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Court Finds Prosecutorial Misconduct Led to a Drug Conspiracy Conviction, But Lets 30-Year Sentence Stand Anyway [FEATURE]

This article is part 11 of Drug War Chronicle's occasional series on prosecutorial misconduct in drug cases written by investigative journalist Clarence Walker.

The federal prison in Gilmer, WV. Oscar Sosa's home for the next quarter-century, unless he wins on appeal. (BOP)
On October 7, 2016, a jury in Brownsville, Texas, convicted Oscar Sosa, then 32, of conspiracy to possess and possession with intent to distribute three kilos of methamphetamine. On April 24, 2017, Southern Texas Federal District Judge Andrew Hanen hammered Sosa with 30 years in federal prison followed by five years of supervised release.

Sosa appealed, claiming prosecutors committed three errors in the case, rendering the trial unfair. Sosa's appeal alleged the government erred when prosecutors improperly introduced drug profiling evidence by a DEA agent to connect their client into the conspiracy. Sosa also alleged that the prosecutor unfairly bolstered witnesses' purported credibility by indicating Sosa was part of the conspiracy, even though there were no tape-recorded conversations or written documents to prove with certainty that Sosa participated in the trafficking of illegal drugs, nor was he ever caught with any drugs.

With no drugs and no surveillance or documentary evidence, Sosa was in essence convicted by the testimony of cooperating witnesses who faced the possibility of life in prison on drug charges if they didn't help the prosecution. All three cooperating witnesses received prison sentences ranging from six to seven years each for their role in the dope deal.

When the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals took up his case, it found that prosecutorial misconduct had indeed occurred, but rejected his bid for a new trial because his federal defender had failed to object during his original trial.

"Today's outcome is the same as many of our prior decisions addressing drug profiling testimony and bolstering of witnesses' testimony," the court held in its July 25, 2018, ruling. "We find the government engaged in misconduct but nonetheless the court concludes the defendant cannot meet the heavy burden of obtaining reversal for error that he did not object to during trial."

And the court implicitly chided prosecutors more interested in winning than in justice. "If the ultimate end of prosecution is securing convictions it may not be surprising this trend has not deterred improper trial tactics," the court noted.

"It leaves a bad taste to know Oscar Sosa will spend the next 30 years in prison because his defense attorney failed to object to the prosecutorial misconduct," said attorney John T. Floyd, a Harris County Texas federal and state law criminal defense attorney.

"So when a lawyer fails to object it's likely harmless error because over the years the US Supreme Court has watered down all of the amendments in favor of the government," said criminal law veteran Cheryl Irvin, who has tried numerous drug cases including drug related murders.

Although concessions that prosecutorial misconduct unfairly influenced the jury should have resulted in the appeals court granting Sosa a new trial, the appellate jurists -- Justices James Yue-Ho, Gregg Costa and Jennifer Walker Elrod -- made it clear why Sosa's conviction wasn't overturned: "Troubled as we are by the continued use of these improper tactics we do not find that Sosa has met his burden of showing that the errors substantially affected the outcome of the trial," they wrote.

In other words, while prosecutors' conduct in the case was wrong, it wasn't wrong enough to win him a new trial.

Conspiracy dope cases in the federal courts under the statute (21 U.S.C. 846) are inherently dangerous for an individual accused of complicity with other defendants, especially when the evidence is considerably circumstantial and undeniably weak.

To prove a federal drug conspiracy charge the prosecutor must prove:

  • Two or more people conspired to commit an illegal act.
  • A person(s) intentionally or knowingly participated in the conspiracy.
  • A person(s) acted beyond the initial agreement in furtherance of carrying out the crime.

Thus, someone can be prosecuted and convicted in a drug conspiracy case even if he is never caught with drugs in his possession. This is known as a "dry conspiracy."

Dry conspiracies usually start off with one or more individuals who got caught with drugs by police. They then decide to cooperate with the feds, giving up the names of others allegedly involved in the conspiracy in return for much lighter sentences. They will also provide inside information on drug offenses committed, such as how money was laundered, how much drug weight was trafficked, and how much money was paid to couriers, among other things.

Oscar Sosa went down in a dry conspiracy. No drugs, no hard evidence, just the word of cooperating witnesses was enough to put him away -- that and prosecutorial misconduct and a pinch of public defender neglect. After Sosa got slammed with 30 years, his new court-appointed attorney filed an appeal alleging that Assistant US Attorneys Karen Betancourt and Jody Young, committed serious misconduct that should be grounds for the conviction to be reversed.

