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Marijuana: Barney Frank Introduces Federal Decriminalization Bill

Last month, Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) announced he would file a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession at the federal level. Wednesday, Frank followed through, introducing the "The Personal Use of Marijuana By Responsible Adults Act of 2008," which would set a maximum $100 fine under federal law for possession or not-for-profit transfer of less than 100 grams of marijuana.

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Barney Frank
Frank did not comment publicly this week on the proposed legislation, but in a statement last month on his marijuana legislation, Frank said it was a waste of federal time and resources to prosecute minor marijuana offenses.

"I think it is poor law enforcement to keep on the books legislation that establishes as a crime behavior the government does not seriously wish to prosecute," he said. "For highly-trained federal law enforcement agents to spend time prosecuting people for smoking marijuana is a diversion of scarce resources from their job of protecting public safety."

Marijuana laws should be left to the states, he suggested. "The norm in America is for the states to decide whether particular behaviors should be made criminal. To make the smoking of marijuana one of those extremely rare instances of federal crime -- to make a 'federal case' out of it -- is wholly disproportionate to the activity involved. We do not have federal criminal prohibitions against drinking alcoholic beverages, and there are generally no criminal penalties for the use of tobacco at the state and federal levels for adults. There is no rational argument for treating marijuana so differently from these other substances."

Even if the Frank bill were to pass, which seems unlikely any time in the near future, it would have limited impact on the 800,000-plus marijuana arrests each year since the vast majority of them are made by state and local law enforcement. But it would send a very strong signal to the states that the federal government no longer considered pot-smoking a serious problem worthy of the criminal justice system.

Latin America: Argentine President Calls for Decriminalization of Drug Possession, Inclusion of Harm Reduction in National Drug Strategy

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner called last week for the decriminalization of drug use and the integration of harm reduction efforts into the country's drug strategy. Her statement comes almost a year after Minister of Justice, Security, and Human Rights Aníbal Fernández announced he was proposing a bill that would do just that.

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Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
"I don't like it when people easily condemn someone who has an addiction as if he were a criminal, as if he were a person who should be persecuted," she told the meeting. "Those who should be persecuted are those who sell the substances, those who give it away, those who traffic in it."

Kirchner' remarks came as Minister Fernández presented the results of a national poll on drug use that found alcohol and cocaine consumption decreasing, but marijuana consumption on the rise. The president and most of her cabinet attended that presentation.

Minister Fernández, who in March told the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs that drug policies that punished users were a "complete failure," said Argentina's next drug policy should include human rights, harm reduction, and prevention, as well as law enforcement.

"Decriminalization of the consumer should include what are called second-generation human rights, but at the same time there should be a strong policy of prevention, so that no one falls in the situation of consuming any substance," he said.

Thanks in parts to the efforts of Argentine harm reduction groups like ARDA (the Argentine Harm Reduction Association and Intercambios, pressure for decriminalization in Argentina has been building for years. Five years ago, during the presidency of Fernández de Kirchner's husband, Néstor Kirchner, a decrim bill was introduced, but went nowhere. More recently, in April of this year and again in June, Argentine federal courts have thrown out drug possession cases, saying the current drug law was unconstitutional.

If Argentina actually does decriminalize drug possession, it will join a select group of countries, mostly in Europe, but also including Colombia and Peru. Brazil is also edging in the same direction, with an appeals court in São Paulo ruling in March that drug possession is not a crime.

Massachusetts Aims For Marijuana Decriminalization in November

Eleven states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, leaving those busted to face only tickets and fines instead of a criminal record and possible jail time. But most of them decriminalized in the 1970s, with Nevada being the most recent addition to the list in 2001. This year, thanks to a carefully-crafted initiative campaign by the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy (CSMP), which follows two years of groundwork-laying by local activists, Massachusetts may be the next state to take the step.

Last year, CSMP drafted a decrim initiative and gathered more than 80,000 valid signatures. Now, in accordance with Massachusetts law, the initiative is before the legislature, which can either pass it, offer a competing version up to the voters in November, or do nothing and let voters vote on the initiative itself in November.

