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Feature: Serious Crime Down, Drug Arrests Hold Steady, But Marijuana Arrests Increase to 872,000

Nearly 1.9 million people were arrested on drug charges in the United States last year, some 872,000 for marijuana offenses, according to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, released Monday. While overall drug arrest figures declined marginally (down 84,000), marijuana arrests increased by more than 5% and are once again at an all-time high. Drug arrests exceed those for any other type of offense, including property crime (1.61 million arrests), driving under the influence (1.43 million), misdemeanor assaults (1.31 million), larceny (1.17 million), and violent crime (597,000).
People arrested for drug offenses face not only the distinct possibility of serving time in jail or prison -- drug offenders account for roughly 20% of all prisoners, and well more than half of all federal prisoners -- but also face collateral consequences that can haunt them for the rest of their lives. In addition to carrying the burden of a criminal record, drug offenders can lose access to various state and federal benefits, including students loans, food stamps, and public assistance, as well as being barred from obtaining professional licenses, and in some states, other consequences such as having their drivers' licenses suspended.

The high level of drug arrests comes as overall drug use rates remain roughly at the level they were 30 years ago. In the meantime, state, local, and federal authorities have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and arrested tens of millions of people in the name of drug prohibition.

The increase in drug arrests comes as the overall crime rate decreased. Violent crime was down 0.7% over 2006 and property crime was down 1.4%, marking the fifth consecutive year of declining numbers. All seven categories in the FBI's list of serious criminal offenses -- murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, and car theft -- saw declines last year. But not drug arrests.

The rate of drug arrests was highest in the West (677.5 per 100,000), followed by the South (664.5), the Midwest (549.6), and the Northeast (508.0). Nationally, the drug arrest rate was 614.8 per 100,000.

Of those arrested on pot charges, 775,000, or 89%, were charged only with possession, a figure similar to that for drug arrests overall. Another 97,000 pot offenders were charged with "sale/manufacture," a category that includes all cultivation or sales offenses, even those involving small-scale violations. Marijuana arrests last year accounted for 47.5% of all drug arrests. Almost three-quarters of marijuana arrests involved people under the age of 30.

The continuing high levels of drug arrests and the increase in marijuana arrests prompted sharp responses from drug reformers. "For more than 30 years, the US has treated drug use and misuse as a criminal justice matter instead of a public health issue," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Yet, despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent and millions of Americans incarcerated, illegal drugs remain cheap, potent and widely available in every community; and the harms associated with them -- addiction, overdose, and the spread of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis -- continue to mount. Meanwhile, the war on drugs has created new problems of its own, including rampant racial disparities in the criminal justice system, broken families, increased poverty, unchecked federal power, and eroded civil liberties. Continuing the failed war on drugs year after year is throwing good money and lives after bad."

Marijuana reform organizations naturally zeroed in on the pot arrest figures. "Most Americans have no idea of the massive effort going into a war on marijuana users that has completely failed to curb marijuana use," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, DC. "Just this summer a new World Health Organization study of 17 countries found that we have the highest rate of marijuana use, despite some of the strictest marijuana laws and hyper-aggressive enforcement. With government at all levels awash in debt, this is an insane waste of resources. How long will we keep throwing tax dollars at failed policies?"

"These numbers belie the myth that police do not target and arrest minor cannabis offenders," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre, who noted that at current rates, a cannabis consumer is arrested every 37 seconds in America. "This effort is a tremendous waste of criminal justice resources that diverts law enforcement personnel away from focusing on serious and violent crime, including the war on terrorism."

"It's time for a new bottom line for US drug policy -- one that focuses on reducing the cumulative death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drug misuse and drug prohibition," said Piper. "A good start would be enacting short- and long-term national goals for reducing the problems associated with both drugs and the war on drugs. Such goals should include reducing social problems like drug addiction, overdose deaths, the spread of HIV/AIDS from injection drug use, racial disparities in the criminal justice system, and the enormous number of nonviolent offenders behind bars. Federal drug agencies should be judged -- and funded -- according to their ability to meet these goals."

Piper agreed with the marijuana reform advocates that the marijuana laws are a good place to start. "Policymakers should especially stop wasting money arresting and incarcerating people for nothing more than possession of marijuana for personal use," he said. "There's no need to be afraid of what voters might think; the American people are already there. Substantial majorities favor legalizing marijuana for medical use (70% to 80%) and fining recreational marijuana users instead of arresting and jailing them (61% to 72%). Twelve states have legalized marijuana for medical use and 12 states have decriminalized recreational marijuana use (six states have done both)."

