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Drug Treatment: Idaho Senate Overrides Governor's Funding Increase Veto, Battle Continues

The Idaho Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to override a gubernatorial veto of a bill that would have increased funding for drug treatment and prevention programs. Now, the House must vote to override by a similar "supermajority" to complete the restoration of funding against the wishes of Republican Gov. Butch Otter.

Last week, Otter vetoed line items in two bills that would have provided $16.8 million for Idaho substance abuse programs. The Senate override vote on SB 1458 restores $2.4 million in supplemental funding. But Otter also vetoed $14.4 million in treatment funding for the coming year in HB 608.

The twin vetoes would cut in half the funding for drug courts and treatment for probationers and parolees, as well as some community-based treatment programs. The tussle at the statehouse is the latest round in fighting over how best to continue a three-year, $21 million dollar anti-drug effort originally funded by a federal grant. The federal money ran out last year, and lawmakers replaced it with state funds. Otter complained that the programs were unproven and had been expanded beyond their original scope.

But the state Senate seemed determined to do something other than just pay for more prison cells, and for several senators, Idaho's drug war has hit close to home. "I don't believe there is a family represented in this body who has not been affected by drugs or alcohol or mental health problems at some point," said Sen. Chuck Coiner (R-Twin Falls) in remarks reported by The New West magazine.

Sen. Brent Hill (R-Rexburg), also speaking in support of the override, told of a family member "almost ruined" by methamphetamine. "Her teeth rotted right out of her head," he told his colleagues.

Sen. Lee Heinrich (R-Cascade) said his son had spent two and a half years in prison on drug-related charges. "He could have benefited from this program... I know what these drug-related things can do to families," he added, but then said he would vote against the override because he wasn't sure "we've looked at all the alternatives."

But it was Sen. Dean Cameron (R-Rupert) who was perhaps most perceptive, speaking of a "paradigm shift" among his conservative colleagues. "Doesn't it seem smart to get on the front end of these decisions? Doesn't it seem smart to try to affect them before they become incarcerated, so they don't offend in the first place?" he asked. "Cells alone are not the answer."

At mid-week, the governor was signaling he still sought compromise. "The governor has consistently indicated that he was willing to discuss this issue and reach a compromise as he has on other important issues," he said in a Wednesday statement. But the size of the increase in treatment spending "could not be justified in a year when we are asking so many others agencies, not to mention state workers, to do with less."

Now, the ball is in the House's court.

They Won't Give Up -- Alaska Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument in State's Bid to Overturn Legal Marijuana At Home

For more than 30 years, Alaska's courts have held that the state constitution's privacy protections barred the state from criminalizing adults possessing and consuming small amounts of marijuana in the privacy of their homes. Although voters passed an initiative recriminalizing marijuana in 1991 and more than a decade passed before the courts found that measure unconstitutional, Alaska's courts have never wavered from the landmark 1975 decision in Ravin v. State that legalized home possession.

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propaganda show by Gov. Murkowski and drug czar Walters
That has never set well with prohibitionists, as evidenced by the 1991 initiative. Two years ago, after the courts restated their adherence to Ravin, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) tried again to undo the status quo. Then, he managed to push through the legislature a bill that would once again recriminalize marijuana possession, and he stacked it with a series of "legislative findings" based on one-sided science designed to make the case that the nature of marijuana had changed so dramatically since the 1970s that Alaska's courts should rethink their position.

But when that law took effect in June 2006, the ACLU of Alaska sued the state, and Juneau Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins struck it down that summer, saying it conflicted with the state supreme court's decision in Ravin. The state appealed, and last Thursday, the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case.

Former Assistant Attorney General Dean Guaneli came out of retirement to reprise his old role as lead man in the Alaska law enforcement establishment's effort to undo the Ravin decision. It's not your father's marijuana, he argued, saying that it is far more potent than before, that pregnant women in Alaska are more prone to using marijuana than elsewhere in the country, and that 10% of users become dependent on the drug. All of this, he argued, is sufficient for the state high court to revisit and reverse its decision in Ravin.

The ACLU, representing itself and two anonymous plaintiffs, however, argued that the court should not bow to politically motivated findings that were tailor-made for the case. The court "needs to look with extreme skepticism at the legislature's findings" before overturning decades of decisions protecting Alaskan's rights to privacy, said ACLU attorney Jason Brandeis during the hearing.

The court will not issue a decision on the case for six months to a year, but it was being watched with interest by observers across the country. Marijuana law reform proponents in particular are hoping that Alaska will continue to be in the vanguard.

