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Feature: Reefer and Religion -- Nevada Clergy Embrace Marijuana Legalization

It was the press conference heard 'round the world -- or at least around the country and in every corner of Nevada. Last Tuesday, four Nevada clergymen stood side by side with organizers of the Nevada initiative to regulate and control marijuana to publicly endorse the measure. They spoke for at least 33 Nevada clergy who endorsed Question 7, as the initiative is known on the ballot.

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The measure would allow adult Nevadans to legally possess small amounts of marijuana and to purchase it at state-regulated stores. Under current Nevada law, possession of less than an ounce is a misdemeanor offense and all sales are illegal.

Preachers for pot legalization -- for the media, that was as good as man bites dog, and the press coverage showed it. According to a list compiled by the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (IDPI), who spearheaded the effort of bringing the clergy on-board, media hits included CNN, MSNBC, every major newspaper in Nevada, repeated features on Nevada TV stations, and an Associated Press story that was picked up by at least 37 media outlets nationwide.

Across Nevada and the country, readers and viewers heard people like the Rev. Ruth Hanusa, chaplain at the Campus Christian Association at the University of Nevada-Reno, explain why they supported changing the marijuana laws. "Some of us Protestants believe that one of the functions of government is to curb sinful behavior," she said. "But our marijuana laws are not curbing marijuana use and they are causing more harm than good by filling the pockets of dangerous criminals and ensuring that children have the easiest access of anyone," she said.

They also got to hear the Rev. Paul Hansen, senior pastor at Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Las Vegas explain why he supported Question 7. "On its face, our current marijuana laws appear to be moral, but it is a cosmetic morality," said Hansen. "Our current laws are causing virtually unfettered access to marijuana. Marijuana is far easier to access than alcohol because drug dealers don't card," he said.

"This became a big story because most people think that the religious community is the last place on earth to find support for ending marijuana prohibition," said IDPI's Troy Dayton, who has spent much of the year in Nevada. "It is making such a difference because by its very nature it reframes the debate. This marijuana issue is up against a lot of cultural baggage, decades of a government misinformation campaign, and a strong puritan ethic which embraces a spirit of punishment. In addition, many voters think they are voting on whether or not they think marijuana is good or not; not what the best policy regarding marijuana best serves the community."

Gaining the support of such respected community leaders is critical for gaining support for the cause, Dayton told Drug War Chronicle. "It doesn't matter if our side has better reasoning if the average voter dismisses the issue without a careful and open-minded inquiry," he said. "When the average voter hears about religious leader support, first his attention is grabbed, and secondly the cognitive dissonance of this reality forces a reframing of the issue in his mind. No one could accuse these religious leaders of being in favor of marijuana use and they are clearly respected moral leaders in the community. So this makes people wonder, 'Why are they supporting this?'"

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The faith-based support is providing a boost for a campaign that is in a tight uphill battle to put Nevada over the top as the first state to vote to regulate and control marijuana, said initiative supporters. "To have so many people in the faith-based community who represent so many denominations is a big plus for the campaign," said Patrick Killen, communications director for the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana (CRCM), the group behind the campaign. "Having these people of faith come forward on this shows that creating a sensible alternatives to our state's marijuana laws is an issue that resonates with a diverse array of people in Nevada," he told the Chronicle.

"As far as we know, this is the first time that so many clergy from different denominations have explicitly called for legally regulated sources of access for marijuana," said IDPI executive director Charles Thomas. "And it came about because of a lot of hard work. We had Troy in Nevada for about five months, and our Tyler Smith joined him for a few weeks. They traveled the state and sat down and talked one-on-one with religious leaders, and a number of those people not only took the information and read it, but also took a few days to pray about it. Praying is a way to really reflect on what your deepest values are."

One of those doing some serious reflecting was Pastor Hansen. "Some people from the campaign contacted me this spring, and I was skeptical at first," said Hansen. "I thought it was about a bunch of people who smoked marijuana and wanted a license to do it, but as I began to research the issue, I saw there is a movement in the Western world to rethink our policies toward marijuana, and I thought this was a just position," he told the Chronicle. "When I look at the issue and what they're doing in Holland and all the unforeseen negative consequences of alcohol prohibition, I see a lot of the same things happening in terms of organized crime profiting from an underground criminal marijuana market."

Pastor Hansen made clear he was speaking for himself -- not representing his church or congregation -- as he addressed the issue. While his public stance in favor of Question 7 has won him support, "I've also gotten a few people who expressed their displeasure," he noted wryly. "Lutherans are not all of one mind on lots of issues."

Nor are members of other denominations. But having religious leaders speaking out for marijuana legalization is an advance for the cause. And with Question 7 trailing in some polls and leading narrowly in others, the divine intervention would be most welcome.

Feature: Justice Department Report Shows Drug Use Among Prisoners Holding Steady, But Emphasizes Increased Methamphetamine Use

A new report from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) shows that prior drug use among state prisoners is essentially unchanged in the last decade, while prior drug use among federal prisoners is up slightly. But in presenting the report, Drug Use and Dependence, State and Federal Prisoners 2004, BJS emphasized small increases in prior methamphetamine among state and federal prisoners.

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bag of crystal meth, also known as 'ice'
That is at least in part because that's what BJS' clients were interested in, said report author Chris Mumola. "We have a lot of increased demand for information on methamphetamines," he told Drug War Chronicle. "The Office of National Drug Control Policy and correctional administrators want to know about that population."

What BJS found regarding meth was that 7% of state prisoners reported using it in the month previous to arrest in 1997. That figure increased to 11% in 2004. Reported meth use among state prisoners at the time of the offense increased from 4% to 6% during the same period. Federal prisons reported similar increases. Among white prisoners, a full 20% reported using in the month before arrest, compared to 1% of black inmates. Among Hispanics, 12% of state prisoners and 5% of federal prisoners reported meth use in the month prior to arrest. Among women, 17% of state inmates and 15% of federal inmates reported using, compared to 10% of men in both the states and the federal system.

More broadly, the report found that a majority -- 56% -- of state inmates used drugs in the month prior to arrest, with 40% reporting marijuana use, followed by crack or powder cocaine (21%), stimulants (12%), and heroin and other opiates (8%). These state figures are essentially unchanged from 1997, the last time the survey was done.

Interestingly, violent offenders were less likely to have used methamphetamine than either drug or property offenders. Only 4% of violent and property offenders reported using in the month prior to arrest, compared to 14% of drug offenders.

That makes intuitive sense -- and it also raises questions about just what these figures are telling us. Do the rising figures for meth use suggest rising meth use rates, increasing law enforcement attention, or both? BJS wasn't much help. One employee -- not Mumola -- would say only, "We don't do sociology. There is no way of determining that."

"I don't think we know whether this is the result of rising use or rising enforcement," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice think tank that emphasizes alternatives to incarceration. "We do know there has been a lot of targeting of resources at meth enforcement in recent years, but that could indicate a greater focus on meth at the expense of other drug law enforcement. This may not indicate any rise in use or sales, but in arrests. We also don't have a good grasp on the extent of meth use, which varies from region to region. It could be important in San Diego, but not in Philadelphia," he told the Chronicle.

