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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.

Harm Reduction: San Antonio Police Arrest Needle Exchangers, DA Ups the Ante

Bill Day, 73, and the Bexar Area Harm Reduction Coalition have been doing unsanctioned needle exchanges in poor San Antonio neighborhoods for years, but this week, Day and two of the group's board members were arrested on drug paraphernalia possession charges as they handed out clean syringes. Now, the San Antonio Express-News reports, to add insult to injury, District Attorney Susan Reed has upped the charges from possession to distribution of paraphernalia, exposing Day and his comrades to a year in jail, as opposed to the maximum $500 fine for possession.

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popular syringe exchange logo
Day and the coalition are fighting back. They have assembled a legal team that includes high-profile criminal defense attorney Gerald Goldstein and pro bono assistance from the prestigious Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld law firm.

"These are enormously decent, charitable people, and what's happening with them smacks of persecution," said Neel Lane, an attorney with Akin Gump who has filed a brief with the state attorney general's office on the group's behalf.

Last year, the Texas legislature passed a bill authorizing health officials to set up a pilot needle exchange program in Bexar County, which would be the first legal needle exchange in the Lone Star State. But DA Reed has stalled the program, declaring that the legislation authorizing it is faulty. An opinion from the state attorney general is pending.

In fact, Reed has been trying to derail the program since it was approved last summer. Last August, she told the Express-News that state drug laws trump the needle exchange legislation, a minority position even among prosecutors. She warned local health officials the law would not protect them.

"I'm telling them, and I'm telling the police chief, I don't think they have any kind of criminal immunity," Reed said. "That's the bottom line. It has nothing to do with whether they do it or don't do it -- other than if you do it you might find yourself in jail."

Reed opposed the needle exchange program, but by forcing the issue, she may have inadvertently contributed to resolving the program's legality once and for all.

A special thanks to Texas criminal justice blogger Scott Henson and his Grits for Breakfast blog for a heads-up on this one.

Marijuana: Vermont to Consider Decriminalization, But Wants to Crack Down on Hard Drugs

The Vermont legislature will this year take up a bill to decriminalize the personal possession, growing of two plants, and small-scale sales of marijuana. At the same time, the legislature will consider a proposal to lower the threshold for what constitutes "trafficking amounts" for hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. Both proposals will be discussed at public hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 23.

The legislative moves come after months of discussion about the cost and efficacy of Vermont drug policy and sometimes heated debate over marijuana decriminalization. The decrim debate really heated up last fall when Republican Gov. James Douglas ordered that marijuana cases be taken away from the office of Windsor County prosecutor Robert Sand, who approved court diversion for a local attorney caught growing 30 pot plants. Douglas accused Sand of having a blanket diversion policy, but backed off the state control over prosecutions after Sand made it clear he had no such blanket policy, and after it was found that an Orange County prosecutor had done a similar deal for a man arrested with more than 100 plants.

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin (D-Windham) said last month that drug law reform, including marijuana decriminalization, was one of his top priorities for the current session. That moved Gov. Douglas to say that he was open to decrim discussions, although he has not endorsed the idea.

The marijuana decrim bill, S-238, was introduced last year and reintroduced this year by Sen. Jeannette White (D-Windham). Under the bill, possession of up to four ounces or two plants and sale of less than four ounces would be a civil violation with a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine. Possession of more than four ounces or more than five plants would still be a crime punishable by up to five years in prison under the bill.

While White's decrim bill is a step in the right direction, the hard drug bill, S-250, to be offered by Sen. Richard Sears (D-Bennington), head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is not. That bill would lower the threshold for criminal trafficking charges from 300 grams of cocaine to 150 and from seven grams of heroin to 3.5. People convicted of possessing drugs in such amounts would face up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to one million dollars.

Sears has also signaled that he thinks the four ounce decrim limit is too high. "Four ounces of marijuana is a felony," he told the Barre-Montepelier Times Argus. "I don't think we want to go there."

But Sears is open to discussion, he said. "I thought it was important to let the public weigh in before we started taking a close look at the proposals," he said. "This is a change in state law regarding drugs, and the public probably has some thoughts about this."

Marijuana: Bill to Increase Penalties for Sales to Minors Moving in South Dakota

Under current South Dakota law, any adult distributing any amount of marijuana to a minor faces up to 10 years in prison, but a bill backed by Republican state Attorney General Larry Long would stiffen those already harsh penalties in most cases. That bill unanimously passed the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday, and could be voted on by the House as early as today.

The bill, HB1061, actually reduces the maximum sentence from 10 years to five years for distribution of less than an ounce to a minor, but keeps it at 10 years for distribution of between an ounce and a half-pound, increases it to 15 years for a half-pound to a pound, and jacks it up to a jaw-dropping 25 years for more than one pound. Like all other marijuana felonies in South Dakota, a 30-day mandatory minimum jail sentence for a first offense is included.

