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Feature: US Drug Policies Flawed and Failed, Experts Tell Congressional Committee

The US Congress Joint Economic Committee yesterday held a historic hearing on the economic costs of US drug policy. The hearing, titled Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses, was called at the request of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who in his opening remarks described the all-too-familiar failure of US drug policy to accomplish the goals it has set for itself. It was the second hearing related to incarceration that Webb has convened under the auspices of this committee.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
"Our insatiable demand for drugs" drives the drug trade, Webb pointed out. "We're spending enormous amounts of money to interdict drug shipments, but supplies remain consistent. Some 86% of high schoolers report easy access to marijuana. Cocaine prices have fallen by about 80% since the 1980s," the freshman senator continued. "Efforts to curb illegal drug use have relied heavily on enforcement. The number of people in custody on drug charges has increased 13-fold in the past 25 years, yet the flow of drugs remains undiminished. Drug convictions and collateral punishments are devastating our minority communities," Webb said.

"Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to," Webb declared. "The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the economic impacts, the effect on crime. We need to rethink our approach to the supply and demand of drugs."

Such sentiments coming from a sitting senator in the US in 2008 are bold if not remarkable, and it's not the first time that Webb has uttered such words:

In March of last year, he told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program This Week: "One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy."

In his recently-released book, A Time to Fight, Webb wrote: "The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," "It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related activities" and "Either we are home to the most evil population on earth, or we are locking up a lot of people who really don't need to be in jail, for actions that other countries seem to handle in more constructive ways."

Still, drug reformers may be impatient with the level of rethinking presented at the hearing. While witnesses including University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, author of "Drug War Heresies," and John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) offered strong and familiar critiques of various aspects of US drug policy, neither of the words "prohibition" or "legalization" were ever uttered, nor were the words "tax and regulate," and radical alternatives to current policy were barely touched upon. Instead, the emphasis seemed to be on adjusting the "mix" of spending on law enforcement versus treatment and prevention.

The other two witnesses at the hearing, Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern and community coordinator Norma Fernandes of the same office, were there to talk up the success of drug court-style programs in their community.

[The written testimony of all four witnesses is available at the hearing web site linked above.]

"US drug policy is comprehensive, but unbalanced," said Reuter. "As much as 75% of spending goes to enforcement, mainly to lock up low-level drug dealers. Treatment is not very available. The US has a larger drug problem than other Western countries, and the policy measures to confront it have met with little success," he told the committee.

Reuter said there were some indications policymakers and the electorate are tiring of the drug war approach, citing California's treatment-not-jail Proposition 36, but there was little indication Congress was interested in serious analysis of programs and policies.

"Congress has been content to accept rhetoric instead of research," Reuter said, citing its lack of reaction to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's refusal to release a now three-year-old report on drug use levels during the Bush administration. "It's hardly a secret that ONDCP has failed to publish that report, but Congress has not bothered to do anything," he complained. "We need more emphasis on the analytic base for policy."

But even with the paltry evidence available to work with, Reuter was able to summarize a bottom line: "The US imprisons too many people and provides too little treatment," he said. "We need more than marginal changes."

"US drug policies have been in place for some time without much change except for intensification," said WOLA's Walsh, noting that coca production levels are as high as they were 20 years ago. "Since 1981, we have spent about $800 billion on drug control, and $600 billion of that on supply reduction. We need a stiff dose of historical reality as we contemplate what to do now," he told the committee.

With the basic policies in place for so long, some conclusions can now be drawn, Walsh said. "First, the balloon effect is real and fully relevant today. We've seen it time and time again, not just with crops, but also with drug smuggling routes. If we want to talk about actually reducing illicit crops and we know eradication only leads to renewed planting, we need to be looking for alternatives," he said.

"Second, there is continuing strong availability of illicit drugs and a long-term trend toward falling prices," Walsh said, strongly suggesting that interdiction was a failed policy. "The perennial goal is to drive up prices, but prices have fallen sharply. There is evidence of disruptions in the US cocaine market last year, but whether that endures is an open question and quite doubtful given the historical record," he said.

"Third, finding drugs coming across the border is like finding a needle in a haystack, or more like finding lots of needles in lots of different moving haystacks," he said. "Our legal commerce with Mexico is so huge that to think we can seal the borders is delusional."

With respect to the anti-drug assistance package for Mexico currently being debated in Congress, Walsh had a warning: "Even with US assistance, any reduction in the flow of drugs from Mexico is unlikely." Instead, Walsh said, lawmakers should adjust their supply-control objectives and expectations to bring them in line with that reality.

Changes in drug producing countries will require sustained efforts to increase alternative livelihoods. That in turn will require patience and a turn away from "the quick fix mentality that hasn't fixed anything," Walsh said.