Going After Sosa

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/oscar-sosa.jpg
Oscar Sosa (Facebook)
The case against Sosa unfolded after DEA agents and sheriff's deputies arrested two drug couriers, Juan Sarmiento and Jose Galvan, while carrying three kilos of meth at a bus station in Harlingen, Texas. When confronted by agents acting on a tip, the pair consented to be searched, and the lawmen found six bundles of meth sewn into Sarmiento's jacket lining and four more in Galvan's pockets.

DEA agents received a tip about the men headed to a gas station which also served as a bus stop. When law enforcement officers confronted Sarmiento and Galvan they panicked and gave officers consent to search them and their luggage, whereupon the lawmen discovered six bundles of crystal meth sewn into Sarmiento's jacket lining. Four more bundles were found in Galvan's pockets.

During questioning the men gave agents conflicting statements about the origin of the drugs. Eventually, though, the men admitted they'd planned to take the meth to a man named 'Oscar' in Plant City, Florida. The men also identified two women "Betty and Patti" as the owner or managers of the narcotics they were carrying.

DEA later identified the women as Mexican nationals Patricia Sosa and Bertha Sosa. Patricia allegedly was either Oscar's aunt or mother and Bertha was an aunt or cousin. Also implicated and charged in the scheme was Genaro Luera, who was also identified as a possible in-law relative connected to Patricia and Bertha.

On appeal, Sosa's attorney identified three examples of prosecutorial misconduct, arguing that the cumulative effect of the errors should cause the conviction to be overturned. While the 5th Circuit jurists agreed that the prosecution erred, it refused to annul the verdict.

"The first error is when the government introduced impermissible profiling testimony by having a DEA expert witness not only describe typical aspects and behavior of a drug trafficking organization, but, also tell the jury where Sosa fit into that structure," the court noted, citing U.S. vs Gonzalez-Rodriguez (621 F. 3d 354), to explain the problem with the profiling testimony.

Here's the exchange between the prosecutor and the DEA agent that unfairly used profiling to bolster the case that Sosa was a drug dealer:

Prosecutor: "When you're looking at (Sosa's records) and you're not finding any assets in Mr. Sosa's name, is that somehow strange he doesn't have any assets in his name, that tells me what?

DEA Agent Jason Bradford: "Yes, we consider that conduct common of drug traffickers.

Prosecutor: "And why is that?"

DEA Agent Bradford: "Because they don't want to leave a trail for their assets."

The appeals court found that the prosecutor erred by eliciting that testimony from the DEA agent. While Sosa had no property or assets in his name, that didn't make him a drug dealer, and it was up to the jury -- not the prosecutor and the DEA agent -- to make that determination.

"When stated in general terms, such testimony may help the jury understand the significance and implications of certain conduct," the court held. "But the ultimate responsibility of linking a defendant's conduct with the characteristics of drug trafficking must be left to the jury."

Sosa's second ground for appeal was that prosecutors committed error by stating in open court that the witnesses' testimony had already been determined to be true, or, worse yet, that they falsely alleged that the judge in the case has concluded the witnesses' testimony was truthful.

The appeals court agreed with that claim, too: "Sosa's claim the government improperly bolstered the credibility of the cooperating witnesses (Sarmiento and Galvan) has merits," it held, citing US vs Gracia (522 F. 3d 597).

In that case, the appellate judges reversed Gracia's conviction for possession of 50 kilos of cocaine based on the prosecutor's bolstering of the witness's testimony. The appeals court pointed out how the prosecutor told the jury that the agents in the case were "very, very credible witnesses" and went far as to ask the jury if they thought an agent, a man with a family, would lie under oath to convict Gracia.

"A personal assertion by a prosecutor of government witnesses' credibility is impermissible," the 5th Circuit explained. "Improper bolstering occurred" in Sosa's case, the judges agreed, when the prosecutor claimed the judge's stamp of approval of the witnesses' credibility.

Credibility of a witness's testimony must always be determined by the jury, and it is not the prosecutor's position that the judge declared such testimony by the cooperating witnesses to be true.

Despite these grave errors, Sosa's attorney, Raquel Munoz, failed to object and have the errors corrected and preserved for appeal.

5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod dissented, arguing prosecutorial misconduct must be punished.
Sosa's third appellate issue argued that a confrontation clause violation occurred when DEA agent Jason Bradford mentioned a tip implicating Patricia Sosa, Sosa's mother or aunt. Prosecutor asked Bradford how DEA determined Patricia Sosa was involved in dealing drugs from Mexico.