According to CSMP, the initiative (read its full text here) would:

  • Amend the current criminal statutes so that adults possessing an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use would be charged with a civil infraction and fined $100. Currently marijuana possession can draw six months in jail and a $500 fine, plus a wide range of "collateral consequences" continuing long after.
  • Remove the threat of a Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) report for minor marijuana possession charges. Criminal records can haunt people when applying for jobs for the rest of their lives.
  • Maintain current penalties for selling, growing, and trafficking marijuana, as well as the prohibition against driving under the influence of marijuana.
  • Save Massachusetts approximately $24.3 million per year in law enforcement resources that are currently wasted on low-level marijuana possession arrests, according to a 2002 report by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron.

While the initiative had a March 18 hearing before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary with a number of high-powered proponents, it is unlikely the legislature will act on it, leaving the voters to decide. That may be for the best, said Sen. Patricia Jehlen (D-Middlesex), who sponsored decrim legislation on which the initiative is based. While the Jehlen-sponsored SB1121 managed to win approval in committee, it has not gotten any further, nor has a similar bill, SB 1011, supported by the local activists of MassCann, the local affiliate of NORML.

An initiative will fare better with the public than in the legislature for a couple of reasons, Jehlen said. "It's not a big issue for many legislators," she pointed out, "and members are reluctant to take votes they think might be misunderstood by the public."

But before that can happen, CSMP will have to go back to the voters for another round of signature-gathering as required by Massachusetts law, explained committee head Whitney Taylor. Under that law, no one who signed petitions during the first round of signature gathering can sign a petition during the second round. Still, Taylor predicted no problems.

"I'm very confident we can come up with the required number of signatures," she said. "We have a lot of public support, we've been doing a lot of volunteer recruiting, and we've been working closely with SSDP chapters -- a bunch have just opened in the Boston area. There is a really great synergy going on there," she said.

"But while we have the enthusiasm of youth, we are also seeing a lot of buy-in from the broader public policy and advocacy community," said Taylor. "Massachusetts has the largest number of nonprofits per capita of any state, and these people are very comfortable in their political roles. There are lots of criminal and juvenile justice people who think our money could be better spent. It's great to see the support we're gathering at this early stage. I know we will make the ballot," she flatly predicted.

The initiative did have some early hurdles to pass. Last fall saw disagreement over aspects of the initiative language, particularly around whether it was wise to include marijuana in one's bodily fluids in the definition of marijuana possession and whether that could create a fine where it doesn't exist now. Some activists, such as NORML founder and current legal counsel Keith Stroup, worried that the language could become a precedent for other states to follow. Currently only one of them, South Dakota, defines a criminal offense of internal possession.

Taylor and initiative lawyers countered that there is conflicting case law on whether internal possession is already a criminal offense in Massachusetts that could draw a more severe punishment, or collateral consequences such as loss of college aid or problems in custody proceedings, and said the purpose of that language was to plug those holes by setting the same $100 fine as for external possession. They also argued that police can't take a bodily fluid sample without probable cause, which they say makes an internal possession penalty theoretical. Ultimately, all the major marijuana reform forces in the state, including NORML and MassCann, decided to support the initiative.

MassCann has been promoting the decrim cause in Massachusetts for years, and can point to some admirable achievements. At times working alone, at times working with the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts, the local activists managed to get non-binding questions on medical marijuana or decrim on the ballot in dozens of representative districts around the state. The results of those contests have demonstrated strong support for marijuana law reform in the Bay State.

"We never lost a ballot question," said MassCann treasurer Steve Epstein. "We did them in 2000, 2002, and 2004, and never lost, and we averaged 63%. We've also been working the legislature on reform there, but progress has been slow."

A successful decrim initiative would serve the same purpose as the decrim bills currently before the legislature, said Epstein. "Any of them will result in police not being able to arrest people for simple possession, all would result in people not getting CORIs, and all would save the police time and money. The police here will look the other way. They do that half the time already."

CSMP is honing its arguments as it looks forward to the fall campaign. "We are spending almost $30 million a year to arrest and book marijuana possession offenders," said Taylor. "And that's a conservative estimate. That money should stay in police coffers."

In addition to the economic costs, the campaign will highlight the costs of a marijuana conviction to young people. "We are seeing about 7,500 marijuana possession arrests a year, and that means 7,500 CORI reports, and that means opening people up to being rejected by landlords and employers, losing access to student loans and professional licenses, and all of that," Taylor said.

While opponents of marijuana law reform often cry that it will "send the wrong message" to the kids, Taylor said that is exactly backwards. "The wrong message to send to children is that if you make a mistake, we'll punish you for the rest of your life," she said. "With our initiative, whether this was just youthful experimentation or a sign of an actual problem, the consequences for law-breaking are immediate and done with, and that's more fair than the law currently is."