"Alaska currently has the best marijuana laws in the country -- it's perfectly legal to possess small amounts in your home -- and it would be a terrible setback if this court were to reverse a decision in place for more than 30 years," said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "But so far, the courts there have held it is unconstitutional to attach penalties to the private use of marijuana."

"This is a very important case that deals with some fundamental legal principles," said Jason Brandeis, who argued the case along with Adam Wolf of the national ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project. "First, there is the matter of stare decisis, respect for precedent. What we are asking the court to do is respect the precedent of Ravin and continue to rule that absent a really good reason, the state can't invade the sanctity of the home and preclude adults from engaging in certain types of conduct," he said.

"The state says it has new evidence that marijuana is dangerous, and that justifies the state piercing the sanctity of the home, but our position is simply that they don't have the scientific evidence to support that claim," said Brandeis. "The question is whether adults using marijuana at home rises to a level of social harm that justifies abrogating their privacy rights. We don't think so."

While the Alaska ruling will be important as an example to the rest of the country, said Stroup, it will also have a practical impact. "One reason this case is so important is that so long as it is legal to have small amounts at home, even if the police smell marijuana, that's not probable cause for arrest or a search warrant," he pointed out. "That's important."

For Ravin to be overturned, said Brandeis, the court would have to find a "close and substantial" relationship between preventing an adult from smoking marijuana at home and the state's interest in protecting the public health and safety. A ruling like that would be "a big step backwards," he said. "It would be a big blow to our privacy rights, and we take our privacy very seriously up here."

Brandeis refused to predict the outcome of the case, but sounded confident. "It's pretty clear the court knows what the issues are," he said. "There were a lot of questions about what level of deference the court should give the legislative findings, and I think we presented strong arguments that the court should not defer in this situation."

Stroup was not quite as cautious. Despite what he described as Gov. Murkowski's "reefer madness" and the legislative findings it inspired, Stroup pronounced himself confident that Ravin will be upheld. "I don't think we'll lose this," he said. "I have no reason to believe the Alaska Supreme Court will do anything differently than it did in Ravin."

Law Enforcement: Ohio SWAT Officer Who Killed Young Mother in Drug Raid Gets Charged With Misdemeanors, Faces Eight Months at Most

Back in January, Sgt. Joseph Chavalia, a member of the Lima, Ohio, SWAT team shot and killed Tarika Wilson, 26, and shot and maimed her infant son, Sincere Wilson, as she held him in her arms as he and other SWAT team members executed a drug search warrant at the home Wilson shared with her boyfriend. The boyfriend was the object of the raid.

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graphic appearing on Lima SWAT team web site, removed after shooting
Police have presented no evidence that Wilson acted in a threatening manner as the SWAT team burst into her home.

On Monday, prosecutors charged Chavalia with two misdemeanors -- negligent homicide in the death of Wilson and negligent assault in the wounding of her child -- that could see him spend a maximum of eight months in prison if convicted on both counts. Wilson's relatives and activists, many of whom allege a pattern of discriminatory policing by the Lima police, were outraged.

The shooting itself touched off heated city council meetings and protest marches. Many citizens and civil rights leaders, including national figures like the Rev. Jesse Jackson, had called for police and local elected officials to be held accountable. Those calls grew louder after Chavalia's charges were announced.

"Any time a man shoots through a baby and kills an unarmed woman, and is charged with two misdemeanors, I think it would be an understatement to say that that's unacceptable," said Jason Upthegrove, Lima NAACP president, in an interview with the Associated Press.

Upthegrove said the charges should have been more serious. He added that the Lima NAACP will ask the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate whether the case has been handled fairly.

"No one's above the law, even if he serves it," said Ivory Austin II, brother of Tarika Wilson. "Don't separate the police from the people. We are all equal in the society. Treat the police like you would treat the common man," he told the AP.

Lima Police Chief Greg Garlock said there was continued sadness over the shooting. "It's a sad day for us that one of our officers was indicted," Garlock said.

Stop Filling Prisons, California -- Advocates to Take Sentencing Reform Case to Voters

California's prison system is in crisis. With some 172,000 inmates, the state's prison system is second only to the federal system in size, and its budget has ballooned by 79% in the last five years to nearly $8 billion annually. Still, the system is vastly overcrowded and faces two federal class-action suits seeking to cap inmate populations because overcrowding is resulting in the state not delivering constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from cdcr.ca.gov)
In December, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was considering a plan to release some 22,000 nonviolent inmates early in response to the festering crisis. But that one-shot approach would not deal with the systemic problems and policies that created the prison crisis in the first place.