Bradford explained how he received an Automated Alert about other agents that were investigating the woman. Bradford further said a Houston undercover agent confirmed Patricia Sosa had sought to find couriers to transport drugs from Mexico into the Houston area. The 5th Circuit ruled against Sosa on this point by stating the tip about Patricia Sosa was something the jury already knew about. "As a result, there was no clear confrontation violation," the justices concluded.

The appeals court found two clear instances of prosecutorial misconduct in Sosa's case, but found that because his defense attorney failed to object in a timely fashion, his conviction should stand, in effect condoning the behavior.

5th Circuit Justice Jennifer Walker disagreed. "I do not condone prosecutorial misconduct here," she wrote in her dissent. "And as the Supreme Court suggested, we should continue to discourage it."

The next step for Oscar Sosa to possibly get a crack at a new trial is to petition for one at the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile, he remains behind bars at FCI Gilmer Unit in West Virginia with more than 25 years to go.

Reach Investigative Criminal Justice Journalist Clarence Walker at [email protected]

Chronicle AM: Opioid Maker Ordered to Pay $572 Million, Purdue Pharma Offers Billions to Settle, More... (8/27/19)

Big Pharma companies that deal in opoids are taking a hit, California moves to get rid of a vestige of the dope squad days, and more.

Purdue Pharma is offering to settle thousands of claims arguing that it jumpstarted the nation's opioid crisis.
Drug Policy

California Senate Passes Bill to End State Narcotics Registry. The state Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to approve AB 1261, which would abolish the state's narcotics registry. A vestige of dope squad days, the registry was a requirement that anyone convicted of a drug felony, including marijuana cultivation, register with their county sheriff for five years after release. The measure has already passed the Assembly but has to go back for a final vote after changes were made in the Senate.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Oklahoma Judge Finds Johnson & Johnson Liable for Opioid Epidemic. In the first of more than a thousand lawsuits against Big Pharma over its role in the opioid epidemic to be settled, a district court judge ruled Monday that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries helped fuel the state's opioid crisis and ordered the company to pay a whopping $572 million. "The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma," Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said before announcing the judgment. "It must be abated immediately." Johnson & Johnson said it planned to appeal.

Purdue Pharma Offers to Settle Opioid Lawsuits for $10-12 Billion. Purdue Pharma, the makers of Oxycontin, and its owners, the Sackler family, have offered to settle more than 2,000 lawsuits pending against the company for $10 to $12 billion. The lawsuits, brought by states, cities, and counties, allege that the company and the Sacklers are liable for starting and sustaining the opioid crisis. They maintain that the company's sales practices were deceptive and at least partly responsible for the opioid crisis. In a statement, the company said: "While Purdue Pharma is prepared to defend itself vigorously in the opioid litigation, the company has made clear that it sees little good coming from years of wasteful litigation and appeals. The people and communities affected by the opioid crisis need help now. Purdue believes a constructive global resolution is the best path forward, and the company is actively working with the state attorneys general and other plaintiffs to achieve this outcome."

Kratom

Michigan Bill Would Require a Prescription for Kratom. A Republican state senator has filed a bill that would require kratom users to get a prescription for the herbal supplement. Sen. John Bizon (R-Battle Creek) filed SB 433, calling kratom "dangerous and addictive" in a news release. He also cited "an alarming increase recently in the number of deaths from this relatively unknown drug," but in almost all cases of fatal overdoses involving kratom, other drugs were present, making it difficult to determine kratom's role -- if any -- in those deaths.

Chronicle AM: Bernie Sanders Would Legalize Marijuana by Executive Order, CDC Says More Naloxone, More... (8/8/19)

That New Jersey legalization bill may yet rise from the dead, the CDC wants more naloxone access in rural areas, Ohio's largest city just quit prosecuting small-time pot busts, Bernie Sanders vows to use an executive order to federally legalize marijuana, and more.

Bernie Sanders stays in the marijuana legalization vanguard. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Bernie Sanders Says He Will Legalize Marijuana Via Executive Order. If elected president, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) will legalize marijuana by executive order, he told podcast host Joe Rogan in a recent interview. "When I ran for president for the Democratic nomination in 2016, I talked about a broken criminal justice system, which ends up having in the United States more people in jail than any other country," Sanders said. "And what I call for then, and I call for now, is the legalization of marijuana in America." It sounds like he wants to modify the Controlled Substances Act, which puts marijuana in the same category as heroin. "That is insane. Heroin is a killer drug," he said on the episode. "You can argue the plusses and minuses of marijuana, but marijuana ain't heroin. So we have to end that and that's what I will do as President of the United States. I believe we can do that through executive order and I will do that."