As Piper noted, marijuana law reform is happening, but it's not happening at fast enough a pace to slow the number of pot arrests. Alaska remains the only state to allow for the legal possession of marijuana (in one's home). A federal decriminalization bill was introduced this year for the first time since the Jimmy Carter presidency, but no one thinks it will get anywhere anytime soon. And even decriminalization means that marijuana users are still punished for their choice of substance, as well as having their property stolen by law enforcement.

The situation is even more bleak when it comes to non-pot drug offenders. There is virtually no impetus to rein back the war on them, and even the reform efforts that could reduce their numbers in prison, such as the Nonviolent Drug Offender Rehabilitation Act on the California ballot this fall, would not do anything to reduce the number of arrests. It would merely funnel those arrested into coerced treatment instead of prison.

Barring serious radical reform efforts to end the war on drugs -- and not merely ameliorate its most outrageous manifestations -- there is little reason to expect we will have anything different to report when it comes to drug arrests next year or the year after that.

Marijuana: Massachusetts Decrim Initiative Organizers Take Off the Gloves, File Criminal Complaints Against Prosecutors

The battle over a Massachusetts initiative that would decriminalize marijuana possession is heating up. Although the initiative, which would make marijuana possession a civil rather than a criminal infraction (and is known as Question 2 on the ballot), leads comfortably in early polling, organized opposition led by the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association (MDAA) emerged this month, and on Wednesday, initiative sponsors the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy (CSMP) announced it had filed criminal complaints against the prosecutors for violating campaign fundraising laws and publishing false statements about the initiative.

The prosecutors, organized into the Coalition for Safe Streets, filed a statement of organization on September 5 and have come out swinging since then. There's just one problem, according to CSMP. Under state campaign finance laws, ballot committees cannot raise money until they register with the state, as the Coalition for Safe Streets did less than two weeks ago. But CSMP has evidence that prosecutors were funneling money into the effort as far back as July. This unlawful fundraising and spending constitutes the 14 counts of CSMP's first complaint.

CSMP's second complaint charges prosecutors violated state election laws prohibiting the making of false statements about candidates or ballot issues in at least five instances. Targeted by the complaint are such anti-marijuana fare appearing on the MDAA web site as "Decriminalization will reverse a recently documented positive trend in youth marijuana use," "There is a direct link between marijuana use and criminal activity," and "There is a direct link between marijuana use and motor vehicle crashes." In its complaint, CSMP systematically rebuts each of these statements.

"The people who are paid to uphold the law should also be expected to follow the law," said CSMP campaign manager Whitney Taylor. "The DAs blatantly ignored the law in a cynical attempt to conceal their campaign activity for as long as they could, undermining the very laws they have sworn to uphold. Not only does this warrant an immediate investigation, but because of the positions they hold, they need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Feature: Battle Over California's Nonviolent Offender Recovery Act Initiative Begins to Heat Up

With election day less than two months away, the battle over California's groundbreaking "treatment not jail" initiative is heating up. Known as the Nonviolent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA) and appearing on the ballot as Proposition 5, the initiative would divert thousands of drug users and drug-using lawbreakers into drug treatment and away from the state's bulging and budget-draining prisons. In doing so, it would build upon and greatly expand the effort begun with the passage of the "treatment not jail" Proposition 36 by voters in 2002.

According to NORA supporters, the initiative:

  • Requires the state to expand and increase funding and oversight for individualized treatment and rehabilitation programs for nonviolent drug offenders and parolees.
  • Reduces criminal consequences of nonviolent drug offenses by mandating three-tiered probation with treatment and by providing for case dismissal and/or sealing of records after probation. Limits court's authority to incarcerate offenders who violate probation or parole.
  • Shortens parole for most drug offenses, including sales, and for nonviolent property crimes.
  • Creates numerous divisions, boards, commissions, and reporting requirements regarding drug treatment and rehabilitation.
  • Decriminalizes possession of less than an once of marijuana.

The complex, ambitious proposal would not be cheap -- estimated annual costs to the state to implement it would be about $1 billion per year. But according to a July 1 analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, that spending would be more than offset by savings to the state of more than $1 billion annually in reduced prison and parole costs and a net savings of $2.5 billion in prison construction that would no longer be necessary.