Now, after years of inaction in Sacramento in the face of the crisis, a well-funded initiative campaign that would result in a seismic shift in California sentencing and prison policies, especially when it comes to drug offenders and those whose offenses are related to their problematic drug use, has gotten underway. Dubbed the Non-Violent Offender Rehabilitation Act (NORA), the initiative would dramatically expand the treatment and diversion options made available under a previous reform initiative, Proposition 36, as well as reform parole and probation programs, and make simple marijuana possession an infraction instead of a misdemeanor.

About 35,000 California inmates, or about 20% of the prison population, are doing time for drug offenses. An unknown number, certainly in the thousands and possibly in the tens of thousands, are doing time for offenses related to their drug use. It is these offenders and their future brethren at whom the NORA initiative is aimed.

Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance Network, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Santa Monica-based Campaign for New Drug Policies, the people who engineered the successful Prop. 36 campaign, the NORA initiative would:

  • Create a multi-track diversion program for adult offenders. Track I provides for treatment for nonviolent drug possession offenders with a plea held in abeyance during treatment. For those who wash out of Track I, Track II provides Prop 36-style treatment after conviction, with graduated sanctions for probation violations, including eventual jail time. Track III is an expansion of existing drug court programs, with stronger sanctions than the other tracks. Judges would have the discretion to use Track III not only for drug offenders, but for any non-violent offenders whose crimes are linked to their drug use. Track III would be mandatory for those identified as "high-cost offenders" (five arrests in the past 30 months). The initiative would fund the diversion and treatment program at $385 million per year.
  • Create drug treatment programs for youth. NORA would invest about $65 million a year to build a prevention and treatment program for young people where none currently exists.
  • Require California prisons to provide rehabilitation programs to all exiting inmates at least 90 days before release and for up to a year after release at state expense.
  • Allow nonviolent prisoners to earn sentence reductions with good behavior and by participating in rehabilitation programs.
  • Cut parole periods for qualifying nonviolent offenders to between six and 12 months, instead of the current up to three years. Early discharge from parole could be gained with completion of a rehabilitation program.
  • Make simple marijuana possession an infraction (ticketing offense) instead of a misdemeanor.

Not only would NORA mean freedom for thousands of nonviolent drug and drug-related offenders, it would also save California billions of dollars. Prop. 36 is estimated to have saved at least $1.3 billion in five years by diverting offenders to treatment, and the California Legislative Analyst's Office projects that NORA could generate a billion dollars a year in savings for the prison system, as well as obviating the need for a one-time prison-building outlay of $2.5 billion.

Paid canvassers for NORA are already hitting the streets in California. They have until April 21 to gather some 435,000 valid signatures to put the measure on the November ballot. NORA will make that goal, organizers vowed.

"We've just announced this to our members and started gathering signatures," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Southern California office of the Drug Policy Alliance Network. "We're very excited. It looks like the largest sentencing and prison reform in American history will be on the November ballot."

"This is Prop 36 on steroids," said Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML. "If it passes, this will lead to a comprehensive rewrite of all of California's laws regarding sentencing, probation, and parole for nonviolent, drug-related offenses. And this is a professional campaign. The measure will be on the ballot in November," he flatly predicted.

"Prop. 36 has been such a success, it has been extensively studied and proven, but the biggest problem is that it isn't big enough," said Dooley-Sammuli. "Combined with the difficulty of getting any prison reform through and of even obtaining adequate funding for existing reforms because of the impasse in Sacramento -- we've seen so many prison reforms die there -- we thought we really needed to put this on the ballot for stable funding, more treatment, and more diversion," she said.

"But NORA is not just about expanding Prop. 36," Dooley-Sammuli was quick to point out. "This is primarily a prison and sentencing reform effort. It brings common sense solutions to the problem of over-incarceration in California, especially the over-incarceration of nonviolent offenders in this state."

"The state has been incredibly reluctant and negligent in addressing the whole problem of nonviolent prisoners," said Gieringer. "Every effort to extricate drug offenders from the prison system has been seen as a political hot potato and has gone nowhere. Sentencing reform is political poison in Sacramento, yet we have this simmering prison crisis here in California."

If the politicians refuse to act, said Gieringer, it is time to take the issue directly to the voters. "This initiative is very justified because of the negligence of California's political class in not dealing with these issues," he said. "In fact, it is overdue, and now we the people have to try to come to grips with the failure of our political leaders to act. And I think we have the public on our side. The polling on this has been very favorable. Most people think nonviolent drug offenses should be handled with treatment, not prison."