New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Effort May Come Back at Year's End. Although lawmakers gave up on trying to get a legalization bill passed three months ago, with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) saying it would likely be up to the state's voters at the 2020 election, Sweeney was singing a slightly different tune this week. "I'm not going to give up trying," he said. "I would love to do it. We'll make one more run at it."

Ohio's Largest City Quits Prosecuting Misdemeanor Marijuana Cases. Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein said Wednesday his office will no longer prosecute misdemeanor possession charges because current drug tests make it difficult to determine the exact amount of THC in the samples. This is a direct result of the legislature passing a law that legalizes hemp and CBD. Field drug tests cannot differentiate between hemp and recreational marijuana.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

CDC Says Naloxone Not Getting Where Most Needed. In a new report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said prescriptions for the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone doubled from 2017 to 2018, but rural counties, which are often hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, were far less likely to dispense the drug. The CDC is asking doctors and pharmacists to allow more access to the drug. "Efforts to improve naloxone access and distribution work most effectively with efforts to improve opioid prescribing, implement other harm-reduction strategies, promote linkage to medications for opioid use disorder treatment, and enhance public health and public safety partnerships," the CDC said.

Search and Seizure

Pennsylvania Court Rules Smell of Marijuana Doesn't Justify Car Search. Pennsylvania is a medical marijuana state and thus police cannot use the smell of marijuana as probable cause to search a vehicle once the suspect has showed proof he is a medical marijuana patients, a Lehigh County judge ruled last week. It was "illogical, impractical, and unreasonable" for police to suspect illegal activity once the medical marijuana card was produced, he said. "Pennsylvania legislators did not contemplate that people with legal medical marijuana cards would be arrested and prosecuted for possession of marijuana in a package that is not clearly marked with a dispensary name on it. Such actions are merely means of hampering the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes," the judge wrote as he threw out the marijuana charge.

International

British Columbia Nurses Endorse Drug Decriminalization. British Columbia nurses collectively called for the province to save lives by decriminalizing drug possession. "[We] call on the B.C. government to take immediate steps to move toward the decriminalization of people who use drugs," reads a statement issued Thursday by the Nurses and Nurse Practitioners of British Columbia (NNPBC), a professional organization with more than 3,800 members, and the Harm Reduction Nurses Association (HRNA), a national organization with members across Canada. "As nurses who work in B.C. and provide frontline care in the midst of this public health emergency, we see firsthand the impact of criminalization on our clients, on their families, on our practice and our communities," it continues. "As nurses, we see decriminalization as an essential step to remove barriers to care and support, reduce stigma and discrimination, improve health and socioeconomic outcomes, and work toward a more just and compassionate society."

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: MJ Banking Headed for House Vote, UN Experts Call for Philippines Probe, More... (6/10/19)

The full House could soon get its first chance to vote on a marijuana banking bill, New Yorkers still want to legalize marijuana, a group of UN human rights experts calls for a probe into the Philippine drug war, and more.

Phillipines President Durterte's bloody drug war is drawing renewed human rights concerns. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Bipartisan Marijuana Banking Bill Quietly Advances in House as Floor Vote Approaches. The SAFE Banking Act, HR 1595, now has an open path to a House floor vote after the House Financial Services Committee, which earlier approved the bill, issued a formal report on the legislation last week. The bill was then set to go before the House Judiciary Committee, but that panel opted to advance it last week without a report, in order to clear the path to a House floor vote.

New York Poll Has Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization. With the clock ticking down on lawmakers in Albany, a new Sienna poll could give some added momentum to the push to legalize marijuana this session. The poll had support at 55%, with 40% opposed, mirroring myriad other recent polls.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Governor Signs Bill Lowering Patient Card Costs. Gov. Doug Ducey (R) last Friday signed into law Senate Bill 1494, which will cut the cost of a medical marijuana patient card in half by making patients pay the $150 fee once every two years instead of once a year. The bill also requires medical marijuana facilities to test their products.

International

Colombian Constitutional Court Throws Out President's Ban on Public Pot Smoking, Drinking. The Constitutional Court has overruled a ban on public alcohol and marijuana consumption favored by President Ivan Duque as part of his hardline anti-drug policies. Under the ruling, police can no longer confiscate drugs considered to be for personal consumption, and people are again allowed to smoke pot and drink beer in public. But Duque appears to be ready to disobey the court, saying police would continue to confiscate drugs and impose penalties on people carrying or using drugs in public spaces. This isn't over.