Now, the stage is set. Massachusetts voters have had nearly a decade to get accustomed to the notion of marijuana law reform, and the legislature, despite its inertia, is nibbling at the edges. Prominent Bay Staters are coming on board, fundraising is underway, and proponents are itching to take it to the ballot because they think they can win.

"The public supports it by about a two-to-one margin every time it's on the ballot. I filed my bill because of a vote like that in my district," said Sen. Jehlen. "It's also a better way to spend our public safety dollars more wisely by focusing on real threats, and it prevents harm to those people who are caught with it. Yes, I do think this can pass."

Marijuana: Barney Frank to Introduce Federal Decriminalization Bill

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) used a Friday night appearance on the HBO program "Real Time," hosted by Bill Maher, to announce that he planned to file a federal bill decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana this week. Frank, who has long been a supporter of marijuana law reform, said that federal law unfairly targets medical marijuana patients in states where it is legal. He also argued that decisions about whether to make marijuana illegal should be left up to the states.

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Barney Frank
Asked by Maher as to why he would push a pot decriminalization bill now, Frank said the American public has already decided that personal use of marijuana is not a problem. "I now think it's time for the politicians to catch up to the public," Frank said. "The notion that you lock people up for smoking marijuana is pretty silly. I'm going to call it the 'Make Room for Serious Criminals' bill."

Elaborating on his TV remarks in a Sunday interview with the Associated Press, the Massachusetts congressman said elected officials are lagging behind public opinion on the issue. "Do you really think people should be prosecuted for smoking marijuana? I don't think most people agree with that. It's one area where the public is ahead of the elected officials," Frank said. "It does not appear to me to be a law that society is serious about."

He seemed particularly irked by DEA raids and federal prosecution of medical marijuana patients and providers in California. "I don't think smoking marijuana should be a federal case," he said. "There's no federal law against mugging."

A dozen states have already decriminalized marijuana possession, with the New Hampshire House voting to approve such a measure last week. But the Granite State bill is opposed by state Senate leaders and the governor.

Rep. Frank's bill had not appeared on the Congressional web site as of Thursday afternoon.

Marijuana: New Hampshire House Passes Decriminalization Bill

In a vote that caught most observers by surprise, the New Hampshire House of Representatives approved a scaled-back marijuana decriminalization bill by a margin of 193-141. To become law, the measure must still pass the state Senate, where it will receive a cool reception, and be signed by the governor, who has signaled his opposition to it.

Sponsored by Reps. Jeffrey Fontas (D-Nashua) and Andrew Edwards (D-Nashua), the bill, HB 1623, would make possession of up to a quarter ounce of marijuana a violation punishable by a maximum $200 fine. Currently, small-time possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine.

The favorable vote came despite the bill's rejection by a House policy committee and the opposition of law enforcement officials. Among arguments raised by proponents was that young offenders would be unfairly punished by having a marijuana offense on their records.

"How can we expect young people to get back on the right path if we take away every opportunity to do so?" Rep. Fontas said during the debate.

That sentiment was echoed on the Republican side of the aisle, too. "The question today is not whether marijuana should be illegal, but whether a teenager making a stupid decision should face up to a year in prison and loss of all federal funding for college,'' said Rep. Jason Bedrick (R-Windham).

Rep. John Tholl (R-Whitefield), a part-time police chief in the village of Dalton, was typical of opponents. He warned darkly that anyone sharing small amounts of marijuana could be charged with a felony and that anyone transporting it could still face jail time. Still, the measure would send the wrong message, he said.

"If you send a message to the young people of our state that a quarter ounce of marijuana is no big deal, like a traffic ticket, what you are doing is you are telling them we are not going to be looking at this very hard,'' Tholl said.

According to the Nashua Telegraph, Gov. John Lynch also thinks the bill sends the wrong message. His press secretary, Colin Manning, said Lynch will urge the Senate to reject it.

"This sends absolutely the wrong message to New Hampshire's young people about the very real dangers of drug use. That is why the governor joins with the House Criminal Justice Committee and law enforcement in opposing this bill,'' Manning said. "If the bill were to reach the governor's desk, which seems very unlikely, the governor would veto it.''