"We have federal judges considering whether to take over the entire state prison system," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We don't have solutions coming out of Sacramento. We have very real budget problems that mean we can't afford to keep spending what we are on incarceration. NORA reallocates state spending from incarceration to treatment and rehabilitation, so we will end up with substantial savings over time," she predicted.

Gov. Schwarzenegger's move to release some prisoners early is necessary, but not sufficient, said Dooley-Sammuli. What is needed is not one-shot fixes, but systemic reforms, she said. "NORA is not a one-time opening of the jailhouse gates," said Dooley-Sammuli, "This is about systemic change in our sentencing and parole practices. This is not radical; it's common sense. This is not soft on crime; this is smart on crime. NORA will allow us to get past the politicking and get some solutions."

At this point early in the campaign season, there is no organized opposition, but that is almost certain to change. Too many powerful groups, from prosecutors to prison guards, benefit from the status quo, and fear-mongering on crime issues is a perennial favorite among politicians.

"The question is whether there will be any well-funded political opposition," said Gieringer. "Then there might be a real fight. But we haven't seen an opposition committee form yet. That's the real question mark."

NORA organizers have done their best to blunt opposition at the early stages by bringing potential opponents into the process, said Dooley-Sammuli. "We made many, many efforts to make this a collaborative process by reaching out to a wide variety of stakeholders. This has been a broad effort to bring in as many perspectives and sets of expertise as possible, and we've tried to make friends instead of foes," she said.

Coerced drug treatment is not the best of all possible worlds. But it's difficult to argue that drug law violators are better off in prison than in treatment. The NORA initiative will give California voters a chance to take a giant step in sentencing and prison reform and a small step toward true justice for drug users.

How many drug dealers does it take to supply a 10,000-person community? Or, is Twiggs County, Georgia, the latest Tulia?

Pete Guither over at Drug WarRant has spotted a report on what looks to be a suspiciously large number of drug busts -- 17, with 11 more warrants pending, all following a six-month undercover investigation -- in the sparsely populated Twiggs County in Georgia. Twiggs has 10,184 residents, at latest count -- the largest city, Jeffersonville, boasts a mere 1,028 residents. The county is so small, in terms of its population, that there is exactly one auto repair shop. Which raises the question, can a county that small really support 28 drug dealers? The same question came up in the Tulia scandal, where about 46 people, almost all of them black, were convicted and imprisoned for drug dealing based on the testimony of a rogue cop, who as it turns out had made it all up. Many of the names listed in the indictment have an African American sound to them. Comments from local officials also raise questions about the operation's timing. In issue #520 of the Chronicle, we reported that Congress had substantially cut funding for the federal grant programs that support these kinds of task forces and that law enforcement organizations were engaged in a massive lobbying/media campaign to try to get the funding back. Twiggs police clearly had that situation in mind when they spoke with the press:
Officials, however, are concerned about the future of such major operations. Special agent Martin Zon of the GBI's state drug task force said federal funding for the task force has been cut by nearly 70 percent in the newest budget. Once it takes effect in July, the budget cuts could hamper law enforcement efforts in the drug war. "We've been a recipient of these funds for many years, and in December we learned that these grants would be cut drastically," Zon said. "Our budget was cut by 70 percent, which cuts our ability to fulfill requests from places like Twiggs." Mitchum said he's also concerned that he may not have certain state resources to call upon in the future. "The task force is a big help to departments our size," he said. "We use their equipment, their personnel, their expertise. We wouldn't want to see their funding cut. It's really important they keep it."
If it is a case of law enforcement busting people as taxpayer-funded lobbying for funding, it would be nothing new -- Pete pointed out such a case in Kentucky last year, and I noted a 2006 press release from the California Attorney General's office that directly admitted it, in a previous blog post on that topic. There are other examples, too.
Location: 
Jeffersonville, GA
United States

Law Enforcement: Nebraska Man Files Complaint Over Bogus South Dakota Bust

As part of a new Drug War Chronicle occasional series on victims of the war on drugs, we told the story of Eric Sage back in November. Now, there are new developments.

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Eric Sage
On his way home to Nebraska after attending the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota last summer, Sage's motorcycle was pulled over by a highway patrolman. A pick-up truck accompanying him also stopped, and when the patrolman searched that vehicle, he found one of the passengers in possession of a pipe and a small amount of marijuana. Bizarrely, the patrolman charged not only all the pick-up truck passengers but also Sage with possession of paraphernalia.