UN Experts Call for Human Rights Probe of Philippines Drug War. A group of 11 United Nations human rights experts called Friday for the UN's Human Rights Council to start an independent probe into rights violations in the Philippines, including illegal killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody crackdown on drugs. "We have recorded a staggering number of unlawful deaths and police killings in the context of the so-called war on drugs, as well as killings of human rights defenders," they said in a statement. "We are extremely concerned over the high number of killings which are being carried out across the country in an apparent climate of official, institutional impunity," they added. To actually get the inquiry going would require a resolution supported by a majority of the council's 47 members.

Chronicle AM: AZ High Court Rules Hash is Marijuana (Doh!), IA Governor Vetos MMJ Bill, More... (5/28/19)

It's a busy drug policy week in Colorado, New York lawmakers try a last ditch bid to legalize marijuana this session, Arizona's high court rules that hash is a form of marijuana, and more.

Hashish. Arizona's Supreme Court has clarified that hash is a form of marijuana and patients can use it. (DEA)
Marijuana Policy

New York Lawmakers File New Marijuana Legalization Bill. With only three weeks to go before the session ends, a group of senators last Friday unveiled SB 1527A, which would legalize marijuana. The bill merges the progressive Marijuana Regulation and Tax Act (MRTA), which has been filed repeatedly since 2013, with legislation that is backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) but which failed to get passed as part of the budget.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Supreme Court Rules Hash Is Medical Marijuana. The state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that registered medical marijuana patients can use hashish without fear of legal consequence. The ruling comes in the case of a Phoenix man who was arrested with a tiny amount of hash and sentenced to two years in prison. An appeals court had ruled against him, but here's what the Supreme Court said: "We hold that the definition of marijuana in § 36-2801(8) includes resin, and by extension hashish, and that § 36-2811(B)(1) immunizes the use of such marijuana consistent with AMMA. We reverse the trial court's ruling denying Jones's motion to dismiss, vacate the court of appeals' opinion, and vacate Jones's convictions and sentences."

Iowa Governor Vetoes Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) last Friday vetoed a medical marijuana expansion bill, HF 732. The bill would have removed the 3% cap on THC and replaced it with a 25-gram limit per patient every 90 days. Reynolds said she vetoed the proposal because the cap of 25 grams over 90 days would allow an individual to consume more THC per day even than a recreational marijuana user. "If approved, it would drastically expand Iowa's medical CBD program far beyond its original scope of CBD-based treatments and could open the door to significant unintended consequences to the health and safety of Iowans," Reynolds said in a statement.

Missouri Medical Marijuana Rules Finalized. The state Department of Health and Human Services posted a list of 11 regulations for the medical marijuana industry on its web site. The revised rules will be implemented starting next week. Under an initiative passed by voters last fall, the state is required to license 60 growing facilities, 86 manufacturers and 192 dispensaries, 24 for each of the state's eight congressional districts.

Collateral Consequences

West Virginia Ban on Food Stamps for Drug Felons Ends. A law that would exempt the state from federal law prohibiting people with felony drug convictions from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits has now gone into effect. Only people whose drug convictions resulted in injury or death to another will remain banned from the program. West Virginia becomes the 48th state to authorize an exemption from the federal law.

Search and Seizure

Colorado Supreme Court Rules Drug Dog Sniffs are a Search. The state Supreme Court ruled last week that a sniff of a car by a police drug dog constitutes a search. The case was originally about whether a drug dog trained to recognize marijuana alerting on a car would constitute grounds for a search, but the court went beyond that question, ruling that any drug dog sniff is a search, meaning police would have to have probable cause to even do the drug sniff. "The dog's sniff arguably intrudes on a person's reasonable expectation of privacy in lawful activity," Justice William Hood wrote in the majority's ruling. "If so, that intrusion must be justified by some degree of particularized suspicion of criminal activity."

Pill Testing

Colorado Governor Signs Bill Saying Pill-Testing Kits are Not Drug Paraphernalia. As part of a package of bills aimed at easing the opioid crisis, Gov Jared Polis (D) has signed into law SB19-227, which amends state law to exclude testing kits used to identify controlled substances from being considered drug paraphernalia.