NORA has broad support from a long list of California groups and individuals, including not only the entire treatment and recovery community, but also the League of Women Voters, labor unions, the former warden of San Quentin, and former US Secretary of State George Schultz.

"The treatment community gave Prop. 36 only mixed support at the time," said Al Senella, chief operating officer of the Tarzana Treatment Center and president of the California Association of Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program Executives, both of which have endorsed Prop 5. "But as far as I can tell now, there is total support for the initiative in the treatment community. I don't know any treatment organizations opposing it."

"When you look at the Yes on 5 coalition, you find a wide array of addiction and public health advocates, youth advocates, the League of Women Voters, consumer federations, and on and on," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Southern California deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has spearheaded the Prop. 5 effort. "It really shows the breadth and diversity of Yes on 5; it really gives you a sense of what California has to gain and from how many perspectives," she said. "When you look at the 'no' side, it is dominated by law enforcement. That's very revealing."

While NORA has broad support from the treatment and recovery community and beyond, it is opposed by a formidable array of law enforcement and drug court interests. It has drawn the ire of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which slammed it in a position paper earlier this year, as well as the opposition of virtually all of California's sheriffs, district attorneys, police chiefs, prison guards, and probation officers.

Although the opposition had been relatively quiet until this month, last Friday it fired a broadside over NORA's bow when noted actor Martin Sheen penned a "no on NORA"
in the Sacramento Bee. Sheen wrote that he opposes Prop 5. because "it will do so much harm to so many people" because it lacks the teeth to punish offenders who fall off the wagon. "Successful rehabilitation needs accountability and so often demands direct intervention in the life of someone who is addicted to drugs, rather than waiting for them to seek treatment 'when they are ready,'" he wrote.

Prop. 5 is the product of "harm reduction theory" and would shift resources from programs that meet his approval, such as Narcotics Anonymous, Sheen complained. "The real problem with Proposition 5 is that it is not about stopping drug use," he wrote. "If it were, it would mandate funding for ongoing drug testing instead of prohibiting that funding, and it would not give drug sellers a reward for the harm they do to so many." The initiative is "poorly designed and dangerous," Sheen warned.

"I certainly respect Martin Sheen's feelings and experiences, but to generalize and universalize them to public policy is the wrong approach," responded Dooley-Sammuli. "We don't want to decide what's best for 36 million Californians based on one man's perspective. He's concerned that Prop. 5 won't work, just like he was concerned that Prop. 36 wouldn't work, but we know now that it did work. I'm not so sure Martin Sheen is up to speed on the research in these areas, and he's wrong again. I'm disappointed he isn't any closer to achieving understanding."

"Martin Sheen is a celebrity, and perhaps that will sway some folks, but he did the same thing with Prop. 36, and he didn't sway enough folks," said Senella. "I respect the fact that he and his son had issues and overcame them, but his position is driven by his personal views, not by the data and expert opinion. And while he wrote an op-ed, I don't see him putting up millions for an effective opposition campaign. He is just giving the opposition a voice, not financial muscle."

Sheen isn't alone. While the powerful state prison guards' union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, hasn't taken an official position on Prop 5 -- mainly because it is busy trying to recall Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) over budget issues -- it will do so soon, said union spokesman Lance Corcoran.

"We haven't taken an official position, but we have done an analysis, and we see this as basically a get out of jail free act," he said. "We think Prop. 36 has arguably not been successful, and we think Prop. 5 will be a failure, too. This is not something that will be good for California," he warned.

Susan Blacksher is executive director of the California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources, the largest residential treatment care provider organization in the state. For Blacksher, NORA is a necessary deepening and broadening of Prop. 36, whose success was limited by lack of resources, she argued.

"Prop. 36 didn't anticipate the sheer volume of need, and similarly, many counties did not fully recognize the magnitude of their addiction problems," she explained. "They assumed they would be picking up people who were early in their drug-taking careers, but almost from the beginning we began to see that the people coming through the program had more severe problems than anticipated. There were just not enough resources for the volume of people and the severity of their problems."