Unlike most people arrested on drug charges -- even bogus ones -- Sage refused to roll over. That prompted local prosecutors to threaten to charge him with "internal possession," a crime (so far) only in South Dakota, and a charge even less supported by the evidence (there was none) than the original paraphernalia charge. After repeated multi-hundred mile trips back to South Dakota for scheduled court hearings, Sage's charges mysteriously evaporated, with prosecutors in Pennington County lamely explaining that they had decided the charge should have been filed in another county.

Sage was a free man, but his freedom wasn't free. Sage says his encounter with South Dakota justice cost him thousands of dollars, lost work days, and considerable stress. Now, he is seeking redress.

On Monday, Sage and South Dakota NORML announced that he had filed complaints with several South Dakota agencies and professional standards groups regarding the actions of the prosecutors, Pennington County (Rapid City) District Attorney Glenn Brenner and Assistant DA Gina Nelson, and the highway patrolman, Trooper Dave Trautman.

Sage accuses Trautman of improperly charging everyone present at the incident with possession of paraphernalia. He also accuses Trautman of concocting an arrest report long after the fact to support the new charge of internal possession. Sage accuses Assistant DA Nelson and her boss of prosecuting a case they knew was bogus and of threatening to convict him of an offense where they knew he was not guilty because he refused to plead to the original paraphernalia charge.

"They mugged me," Sage said. "They cost me $4,000. I had to travel to Rapid City several times, I had to hire a lawyer, I missed work. It cost me three times as much to get them to drop a bogus charge as it would have cost me to say I was guilty of something I didn't do and pay their fines. They only quit when they ran out of clubs to hit me with."

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Main Street during Sturgis Rally (courtesy Wikimedia)
Prosecutors didn't even have the courtesy to let him or his local attorney know they had finally dropped the charges, Sage said. "My lawyer called Gina Nelson several times to see if I needed to drive up on Nov. 21," he said. "She wouldn't return the calls. So when I got there, I found the charges had been dropped on the 16th. Gina had purposefully made me drive one more 500 mile round trip, for nothing."

Now, we'll see if the powers that be in South Dakota will bring the same dogged determination to seeing justice done in this case as they do to going after anybody who even looks like a small-time drug offender. You can read Sage's complaints to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, the South Dakota Bar Association Disciplinary Committee, and the Pennington County Commission here.

Medical Marijuana: Berkeley Declares Itself a Sanctuary City

The Berkeley City Council gave a collective raised middle finger to the DEA Tuesday night, unanimously approving a resolution declaring the city a sanctuary in the event the federal agency attempts to interfere with its medical marijuana dispensaries. Passage of the resolution was greeted with loud applause, according to the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at Cal Berkeley.

The resolution was opposed by the DEA, and softened last month to accommodate grumbling from Police Chief Douglas Hambleton and City Manager Phil Kamlarz, but it still puts the city on record as "opposing the attempts by the US Drug Enforcement Administration to close medical marijuana dispensaries, and declaring the City of Berkeley as a sanctuary for medicinal cannabis use, cultivation, and distribution that complies with State law and local ordinances in the event that" the DEA tried to raid one of the city's regulated dispensaries.

The resolution also reinforces a 2002 Berkeley policy directing police not to cooperate in federal medical marijuana investigations. City police were criticized last fall after arriving at the scene of a DEA action related to a raid on a Los Angeles dispensary. The resolution reemphasizes that the Berkeley police and the city attorney's office are not to cooperate with the DEA in "investigations of, raids upon, or threats against physicians, individual patients or their primary caregivers, and medical cannabis dispensaries and operators" operating within California law.

In addition, the resolution directs the city clerk to send letters to Alameda County, of which Berkeley is a part, to state Attorney General Jerry Brown, and to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging them to appropriately support medical marijuana.

The city of Berkeley has now committed itself to ensuring that its residents have access to medical marijuana, but it's not clear just yet exactly what that means. The resolution directs the police chief and the city manager to try to find ways to turn the resolution into reality. If the DEA shuts down Berkeley's dispensaries, will the city provide medical marijuana? Will it help new dispensaries set up? The answers are in the making.