"We can't expect sudden improvements; there is no silver bullet," Walsh concluded. "We need to switch to harm reduction approaches and recognize drugs and drug use as perennial problems that can't be eliminated, but can be managed better. We need to minimize not only the harms associated with drug use, but also those related to policies meant to control drugs."

"It is important to be able to discuss the realities of the situation, it's not always a comfortable thing to talk about," Webb said after the oral testimony. "This is very much a demand problem. I've been skeptical bout drug eradication programs; they just don't work when you're supplying such an enormous thirst on this end. We have to find ways to address demand other than locking up more people. We have created an incredible underground economic apparatus and we have to think hard about how to address it."

"The way in which we focused attention on the supply side has been very much mistaken," agreed Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who along with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) were the only other solons attending the hearing. "All this focus on supply hasn't really done anything of any value. The real issue is demand, and prevention and dealing with people getting out of prison is the way to deal with this."

Reuter suggested part of the solution was in increase in what he called "coerced abstinence," or forced drug treatment. Citing the work of UCLA drug policy researcher Mark Kleiman, Reuter said that regimes of frequent testing with modest sanctions imposed immediately and with certainty can result "in a real decline in drug taking and criminal activity."

That got a nod of agreement from prosecutor Swern. "How long you stay in treatment is the best predictor of staying out of trouble or off drugs," she said. Swern is running a program with deferring sentencing, with some flexibility she said. "The beauty of our program is it allows us to give people many chances. If they fail in treatment and want to try again, we do that," she said.

As the hearing drew to an end, Webb had one last question: "Justice Department statistics show that of all drug arrests in 2005, 42.6% were for marijuana offenses. What about the energy expended arresting people for marijuana?" he asked, implicitly begging for someone to respond, "It's a waste of resources."

But no one connected directly with the floating softball. "The vast majority of those arrests are for simple possession," said Reuter. "In Maryland, essentially no one is sentenced to jail for marijuana possession, although about a third spend time in jail pre-trial. It's not as bad as it looks," he said sanguinely.

"There's violence around marijuana trafficking in Brooklyn," responded prosecutor Swern.

WOLA's Walsh came closest to a strong answer. "Your question goes to setting priorities," he said. "We need to discriminate among types of illicit drugs. Which do the most harm and deserve the most emphasis? Also, given the sheer number of marijuana users, what kind of dent can you make even with many more arrests?"

And so ended the first joint congressional hearing to challenge the dogmas of the drug war. For reformers that attended, there were generally thumbs up for Webb and the committee, mixed with a bit of disappointment that the hearings only went so far.

"It was extraordinary," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. "They didn't cover some of the things I hoped they would, but I have to give them props for addressing the issue at all."

"Webb was looking for someone to say what he wanted to say with the marijuana question, that perhaps we should deemphasize law enforcement on that," said Doug McVay, policy analyst at Common Sense for Drug Policy, who also attended the hearing. "I don't think our witnesses quite caught what he was aiming for, an answer that arresting all those people for marijuana takes away resources that could be used to fight real crime."

Sen. Webb came in for special praise from Tree. "Perhaps because he's a possible vice presidential candidate, he had to tone things down a bit, but he is clearly not afraid to talk about over-incarceration, and using the Joint Economic Committee instead of Judiciary or Foreign Affairs is a brilliant use of that committee, because this is, after all, a policy with enormous economic consequences," Tree said. "Webb is clearly motivated by doing something about the high levels of incarceration. He held a hearing on it last year, and got the obvious answer that much of it is related to drug policy. Having heard that kind of answer, most politicians would walk away fast, but not Webb, so I have to give him credit."

Reversing the drug war juggernaut will not be easy. The Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing Thursday was perhaps a small step toward that end, but it is a step in the right direction.

Medical Marijuana: Employment Rights Bill Passes California Assembly

A medical marijuana employment rights bill that would protect California patients from being fired because their medication is marijuana passed the California Assembly Wednesday. Introduced by leading legislative medical marijuana defender Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), and cosponsored by Assemblymembers Patty Berg (D-Eureka), Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) and Lori Saldaña (D-San Diego), the bill, AB 2279, would overturn a January California Supreme Court decision, Ross v. Raging Wire.

In that case, the state Supreme Court upheld the ability of employers to fire employees who test positive for marijuana even if they are patients. That decision left the state's estimated 150,000 registered medical marijuana patients facing renewed job insecurity.

AB 2279 would undo that ruling. It would "declare it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a person in hiring, termination, or any term or condition of employment or otherwise penalize a person, if the discrimination is based upon the person's status as a qualified patient or primary caregiver, or a positive drug test for marijuana, except as specified."

The bill also provides authorization for those who have been discriminated against by employers because of their medical marijuana use to sue for damages, seek injunctions and other appropriate relief. It would not prevent an employer from firing an employee who is impaired on the job because of medical marijuana use.