Mauer was struck by the report's emphasis on meth. "It's sort of odd that they highlighted this so prominently," he said. "If you look at the overall distribution of drugs that people in prison have used, meth is on the low end. While there are some people in prison who used meth, it is still a modest number. Highlighting those figures plays into the whole public discussion about whether there is a meth epidemic, but when you look more broadly at the whole range of drugs used by prisoners, you get a very different picture."

You could also get a very different picture of prior drug use by prisoners if alcohol were included in the survey, as it was in 1997. BJS does it clients a disservice by failing to include alcohol use, said Mauer. "You can't talk about criminality without talking about alcohol," he exclaimed. "In terms of violent crime, there is much more of a correlation with alcohol than with other drugs. If you want to look at comprehensive substance abuse policy, you are omitting half the problem if you don't look at alcohol."

The reasons for omitting alcohol were not sinister, said BJS's Mumola. "The 1997 report was 16 pages, and this time we had to cut it to 12," he explained. "We had to edit it down and make it more focused. At the same time, there was both increased demand for figures on meth and new measures of dependence and abuse. There is high demand for making better assessments of who needs treatment, so there was a lot of additional content we had to squeeze in, and it would have been impossible to give full treatment to alcohol issues, so we streamlined it."

One thing the report did not mention, but that could be teased out by examining this and other BJS reports on prison population is that there are more than 44,000 people serving prison sentences for marijuana offenses. In a Thursday press release, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) crunched the numbers. "According to these figures, nearly 45,000 state and federal prisoners are behind bars for having committed some type of cannabis-related offense," said NORML executive director Allen St. Pierre. "This means that US taxpayers are currently spending over $1 billion annually to incarcerate Americans for pot."

But let's not think about that. Instead, let's concentrate on the demon drug du jour. That's what BJS and it's client-driven research did.

Feature: More California Medical Marijuana Raids: The New Status Quo?

At least five California different medical marijuana dispensaries have been raided in the last ten days, bringing the total so far this year to more than 30, according to medical marijuana supporters. But that means nearly 200 existing dispensaries have not been raided, suggesting that what is occurring is more like a low-level battle of attrition than an all-out assault by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and its allies among recalcitrant state and local law enforcement and elected officials.

Here is the latest casualty list:

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photo courtesy ASA
Last Wednesday in Modesto, one day after the city of Modesto voted to repeal a municipal provision exempting nonprofits from its ordinance banning dispensaries, DEA agents raided the nonprofit California Healthcare Collective, one of only two remaining dispensaries in the area. A DEA spokesperson told Drug War Chronicle this week the Modesto Police Department began investigating the dispensary, then handed the case over to the feds. Four people were arrested on federal marijuana distribution charges.

The following day, DEA and local law enforcement agents raided the North Valley Discount Caregivers dispensary in Grenada Hills and seized all the medicinal cannabis at the site. The two operators were arrested on state marijuana charges.

That same day, Stanislaus County Sheriff's deputies raided the 2816 Collective in a rural area near Modesto using a state search warrant. Police seized about two pounds of dried marijuana and patient files. The collective had closed the day before because of the Modesto raid. With both California Healthcare in Modesto and the 2816 Collective gone, the entire region is now destitute of dispensaries, leaving hundreds of patients in the lurch.

On Tuesday, the DEA raided at least eight locations in the San Francisco Bay area, seizing more than 12,000 plants, $125,000 cash, and a fancy sports car. Despite somewhat hysterical initial reports in the local media, all the raids were connected with the New Remedies dispensary in San Francisco, which involved the same people involved in Compassionate Caregivers, which was raided by the DEA in Los Angeles in May 2005, when the feds found more than $300,000 in cash, sparking the investigation that culminated in the Monday raids.

On Wednesday, DEA and local law enforcement officers raided the Palm Springs Caregivers dispensary in Riverside County, seizing medicinal cannabis, but not making any arrests at the time. The raid came one day after the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to ban dispensaries in unincorporated county areas, which does not include Palm Springs, and one month after Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask issued a white paper arguing that dispensaries are illegal under both state and federal law.

The raids triggered the Emergency Response Project of the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access, which brought out protestors last Friday at DEA headquarters in Los Angeles, as well as Modesto, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Ana. Demonstrators also greeted the Tuesday raids in San Francisco, and more actions are set for today.

"With our emergency response program, every time there is a federal raid -- and we can usually find that out in a matter of hours -- we activate our local response, as we did in San Francisco this week," said ASA's Caren Woodson. "But now, we're activating the national emergency response for Friday. It's a call-in day. We are urging everyone to call in to DEA administrator Karen Tandy and let her know how they feel about these raids. Karen Tandy has a lot of discretion, and she needs to exercise it."

While ASA is leading the immediate battle, it is not alone among movement groups in trying to figure out just what is going on. According to the DEA, it's nothing special, just enforcing the federal marijuana laws. "The two cases in which our office was involved, Modesto last week and here in the Bay area this week, were both the culmination of long-term investigations," said San Francisco DEA public information officer Casey McEnry. "In Modesto, the Modesto police began investigating and then passed it on to us, and with New Remedies, we had served warrants on them as Compassionate Caregivers in LA in May 2005, and we learned in December 2005 that they had changed their name and set up shop in Oakland," she told Drug War Chronicle.

"We can't read the DEA's mind, but there is no sign of an all-out offensive," said Bruce Mirken, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "These guys in San Francisco were already in the crosshairs -- they were victims of their own success -- but there are certainly plenty of other places operating openly. If the DEA wanted to, it could go after them with little effort, but it seems like a decision has been made not to do that."

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photo courtesy ASA
The DEA's McEnry did not respond directly to questions about whether the agency had taken a political decision to not aggressively crack down on the state's roughly 200 dispensaries, but she did issue a warning. "The magic plant count number is zero, the distribution number is zero if you want to be safe from us possibly knocking at your door," she said. "Anyone who cultivates or distributes marijuana is at risk."

While that may be bluster given the agency's limited resources, it is worrisome for dispensaries and their supporters. "These state-certified legal cannabis dispensaries look to the DEA like drug distribution havens," said Woodson. "If a dispensary is serving 150 people a day, the operator looks like a drug kingpin to them. They're like sitting ducks, they're listed in the phone book. And now some of these people are facing very severe sentences, some of up to life in prison.

It isn't just the DEA. "We have sporadic local police involvement in raids, mostly in counties where local government is not supportive, like Modesto or Riverside County, which is where Palm Springs is," said Mirken. "That tells us it is really important that local governments understand Proposition 215 and hear from their constituents that access to medicinal cannabis is important."

"They're picking locations where local decision-makers don't have a friendly attitude," said ASA's Woodson.

"These raids are really a drop in the bucket when you have 200 dispensaries out there," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML, "but we don't want to see them spread. I fear this is going to be a battlefield for awhile here until we come up with a regime that allows for better systems of dispensaries and production. The lack of a legal production system causes a lot of problems, and everybody in the dispensary business is operating in the black or grey market and vulnerable to legal uncertainties."