Senate Majority Leader Joseph Foster (D-Nashua) told the newspaper the bill is going nowhere in his chamber. "I know of no interest in the Senate on either side of the aisle to entertain this,'' Foster told reporters. "The governor has expressed his view, but I don't think he will see it coming to him.''

The New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, which has led the lobbying charge for the bill, praised the House and urged the Senate to act. "Our representatives in the House did the right thing for New Hampshire -- and especially for New Hampshire's young people," said the coalition's Matt Simon. "It's time for the Senate to finish the work we've started here and bring some sanity to our marijuana sentencing policies."

Eleven states have decriminalized marijuana possession, mostly in the 1970s. Nevada was the most recent, decriminalizing in 2001.

Europe: Czechs to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession, Growing Up to Three Plants

The Czech Republic will decriminalize the possession of up to 20 joints, a gram of hashish, or up to three marijuana plants, according to a report from the Czech news site iDNES. Under Czech law, possession of "more than a small amount of drugs" is a criminal offense punishable by up to five years in prison.

But Czechs are among the most prolific of European pot-smokers, and pressure has been mounting for years for an adjustment in the law. Now, the vague "more than a small amount" has been codified. Also included in the decrim measure is possession of up to a half-gram of methamphetamine.

"Several European countries have similar rules. It is good to say somewhere that you will not face prosecution for a single hemp plant," Viktor Mravčík, head of the Czech National Focal Point for Drugs and Drug Addiction, told iDNES.

This change in the Czech penal code will bring the law into line with prevailing practice. According to Czech police, who had issued their own limits on minor drug possession (which were ignored by the courts), only about one-fifth of people caught growing marijuana plants were prosecuted in 2006. The rest only paid fines.

"We already have our own criteria on what we consider a crime," Břetislav Brejcha, an officer at the national anti-drug headquarters NPDC, told iDNES. The police limits "are quite similar to the new regulation, therefore we don't mind it at all," Brejcha added.

Jamaica: Government Considering Marijuana Legalization, Official Says

The Jamaican government is considering whether to legalize or decriminalize marijuana as part of possible changes to the island nation's drug laws, an official told the Associated Press last Friday. The herb is revered by Jamaica's Rastafarians and widely consumed, grown, and trafficked in the Caribbean nation.

A seven-member government commission has been researching drug law reforms. Some Jamaican law enforcement officials have complained that marijuana cases clog the courts and jails.

"We have discussed it, and we are preparing a report to present to the prime minister," said Deputy Prime Minister Kenneth Baugh.

It wouldn't be the first time. A blue ribbon commission recommended in 2001 that the personal and religious use of marijuana be decriminalized, but lawmakers have failed to act since then, at least in part out of fears that the US would impose economic sanctions if they did. In 2003, the government said a decrim bill was coming soon, but five years later, we're still waiting.

Marijuana: Burlington, Vermont City Council Rejects Decriminalization Measure

The Burlington, Vermont, City Council Tuesday narrowly defeated a watered-down ballot question on marijuana decriminalization. The measure would have asked the governor and state legislature "to explore an alternative to the criminal system for dealing with small quantities of marijuana." It failed 7-6.

If the measure had passed, it would have gone before voters at the next annual Town Meeting.

The council did pass an even more watered-down resolution. It voted 11-2 to assign the council's Public Safety Committee the task of exploring "creating another option of handling small quantities of marijuana."

Councilman Ed Adrian, who introduced the original decriminalization measure and who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said the committee will listen to "perspectives from all sides" in the marijuana debate. "I was disappointed that it wasn't put on the ballot so the people could weigh in on this, but that's the way the democratic process works," he said in remarks reported by the Burlington Free Press.

The decrim move in Burlington comes in the context of an emerging debate over drug policy in Vermont. The legislature this session will contend with decriminalization and industrial hemp, as well as bills seeking to crack down on hard drug trafficking, and the level of debate has been rising.

Marijuana: New Hampshire Decriminalization Bill Wins Support at Hearing

A bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to 1.25 ounces of marijuana won broad support at a New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday. Only representatives of the state attorney general's office and the New Hampshire Chiefs of Police spoke against the measure, while both a police officer and a corrections official were among those speaking in favor of it.

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marijuana plant (usdoj.gov)
The bill, HB 1623, would make possession of less than 1.25 ounces a violation, punishable by a maximum $200 fine. Simple possession is currently a Class A misdemeanor. The bill would also eliminate "penalties for the manufacture or sale of less than 1.25 ounces of marijuana." It was sponsored by Reps. Jeffrey Fontas (D-Nashua), Andrew Edwards (D-Nashua), and the ironically named Charles Weed (D-Keene).