"AB 2279 is not about being under the influence while at work. That's against the law, and will remain so," said Leno, the bill's author. "It's about allowing patients who are able to work safely and who use their doctor-recommended medication in the privacy of their own homes, to not be arbitrarily fired from their jobs. The voters who supported Proposition 215 did not intend for medical marijuana patients to be forced into unemployment in order to benefit from their medicine," Leno continued.

"The California Assembly has acted to protect the right of patients to work and be productive members of society," said Joe Elford, Chief Counsel with Americans for Safe Access, the medical marijuana advocacy group that argued the case before the Court and is now a supporter of the bill. "The state Senate now has the important task of passing this bill with the aim to protect the jobs of thousands of Californians with serious illnesses such as cancer and HIV/AIDS."

"It's important that we not allow employment discrimination in California," said Gary Ross, the former plaintiff in Ross v. Raging Wire. "If the Court is going to ignore the need for protection, then it's up to the legislature to ensure that productive workers like me are free from discrimination."

The bill has broad support from labor, business, civil rights, and medical groups. It now heads to the state Senate.

Money Laundering: US Supreme Court Skeptical of Government's Broad Interpretation

In oral arguments Monday, the US Supreme Court displayed considerable skepticism about the Justice Department's broad interpretation of federal money laundering laws. The arguments came in Cuellar v. US, in which Mexican national Humberto Cuellar was convicted of money laundering for concealing some $83,000 under the floorboards of his car as he headed for Mexico.

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Cuellar was stopped on a Texas highway about a hundred miles north of the border for driving too slowly and veering onto the shoulder. Officers smelled marijuana on a roll of bills in his pocket, then sought and received Cuellar's permission to search his vehicle. During the search, they found the cash hidden away.

Cuellar was subsequently convicted of money laundering, but appealed, arguing that the simple act of concealing money did not constitute money laundering under the 1986 federal money laundering law. Under that law, it is a crime to take the profits from "some form of unlawful activity" out of the country while hiding or disguising its nature, location, source, ownership, or control. The question the court must decide is whether merely hiding the money is sufficient to support a money laundering conviction.

While the Justice Department argued that concealing money as part of a plan to illegally take it out of the country indeed constitutes money laundering under the 1986 law, several justices suggested that it was simply going too far.

"I don't know why they call this statute 'Laundering of Monetary Instruments,'" Justice Stephen Breyer commented, wondering aloud if it would make it a crime to walk across the border with a few dollars hidden in a shoe. "Why didn't they call it 'shoe hiding'?"

"On the government's theory, anyone who transports hidden money to get it out of the country, who drives the car, just the driver, is a money launderer," noted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

"No matter how you see it, this was precisely the conduct that Congress was getting at," assistant solicitor general Lisha Schertler told the court.

But Cuellar's attorney, Jerry Beard, told the court it should interpret the law to mean something more than merely hiding cash. "The statute does not criminalize concealing money's existence," Beard said. Instead, he argued, it requires that someone must seek to minimize the criminal nature of the funds. While Cuellar "may have in fact concealed money itself, he did not conceal the 'nature, source, location, ownership or control' of the unlawful proceeds," Beard argued.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. challenged Beard on whether Cuellar was attempting to conceal the money, but later seemed to be equally skeptical of the government's position. When Schertler suggested that putting money in a suitcase in the trunk of car could be evidence of a "design to conceal," Roberts retorted: "When I use a suitcase, I'm using it to carry my clothes, not to conceal them."

Justice John Paul Stevens added that the government's broad position seemed to make the whole concept of money laundering irrelevant. "Is this just a total wild goose chase?" he asked.

The federal money laundering statute, most often used against presumed drug traffickers, carries a maximum 20 year sentence and fines of up to $500,000. Nearly a thousand people were convicted under the statute in 2006. But if Monday's oral arguments are any guide, the Justice Department may soon have to actually prove money laundering to gain a money laundering conviction, not just that someone was hiding cash.

Drug Testing Welfare Applicants Will Only Cause Horrible Problems

From the State of Virginia emerges this week's dumbest drug war idea:
Some welfare applicants and beneficiaries would be required to pass a drug test and receive counseling to receive public assistance under a controversial bill being considered by the Virginia General Assembly.

Under the proposal, which has been approved by the Senate, people applying for or in the state's job-training program, which is required to receive welfare, would be questioned about substance abuse. Those thought to be abusing drugs could be required to take a drug test. [Washington Post]
I can just hear the chorus of self-righteous legislators insisting that we mustn't subsidize addiction with public funds.

But I have a few questions. Who's going to intervene when a mother of four gets a false positive and suddenly can't feed her family? Will there be monitoring to prevent racial disparities in who is subjected to testing? How will any of this address the far larger problem of alcohol abuse?

If our society is going to offer public assistance to those in need, we cannot afford to shape such programs around the blunt instrument of urinalysis. When it works, drug testing tells you whether someone has used drugs. It doesn't tell you if they need treatment or whether their welfare check is being put to legitimate use. When drug testing doesn't work, it falsely accuses innocent people and subjects them to undeserved sanctions and stigma.