While medical marijuana dispensaries remain numerous in Los Angeles and the Bay area, the raids are having a very real impact on availability in some areas of the state. "In San Diego, a few months ago there were a dozen dispensaries in operation, but after the raids, they're gone and access to medical cannabis is largely gone," said Woodson. "There are only a handful of delivery services now, and they can't handle the demand. It's a similar situation in Modesto -- there aren't any dispensaries in the area now."

"I think it's going to continue for the short term, until something happens politically to change the dynamic," said Mirken. "That might not be until there is regime change in Washington, and maybe not even then, depending on how smart the Democrats are. It doesn't seem like anything is going to change drastically in California in the near term. Most people in the state government some local governments at least pay lip service to supporting Proposition 215, but we haven't seen much strong action from state officials with the clout to try to stop the raids. I really don't see anything moving on the state level," he said.

ASA's Woodson wasn't quite ready to give up on state government. "Here in California, we need to see more state officials standing up and denouncing these raids," she said. "The state legislature as a whole needs to take this issue on and create guidelines or craft prohibitions directing state and local law enforcement not to participate in these medical marijuana raids. The legislature is not doing its job if it is not properly protecting patients."

Another thing the legislature could do is restate and expand on its support for Proposition 215. "They should re-codify it and take a stand against the federal raids," said Woodson. "And they should demand our federal delegation pay more attention to this issue. All Diane Feinstein can talk about is meth; she and Barbara Boxer haven't raised a finger to help on medical marijuana. We would also like to see more law enforcement officers trained on the medical cannabis issue."

"California will do nothing statewide until federal law changes," predicted Gieringer. "I see this pattern of sporadic raids continuing until there is a change in the federal law. Two or three years ago, I would have said we were in mortal danger, but in fact, we've had nothing but an increase in the number of dispensaries even after we lost two Supreme Court decisions. Somehow I have a hard time believing that this is going to be reversed, especially given what happened in LA. Two years ago, there weren't any clubs in LA, now there are a hundred. It looks to me like the nation's second largest city is firmly infected with dispensaries. When it was just the Bay area, I was concerned the feds could shut it down, but they blew their chance. Now all they can do is bust someone every once in awhile and try to tarnish the image of the dispensaries, but they are here to stay."

Feature: Cases of Immigrants Deported for Minor Drug Offenses Heard at US Supreme Court This Week

The US Supreme Court Tuesday heard oral arguments in two consolidated cases that question whether immigrants who are legal US residents should face mandatory deportation for small-time offenses such as drug possession. Thousands of immigrants face such wrenching punishment, and according to the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, more than a million and a half people have been deported since the introduction of mandatory deportation for "aggravated felonies" under the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act that is being challenged in these cases.

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US Supreme Court
That law expanded the definition of "aggravated felonies" -- crimes for which deportation is mandatory -- beyond serious violent crimes, which had been the previous standard. The cases before the Supreme Court this week revolve around whether offenses that are considered misdemeanors under the federal Controlled Substances Act but are considered felonies under state law in the states where people were convicted can qualify as "aggravated felonies" under the immigration law.

Many of those deported under the immigration law were in fact found guilty of serious crimes, but many others were not. In one case covered by the Drug War Chronicle, Joao Herbert, who was adopted by American parents from a Brazilian orphanage as a young child but who never applied for US citizenship, was arrested as a teenager for selling a small bag of marijuana. He was sentenced to probation, but federal authorities sought successfully to deport him under the 1996 law. Sent to a land he never knew, he scraped by for a few years as an English teacher before being gunned down by Brazilian police in 2004.

In the cases before the court Tuesday, Lopez v. Gonzales and Toledo-Flores v. US, the offenses for which the US seeks to deport immigrants are even more trivial than in Herbert's case. Jose Antonio Lopez was a Sioux Falls, SD, grocery store and taco stand owner who legally emigrated from Mexico in 1985. The married father of two children, who are US citizens, pleaded guilty to telling someone how to obtain cocaine. Such an offense is a misdemeanor under federal law, but was a felony under South Dakota law. Federal immigration officials classified his offense as an "aggravated felony" under the immigration law and deported him to Mexico.

Reymundo Toledo-Flores was arrested for cocaine possession in Texas, where it is a misdemeanor, but when he was caught trying to reenter the country he was hit with a two-year prison sentence because immigration authorities considered his Texas bust an "aggravated felony" under the immigration law. He is appealing the sentence.

"The problem here is that state law and federal law are at odds in determining the gravity of the offense," Justice David Souter said during oral arguments Tuesday. "Isn't that very strange that Congress would have wanted a reading of the statute that would turn its definition of a misdemeanor crime into an aggravated felony for purposes of the immigration laws?" he asked.

Bush administration attorneys argued that immigration officials correctly classified both cases. "The statutory definition of 'aggravated felony' encompasses large categories of criminal conduct under state law, without requiring a federal-law parallel," the US solicitor general wrote in a brief to the court.

Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler told the court Tuesday that the immigration law "looks to state law." If a drug offense is a felony under state law, it is a deportable felony under the federal law, he argued.

But three former Immigration and Naturalization Service general counsel disagreed in a friend of the court brief they submitted. "There is no clear indication that Congress intended the definition of aggravated felony to apply to drug offenses that are... misdemeanors under the federal law," they wrote.

Chief Justice John Roberts was thinking along similar lines. "It must give you pause," he told Kneedler, "that your analysis of a term 'drug-trafficking' offense... leads to the conclusion that simple possession equates with drug trafficking."

"Immigrants shouldn't be kicked out of the country for doing what the president of the United States did," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It is clear that the type of drug offenses we are talking about here are not the type of offenses Congress intended when it passed that law," he told Drug War Chronicle. "It also seems like this raises equal protection issues because it looks like whether you get deported or not depends on which state you were convicted in. In those states where drug possession is a felony, you get kicked out; in those where it isn't, you don't."

Immigrant rights and civil liberties groups joined in calling on the court to reject the federal government's broad interpretation of the law, and even the Center for Immigration Studies, which generally hews to a hard line on immigration enforcement, was not overly enthusiastic about deporting small-time drug offenders. "If the state legislature has decided this is a serious crime and someone who commits it will get deported, it's not like that person didn't know it was illegal," said Dr. Steven Camarota, director of research for the group. "I don't see a problem with making those people go. In some cases, however, people plead guilty to a crime not realizing they would be subject to deportation, and that raises a fairness issue," he told Drug War Chronicle. "The whole criminal justice system is supposed to temper justice with mercy, but with immigration we've created so many exceptions and waivers that sometimes it's good to come down hard."

For Camarota, the whole debate over deporting immigrants for small-time drug offenses is "small potatoes" compared to the real immigration issues facing the country. "We are talking about a few thousand people when there are 37 million immigrants in the country," he pointed out. "There is nothing wrong with the way in which the government is approaching this, but it does seem like an awful lot of debate over something so small. We should be putting resources into general enforcement of immigration laws."

"The 1996 law is really destructive," said Arnaldo Garcia of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "On any given week, you have 20,000 or so legal permanent residents who committed small offenses sitting in jail under deportation proceedings. That includes things like a 20-year-old who had sex with his 17-year-old girlfriend, and it includes things like people getting arrested with small amounts of marijuana on them," he told the Chronicle. "The federal government is trying to institutionalize a double standard. Legal residents have equal rights under our court system, but after they have completed their sentences, they are then subjected to an unfair punishment -- banishment for life. This is a big crack in the foundation of equal treatment under the law."