Attorney General Long told reporters he drafted the bill after a judge told him that some marijuana distribution offenses to adults had tougher sentences than the 10 years for giving it to a minor.

There are currently 10 men and one woman serving prison sentences for distribution of marijuana to a minor in South Dakota. According to the state Department of Corrections, they join another 72 marijuana prisoners, including 10 doing hard time for selling less than ounce and seven for possessing less than a half-pound. Those pot prisoners are among the 661 drug prisoners that constitute one-fifth of the state's rapidly growing prison population.

Marijuana: Vermont Governor Open to Discussing Decriminalization, He Says

In an apparent change of attitude, Vermont Republican Gov. Jim Douglas said last week that he was open to discussing marijuana decriminalization. That stance is a shift from positions he took just a couple of months ago, when he had the state take temporary control of marijuana cases from Windsor County after the local prosecutor, Bobby Sands, was accused of having a policy of diverting marijuana cases because he thought it should be legalized.

But Sands, who claimed he had no blanket policy of diversion, is not alone in supporting decrim. Democratic Senate President Peter Shumlin has now floated a proposal to consider decriminalization. The cut-off level for diversion instead of court proceedings should be a half-ounce of weed, Shumlin suggested.

Responding to Shumlin's proposal at a January 3 press conference in Montpelier, Gov. Douglas said he was open to discussing the matter, but that he wasn't sure about a specific amount. He added that the state needs to maintain enforcement efforts against harder drugs and the misuse of prescription drugs.

Vermont arrested some 1,800 people for small-time marijuana possession last year, according to the state Department of Public Safety.

Psychedelics: Nebraska Moves to Ban Salvia Divinorum

If state Attorney General Jon Bruning has his way, Nebraska will soon join the short list of states that have criminalized the sale and possession of salvia divinorum. In a Monday press release setting his key legislative priorities, Bruning announced that banning salvia was one of his top three. (The other two were eliminating intoxication as a defense in considering the mental state of a defendant and moving against certain types of scam artists.)

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The obscure plant, a member of the mint family native to southern Mexico, is a potent, fast-acting hallucinogen and has achieved a certain measure of popularity among recreational drug users in recent years. But because of its powerful disorienting effects, it is not one most people use repeatedly.

The DEA has had the drug under consideration for several years, but has yet to announce any plans to move it under the rubric of the Controlled Substances Act. Several states, most recently Illinois, and a handful of local municipalities, have banned it.

It is time that Nebraska joined that group, Bruning said. "Salvia is a powerful hallucinogen that can be purchased legally. This legislation will make it illegal and put it on par with other powerful drugs like peyote, psychedelic mushrooms and LSD," said Attorney General Bruning. "Several other states have already made salvia illegal. It's time to add Nebraska to the list."

In the measure he describes as "protecting Nebraska kids," Bruning would submit them -- and Nebraska adults -- to up to five years in prison for possessing the plant, and to 20 years for selling it.

"Videos of teens using this common plant to get high have become an internet sensation," said Sen. Vickie McDonald of St. Paul, who will sponsor the legislation. "Nebraska needs to classify salvia divinorum and its active ingredient, salvinorin A, as a controlled substance in order to protect our children from a drug being portrayed as harmless when it's not."

Marijuana: Despite Law Allowing Ticketing for Pot Possession, Most Texas Counties Still Arrest

Thanks to a new state law that went into effect on September 1, law enforcement agencies in Texas now have the option of simply ticketing misdemeanor marijuana possession offenders instead of arresting them. The law, which also applies to a handful of other misdemeanor offenses, was designed to alleviate chronic overcrowding in Texas jails and make better use of police resources. However, almost no one in Texas is taking advantage of it.

According to a report this week in the Dallas Morning News, only the Travis County (Austin) Sheriff's Department is ticketing instead of arresting misdemeanor marijuana offenders. Officials in Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), and Collin (suburban Dallas) counties gave varying reasons for failing to implement the cost-saving measure, ranging from "system inadequacies" to the belief it will "send the wrong message" about marijuana use.

"It may... lead some people to believe that drug use is no more serious than double parking," Collin County prosecutor Greg Davis told the Morning News.

"I think the legislature was very sensitive to the fact that there are so many jails that are overcrowded," said Terri Moore, Dallas County's first assistant district attorney. "This was a great idea, but it raises a lot more questions that we are not ready to answer."

"These are not just tickets. These are crimes that need to be appropriately dealt with," said Ron Stretcher, Dallas County's director of criminal justice. "We want to make sure we get them back to court to stand trial. It's not about emptying the jail. It's about making sure that we have room in the jail for the people who need to be there," he said.

But the Travis County Sheriff's Department said merely ticketing marijuana offenders was smart policy. "There are folks that think we are being soft on crime because we are just giving tickets. We are still hard on crime," said spokesman Roger Wade. "We believe if we can save resources and have the same effect on crime, then we should take advantage of this."

Prosecutors in north Texas counties also cited the lack of a system for dealing with misdemeanor tickets. But that seems pretty feeble.

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