Even when it hits its target, the program just creates more problems:
Limited resources for treatment present another challenge. The state has a waiting list of 800 to 1,000, depending on the type of substance abuse service. The average wait is several weeks. Adding people to the list will tax government programs further, critics say.
This is the exact program you have to attend in order to regain eligibility for public assistance, but you can't get into it because Virginia's too busy busting and drug testing people to pay for treatment. The whole thing is just a massive escalator to nowhere.

Whatever one thinks about government assistance, it should at least be clear that infecting existing programs with the blind and corrupt influence of the drug war will merely ruin more lives.
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Civil Rights: Pennsylvania Bill Would Allow Involuntary Commitment of "Drug Dependent" People

A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature would allow judges to order "drug dependent" people into involuntary drug treatment, including inpatient treatment, upon petition by that person's family members. Introduced by Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D-Delaware), HB 1594 would allow for repeated 90-day commitment orders -- apparently without end.

The bill would allow the courts to order a drug and alcohol assessment by a psychiatrist, a psychologist specializing in drug and alcohol assessments and treatment, or a certified addiction counselor. If the assessors deem the respondent in need of treatment, the court could impose a 90-day treatment order. Before that period is up, another hearing would be held and another 90-day treatment order could be issued. According to the bill, "The court may continue the respondent in treatment for successive ninety-day periods pursuant to determinations that the person will benefit from services for an additional ninety days. The court may also order appropriate follow-up treatment. If the court finds, after hearing, that the respondent willfully failed to comply with an order, the court may declare the person in civil contempt of court and in its discretion make an appropriate order, including commitment of the respondent to prison for a period not to exceed six months."

In other words, if a court deems you a drug dependent person in need of treatment, you can theoretically be detained indefinitely in treatment or even be sent to prison if the court is not satisfied with your progress.

What makes the bill especially frightening is the broadness of the standard definition of "drug dependence," the most widely used of which is that in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV (DSM-IV). Under its criteria countless marijuana smokers -- and even coffee drinkers -- could be considered "drug dependent." According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2000, some 14.5 million Americans fit the definition.

According to Keystone State observers, the bill is unlikely to go anywhere. It has been sitting in committee for months. But given that it represents such a frightening example of the drug war's totalitarian impulse, it is worth noting.

Medical Marijuana and the Right to Work: Under Attack in California and Oregon, At Risk In Most Other States As Well

Last week's California Supreme Court decision upholding the ability of employers to fire employees who test positive for marijuana even if they are patients has shone a spotlight on an increasingly contested grey area created by the disjuncture between state and federal policies toward medical marijuana. With last week's decision, California's more than 150,000 medical marijuana patients now face renewed insecurity on the job. But 11 other states also have medical marijuana laws, and patients are equally at risk of job loss in most of them.

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the infamous ruling
While every state medical marijuana law says employers are not required to accommodate on-the-job use, most have provisions that could be interpreted as protecting medical marijuana users' employment rights, but only one, Rhode Island, explicitly protects patients, according to Karen O'Keefe, assistant director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

"There are several states -- California, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Rhode Island -- that specify that patients cannot be punished by professional licensing boards, and New Mexico and a number of other states have language like 'not subject to penalty in any manner,'" she said. "In Washington, it says 'the people shall not be denied any right or privilege.'"

But whether such language really means patients are protected from being fired for testing positive on a drug test is likely to be sorted out only by court cases or legislation. Better to get that explicit protective language written into the law in the first place, suggested Jesse Stout, executive director of the Rhode Island Patient Advocacy Coalition (RIPAC).

"We did get specific employment protections written into the law, as well a protection from discrimination in terms of enrolling in schools and leasing property," said Stout. "This happened because we went to our patients and asked them what they thought, and they said they wanted marijuana treated like any other medicine."

While Rhode Island advocates had to take other measures out of the bill to ensure passage, employment protections were not controversial. "They weren't a problem," Stout said.

As a result, Rhode Island's 600 medical marijuana patients are among the best protected in the country when it comes to employment protection. And they don't have to rely on the courts or the legislature to provide protection after the fact.

In California, on the other hand, the Supreme Court has settled matters -- at least for now -- with its ruling last week. In that decision, the Court found that employers may fire workers who use medical marijuana in compliance with California's Compassionate Use Act -- even if they are off duty and even if their use does not affect their job performance.

In that case, Gary Ross, whose doctor recommended medical marijuana for chronic back pain resulting from an injury incurred while serving in the Air Force, was hired by Raging Wire as a systems engineer in 2001 and was required to take a drug test as a condition of employment. He provided the company with a copy of his doctor's recommendation, but the company fired him a week later because of a positive test result.

Ross sued, alleging that the company violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) by not accommodating his disability. He also argued that the company fired him in violation of public policy because the Compassionate Use Act legalized medical marijuana in the state.