Decriminalization offers a more sensible way of handling small-time marijuana offenses, New Hampshire police officer Bradley Jardis told the committee. "I have been kicked, I have been punched, I have been choked, I have been dropped to the ground, I've had two people jump on top of me punching me while I was on duty -- by people who had been drinking alcohol," he said. "I have never been to a domestic violence call or a fight call where someone smokes marijuana."

The bill also gained support from Richard Van Wickler, superintendent of the Cheshire County Department of Corrections, who told the committee decriminalization has worked in other places. "Jurisdictions globally and nationally that have passed laws such as the one that's before you today have had success with it," he said. "It has served the purpose of justice; it has moved closer to crime policies based on fact rather than fiction."

Speaking in opposition to the bill, Berlin Police Chief Peter Morency, head of the police chiefs' association, was asked by Rep. Timothy Robertson (D-Keene) if he would also be in favor of reinstating Alcohol Prohibition. After a pause, Morency said it was something he would consider.

That sparked a reaction from the New Hampshire Coalition for Commonsense Marijuana Policy, which issued a press release the same day as the hearing criticizing Morency's views. "Alcohol Prohibition is widely considered an enormous disaster that increased crime and violence," said the group's Matt Simon. "We all want safer communities, but Chief Morency's ideas for how to achieve that are as misguided regarding alcohol as they are regarding marijuana."

According to Rep. Fontas, HB1623 is more about preserving the opportunities of young people rather than anything to do with marijuana. He told the Laconia Citizen a marijuana possession conviction could bar young people from receiving federal financial aid for college or see them excluded from certain jobs. "If we are concerned enough about young people going down the wrong track then we should not prevent them from opportunities that get them on the right one," said Fontas.

The hearing concluded with the committee deciding to form a four-member subcommittee to study the bill further and come back with a recommendation before taking the bill to a full committee vote. If it passes that hurdle, it's on to a full vote in the House, and then off to the Senate.

Marijuana: After 30 Years, Nebraska Legislator Wants to Recriminalize

For three decades, marijuana possession has been decriminalized in Nebraska, but now a state legislator has filed a bill, LB844, that would make it a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. Currently, the maximum penalty for possession of less than one ounce is a $100 fine.

Nebraska is one of 12 states where marijuana possession has been decriminalized. Most of of them decriminalized in the 1970s, but Nevada joined the select group in 2001. A decriminalization initiative will go before Massachusetts voters this fall, and it appears the Vermont legislature may consider a move this year as well (See story here this issue).

But if state Sen. Russ Karpisek has his way, Nebraska will be heading in the other direction. He told the Omaha World-Herald he wants pot smokers to suffer at least the same penalty as underage drinkers.

"Alcohol is legal for adults, while marijuana is an illegal substance," the Wilber lawmaker said. "It's one of those things us rednecks really get mad about."

The proposed bill is winning the support of anti-drug activists and some prosecutors. The "parent resource group" PRIDE-Omaha Inc. thinks it's a good idea.

"Current law is too lenient. It's kind of viewed as a slap on the wrist. Society in general ties the seriousness to the punishment. Our kids are growing up in a culture that really normalizes the use of marijuana," said the group's co-executive director Margaret Grove, adding that passing the measure would challenge social acceptance of marijuana use.

"I think certainly we would be inclined to make the argument that we've de-emphasized it too much," Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said. "We're not sending a very good message." People don't want to go to the county's marijuana diversion program because they see the $100 fine as a "cost of doing business," Polikov complained.

But former state Sen. John DeCamp, then of Neligh, who led the decriminalization effort in the 1970s, said there was a sound basis for it. "I had very solid reasons for it," DeCamp said, adding that he convinced conservative legislators it would save tax dollars by incarcerating fewer people. Also, DeCamp said, soldiers were returning home from Vietnam "accustomed to a toke of marijuana" and didn't deserve to have their lives ruined.

Similarly, Omaha defense attorney Don Fiedler, who lobbied to support the 1978 decrim effort, said the move kept many Nebraskans from getting drug-related criminal records that would hinder their future prospects.

Last year, there were 7,416 citations and arrests for possession, sale, and manufacture of marijuana in the state, according to the Nebraska Crime Commission.

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