There is little legal permanent residents can do, said Garcia. "What you can do is make sure you know the law," he said. "If you get arrested, you need to get the advice of an immigration attorney to know the consequences of the charge and whether it's a deportable offense. Some judges will work with you -- doing things like sentencing you to 364 days instead of 366, the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony -- but the INS just wants to deport your ass. I've seen people going in for their citizenship tests and immigration is waiting for them because they got busted as a teenager."

The ultimate protection from deportation under the immigration law is to become a US citizen. "That's easier said than done," said Garcia. "There is a huge backlog. I'm working with one family that submitted a reunification petition in 1994. Their case is just coming up now."

Feature: Colorado Marijuana Legalization Initiative Trails, But the Fight Is On

Last year, SAFER Colorado largely flew under the radar to a surprise win with its Denver marijuana legalization initiative. This time around, SAFER Colorado's Colorado Marijuana-Alcohol Equalization Initiative, now known officially as Amendment 44, is not having it so easy. But initiative organizers say they are within striking distance and preparing for a frantic last few weeks before the November elections.

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Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Like the Denver initiative, which legalized the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults via a municipal ordinance (and which city officials promptly ignored), Amendment 44 is elegant in its simplicity. Voters will be asked: "Shall there be an amendment to section 18-18-406 (1) of the Colorado revised statutes making legal the possession of one ounce or less of marihuana for any person twenty-one years of age or older?"

If voters approve of the measure, Colorado could become the first state in the nation to vote to legalize the weed. Or, in a perfect world, it would join Nevada, where an initiative to allow the possession and sale of limited amounts of marijuana is on the ballot and very competitive.

But the fight is on. In the last two weeks, Coloradans have witnessed dueling press conferences, a challenge to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, who owns the Wynkoop Brewery, a debate between SAFER Colorado's Mason Tvert and Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a failed challenge to some bad ballot guide language, repeated visits by high-profile, out-of-state anti-drug crusaders, and the emergence of a parents' group in favor of the initiative.

At a news conference in front of the state capitol last week, Guarding Our Children Against Marijuana Prohibition made its public debut. “We need to rethink marijuana prohibition and what it says about the priorities of Colorado and this nation,” said Jessica Peck Corry, cofounder of the organization. “The science shows that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol and for our children’s sake it is time we treat it that way," said the conservative Republican public policy analyst with the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado, who is also the mother of a 16-month-old daughter.

"I'm not a marijuana user," Corry told Drug War Chronicle Wednesday. "I see the drug war, however, as a greater threat to my daughter's future than the recreational use of marijuana by adults could ever be. Our government has spent $2 billion in anti-drug ads since 1998. I'd rather have this money spent on college scholarships for needy kids from our poorest communities. It's time to wake up to the fact that prohibition isn't working," she explained. "We say our nation trusts adults to make decisions in their private lives. It's time we live up to this promise."

"We're doing something right," said SAFER Colorado's Mason Tvert in between press events. "We've got two people running this whole campaign, no millions of dollars, no office, no multiple phone lines, and we're in a very competitive fight," he told Drug War Chronicle. "While the Rocky Mountain News had us down 42% to 53%, they only polled people who had voted in previous elections. But we're not too concerned with polling; last year, we were polling lower than this in Denver, and we won."

What SAFER Colorado is concerned with is winning the campaign and using innovative tactics. Thursday, for instance, Tvert issued a challenge to Mayor Hickenlooper on the occasion of the opening of the Great American Beer Fest. Since "marijuana is safer than alcohol" is SAFER's constant -- and so far successful -- refrain, Tvert challenged Hickenlooper and Peter Coors. For every beer they drank, Tvert said, he would take a hit of marijuana. Neither Coors nor the mayor bit, but the challenge garnered even more media attention for Tvert and the initiative.

"This ongoing duel with the mayor is a win-win for us," Tvert exclaimed. "Either he shows up and gets killed or he doesn’t show up and looks bad. We're trying to do something fun and new and interesting that clearly explains our position that marijuana is safer than alcohol. We hope Bill O'Reilly is watching; we'd love for him come after us."

As in Nevada, the opposition is gearing up in Colorado, and it's bringing in outsiders from national anti-drug organizations. Coming to the rescue of Colorado children are such self-appointed crusaders as Dads and Mad Moms Against Drug Dealers head Steven Steiner, who, after his son died of an Oxycontin overdose, took funding from Oxycontin's manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, to campaign against marijuana legalization and even medical marijuana. He hit town on Thursday. Already parachuting in to help stop the initiative is long-time anti-drug zealot Calvina Faye, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation. Former White House deputy drug czar Dr. Andrea Barthwell has joined the carpetbagging crew, too; she plans to wage the fight with a series of lectures to alert people to the dangers of the devil's weed.

"These folks are crazy," moaned SAFER Colorado's Tvert. "These people who come out here like Calvina Faye talking about 'our' children in 'our' state -- she lives in Florida and she doesn’t even have children! And Andrea Barthwell, with her little marijuana lectures. At her first one, the only person to show up was our infiltrator, and they threw him out. The lectures are designed to convince you that marijuana is bad, but apparently you had to already agree with that to attend," he snorted.

But it's not all outsiders. Leading Colorado elected officials, including Attorney General John Sutherland and Lt. Gov. Jane Nelson are members of a new "grassroots" organization opposing the measure, Stop Amendment 44. That group has so far managed to line up the Colorado PTA, the Colorado Education Association, and the Colorado Association of School Executives against the initiative.

The group is led by Boulder County Republican Party chairman Rob McGuire, whom Tvert qualified as a worthy adversary. "He's very sharp and he uses clever positions," Tvert said. "But he's only doing this because the governor asked him to. Still, the group is a problem. Groups are beginning to come out against us."

McGuire may be a sharp operator -- we wouldn’t know because he would not return repeated calls for comment -- but the Stop Amendment 44 web site has things as crazy as anything Calvina Fay or Steven Steiner ever said. One page warns that "Marijuana Gumballs can pack enough THC to kill a small child!," a patently absurd proposition. Another page on the site, "He Was Only 12 Years Old -- Now Disabled By Marijuana" is written by Colorado anti-marijuana crusader Beverly Kinard and pretty much speaks for itself.

It looks like October is going to be a very interesting month in Colorado. Can SAFER Colorado pull another upset like it did in Denver last year? The element of surprise is gone, but the group and its allies hope their message and their media assault can combine to compensate for that and make Colorado the first state where voters have chosen to legalize marijuana.

Feature: Nevada Marijuana Initiative Organizers See Tight But Winnable Race Going Into Final Stretch

Nevada may be on the brink of becoming the first state to vote to end marijuana prohibition. Four years after the Marijuana Policy Project first tried to get over the top in Nevada, the Washington, DC-based group and its local affiliate, the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana (CRCM) have a poll showing victory to be within their grasp.

