 36 months in some cases and 30 months in others. It also lays out similar mandatory minimums for the other criminal offenders listed above. Mannix originally included a provision attempting to supplant the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, but dropped it when it became apparent it could drag down the entire initiative.

Another measure initiated by the legislature and referred to the voters, Ballot Measure 57, would also increase penalties for the sale or distribution of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy. It sets a sentencing range of 34 months to 130 months, depending on the quantity of the drug involved. The measure would also require drug treatment for certain offenders and impose sanctions for those who resist, provide grants to local jurisdictions for jails, drug courts, and treatment services, and limit judges' ability to reduce sentences.

LOCAL INITIATIVES: In addition to the statewide initiatives mentioned above, there are also a handful of municipal initiatives on the November 4 ballot. Here they are:

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA: In Berkeley, Measure JJ seeks to broaden and regularize medical marijuana access. Supported by the Berkeley Patients Group and at least two city council members, the measure would expand the non-residential zones where dispensaries can locate, create an oversight commission including representatives from each of the three existing collectives to promulgate standards and determine whether relocating or future operators are in compliance, issue zoning certificates by right if operators meet standards, and bring Berkeley possession limits in line with recent state court rulings determining that such limits are unconstitutional. The ballot argument in favor of the measure can be viewed at the link above; no ballot argument opposing the measure has been submitted.

FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS: The local grassroots organization Sensible Fayetteville is sponsoring an initiative that would make enforcement of adult marijuana possession laws the lowest law enforcement priority. It also includes language mandating city officials to write an annual letter to their state and federal representatives notifying them of the city's position and urging them to adopt a similar one. If the measure passes, Fayetteville will become the second Arkansas community to adopt such an ordinance. Nearby Eureka Springs did so in 2007.

FERNDALE, MICHIGAN: Ferndale passed a medical marijuana initiative in 2005, but this year a shadowy group known as the National Organization for Positive Medicine has placed an initiative on the ballot that would allow for the distribution of medical marijuana, but only by the National Organization for Positive Medicine. The initiative is not affiliated with the statewide medical marijuana initiative.

HAWAII COUNTY, HAWAII: Hawaii's Big Island (Hawaii County) will be voting on an initiative making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. Ballot Question 1 not only makes adult possession offenses the lowest priority, it would also bar county law enforcement officials from accepting federal deputization or commissions to enforce laws in conflict with the initiative, prohibits the County Council from accepting or spending funds to enforce adult marijuana possession laws, and bar the County Council from accepting any funds for the marijuana eradication program. The initiative is sponsored by Project Peaceful Sky, a local grassroots organization whose name alludes to the disruption of tranquility caused by law enforcement helicopters searching for marijuana.

Alright, potential voters, there you have it. See you at the polls November 4.

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