But in siding with employers, the state high court said the state's Compassionate Use Act protected users only from criminal prosecution. "Nothing in the text or history of the Compassionate Use Act suggests the voters intended the measure to address the respective rights and duties of employers and employees," wrote Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdeger for the majority. "Under California law, an employer may require pre-employment drug tests and take illegal drug use into consideration in making employment decisions."

Additionally, Werdeger noted, even though medical marijuana is legal under state law it remains illegal under federal law, and "the FEHA does not require employers to accommodate the use of illegal drugs."

Justice Joyce Kennard was scathing in her dissent. The decision was "conspicuously lacking in compassion," she wrote. "The majority's holding disrespects the will of California's voters." The voters "surely never intended that persons who availed themselves" of the medical marijuana act "would thereby disqualify themselves from employment," Kennard said.

She wasn't the only one. "This was an atrocious decision that generated a scathing dissent," said Joe Elford, legal counsel for the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access, who argued the case for Ryan. "When California voters passed a law ensuring the right of ill Californians to use marijuana, they didn't expect people to be fired for exercising that right."

"This is a decision is based on tortured logic designed to lead to an absurdly narrow reading of the law," said Bruce Mirken, San Francisco-based communications director for MPP. "The court is claiming that California voters intended to permit medical use of marijuana, but only if you're willing to be unemployed and on welfare. That's ridiculous on its face, as well as cruel, as Justice Kennard rightly observed in her dissent."

If the California Supreme Court has slapped patients in the face, at least one legislator is prepared to seek redress in Sacramento. In a press release the same day, San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Mark Leno announced he would introduce legislation protecting medical cannabis patients' right to employment.

"Today's California Supreme Court ruling strikes a serious blow to patients' rights," stated Leno. "In the coming weeks I will introduce legislation that secures a medical cannabis patient's right to use their doctor recommended medication outside the workplace. Through the passage of Proposition 215 in 1996 and SB 420 in 2004, the people of California did not intend that patients be unemployed in order to use medical marijuana."

If in California the battle over the employment rights of medical marijuana users will ultimately be decided in the legislature, in Oregon, the state with the second highest number of medical marijuana patients, some 16,000, the legislative battle is already in its second year. But instead of legislation seeking to protect patients' rights, Oregonians are faced with competing proposals to instead protect the rights of employers to fire those patients.

Last year, a bill that would essentially have allowed employers to discriminate against medical marijuana patients handily passed the state Senate before dying in committee in the House on the last day of the session. This year, in what is supposed to be a limited special session that lasts only through February, legislators are again seeking to provide cover for employers.

"They are trying to get a watered-down version of last year's bill through," said Leland Berger, an attorney and one of the leaders of Voter Power, the group behind the 1998 passage of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act (OMMA).

With the special session not yet underway, the bills are currently in the form of "legislative concepts." A hearing was held last week to introduce the competing bills, which would protect employers from lawsuits filed by medical marijuana cardholder employees fired for positive marijuana tests.

Along with Oregon's panoply of medical marijuana advocacy groups, the ACLU of Oregon was a staunch supporter of patients rights' last year, and is back at it again this year. "We oppose both of these bills and any like them for a number of reasons," said Andrea Meyer, legislative director for the ACLU of Oregon, who has been working legislators on the issue. "First, we don't think they're necessary or effective. They talk about impairment, but most employers rely on urinalysis testing to determine impairment, and urinalysis doesn't measure impairment. We know that marijuana metabolites can stay in the system for up to 30 days after ingestion, but that has no correlation with impairment," she said.

"This sort of legislation discriminates against medical marijuana cardholders," Meyer continued. "Oregonians voted to enact a medical marijuana law so people could lawfully obtain marijuana in almost the same manner as any other medicine, and we don't think patients using marijuana should be treated any differently than patients using codeine or morphine or amphetamines," she said.

"We believe in a safe workplace, and we think when an employee is impaired for whatever reason -- emotional distress, under the influence of alcohol or lawful medications or illegal drugs, illness -- the employer has the legal authority to take action," Meyer said. "But we aren't any safer when an employee relies on a urinalysis to determine whether someone is a hazard in the workplace."

The federal government's refusal to recognize medical marijuana is a key part of the problem, said Meyer. "If marijuana could be prescribed like any other controlled substance, I don't think employers would be suggesting it should be treated differently. The fact that the federal government proscribes it gives employers the excuse. What all this says is that we need to change the Controlled Substances Act and make medical marijuana available by prescription," she argued.

Barring that unlikely event, it will be up to the states to protect the employment rights of their medical marijuana patients. "The California Supreme Court decision is an ill omen," said ASA's Elford. "Every one of the medical marijuana states should pass legislation to protect patients, but I'm afraid that's not going to happen."