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2002 DEA propaganda page opposing the Nevada initiative the first time around
The Nevada marijuana regulation initiative, now known as ballot Question 7, would allow persons 21 and older to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. It also allows for the regulated sale of marijuana in state-licensed stores while mandating restrictions on where and how such businesses can operate. The initiative calls for tax revenues from marijuana sales to be divided between state-sponsored alcohol and drug treatment and the state's general fund. The initiative also increases penalties for anyone providing marijuana to a minor and increases the maximum sentence for a driver who kills someone while driving impaired by any substance.

According to internal polling results released last week, when potential voters were read the actual ballot language and asked if they would vote for the marijuana initiative, 49% said they would while only 43% said they would not. That poll, conducted by a nationally-known, California-based polling firm, contradicts one by the Reno Gazette-Journal days earlier that found the initiative losing by a margin of 37% to 55%. A Las Vegas Review-Journal poll Tuesday had the initiative losing 42% to 51%.

"The polls jibe," said CRCM campaign manager Neal Levine. "The Reno Gazette-Journal poll asked if people favored the legalization, use, possession, and transfer of marijuana, while our poll used the actual ballot language. The explanation of the difference lies in the wording of the question asked. The Review-Journal poll, while it shows us behind, shows a huge upward trend over their last poll. Their language wasn’t as slanted, but it still didn’t ask the question voters will be asked on the ballot. What is consistent is that the campaign is trending up," he told the Drug War Chronicle.

"What we've said all along is that the polls have us about even," Levine continued. "That means we have a real shot now, and we're going to need all our people to register and turn out to vote. We will be campaigning hard," he vowed.

"We're running a very aggressive campaign," said Levine. "We have a very detailed and layered plan, which we're already in the process of rolling out, and we're very excited about our chances. We have new web animation that explains the initiative in clear terms, we have a way of virally spreading our stuff using Youtube, we have home phone banking. We're the subjects of a documentary film, and part of what we get from that deal is that the filmmakers are providing weekly webisodes. The first one goes up Friday," he said. "We're also releasing our first web TV commercial this week. And we've got a bunch of stuff rolling out over the next few weeks."

If the campaign is trending up, the opposition is gearing up. Opponents of the measure organized as Nevada Coalitions Against Marijuana have begun lining up opponents, including the Clark County (Las Vegas) commission; the Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, and Reno Sparks chambers of commerce; and the Nevada AFL-CIO. But the heart of the opposition appears to be the Nevada law enforcement establishment. Clark County Sheriff Bill Young, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Detective Todd Raybuck, and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department Lieutenant Stan Olsen were, for example, the prime movers in getting the Clark County commission to approve a resolution condemning the measure.

But that move may have gotten them and the commissioners in trouble. Nevada law bars public officials from advocating for or against ballot initiatives, and when CRCM got wind of the meeting, several dozen supporters led by Levine showed up to remind them of the law. "According to Nevada Revised Statutes 281.554, government officials and employees are prohibited from expending public funds, time, or resources to oppose or support a ballot question," Levine said in televised confrontation with the commission. "This rule applies to the Clark County commission." The commission ignored Levine's complaint, and then passed the resolution.

"The Nevada statutes are pretty clear. Once an initiative is on the ballot, public officials can't use government resources to advocate for or against it," Levine explained. "When the Clark County commission, acting on the request of the sheriff, put a resolution opposing our initiative on the agenda, we showed up to tell them it was illegal, but they did it anyway. They broke the law."

CRCM filed a complaint with the Nevada Attorney General's Office, which is now weighing it. In the meantime, CRCM has used the whole episode to garner even more press. "From a politics standpoint, we used them breaking the law to come out and oppose our initiative to get our message out. That story was covered by the media all over the state."

CRCM was able to do the same sort of political ju-jitsu with the visit earlier this month of Office of National Drug Control Policy head John Walters. Although his trip to Nevada was ostensibly for other purposes, Walters spoke out against the initiative and even gave out the web address for Nevada Coalitions Against Marijuana. "I got an op-ed printed in the Reno paper and the Las Vegas weekly criticizing Walters for coming out here and wasting the taxpayers' money to advocate against a state initiative," Levine said.

Now, with little more than a month to go to election day, the campaign is getting serious on both sides. CRCM is poised to win a historic victory, but it looks like this is going to be a nail biter on election night.

Feature: Drug Arrests Hit Another Record High, More than 786,000 Marijuana Arrests Alone in 2005

The FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report Monday, and it showed that despite nearly two decades of drug reform efforts, the drug war continues unabated, at least when measured by arrests. According to the report, overall drug arrests hit a record 1.8 million last year, accounting for 13.1% of all arrests in the country. Marijuana arrests totaled 786,545, another all-time high.

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drug bust in Bristol, Virginia
More people were arrested for drug offenses last year than for any other offense. Some 1.6 million people were arrested for property crimes, 200,000 fewer than were arrested on drug charges. The number of people arrested on drug charges was more than three times greater than the 603,500 people arrested for violent crimes.

People arrested for drug dealing, manufacture, or cultivation accounted for only 18% of all drug arrests, meaning nearly 1.5 million people were subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system merely because they possessed the wrong substance. When it comes to marijuana arrests, only 12% were for sale or cultivation, meaning some 696,000 people were busted for pot possession.

Marijuana arrests made up 42.6% of all drug arrests, suggesting that if the weed were legal, the drug war would shrink by roughly half. Heroin and cocaine accounted for another 30.2% of drug arrests, while synthetic and "other dangerous non-narcotic drugs" accounted for 27.2%

Marijuana arrests have more than doubled since 1993, when they sat at 380,000. By the beginning of the Bush administration in 2001, the number was 723,000. The figure declined to 697,000 in 2002, but has increased each year since then.

"These numbers belie the myth that police do not target and arrest minor marijuana offenders," said National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) executive director Allen St. Pierre, who noted that at current rates, a marijuana smoker is arrested every 40 seconds in America. "This effort is a tremendous waste of criminal justice resources that diverts law enforcement personnel away from focusing on serious and violent crime, including the war on terrorism," he argued.

"One marijuana arrest every 40 seconds," sighed Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "I think the numbers show that most people arrested for marijuana possession are young people, and presumably many of them are students. The more young people arrested for marijuana offenses, the more get convicted and lose their financial aid," he told Drug War Chronicle. "The consequences of a drug arrest don't end with handcuffs and jail cells; it's important to remember that when these numbers come out every year. Even if people aren't being sent to jail for long periods, they still suffer a great deal by losing access to public benefits and having criminal records that will haunt them for the rest of their lives."

"This is an interesting puzzle," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "We hear all the time that police aren't making marijuana a priority, and yet the numbers keep going up. One might begin to think that some of these law enforcement people making these claims may not be telling the truth," he told the Chronicle.

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drug arrest percentages, 1994-2003 (source: FBI)
The massive marijuana arrest figures somehow come in under the radar, Mirken said. "When I talk to reporters about these numbers, they are shocked. A lot of people don't seem to know that for three years running now, we've arrested more than three-quarters of a million people for marijuana, almost 90% of them for possession. I wish I could say it was a shock that the number has gone up again, but it just keeps increasing."