Arguments made by law enforcement and the drug court organizations that NORA should be opposed because it did not offer sufficient sanctions for relapses was "like throwing out the baby with the bathwater," Blacksher said. "NORA has been brilliantly crafted taking into account all the issues we've been discussing over the past six years, and there was a lot of discussion about sanctions. Some of us in the recovery movement think short term sanctions like flash incarceration can make sense if used as part of treatment, and not just punishment," she said, "but why are we making such a big deal about this when the rest of it makes so much sense?"

Blacksher said she understood the frustration of law enforcement and drug courts over the issue of sanctions, but it was not enough to invalidate NORA. And, as she noted, "Their jails and prisons are so full, something has to happen."

"You would think the judges and prosecutors who led the way on drug courts would support what will be the nation's largest expansion of drug courts," said Dooley-Sammuli. "I'm disappointed there as well. What I think we're really seeing is a turf battle, where folks would rather protect their turf than support what will be an expansion of drug courts. Unfortunately, the folks who run those courts are resisting what have been proven to be the best practices."

"The drug court people believe strongly in accountability, and so does the treatment community," said Senella, "but the drug court people believe they should have full authority. Prop. 36 didn't give them that, and neither does NORA. NORA does give them a great deal, it gives them additional authority, but not as much as they want. And although drug courts will get substantially more funding under NORA, they oppose it because it imposes some criteria on them about when they can impose their sanctions."

"I was alive in the 1960s when we went through this drill before," said Michael Rushford of the conservative, victims' rights-oriented Criminal Justice Legal Foundation. "Crime rates tripled while we were diverting felons to the streets. Not everyone remembers that and, unfortunately, if you don't learn from history, you're doomed to repeat it," he said.

"Sure, I could see some diversion for juveniles, but when you're talking about felony offenders, there need to be consequences," Rushford continued. "Prop 5. would let somebody with $50,000 worth of meth avoid prison; it would let a repeat car thief avoid prison. It's a bad deal."

"These kinds of arguments are simply not based on facts or an accurate reading of the initiative," said Senella. "You can't have $50,000 worth of meth and just walk away; you can't go around stealing cars and just walk away. For these kinds of cases, judges will have complete discretion. If the judge decides this guy is stealing cars because he's strung out on something, he may be a good candidate for diversion, but it is in no way a free ticket out of trouble."

Despite five years of evaluations and annual reports on the efficacy of Prop. 36, neither the legislature nor Gov. Schwarzenegger have taken the initiative to implement the recommendations of the various reports. That's why it's up to the public, said reform advocates.

"People say California needs this, but something this big should go through Sacramento," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We say yes it should, but it hasn't. The federal courts have already taken over medical care in our prisons and there is a November 17 hearing to see if they should put the entire California Department of Corrections under receivership as well. The state government has proven incapable of action on this."

"The legislature and the governor can't or won't acknowledge what the public believes is important and what the science has demonstrated," said Senella. "In approving Prop. 36, the public showed that it was important to voters and their loved ones that treatment was a priority instead of prison as a method of dealing with addiction," he said.

"The only way to move forward on this is through the initiative process," he said. "That's why we need and support NORA. What has gone on in California corrections is clearly not working -- we have the second highest recidivism rate in the nation. Our current approach is not what the science indicates is necessary. It's absolutely clear that if you treat the addiction, you do a great deal for the recidivism rate."

"One way or another, the future of prison overcrowding in California will be decided in November," said Dooley-Sammuli. "Either by the voters on election day or by three federal judges later in the month. Rehabilitation and treatment has a lot of support among California voters. So far, we have let addiction drive our record-setting incarceration rates. The voters understand that."

Marijuana: Massachusetts Decriminalization Initiative Polling Well

A Massachusetts initiative that would decriminalize marijuana possession looks set to win in November, if polling numbers from this month are any indication. According to a 7NEWS/Suffolk University poll, the initiative now has the approval of 72% of voters. Only 22% of respondents said they opposed the decrim measure, while 6% had no opinion.

The initiative, sponsored by the Committee for Responsible Marijuana Policy, would replace current criminal penalties for marijuana possession with a civil penalty of forfeiture of the marijuana and a $100 fine.

It looks like the Massachusetts public is on board with decrim, said David Paleologos, director of the Political Research Center at Suffolk University. "This issue suggests that there is a libertarian streak in the thinking of Massachusetts voters," he said.