Drug Penalties: New York Governor Proposes Tax Stamps -- $200 a Gram for Cocaine

As part of a massive just unveiled state budget, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) is proposing to require anyone who buys, sells, transports, or possesses "all marijuana and controlled substances" to have a "tax stamp" for the illegal substance. Spitzer's provision proposes a $3.50 per gram tax on marijuana, but a whopping $200 per gram tax for cocaine.

Iowa drug tax assessment, submitted
anonymously by a Chronicle reader --
click to enlarge in separate window

Under the proposal, the tax would be paid in advance of purchase by the "dealer," who would buy stamps from the state Department of Taxation and Finance, which he must then affix to the packages of drugs to show the tax has been paid. In the foreseeable event that dealers do not rush down to the tax office to pay up, the bill requires state police agencies and prosecutors to report any dealers who haven't paid their drug taxes to the department, unless reporting them would jeopardize a pending criminal investigation.

The governor's office said the tax would generate $13 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year, and $17 million a year after that. The revenues would be deposited in the state general fund. To be enacted, the move must be approved by the legislature.

In a Wednesday press release, Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said he had his doubts about the bill. While Spitzer's proposal might be superficially appealing, New Yorkers would be better off taxing and regulating marijuana, he said.

While the idea of taxation is reasonable, he continued, "these tax stamp bills and laws smack of the gratuitous piling on of punitive sanctions that permeates the overall drug war." In addition to arrest and imprisonment, drug violators already face all sorts collateral consequences, and imposing the drug tax as yet another burden would "end up causing more harm than good," he said. Nadelman went on to point out that Spitzer could save far more money for New York taxpayers by following through on his campaign commitments regarding reform of the Rockefeller drug laws.

And he took the opportunity to push for fundamental reform of the marijuana laws. "[Q]uite frankly, New Yorkers would most benefit from a serious proposal to tax, control and regulate marijuana more or less like alcohol is today," he said. "Even though New York decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1970s, it still arrests people for that offense more frequently than most states that never decriminalized it. New Yorkers spend many tens of millions of dollars per year for this foolish excess, when instead the state could earn even greater amounts from taxing this ever popular consumer product. Overall consumption would likely rise only modestly given the widespread and easy availability of marijuana today notwithstanding its illegality. Virtually all New Yorkers -- both those who like marijuana and those who have no interest in it -- would benefit."

Bizarrely, Sen. Martin Golden, a former NYC police officer and a Republican from Brooklyn, criticized the drug tax from the opposite direction. Golden told the New York Post, "another pie-in-the-sky idea that really has no legitimacy, and hopefully is not a first step toward legalizing drugs."

Verenda Smith, government affairs associate at the Federation of Tax Administrators, told the New York Times that states need to create an at least theoretical opportunity for drug sellers to pay the tax legally, such as anonymous purchase, for it to be constitutional.

According to the Spitzer administration, 29 states have already passed laws imposing drug taxes. But several of those laws have been challenged, most recently in Tennessee, where a state appeals court ruled last September that the state's drug tax law was unconstitutional because the state cannot tax something it declares illegal.

Australia: In Desperate Pre-Election Move, Prime Minister Howard Says He Will Take Control of Drug Users' Welfare Payments

As his party appears headed for certain defeat in Saturday's national elections, Australian Prime Minister John Howard is once again playing the drug card. Howard announced late last week a plan to quarantine welfare payments to people convicted of drug crimes, but he isn't finding much support, even from the federal government's drug advisory body.

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good riddance (we hope) to the John Howard administration
Under Howard's "zero tolerance" drug policy, people convicted of drug offenses involving heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines would have 100% of their payments quarantined in a bid to prevent public funds from being spent for drugs. Some 6,000 drug offenders could be affected. Their welfare payments would be managed by nonprofit groups for a minimum of a year to ensure the money is spent on rent, food, and clothing.

"We take the view that it's not right that people should have control of taxpayer money when they have been convicted of such offenses," Howard said. "We are the zero-tolerance coalition when it comes to drugs," he added.

The Australian Medical Association, however, did not think seizing welfare payments from drug offenders was a good idea. "I haven't seen the details of this initiative but certainly punitive measures for drug addicts are not really the answer," said Dr. Rosanna Capolingua, president of the association. "People who have drug addictions actually need help, support and assistance," she told the Australia News.

The federal drug agency, the Australian National Council on Drugs, also expressed skepticism. The group's executive director, Gino Vumbaca, said the proposed policy created a risk that drug users would resort to crime to pay for their habits, and that what is really needed is more funding for treatment and rehabilitation.

"What we have to be careful of here is often there are good intentions for policy, but you have to look at potential or unintended consequences," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "What we don't want to do is make a policy change where we end up placing children or families at more risk or the community at more risk from levels of crime," he said. "Australia needs to dramatically introduce its access to treatment so that people with substance abuse can seek assistance."