"Arresting hundreds of thousands of Americans who smoke marijuana responsibly needlessly destroys the lives of otherwise law abiding citizens," St. Pierre said, adding that over 8 million Americans have been arrested on marijuana charges in the past decade. During this same time, arrests for cocaine and heroin have declined sharply, implying that increased enforcement of marijuana laws is being achieved at the expense of enforcing laws against the possession and trafficking of more dangerous drugs.

"Enforcing marijuana prohibition costs taxpayers between $10 billion and $12 billion annually and has led to the arrest of nearly 18 million Americans," St. Pierre concluded. "Nevertheless, some 94 million Americans acknowledge having used marijuana during their lives. It makes no sense to continue to treat nearly half of all Americans as criminals for their use of a substance that poses no greater -- and arguably far fewer -- health risks than alcohol or tobacco. A better and more sensible solution would be to tax and regulate cannabis in a manner similar to alcohol and tobacco."

"These sorts of numbers show the challenges the drug reform movement continues to face," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, we're doing a good job of keeping people out of jail. Most people arrested on drug charges, at least for possession, probably get probation, and that's important," he told the Chronicle. "That said, the challenge for us is to deconstruct the institutions that support this. While most arrests are at the state and local level, the funding that the federal government provides to law enforcement is all tied to arrests, so state and local police forces have a very strong incentive to keep arresting drug offenders."

Feature: US Uses Annual Drug Certification Report to Attack Bolivia, Venezuela

The Bush administration released its annual "Presidential Determination on Major Drug Transit or Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries" report Monday, and both the report itself and Bush administration spokesmen used the occasion to launch attacks on Bolivia and Venezuela. The attack on Bolivia is related to the shift away from the forced eradication of coca crops under the "zero cocaine, not zero coca" policy of President Evo Morales, but the attack on Venezuela, which is neither a major drug producing country nor unusual in the region in being used as a transshipment point for Colombian cocaine, appears to have little to do with its adherence to US drug policy goals and much to do with the increasingly adversarial relationship between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the Bush administration.

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Bolivian coca (source: US State Dept.)
Chavez and Morales are close allies in an emerging left-leaning, anti-imperialistic axis in Latin America. Bolivia announced this week it is accepting Venezuelan assistance to construct new military facilities near the Paraguayan border.

The list of major drug producing or trafficking nations remains unchanged from last year. Included are Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.

Only two nations -- Myanmar and Venezuela -- were determined to have "failed demonstrably" to meet their obligations under international drug control treaties. Myanmar has reduced opium production, but remains an isolated military dictatorship. Sanctions against Venezuela were nevertheless waived, because of a belief by the administration "programs to aid Venezuela's democratic institutions are vital to the national interests of the United States" (though many in the hemisphere have suspicions about what that really means since the administration's tacit support for an attempted coup against Chavez in April 2002 and because of where the money is going).

"Venezuela's importance as a transshipment point for drugs bound for the United States and Europe has continued to increase in the past 12 months, a situation both enabled and exploited by corrupt Venezuelan officials," press secretary Snow charged.

The Bush administration might have a little more traction with such charges if it did not single out Venezuela. Mexico, for instance, is not mentioned in the text of the annual report except in the list of major trafficking nations despite rampant corruption, drug trade-related violence at record levels, and a government response that is curiously supine. Nor is Guatemala mentioned, despite the fact that the head of its anti-drug agency, Adam Castillo, pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington just two weeks ago to conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the country.

"This is the same charade they go through every year," said Sanho Tree, head of the Institute for Policy Studies Drug Policy Project. "These are essentially political determinations." The waiver to continue funneling money to anti-Chavez groups is a clear sign of that, Tree said. "If they decertify Venezuela without the waiver, they can't funnel all that money through the so-called pro-democracy opposition," he told Drug War Chronicle.

The Venezuelan government, for its part, rejected its designation as a failed partner in the war on drugs and accused the US government of "politicizing" international anti-drug policy. In an official statement issued Monday, the government said, "Venezuela denounces the continued politicization of important bilateral issues by the US State Department. The Bush administration consciously continues to practice a policy of substituting facts by unfounded statements, driven by simple political differences, the explicit purpose of which is to isolate Venezuela."

The statement went on to note that Venezuela had seized more than 35,000 kilograms of drugs last year and that its anti-drug efforts had won international praise. In comments earlier this month, British officials praised Venezuela's "tremendous cooperation" in fighting drugs, while the French talked of "intense cooperation" and the Spanish said Venezuelan authorities "are efficient in registering and detaining individuals that could be transporting drugs."

The Venezuelan statement also carried an implicit threat. The Chavez government threw the DEA out of Venezuela last year amid accusations it was spying on the Venezuelan government, and since then, the two countries have been negotiating a new agreement allowing the agency to operate there. "Baseless accusations, such as those contained in the Bush administration's report, will not help finalize an agreement as important as this one," the statement warned.

While the Bush attack on Venezuela's anti-drug record stinks of global power politics, its criticism of Bolivia is based on more traditional US drug policy concerns. "My administration is concerned with the decline in Bolivian counternarcotics cooperation since October 2005," Bush said in the report. "Bolivia, the world's third largest producer of cocaine, has undertaken policies that have allowed the expansion of coca cultivation and slowed the pace of eradication until mid-year, when it picked up. The Government of Bolivia's (GOB) policy of 'zero cocaine, but not zero coca' has focused primarily on interdiction, to the near exclusion of its necessary complements, eradication and alternative development."

White House press secretary Tony Snow amplified those remarks at a Monday press conference. "Despite increased drug interdiction, Bolivia has undertaken policies that have allowed the expansion of coca cultivation and have significantly curtailed eradication," he said. Snow warned that the US government is waiting to see whether the Bolivian government will eradicate minimum acreages, make changes to Bolivian law desired by the US, and tightly control the sale of coca leaf. The US will review Bolivia's compliance with US drug policy goals in six months, he said.

The Bolivians responded with only slightly less asperity than the Venezuelans. "The administration of the United States has a mistaken reading with respect to Bolivian anti-drug policy," said government spokesman Alex Contreras in an official statement Monday. "Bolivia invites the United States to join the policy of zero cocaine and to recall that it is the principal producer of precursor chemicals to transform coca into cocaine. Also, it has the largest market of illegal drug consumers."

The Bolivian government will accomplish its goal of eradicating 5,000 hectares of coca this year, Contreras said, adding that that benchmark "will have been smoothly surpassed, not by the imposition of the US government, but by our own will and without using any tear gas, let alone repression and confrontations," a clear reference to the bloody conflicts between coca growers and former Bolivian governments that attempted to impose US-style forced eradication policies.

Voluntary eradication is indeed going on, said Kathryn Ledebur of the Bolivia-based Andean Information Network, who questioned the Bush administration's strict timelines. "I find it ironic that forced eradication took nine months during the Banzer administration and now they want radical results in six months. No nation can comply with that," she told the Chronicle. "The real sticking point is the six-month deadline to eliminate farmers' personal coca plots. That could push the Bolivian government to the breaking point. This suggests the Bush administration has no real idea what should be done, but it wants a firm scolding on the record."