The decrim initiative, known as Question #2 on the November ballot, is the only one of three initiatives garnering majority support, according to the poll. An initiative that would reduce and ultimately eliminate the state income tax was trailing 50% to 36%, while an initiative that would bar dog racing that entailed wagering was hovering at the half-way mark, with 50% approval and 37% and opposed.

Massachusetts voters may be uncertain about dog racing and opposed to messing with the state tax system, but they seem clear about the need to decriminalize marijuana possession. If they pass the initiative, Massachusetts will become the 13th decrim state and the first since Nevada in 2001.

Europe: Move Afoot in Poland to Legalize Marijuana

According to Polish Radio, a campaign to loosen the marijuana laws is underway in Poland. A petition to the Ministry of Justice requesting the legalization of marijuana for personal use has already been signed by hundreds of people, including drug rehab specialists and members of Monar, a nonprofit group that works with addicts, the HIV/AIDS positive, and the homeless.

Now, would-be legalizers are trying a new tack: direct contact with members of parliament (MPs). "Cannabis canvassers" recruited via the Internet have been paying visits to politicians in an effort to win them over, and it seems to be working. The canvassers have already collected the signatures of five MPs, including former health minister Marek Balicki.

Legalization of personal possession (or decriminalization) would be a step forward for Poland. Under current law, possession of even small amounts of marijuana is a serious criminal offense.

Feature: Seattle's Hempfest Again Draws Multitudes in Celebration of Cannabis Culture

Last Saturday and Sunday, Seattle's Myrtle Edwards Park, a mile-long strip of land fronting Puget Sound just north of downtown, once again played host to the Seattle Hempfest. And once again, the Hempfest lived up to its reputation as the world's largest marijuana "protestival."

With a core staff of around a hundred, led by the indefatigable Vivian McPeak, and about a thousand volunteers who worked to set up the event, keep it running smoothly, and tear it all down at the end of the weekend, Hempfest is not only a celebration of cannabis culture but also the living embodiment of the grassroots cooperative activism that has flourished for years in Seattle.

From its beginnings as a small pro-hemp event 17 years ago, Hempfest has become the coming out party for America's cannabis nation, which in Seattle includes not only youthful stoners, wizened hippies, and Mr. Bong Head (a guy wearing a working bong contraption on his head), but punks, Goths, ravers, uncostumed twenty- and thirty-somethings, families with children in strollers, and -- the biggest cannabis celebrity in town -- travel writer Rick Steves. Steves once again called for the US to follow the lead of Europe in relaxing marijuana laws.

Over the event's two-day span, an estimated 150,000+ people showed up to see and be seen, listen to four stages worth of live music, peruse the hundreds of vendors' stands for the newest technologies and best buys on glass pipes, t-shirts, hemp items, and other pot-related accoutrements and accessories.

And to get high in public with their comrades. Seattle police have for years now had an accommodation with Hempfest, even more so since the city's voters told law enforcement very clearly in 2003 that marijuana should be the city's lowest law enforcement priority. Police were on the scene, patrolling the park's sidewalks in pairs, but appeared oblivious to the open pot-smoking going on all over the place.

In effect, Hempfest is not only the largest marijuana protestival in the world, it is also a massive act of civil disobedience. Even though Seattle has its lowest priority policy and Washington state has decriminalized pot possession, marijuana use and possession is still against the law. As one speaker addressed the crowd, pointing out this fact and telling listeners that despite all the progress they had made, they were still criminals, the crowd responded with an enormous cheer.

The only real tension at Hempfest occurred when a small group of sign-holding fundamentalist preachers berated the passing crowds, telling them they were going to hell for their sins. That sparked occasional heated discussions. At one point Saturday, Hempfest organizers were heard threatening to send a squad of transgender people to scare off the fanatics.

Some Hempfest attendees took a break from browsing, shopping, and listening to music to actually listen to between-band speeches by activists calling for further marijuana law reform. While decriminalization and legalization were predictably common themes, this year's Hempfest emphasized two other issues: The promotion of hemp and the battle over Washington state's medical marijuana law, especially the ongoing fight over what are appropriate quantities of marijuana allowable for patients. The state is currently tangling with patients and advocates over what constitutes a minimum 60-day supply of their medicine. An earlier proposal called for 35 ounces of marijuana, but Gov. Christine Gregoire sought a review of that, and the state is now recommending a 24-ounce limit.