Greens leader Bob Brown was harshly critical of the proposal, saying it targeted drug users, not traffickers. "This seems to be [going to] cut them off, leave them isolated, leave them more desperate," he said.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd, who appears well-placed to be the new prime minister, was more equivocal. He said he had not ruled out such a policy, but he questioned Howard's timing on the move. "I'll have a look at it. I always think these things should be treated on their merit," he said. "But I go back to the core proposition: if you're serious about a plan for the nation's future, then if you've been in office for 11 years, what is it that causes Mr. Howard to conclude that these plans could be taken seriously, when they're suddenly put out there, with only a few days to go?"

Prime Minister Howard has been a staunch drug warrior throughout his tenure. Even a mealy-mouthed Laborite like Rudd will doubtless be a great improvement.

Feature: Higher Education Act Drug Conviction Penalty Repeal Stymied As Democrats Choke -- Again

A step toward victory turned to ashes for the broad coalition pushing for repeal of the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision (also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty") last week as, for the second time this year, key Democratic politicians refused to push it ahead. Now, the only chance to achieve repeal this session will come in conference committee, thanks to a possible tactical error by the bill's author.

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Bobby Scott offers his short-lived HEA amendment this month
Earlier this year, language that would have removed the drug question from the federal financial aid form, but without repealing the underlying law, made it as far as the Senate floor as part of language approved by the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee for the years-delayed HEA reauthorization bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), however, offered a successful amendment to strip the language, which HELP Chairman Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) as floor manager allowed to go through without a fight. Last week, House Democrats led by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Committee on Education & Labor and a supporter of repeal, declined to hear an amendment to their HEA bill that would have enacted repeal.

The Aid Elimination Penalty bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for specified periods of time from their conviction dates. As originally written by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), it punished students for any infraction in their past. But last year, under pressure from a broad range of educational, religious, civil rights, and other groups organized into the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Souder amended his own law so that it now applies only to offenses committed while a student is in school and receiving aid.

Under the provision, more than 200,000 students have been denied financial aid. An unknown number have been deterred from even applying because they believed -- rightly or often wrongly -- that their drug convictions would bar them from receiving aid.

Instead of going for repeal, as key Democrats had promised, the committee heard and adopted two amendments to the provision by its author, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), which are actually seen by advocates as likely to be positive steps. One would require schools to inform enrolling students in writing about the existence of the penalty. Another would loosen a clause in the law that currently allows students to regain their eligibility for financial aid by completing a drug treatment program, by allowing them to just pass two randomly-scheduled drug tests administered by a treatment program.

The dispute over the Aid Elimination Penalty wasn't limited to Capitol Hill committee hearings. In a move to the blunt the efforts of the penalty's foes, Souder sent out a Dear Colleague letter where he accused the 500 groups that belong to CHEAR of being "drug legalizers," an attack that did not go unnoticed.

"I wanted to make you aware of an important provision in the current law that is facing assault by a small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups," Souder wrote in the November 1 letter. "Before you are bombarded by the talking points of such groups, I wanted to make sure everyone has the facts straight," he wrote.

Taking umbrage at Souder's characterization of their organizations, 16 groups responded with their own letter to Souder, asking him to retract his statement and requesting a meeting with him to explain directly why they oppose his law. "We, the undersigned organizations, would like to assure you that the coalition supporting repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty ranges far beyond 'drug-legalization groups,' said the letter. "Last week, over 160 organizations signed a letter to Education & Labor Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon calling for full repeal, bringing the total number of groups in opposition to the penalty to more than 500. These organizations represent a broad range of interests, including the areas of addiction treatment and recovery, civil rights, college administration and admissions, criminal justice, legal reform and faith leaders. The overwhelming majority of signatories of the letter to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon do not endorse drug legalization. As just a small sampling of such organizations, we, the undersigned, want to make clear that opposition to the [anti-drug provision] is not in any way dependent on support for broad drug legalization."

The signatories to the letter were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Coalition of Essential Schools, College Parents of America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Committee on National Legislation, International Nurses Society on Addictions, the National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, National Education Association, National Women's Health Network, National Youth Rights Association, Therapeutic Communities of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the United Methodist Church-General Board of Church and Society, and the United States Student Association."

Souder didn't respond to that letter, but he did lash out again, this time at the Capitol Hill newspaper The Politico, whose Ryan Grim had been writing about the conflict. In a letter published in the The Politico complaining about the coverage of him calling people drug legalizers, Souder resorted to the very same tactic. "Your readers ought to know that Grim was previously employed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a drug legalization group," Souder wrote. "Grim is hardly an objective reporter." However, he did not contest any of the facts Grim reported. Grim's biography, including his past employment, is available at The Politico's web site.