Ledebur also found irony in the US complaints about the lack of progress with alternative development. "That is funded and driven by the US," she pointed out.

Both Ledebur and Tree agreed that Bolivia is energetically tackling the cocaine trade. "The interdiction of cocaine is a concrete result the Bolivian government can point to," said Tree. "Coca does not equal cocaine, and until it does become cocaine, coca should be a domestic matter and not something on the US agenda. If Bolivia can successfully regulate where the coca goes, it should not be an issue. Evaluating Bolivia on how many hectares of coca it eradicates is a meaningless metric."

Feature: House Votes to Require School Districts to Allow Random, Warrantless Mass Search Policies

In a voice vote Tuesday night, the US House of Representatives voted to approve a measure that would force school districts across the country to adopt policies allowing teachers and school officials to conduct random, warrantless searches of all students at any time based on the "reasonable suspicion" that one student may be carrying drugs or weapons. Sponsored by Rep. Geoff Davis (R-KY), the Student Safety Act of 2006 (H.R. 5295) had no committee hearings and was fast-tracked to the House floor.

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Expect more of this if the Davis bill passes.
"Drugs and violence don't belong in our schools," said Rep. Davis during floor debate Tuesday. "I am a firm believer in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, and this legislation doesn't offer a blank check to anyone to conduct random arbitrary searches. The Supreme Court has held that teachers and school officials can use their judgment to make decisions that will help control their classrooms and protect their students. This is simple, commonsense legislation."

Actually, the bill does not offer a blank check for searches, it forces it down school districts' throats. According to an analysis of the bill by the Congressional Research Service, it "requires states, local educational agencies, and school districts to deem a search of any minor student on public school grounds to be reasonable and permissible if conducted by a full-time teacher or school official, acting on any colorable [changed in the final version to "reasonable"] suspicion based on professional experience and judgment, to ensure that the school remain free of all weapons, dangerous materials, or illegal narcotics." And just to make sure school districts get the message, the analysis notes, the bill "denies Safe Schools and Citizenship Education funds, provided under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, to states, local educational agencies, and school districts that fail to deem such searches reasonable and permissible."

Some House Democrats stood up to oppose the bill. "This bill would strip funding from any school district that decides local teachers and administrators know better than Congress how to make their schools safe," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). "It is a mistake to assume that every student is as guilty as some troubled person. We will stop any new program that would label all youth as guilty," she vowed.

"As someone who taught for six years in one of the toughest schools and communities in the country, I have serious reservations about what this legislation actually does," said Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL). "I am not alone. The American Association of School Administrators, the National School Boards Association, the PTA, the ACLU, the American Federation of Teachers, and my own Chicago school district all have concerns. We are concerned that this legislation overrides already enacted school search policies for a one-size-fits-all policy. This bill establishes a policy that gives teachers the authority to conduct searches when that authority should rest with the school board. And it penalizes schools for noncompliance by withholding Safe and Drug-Free Schools Act funds. While we all want our schools to be safe and secure places, this bill is duplicative, unnecessary, and takes away rights that should be reserved to local communities."

While Democrats spoke against the bill in debate Tuesday night, none took the simple step of asking for a roll-call vote, which might have resulted in a defeat for the measure. Since the bill was fast-tracked, it required a two-thirds vote in the House, and it is not clear that the bill could have reached that hurdle had members been forced to vote on the record. The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration.

"We're disappointed not only with the House in passing this bill, but with the cowardice displayed by the Democrats in not calling for a roll call vote to get legislators on the record," said Tom Angell, communications director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "Any member could have called for a roll call vote, but nobody did, and that could have made a difference. Not a single member of Congress felt it was important enough to get their colleagues on the record on this issue," he told Drug War Chronicle.

Along with DRCNet and the Drug Policy Alliance, SSDP worked with extremely short notice to mobilize opposition to the bill, which was thought to have died a peaceful death but was revived at the last minute as a campaign maneuver by Rep. Davis. The drug reform groups opposing the bill were joined by the ACLU and a number of education groups. The only major education group supporting the bill is the National Education Association.

"We did pretty good analysis when we got the legislation, and the thing that really hung us up was the way they defined searches as an activity performed by a full-time teacher or public school official," said Tor Cowan, director of legislation for the American Federation of Teachers, which opposed the bill. "We don't think teachers are trained to be police officers. If a teacher believes a student is carrying a weapon or in possession of drugs, they should direct that to the vice-principal or dean of discipline, who has been trained by the district as to what's allowable, and he would determine what the next step should be. That is preferable to having 50 school teachers, all with a different understanding of what reasonable suspicion meant, try to do this," he told Drug War Chronicle.

"From an administrator's perspective," Cowan continued, "they feel like they have policies in place that could be jeopardized by this bill. We already have enough federal requirements and mandates, and this could lead to challenges of policies that have already been settled by the Supreme Court. The court gives a pretty wide berth to school districts when it comes to establishing reasonable suspicion."

Although Republican legislators Tuesday night hammered away at the theme that the bill would protect the safety of teachers and students alike, Cowan bristled at the implication that bill opponents were not concerned with security. "It is a false argument to say that people who didn't support this don't care about school safety," he said. "It is already very clearly in a teacher's self-interest -- not only in herself, but in her students', and her school's -- to report her suspicions that a student is carrying a weapon or using drugs to the appropriate administrator in the school. The means are already there to ensure security and make sure schools remain drug- and violence-free."

"We have a couple of issues with this bill, too" said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the drug reform groups leading the opposition. "First, Congress is saying if you don't set a policy allowing teachers and administrators to search students, then you won't get federal money. The bill's authors say they are just trying to maintain the status quo, but that's absurd. School districts now can set their own policies and they should be able to set their own policies. If they want to protect the privacy rights of students, they should be able to do so without fear of losing federal funding," he told the Chronicle.

"Second, the way this bill is worded, it strongly implies that the school district's policy has to be one where they can conduct random mass searches," Piper continued. "If the principle hears a rumor that someone is selling marijuana, he could search every student in the building, and whether those kinds of searches will be constitutional is anybody's guess. Our big concern is that school administrators will get the wrong idea about the limits of their constitutional powers."

"In the controlling Supreme Court cases on these searches, the court held that school administrators did not need probable cause to search students, only 'reasonable suspicion,' which is a lesser standard," said Jesselyn McCurdy, legislative counsel at the ACLU's Washington Legislative Office. "But the court did not specifically rule on whether or not there has to be individualized suspicion; in fact, in its decision, it specifically said it was not expressing an opinion on mass searches," she told the Chronicle.

"We worry that the vague language in the bill will lead administrators to think they can do massive, sweeping searches like they did at Goose Creek," the site of a now notorious drug raid where police with drawn weapons and police dogs invaded a South Carolina high school, McCurdy said. "Regardless of whether the bill actually allows that, it is kind of silly. You can pass any bill you want, but if it's unconstitutional, someone will challenge it and force the Supreme Court to determine its constitutionality. Given that most school districts already have policies on school searches in place, this will only cause more confusion about what schools can and cannot do."