Besides between-band speeches, political activism also took place throughout Hempfest at the Hemposium tent, although in an indication of the role politics played in the larger festival, crowds in the tent numbered in the dozens, as opposed to the tens of thousands listening to music.

"Every single patient I know will not be in compliance with the 60-day rule. It's not going to work. It's driven by law enforcement, not science," said Douglas Hiatt, a lawyer who represents medical-marijuana users, as he spoke at one of the Hemposium sessions. Hiatt was among the activists calling on patients and supporters to come out for an August 25 action in support of higher limits.

But for most Hempfest attendees, the event was a party, a celebration, not a political seminar. While that may be a disappointment to activists, it is also a demonstration of the breadth and scope of Pacific Northwest cannabis culture. It has gone mainstream, with all the apolitical apathy abundant in the broader culture.

And if Hempfest was a little too mellow for your taste, you could always check out Methfest, not a celebration of amphetamine culture but a scary rock music show put on in nearby Belltown.

Southeast Asia: Drug User Group Demonstrates for Legal Drug Use in Jakarta

Indonesia's harsh drug laws have not succeeded in stopping illicit drug use in the Southeast Asian archipelago, and now some of the people those laws are aimed at are speaking out. On Monday, denizens of some of Jakarta's most notorious drug dealing spots were witness to an usual demonstration as two dozen motorcyclists roared through them calling for the legalization of drug use.

According to the Jakarta Post, the bikers were members of a drug user group called the Forum for Victims of Drug Addiction, or Forkon. They stopped in such notorious locales as Baturaja in North Jakarta, Tanah Abang in Central Jakarta, and Manggarai in South Jakarta to hand out fliers making their case.

Drug use should not be a crime, Forkon coordinator Yana told the Post. "It's a disease that needs to be treated, not punished," the 28-year-old said.

Ilicit drugs are easily available in Indonesia, Forkon members said, despite a pair of 1997 laws mandating prison sentences of six months to six years for convicted drug users, and sentences up to the death penalty for trafficking offenses. On Wednesday, Indonesian officials said that they would execute 39 convicted drug traffickers by the end of 2009.

Drug users and even uninvolved people in the neighborhood of a raid are often arrested and subjected to abuses while detained, Forkon members said. One former drug user, Maya, added, "Women also face sexual abuse." Maya said she is conducting research on the physical abuses endured by female drug addicts in detention.

While a drug use legalization demo in Jakarta may come as a surprise to many, it is the second one this year. In late June, Indonesia drug user activists and others used the occasion of the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking to hold a march in Jakarta where they called for an end to discrimination against people who use drugs, the implementation of laws decriminalizing drug use, and programs to prevent HIV in prisons.

The June protestors asked the Indonesian government to fulfill its mandate to ensure the right to health for all and to provide drug treatment, including medication-assisted treatment. This week's protestors called on the government to change the drug laws. The group said it had urged both the National Commission on Human Rights and the House of Representatives to act.

"We'll continue with our campaign until parliament repeals the 1997 laws," Yana said.

Marijuana: Joplin, Missouri, Decrim Initiative in Final Signature-Gathering Push

Organizers of a Joplin, Missouri, initiative that would decriminalize possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana are in a sprint to the wire in a last-minute bid to get the necessary number of signatures to get the measure on the November ballot. During the initial signature-gathering phase, canvassers gathered more than the required number of signatures, but many of them turned out not to be registered Joplin voters. Now the group has a 10-day window from August 5 until August 15 to come up with more valid signatures.

Organized by Sensible Joplin, the initiative would amend a city ordinance to make simple possession a civil infraction with a maximum $250 fine. That would remove the threat of a criminal record and all its collateral consequences from marijuana smokers and would save Joplin law enforcement resources currently being wasted on low-level pot busts, organizers argue.

To get on the ballot, the initiative needs 4,656 valid signatures, or roughly 15% of Joplin voters. Sensible Joplin originally turned in more than 5,600 signatures, but only 3,623 were valid. That means the group needs an additional 1,033 valid signatures in the next two weeks.

Organizers said it could be done. "It's definitely a workable situation," Kelly Maddy, president of Sensible Joplin and Joplin NORML told the Joplin Globe this week. "We still feel really good that we have a fighting chance to get this thing on the ballot."