Souder has clearly shown himself to be a dogged defender of his creation. If only the Democrats had shown the same fortitude in fighting to repeal it, advocates complained. "It's disheartening that a huge chorus of experts in substance abuse and education, as well as tens of thousands of students are calling for repeal, and Congress still hasn't listened," said Tom Angell, director of government relations for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the point groups in the campaign.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, was less diplomatic. "By not changing this counterproductive policy, Democrats are saying that tens of thousands of students should be kicked out of college and denied an education," he said. "The American people have moved beyond the drug war hysteria of the 1980s, but many Democrats still don't realize this," said Piper. "They're afraid reforming draconian drug laws will make them look soft on crime, even though polling shows that voters are tired of punitive policies and want change." Democrats had "chickened out," he said.

In the House committee last week, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) spoke eloquently about the injustice of the HEA drug provision, but then withdrew his amendment to kill it, noting that the Chair was not prepared to hear amendments that would have financial implications.

"Denying students aid for drug-related charges is simply bad policy," said Scott. "It increases long-term costs to society. It unfairly targets poor and minority students -- minority students because they are traditionally profiled for drug offenses, and poor students because those are the ones that need financial aid to attend school. It only does drug offenses. It doesn't do anything against armed robbery, rape or arson. And so it's somewhat bizarre in its application and it creates a double jeopardy for students who have already paid their debt to society."

Scott then asked that a list of the more than 500 organizations supporting repeal be entered into the congressional record, and then he withdrew his motion. "Unfortunately, Mr. Chairman, as you've indicated, you're not considering amendments that would have to be scored financially and because of that, Mr. Chairman, I will withdraw this amendment at the end of the debate, because we do not have an offset."

Then, after Chairman Miller -- to advocates' consternation -- congratulated Souder for his persistence in scaling back the law, Souder introduced the pair of amendments mentioned above. "Without objection, both of these amendments will be accepted," Miller said, accepting them without having written copies before the members. "It's just a testimony to the extent to which we trust Mr. Souder's word here."

While activists are disheartened -- to put it mildly -- by the performance of the Democrats, they still see some faint hope for action later this session, and it could come because Souder, by introducing his amendments, will open the bill to discussion in conference committee. "Souder may have screwed up here," said SSDP's Angell. "Because the House version now has language modifying the penalty, that automatically makes it a topic for the conference committee."

While activists want outright repeal, they are pleased with this year's Souder amendments. "If Congressman Souder keeps working year after year to keep chipping away at his aid elimination penalty, he will end up doing our work for us," said Angell. "We encourage Souder in his continuing effort to scale back his own creation."

Full of It: Rep. Mark Souder Souder Gets Called on His Characterization of HEA Reform Supporters

In an effort to build support for retaining his pet project, the Higher Education Act's drug provision, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) sent a Dear Colleague letter around Capitol Hill. In that letter he accused the more than 500 academic, professional, religious, civil rights, addiction and recovery, and other organizations supporting the call to repeal the provision of all being drug legalizers.

While there's nothing wrong with being a "legalizer," the vast majority of those organizations do not fall into that category. Now, Souder is being called on it.

The drug provision, also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty," denies financial aid for specified periods to students with drug convictions. It originally applied to any drug conviction in the student's past, but with Souder's support -- perhaps in order to save it from a growing chorus of critics -- it was amended last year to apply only to offenses committed while a student enrolled in school.

With consideration of repealing the law pending in the House Education & Labor Committee, Souder sent a "Dear Colleague" letter reading:

"I wanted to make you aware of an important provision in the current law that is facing assault by a small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups," Souder wrote in the November 1 letter. "Before you are bombarded by the talking points of such groups, I wanted to make sure everyone has the facts straight," he wrote.

But some of the groups Souder called drug legalizers wanted to get the facts straight themselves. In their own letter to Souder, 16 of those organizations asked him to retract his statement and requested a meeting to explain to him directly why they oppose his law.

"We, the undersigned organizations, would like to assure you that the coalition supporting repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty ranges far beyond 'drug-legalization groups,' said the letter. "Last week, over 160 organizations signed a letter to Education & Labor Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon calling for full repeal, bringing the total number of groups in opposition to the penalty to more than 500. These organizations represent a broad range of interests, including the areas of addiction treatment and recovery, civil rights, college administration and admissions, criminal justice, legal reform and faith leaders. The overwhelming majority of signatories of the letter to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon do not endorse drug legalization. As just a small sampling of such organizations, we, the undersigned, want to make clear that opposition to the [anti-drug provision] is not in any way dependent on support for broad drug legalization."

The signatories to the letter were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Coalition of Essential Schools, College Parents of America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the International Nurses Society on Addictions, the National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, National Education Association, the National Women's Health Network, the National Youth Rights Association, Therapeutic Communities of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society, and the United States Student Association."

While some signatories and key organizers of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform might be called "legalizers," as the above list makes clear, you don't have to be a legalizer to understand the counterproductive impact of Souder's law.

News will be posted on DRCNet shortly about the outcome of amendments offered in the Ed/Labor Committee late Wednesday night.

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