"We oppose this legislation because it is a one-size-fits-all blanket policy mandated from Washington," SSDP's Angell explained. "It sends the message that Congress knows better than school administrators how to keep drugs out of schools, and that is offensive, which is why all those education groups spoke out against it. If this becomes law, we're in danger of seeing more Goose Creek-style raids. A lot of schools already allow searches based on the rather flimsy reasonable suspicion standard, but they currently have a choice. Now Congress is trying to make them do that under the threat of losing federal funding."

Now the bill moves to the Senate, where reformers hope it dies a quiet death. If not, they are prepared to put a stake through its heart. "We'll be keeping a watchful eye on the Senate to ensure they don't try to sneak this bill into law," said Angell. "Lots of times at the end of the session things get tacked onto totally unrelated bills, and we're very wary of that. We'll be alerting the masses and asking people to call the Senate if we get word this bill is moving," he said.

While the opposition effort didn't manage to stop the bill in the House, organizations managed to deliver thousands of e-mails and countless phone calls to representatives in less than a week. And they'll be watching what happens next.

Feature: California Activists Look for Triple Play in November

Inspired by local initiatives making marijuana the "lowest law enforcement priority" in Seattle and Oakland, activists in three California cities -- Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica -- are busy working to ensure that similar measures pass there in November. Organizers in all three cities say their prospects for victory are good.

The three California local initiatives contain almost identical language and describe themselves similarly. As the web site for Santa Monicans for Sensible Marijuana Policy, the group running the campaign there, notes, the initiative "makes marijuana offenses, where cannabis is intended for adult personal use, the lowest police priority" and "it frees up police resources to focus on violent and serious crime, instead of arresting and jailing nonviolent cannabis users."

The Santa Cruz initiative goes one step further by establishing an official city position in favor of marijuana legalization. The initiative there would "establish a city policy supporting changes in state and federal laws that call for taxation and regulation for adult use of marijuana."

This year's batch of initiatives are a direct outgrowth of the 2004 Oakland Measure Z campaign, where activists organized as the Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance (OCLA) managed to pass an initiative making adult marijuana offenses the lowest priority and instructing the city to advocate for the taxation and regulation of marijuana. While OCLA is not formally involved in this year's initiatives, some of its members, like Richard Lee of the Oaksterdam News and the Bulldog Coffeeshop, have helped bankroll the effort. Others, such as long-time activist Mikki Norris of the Cannabis Consumers Campaign and California NORML head Dale Gieringer have been instrumental as advisors.

"After our successful experience with Measure Z in Oakland, those of us from OCLA wanted to spread this around California to show broad support, so last year, we and California NORML sponsored a statewide activists' conference where we shared our Oakland strategy and looked for which other areas in the state might be amendable to doing something similar," Norris told Drug War Chronicle. "The political consultant we had used, Susan Stevenson from Next Generation, wrote a grant application to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) saying we were interested in initiatives or ordinances in five cities, and we got an MPP contract that provided basic funding. We still have to do more fundraising, but that grant made this possible," she said.

Following that, said Norris, the activists narrowed their focus. "We found people in what looked like good areas, and we raised some money to do polling to see if they were viable, we looked at the demographics, and we settled on these three cities."

Actually West Hollywood and San Francisco were also targeted, but in the former, a city councilman came forward with an ordinance that organizers could live with, and they dropped their initiative campaign. In San Francisco, city supervisors this week were moving toward adopting a lowest priority ordinance.

Organizers in the three Santas are hard at work now to ensure victory in November, they told the Chronicle in remarkably similar on-message terms. "It's looking very good here," said Sensible Santa Barbara spokesperson Lara Cassell. "We've been very successful so far, and there is no organized opposition," she told the Chronicle. "In fact, no one even bothered to submit an opposing argument for the ballot, which is fabulous. Santa Barbara is very friendly to our issue."

Sensible Santa Barbara was benefiting from the help provided by statewide activists, said Cassell, "but we are lucky to have a lot of people in the community here who support us. We feel very good about this. We are confident it will pass."

"Things are going really well here," said Kate Horner, campaign director for Sensible Santa Cruz, the group leading the effort there. "There is no organized opposition, although a few community leaders have spoken out against the initiative over possible costs. But those costs will be minimal," she told the Chronicle. "In Seattle and Oakland, they say the costs are basically a matter of photocopying charges, no more."

Unlike the Santa Barbara and Santa Monica initiatives, the Santa Cruz initiative goes beyond lowest priority language. "That provision would require the city clerk to annually send letters to state and federal government officials stating the city's preference for a tax and regulate model," Horner explained. "That would be our city policy."

Support for not criminalizing marijuana users runs high in Santa Cruz. In a poll done in November, more than 80% of people there opposed criminalizing pot smokers.

"That polling data gave us our mandate," said Horner. "It really showed strong support. Since then, it has just been a matter of building coalitions across the community. I'm confident the community wants to redirect resources from nonviolent marijuana offenders to serious and violent criminals."

"Things are looking good here," said Nicki LaRosa, spokesperson for the Santa Monica effort. "Our strategy is to get as many people involved as possible. There are lots of people here who have expressed support, and we are working on making sure we get the message out and get our voters to the polls," she told the Chronicle.

"We do have police opposition -- they wrote the ballot argument against the initiative -- but we also have a lot of community support. The police say marijuana is already a low priority, but the statistics we've seen show people still getting arrested. We want to send a message to Sacramento and Washington that Santa Monica is ready for the next phase of ending the drug war by deprioritizing marijuana offenses."

Santa Monica looks like the toughest nut to crack, said Norris. "We feel confident in Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara; Santa Monica is where we are most concerned," said Norris. "We are expecting opposition from the police officers association. Santa Monica is a bit of a challenge. It is a progressive city, but it has also been undergoing a transformation in recent years with luxury hotels and property values going up. And unlike Oakland, even progressives seem to align themselves with the police in Santa Monica. The city is also very finicky politically and has a strong NIMBY component," she worried.

But Norris also noted that current political issues could have positive impact in all three cities. "These initiatives are especially timely as California is currently confronted with a severe prison overcrowding crisis," she pointed out. "It's time to reconsider who we are placing in these overcrowded prisons and to set priorities. We can keep building new prisons at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, or we can look at alternative policies that stop sending so many nonviolent offenders to prison. Cities and the state will certainly save money by not arresting, prosecuting, and incarcerating otherwise law-abiding citizens to prison for marijuana," she argued.

And not only could the state save money, it could also make money by moving to taxation and regulation, Norris argued. "It's been all over the news lately that law enforcement is finding and uprooting thousands and thousands of marijuana plants grows on public lands with the street value in the millions," she said, alluding to the state's annual fall eradication frenzy. "It doesn't seem to be making much of a dent on the supply. The market in this state is huge. We could conceivably raise billions of dollars in revenues and help fund services if we controlled, taxed and regulated cannabis."

That's the not so long-term plan, Norris confided. "We want to set this up so on election day we can say that people across California want to stop arresting marijuana offenders and get the police to concentrate on violent and serious crime," she said. "We're hoping to get a big enough bounce off this election to either inspire another round of initiatives or go statewide," said Norris. "Our goal is ultimately to bring fundamental marijuana law reform across the state."

Drug War Issues

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