Feature: Federal Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Has Its Coming Out Party

For the first time in decades, a marijuana decriminalization bill is before the Congress. Actually introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) in April, the Act to Remove Federal Penalties for the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults (H.R. 5843) got its coming out party Wednesday as Frank, a handful of other representatives, and leaders of prominent drug reform organizations held a Capitol Hill press conference to push for the bill.

In the eyes of many, the bill couldn't come soon enough. Since 1965, more than 20 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges, 830,000 in 2006. Of those, nearly 90% were for simple possession. In addition to the jail time and other costs imposed on offenders, marijuana law enforcement costs society more than $7 billion a year.

While passage of a federal decriminalization bill would have little direct impact -- only 160 people were charged with federal marijuana possession offenses last year -- its symbolic impact could help break the marijuana law reform log-jam that has endured since the days of the hippies.

Here is the text of the bill in its entirety:

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no penalty may be imposed under an Act of Congress for the possession of marijuana for personal use, or for the not-for-profit transfer between adults of marijuana for personal use. For the purposes of this section, possession of 100 grams or less of marijuana shall be presumed to be for personal use, as shall the not-for-profit transfer of one ounce or less of marijuana, except that the civil penalty provided in section 405 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 844a) may be imposed for the public use of marijuana if the amount of the penalty does not exceed $100."
Reps. Lee, Frank and Clay at press conference (courtesy Drug Policy Alliance)
Frank and other advocates conceded the bill has no chance of passage this year, but lauded it as a long overdue beginning. Hearings could come next year, they said.

The federal government should stop arresting marijuana users, Frank said as he stood before the microphones flanked by Congressional Black Caucus members Reps. Lacy Clay (D-MO) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), and advocates Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML; Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, and Bill Piper, national affairs director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Existing laws aimed at marijuana users punish otherwise law-abiding citizens and sick people whose doctors have recommended the drug, disproportionately impact African-Americans, and waste law enforcement resources, Frank said. They also amount to an unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of Americans, he said.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana by adults and this should be of no interest or concern to the government," said NORML's St. Pierre. "In fact, the vast majority of marijuana smokers are adults who cause no harm to themselves or to anyone else, so there is no reason for the state to be involved."

Marijuana use should be treated like alcohol use, St. Pierre continued. "With alcohol we acknowledge the distinction between use and abuse, and we focus our law enforcement involvement on efforts to stop irresponsible use. We do not arrest or jail responsible alcohol drinkers. That should be our policy with marijuana as well," he said, noting that there were more than 11 million marijuana arrests since 1990.

Reps. Clay and Lee both emphasized the inordinate number of arrests of minority pot smokers. The application of the marijuana laws unfairly targets blacks, said Clay.

Clay called marijuana prohibition part of "a phony war on drugs that is filling up our prisons, especially with people of color." It is time for a "practical, common sense approach" instead, he said.

Lee also noted the disproportionate impact of marijuana law enforcement on the minority community, but as a representative of a state where medical marijuana is legal also singled out another group that suffers under the law. "This bill is about compassion," she said. "The federal government has better things to do than send sick people to jail."

MPP's Kampia noted that marijuana arrests outnumber arrests for "all violent crimes combined," and suggested that law enforcement concentrate less on pursuing nonviolent marijuana offenders. "Ending arrests is the key to marijuana policy reform," he said. "It is important to eliminate the threat of arrest. For the many marijuana users who aren't arrested, they still live in fear of arrest."

Marijuana prohibition is "one of the most destructive criminal justice policies in America today," said DPA's Piper, noting that in addition to arrest and possible imprisonment, marijuana users face the loss of jobs, financial aid for college, federal benefits, and access to low-cost public housing.

Even while conceding the bill has virtually zero chance of passing this year, earlier in the week Piper said you have to start somewhere. "The goal is to raise the issue and have something that advocates can organize around," he said. "But just having this bill introduced is groundbreaking in itself."

It could also rub off at state houses across the land, Piper said. "This will encourage state lawmakers to introduce similar bills. This is also something we can now turn around and use to lobby with at state houses," he said.

"There's a growing sentiment in Congress that the prisons are overcrowded," said MPP spokesman Dan Bernath. "I think we are at or near a tipping point, and this bill is a good way to start chipping away at our marijuana laws," he said. "This will set the stage for sensible marijuana reforms at the state and local level, as well as more meaningful federal reforms in the future."