Sentencing Policy

Colorado Governor Signs Bill Making Most Drug Possession Felonies Misdemeanors. Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed a major drug policy reform bill into law Tuesday aimed at prioritizing treatment over incarceration and alleviating overcrowding in state prisons. HB19-1263 lowers the penalty for most low-level drug possession offenses from a felony to a misdemeanor beginning in March 2020, and it dedicates funds to substance abuse treatment services and diversion programs. Currently, possession of any amount of a schedule I or II drug is classified as a level 4 drug felony, which is punishable by six to 12 months in prison. After HB19-1263 takes effect, possession of up to four grams of a schedule I or II drug will be classified as a level 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and up to two years of probation. The punishment increases to up to 364 days in jail for a third offense, and a fourth or subsequent offense would be a level 4 drug felony. The legislation applies the same penalty reductions to possession of more than 12 ounces of marijuana or more than three ounces of marijuana concentrate. It does not make any changes related to drug distribution offenses.

Chronicle AM: CA Cities Sue State Over Pot Deliveries, Fed Bill Targets Chinese Fentanyl, More... (4/8/19)

A Hawaii decriminalization bill nears passage, some California cities are suing the state over being forced to allow marijuana deliveries, the 3rd Circuit clarifies the law on intent to distribute, and more.

A bipartisan federal bill targeting Chinese fentanyl production has been filed. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Cities That Restrict Marijuana Sales Sue State Over Allowing Deliveries. Twenty-four cities that ban legal marijuana sales filed suit against the state last Thursday, arguing that allowing home deliveries in those locales violates the state's marijuana laws. The lawsuit comes after the California Bureau of Cannabis Control adopted a rule in January that permits state-licensed companies to deliver marijuana in cities that ban pot shops.

Florida Legalization Bill Killed. A bill that would have legalized marijuana in the Sunshine State is dead. HB 1117, filed by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) was killed in the House Judiciary Committee, where, he said, "It got no hearing, no debate, no vote. Just like they always do."

Hawaii Senate Committee Approves Decriminalization Bill. The Senate Ways and Means Committee has approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to three grams of marijuana, HB 1383. The bill has already passed out of the House and two other Senate committees and now heads for a Senate floor vote. If it passes there, it will then go to a conference committee to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.

North Dakota Legalization Initiative Organizers to Try Again in 2020. Legalize ND, the folks behind the failed 2018 legalization initiative, will be back in 2020, the group said last Thursday. Organizers said they hoped to have initiative language in place by mid-summer. The new measure will include possession limits, growing limits, taxes on sales, banning of edible gummies, packaging and licensing requirements and wouldn't allow any type of advertising of products.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Governor Signs Omnibus Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has signed SB 406 into law. The bill makes broad changes in the state's medical marijuana program, including allowing medical marijuana in schools and allowing licensed manufacturers to process home-grown marijuana. And it allows for reciprocity with other medical marijuana states and protects workers who are medical marijuana patients.

Prosecution

Third Circuit Tosses Heroin Dealer's Conviction, Clarifies Law on Intent to Distribute. The US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has thrown out the conviction of a heroin dealer, ruling that a conviction for intent to distribute 1,000 grams or more of heroin must be based on evidence that the defendant possessed or distributed that quantity at a single time and not based on adding up several smaller possessions and distributions during the indictment period.

Foreign Policy

Bipartisan Bill Targets China Over Fentanyl. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) led a bipartisan group of senators in filing a bill that would slap sanctions on China if it fails to live up to its recent promise to regulate fentanyl as a controlled substance. The Fentanyl Sanctions Act allots $600 million to law enforcement and intelligence officials to identify producers and traffickers of the drug and would block access to US markets for Chinese chemical and pharmaceutical companies if they are caught producing the drug.

Chronicle AM: Drug Czar's Office Shuttered in Shutdown, DC Full Pot Legalization Bill Filed, More... (1/9/19)

The federal government shutdown shutters the drug czar's office, Trump again mischaracterizes the nature of border drug smuggling, New Jersey's highest court lends a hand to drug court graduates seeking expungement, and more.

closed down in the shutdown
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Lawmaker Files Expungement Bill. Rep Renny Cushing (D) has filed a bill, HB 399, that would let people with convictions for possessing less than three-fourths of an ounce of weed before September 2017 have their records cleared. That date is when the state law decriminalizing pot possession went into effect.

DC Lawmaker Files Full Legalization Bill. Councilmember David Grosso (I) has reintroduced the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act, which would allow the city to establish a system of retail marijuana sales. Such a move has been blocked by House Republicans, and its prospects this year remain uncertain, but Grosso is moving ahead anyway.