Eric Sage Fights Back

As part of a new Drug War Chronicle occasional series on victims of the war on drugs, we told the story of Eric Sage back in November. Now, there are new developments. On his way home to Nebraska after attending the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota last summer, Sage's motorcycle was pulled over by a highway patrolman. A pick-up truck accompanying also stopped, and when the patrolmen searched that vehicle, he found one of the passengers in possession of a pipe and a small amount of marijuana. Bizarrely, the patrolman charged not only the pick-up truck passengers but also Sage with possession of paraphernalia. Unlike most people arrested on drug charges--even bogus ones--Sage refused to roll over. That prompted local prosecutors to threaten to charge him with "internal possession," a crime (so far) only in South Dakota, and a charge even less supported by the evidence (there was none) than the original paraphernalia charge. After repeated multi-hundred mile trips back to South Dakota for scheduled court hearings, Sage's charges mysteriously evaporated, with prosecutors in Pennington County lamely explaining that they had decided the charge should have been filed in another county. Sage was a free man, but his freedom wasn’t free. Sage says his encounter with South Dakota justice cost him thousands of dollars, lost work days, and considerable stress. Now, he is seeking redress. On Monday, Sage and South Dakota NORML announced that he had filed complaints with several South Dakota agencies and professional standards groups regarding the actions of the prosecutors, Pennington County (Rapid City) District Attorney Glenn Brenner and Assistant DA Gina Nelson, and the highway patrolman, Trooper Dave Trautman. Sage accuses Trautman of improperly charging everyone present at the incident with possession of paraphernalia. He also accuses Trautman of concocting an arrest report long after the fact to support the new charge of internal possession. Sage accuses Assistant DA Nelson and her boss of prosecuting a case they knew was bogus and of threatening to convict him of an offense where they knew he was not guilty because he refused to plead to the original paraphernalia charge. "They mugged me," Sage said. "They cost me $4000. I had to travel to Rapid City several times, I had to hire a lawyer, I missed work. It cost me three times as much to get them to drop a bogus charge as it would have cost me to say I was guilty of something I didn't do and pay their fines. They only quit when they ran out of clubs to hit me with." Prosecutors didn't even have the courtesy to let him or his local attorney know they had finally dropped the charges, Sage said. "My lawyer called Gina Nelson several times to see if I needed to drive up on Nov. 21," he said. "She wouldn't return the calls. So when I got there, I found the charges had been dropped on the 16th. Gina had purposefully made me drive one more 500 mile round trip, for nothing." Now, we'll see if the powers that be in South Dakota will bring the same dogged determination to seeing justice done in this case as they do to going after anybody who even looks like a small-time drug offender. You can read Sage's complaints to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety, the South Dakota Bar Association Disciplinary Committee, and the Pennington County Commission here.
Location: 
Rapid City, SD
United States

Press Release: Governor Spitzer Proposes Tax Stamp on Illegal Drugs - Statement from Ethan Nadelmann of DPA

[Courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance] For Immediate Release: January 23, 2008 For More Info: Tony Newman (646) 335-5384 or Ethan Nadelmann (646) 335-2240 Governor Spitzer Proposes Tax Stamp on Illegal Drugs Statement from Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance “I have my doubts regarding Gov. Eliot Spitzer's proposed bill to require all marijuana and other controlled substances in the state to have a tax stamp. “On the one hand, it seems perfectly reasonable to require people and businesses to pay taxes on the revenue earned from selling products of any sort, whether they are legal or illegal. Indeed, in the dozen states where marijuana has been legalized for medical purposes, many of those who sell marijuana to patients are willing and even eager to pay taxes on their revenue. “On the other hand, these tax stamp bills and laws smack of the gratuitous piling on of punitive sanctions that permeates the overall drug war. The United States already locks up people who violate the drug laws more readily, more frequently and for longer periods of time than in almost any other country – at a national cost of tens of billions of dollars per year. We also subject drug law violators to civil and criminal asset forfeiture and deprive them of all sorts of rights and privileges after they have served their sentences - - to an extent far greater than in almost any other country. More than half a million people come out of prison each year but face daunting prospects getting a fresh start, in part because they are obliged to pay fines – like this tax stamp – that end up causing far more harm than good. “The Governor could accomplish far greater tax savings for New York taxpayers if he would move forward on his campaign commitments regarding reform of the Rockefeller drug laws. The modest reforms of 2004 and 2005 already have saved the state tens of millions of dollars – but far greater savings could be attained, with no risk to public safety, if he were to support the drug law reforms passed by the Assembly in recent years. “And, quite frankly, New Yorkers would most benefit from a serious proposal to tax, control and regulate marijuana more or less like alcohol is today. 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.”
Location: 
NY
United States

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.

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