If reformers see little likelihood of anything happening this year, the federal government's anti-drug bureaucrats were taking no chances. Crashing the gate at the press conference were Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) chief scientist Dr. David Murray and two aides. They came carrying glossy ONDCP propaganda and hoping to immediately rebut any claims by reformers, but both press corps and event participants seemed more bemused by their appearance than interested in what they had to say.

Hey, Dirtbags, Ya Wanna Know What Cops Think About Frank's Decrim Bill (and You)?

Pot smokers and drug reformers weren't the only people interested in Barney Frank's news conference yesterday about his decriminalization bill. The law enforcement web site Police 1 noted it as well and posted a short piece asking its readership what they thought. The piece, Are Small Pot Busts Taking Cops Away From Important Work? What Do You Think?, was a calm, unbiased look at the decrim bill and what it would (and wouldn't) do. I wish I could say the same about the responses. Now, before I get into the meat of the matter, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the responses are not necessarily reflective of police officers' views in general, but are only the responses of a self-selected set of anonymous posters who have registered with Police 1 and who Police 1 says are verifiably law enforcement personnel. That caveat notwithstanding, the posters offer a pretty depressing look into the mind-set of at least some cops. Here are some of them:
Raymundo: I think we all know that pot heads just want to be able to do what they want. Marijuana kills brain cells and they don't come back, hello we need those. Marijuana should stay illegal and I hope congress continues to see that it should be illegal.
SPD853: I think we waste time on plenty of crimes. It is our job. Those cops who think it is a waste of time just "wind test" it anyway (if they do anything at all).
I hadn't heard the phrase "wind test" before. I think that means when they just steal your property, open up the baggie and let the goodies blow away in the wind. That's pretty rude, but preferable to getting arrested, I guess.
Chr1s11: How many of those "small" pot busts have been turned over for info leading to a much larger bust for a much worse controlled substance. The pot heads tend to give up the crack dealer to save the misdemeanor record. Besides, it's still an illegal substance that causes serious dificulty for someone to be a productive individual. Pot heads are the loosers that turn into coke/crack/meth heads. Then comes the violent crime they have to commit to support the habbit.
Well, of course. We all know that pot smokers are crack heads who inevitably turn to violent crime to support their habits. The only other comment I have on this poster is that anyone who can't spell loser correctly probably shouldn't be calling other people losers. He would be better off going back to school and actually passing eighth grade this time.
Baltoblue: I'd rather lock people up for Marijuana all day long then taking 6 reports a day because people can't resolve small problems on their own. The fact is that people can't resolve small problems on their own. The fact is that Marijuana is great PC for searching vehicles (on smell), and also leads to larger cases. I for one, have never locked up a nuerosurgeon for pot, and most that I lock up for pot are involved in larger crimes.
A couple of things on this one: I know I shouldn't pick on people for misspellings, but when you're trying to call pot smokers dumb, you should probably spell "neurosurgeon" correctly. Secondly, Baltoblue's point that pot is great for providing PC (probable cause) for searching cars is a common theme on this board.
Mac25: It is already hard enough to get a conviction when they wont emit it is their property but now they will say it is for personal use and I am not selling. When you compare the drugs (marijuana/alcohol) they both have their down falls but seem to be the lesser evil of all the drugs out there. With that said, the battle on drugs including marijuana has gone on too long to turn around and try to make it legal. I would say most, at least 75, of the people that use marijuana are dirt bags and are involved in other crimes or some how connected to those that commit the crimes. The marijuana arrests are and can be used to assist us (police) in catching those criminals. If it is legalized it will be thrown in our faces day in and day out by these criminals.
This guy's reasoning skills are right up there with his spelling and composition skills. So, 75 (percent, I assume, unless he's personally counting up the dirt bags) of pot smokers are "dirt bags" and are involved in other crimes or know somebody involved in other crimes or live in the same country as people committing other crimes or something. But at least there was one poster who was sympathetic:
In 14 years of active road service as a cop, I have never responded to a call involving anyone who had smoked a joint and was ready to fight with their wife or anyone else for that matter. Yes, I think to much time is spent on arrests involving small amounts of pot. Alcohol, on the other hand, has cost our country Billions of dollars and a tremendous loss of life. While I don't think pot should be legal, I think we need to re-think this issue.
There are more comments on the web site. Check 'em out if you have the stomach for seeing what those people who are supposed to serve and protect you think about you. As for me, I always try to treat police officers with the same respect they show me.

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