Medical Marijuana

New Hampshire Lawmaker Files Pair of Medical Marijuana Bills. Rep. Renny Cushing (D) has filed two bills related to medical marijuana. HB 366 would add opioid addiction as a qualifying condition, while HB 364 would allow patients and caregivers to grow their own medicine.

Asset Forfeiture

North Dakota Lawmaker Files Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck) has filed House Bill 1286, which would end civil asset forfeiture in the state. He filed a similar bill in 2017 that passed the House, but got zero votes in the Senate after it was opposed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who remains in office but has refused so far to comment on this year's bill.

Drug Policy

Trump Once Again Misstates How Drugs Cross the Border With Mexico. In his oval office speech Tuesday night making his case for a border wall, President Trump once again mischaracterized the nature of drug smuggling across the Mexican border. While he was correct in stating that the vast majority of drugs coming into the country come through Mexico, his own DEA reported in November that "only a small percentage" of heroin and other drugs comes through areas outside of ports of entry.

Federal Government Shutdown Shutters Drug Czar's Office. Among the casualties of the shutdown is the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office). If the shutdown continues up to the end of the month, funding for important grant programs involving law enforcement and prevention could be jeopardized.

Expungement

New Jersey Supreme Court Eases Requirements for Drug Court Graduates. The state Supreme Court ruled 7-0 Tuesday that drug offenders who have successfully completed a court-ordered treatment program do not have to prove that expunging their criminal records of those offenses is in the public interest. Instead, the high court ruled, the burden to demonstrate that the public interest requirement was not met should fall on the state. "In light of the rigorous monitoring that is the hallmark of drug court, as well as the new law's overall policy in favor of expungement for successful graduates, we find that participants are entitled to a rebuttable presumption that expungement is consistent with the public interest," the court held.

Chronicle AM: NH Legal Pot Push Begins, Russia Plans for Poppies, More... (12/31/18)

Marijuana bills aimed at the new year begin popping up, Pennsylvania's highest court rules for pregnant drug users, Russia ponders its own poppy crop, and more.

Citing sanctions from the West, Russia is moving to grow its own medicinal poppy crops. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Legalization Bill Ready to File. A group of state lawmakers have agreed on language for a bill that would allow for legal marijuana commerce and let adults possess up to an ounce of weed and grow up to six plants. The bill has not yet been formally filed. Legalization efforts in previous years have been thwarted in the Republican-dominated legislature, but Democrats retook control in the November elections, Still, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has vowed to veto any legalization bill that reaches his desk.

Virginia Decriminalization Bill Ready to Go. When the legislature convenes next week, it will have a decriminalization bill waiting for it. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) has pre-filed SB 997, which would decriminalize the possession of up to a quarter-ounce of weed and provide for a maximum $50 civil penalty. Under current state law, getting caught with a joint carries a jail sentence of up to 30 days and a $500 fine. Similar bills have been filed in previous sessions, but never made it out of committee.

Pregnancy

Pennsylvania High Court Rules Drug-Using Pregnant Women Can't Be Charged With Child Abuse Under State Child Protection Law. In an opinion issued last Friday, the state Supreme Court held that the state's child protection law does not apply to pregnant women. The court ruled that the law doesn't include fetuses or unborn children and said victims protected by the law must be children.

International

Russia Moves Towards Allowing Medicinal Opium Crops. The Russian government last week approved a draft bill that would allow the country to produce medicinal opium crops. Government officials said the bill was needed to reduce its dependence on foreign countries that supply raw opium to government factories because some of those countries have imposed sanctions on the country. "In order not to leave our population without strong painkillers, we must be self-sufficient," health minister Veronika Skvortsova told reporters. "We need to produce drugs in a full cycle -- from substances to their medicinal form." The bill still needs to be approved by parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

Thai Government Approves Medical Marijuana, Kratom. The Thai ruling junta last week approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana, becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to do so. The bill also regularizes the status of kratom, which comes from there. The bill becomes law once it is approved by the monarchy.

Chronicle AM: First Step Act Fight Continues, MI Gets Legal Marijuana December 6, More... (11/28/18)

Senate Republicans are trying to find a way to keep the First Step Act alive, marijuana use and possession becomes legal in Michigan next week, and more.

Will the First Step Act get a Senate vote this year? And if it does, will it pass? Stay tuned. (ussc.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Marijuana Legalization Goes into Effect December 6. As of a week from tomorrow, it will be legal to possess and use small amounts of marijuana. But it will probably take until sometime in 2020 for pot shops to open for business. The state says it will start taking business applications late in 2019.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan Unlicensed Dispensaries Can Stay Open Until Year's End. Medical marijuana dispensaries will be able to continue operating until at least December 31 as they await state licenses, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation announced Tuesday. Some 40 dispensaries have received state licenses so far; another 98 await licenses.

Psychedelics

Oregon Attorney General Approves Psilocybin Ballot Measure Language. An initiative that would allow licensed medical professionals to administer psilocybin for therapeutic purposes has had its ballot language approved. The next step is signature-gathering to get the measure on the 2020 ballot. The measure will need 140,000 valid voter signatures to qualify.

Drug Treatment

Massachusetts Federal Court Judge Orders Jail to Provide Methadone. A federal court in Massachusetts granted a preliminary injunction this week, requiring that the plaintiff in the case be provided continued access to methadone treatment for his opioid use disorder while incarcerated. The ruling requires a jail in Essex County to provide medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to a man who is about to be sentenced for conduct that occurred two years ago, before he first started his recovery. The court held that the plaintiff is likely to succeed on his claim that the jail's refusal to provide methadone treatment violates both the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.

Sentencing Reform

Senate Republicans Seek Way to Get Sentencing Reform Bill Moving Again. Senate Republicans are pondering changing the First Step Act (S.2795) to make it more palatable for some conservatives, but which could blow up the bipartisan compromise that supports the bill as is. Some of the changes being discussed include tightening the safety valve provision, getting tougher on fentanyl offenders, and backing away from an ending the "stacking" regulation, which adds more time to sentences of people convicted of drug offenses while possessing a firearm. President Trump, meanwhile, continues to push Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to bring the bill to a Senate vote.

Medical Marijuana Update

A Pennsylvania patient challenges the federal gun ban, an Ohio court has thrown out the state's law requiring racial justice in licensing, and more.

Indiana

Indiana Poll Finds Strong Support for Medical Marijuana. Even in red-state Indiana, they like their medical marijuana, a new poll finds. The poll from Ball State University finds that 81% of Hoosiers believe marijuana should be legal for medical reasons. The poll had support for full legalization at only 39%.

Kansas

Kansas Governor-Elect Supports Medical Marijuana. Laura Kelly, the Democrat who won a surprise victory in conservative Kansas, is ready to take the state down the path toward legal medical marijuana. "I think that there is some momentum in the legislature to pass, to legalize medical marijuana," she said. "I think we would do it Kansas-style, where it would be well-regulated. With a supporter in the governor's mansion, legislators no longer have to worry about coming up with supermajorities to overcome a gubernatorial veto."

Ohio

Ohio Court Rules Racial Justice Requirement for Grow Licenses Unconstitutional. An Ohio district court has ruled unconstitutional the state's "racial quota" for selecting medical marijuana business licenses. The state's medical marijuana law requires 15% of all licenses to be awarded to businesses owned by racial minorities, and the state awarded two of 12 available licenses to minority-owned firms even though they scored lower than other applicants. One of the applicants who did not get a license sued. The ruling could prompt the state to award a provisional license to the plaintiff in order to make the case go away.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Doctor and Medical Marijuana Patient Sues for Right to Own a Gun. A Philadelphia physician who is also a medical marijuana patient filed a lawsuit in federal court last Thursday challenging a federal law that prevents him from owning a firearm because he uses medical marijuana. Dr. Matthew Roman was blocked from buying a gun earlier this year when he honestly answered a question about marijuana use. Roman's lawsuit claims that the blanket prohibition against marijuana users violates the constitutional rights of tens of thousands of nonviolent, law-abiding American citizens. The filing, in US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, claims the law violates both the Second and Fifth Amendments of the Constitution.

Utah

Utah Medical Marijuana Backers Threaten to Sue Over Mormon Church Involvement in Bill to Replace Prop 2. Medical marijuana supporters said last Thursday they are exploring legal action to challenge the legislature's move to replace the voter-approved Prop 2 medical marijuana initiative "at the behest" of the Mormon Church. Even though voters approved Prop 2 this month, lawmakers plan to meet in a December special sessions to replace the measure with a proposal more acceptable to opponents, including the church. "Although initiative statutes may be amended or repealed by the Legislature, the almost immediate extreme undermining of numerous provisions of Proposition 2 at the behest of The Church of Jesus Christ is anti-democratic and contemptuous of the... recognition in the Utah Constitution that the people are to have the power to enact legislative changes," attorney Rocky Anderson, former Salt Lake City mayor, wrote.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

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