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Sentencing: Tyrone Brown is a Free Man!

Tyrone Brown, the Dallas man sentenced to life in prison in 1990 for smoking a joint while on probation for an armed robbery in which no one was injured, walked out of prison in Huntsville Thursday after receiving a conditional pardon from Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R). The pardon came after ABC News' 20-20 featured his story twice, helping to create a nationwide grass roots effort to win his freedom, Save Mr. Brown.

Brown was met by relatives and journalists, according to an Associated Press report filed from Huntsville. He broke into a broad smile as he embraced his mother, Nora Brown. "I didn't believe this day was going to come," he said.

Under the terms of the pardon, Brown will have to live with his mother, find a job, go to a therapist, and report to a parole officer. If he violates any of those conditions, the pardon could be revoked.

Brown was 17 when he was convicted of armed robbery. After he tested positive for marijuana once, Judge Keith Dean re-sentenced him to life in prison. The harshness of Judge Dean's sentence for Brown, which he has never explained, stands in sharp contrast to his treatment of well-connected, white John Alexander Wood. Wood was convicted of murder, but Dean sentenced him to probation, where he repeatedly tested positive for cocaine. But instead of sending him to prison, Dean gave him permission to quit reporting to his probation officer and quit taking drug tests.

With the glare of the national spotlight on the case, Judge Dean (by now ex-Judge Dean) joined a long list of local law enforcement officials calling on the governor to free Brown. Thanks to their efforts, as well as the efforts of muckraking media outlets and an aroused populace, one drug war prisoner has gone home. That leaves about 499,999 to go.

Harm Reduction: Los Angeles County Okays Needle Exchange Program

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $500,000 needle exchange program Tuesday. The board approved the harm reduction measure, which is designed to save lives and dollars by reducing the rate of spread of blood-borne diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis B and C, on a 3-2 vote.

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widely-used syringe exchange logo
The city of Los Angeles and seven California counties already have approved needle exchange programs. Los Angeles County has an estimated 120,000 to 190,000 drug injectors, nearly half of whom are estimated to share needles.

The new needle exchanges targeting heroin users will be at the Asian American Drug Abuse Program, Bienestar Human Services, Common Ground-The Westside HIV Community Center, Public Health Foundation Enterprises (and through them, Clean Needles Now) and Tarzana Treatment Centers.

Supervisors Mike Antonovich and Don Knabe voted against the program. "The problem that we have here is you're having the government be in a position of sponsoring a known drug that could lead to death and leads to dependence," Antonovich said. "I would rather put our money into rehabilitation and education encouraging a drug-free society instead of being politically correct and helping addicts remain addicts," he said.

But Supervisor Gloria Molina defended the program, saying its aim is to prevent AIDS. "This is a very simple program that's had unbelievable success, and it's unfortunate (that) it is not supposed to address, and it does not address, the rehabilitation of drug users. All it does is, hopefully, address the issue of prevention of HIV," Molina said.

Medical Marijuana: Federal Appeals Court Rules Angel Raich Can Be Prosecuted, Even If Only Marijuana Keeps Her Alive

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals Wednesday ruled that Angel Raich, an Oakland woman whose doctor says marijuana is keeping her alive, can still be prosecuted on federal drug charges. Raich and her attorneys had argued that the desperately ill have the right to use marijuana to keep themselves alive when all other drugs fail.

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Angel Raich, May 2005
Raich is the woman who went all the way to the Supreme Court seeking protection for medical marijuana patients in states where it is legal. But she lost in a 2005 decision when the court held that patients and their providers could indeed be prosecuted under federal law even if their states had legalized it.

Raich suffers from a brain tumor, scoliosis, chronic nausea, and a number of other medical conditions. She uses marijuana every couple of hours to gain appetite and suppress pain on her doctor's recommendation.

The ruling does not mean Raich will be prosecuted. She filed the lawsuit preemptively, in an effort to avoid any possible future arrest. Because Raich's doctors believe medical marijuana is essential to her survival, she argued that for the government to deprive her of her medicine would violate the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution, which states that no person may be "deprived of life... without due process of law."

But in its opinion this week the three-judge appeals court panel ruled that the United States is not yet at the point where "the right to use medical marijuana is 'fundamental' and 'implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.'" The court did suggest, however, that if Raich were ever arrested, she could seek to mount a "medical necessity" defense.

"The court has just sentenced me to death," Angel Raich said in a written statement. "My doctors agree that medical cannabis is essential to my very survival, and the government did not even contest the medical evidence. Every American should be frightened by this ruling. If we don't have a right to live, what do we have left?"

"Today's decision marks a disappointing setback for rational medical policy as well as fundamental constitutional rights in America," said Robert Raich, attorney for the plaintiff. "We may ask the Supreme Court to review the case, and may ask the district court to review issues that the Ninth Circuit left unresolved."

"Today's ruling is shocking, but it's not the end of the struggle," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "Last June, legislation to end the federal government's war on medical marijuana in the 11 states where medical marijuana is legal received a record number of votes in the US House of Representatives, and support has grown this year. This is literally a matter of life and death for Angel and thousands of other patients, and we will keep fighting on both the legal and political fronts until every patient is safe."

Medical Marijuana: Federal Judge Dismisses Charges Against Ed Rosenthal

A federal district court judge dismissed money-laundering and tax evasion charges against Ed Rosenthal Wednesday, saying federal prosecutors had vindictively re-indicted the "Guru of Ganja" after he publicly criticized them in the wake of his successful appeal of his 2003 marijuana cultivation conviction. In that case, Rosenthal was convicted after not being allowed to present evidence he was growing for medicinal purposes, but was sentenced to only one day in jail after the jury protested upon hearing the rest of the story.

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Ed Rosenthal at courthouse, with supporters, September 2006 (courtesy indybay.org)
The same judge who presided over Rosenthal's first trial, US District Court Judge Charles Breyer, ruled that prosecutors illegally retaliated against Rosenthal by re-indicting him for the acts that were the basis of his original conviction, which was overturned last year, and piling on with the tax evasion and money-laundering charges over a sum that amounted to less than $1,900.

Federal prosecutors tried "to make Rosenthal look like a common criminal and thus dissipate the criticism heaped on the government after the first trial," Breyer said in his opinion. That perception, he said, "will discourage defendants from exercising their First Amendment right to criticize their prosecutions and their statutory right to appeal their convictions."

While he dismissed the two financial counts, Judge Breyer let stand Rosenthal's indictment for growing marijuana for medical patients. But that doesn't give prosecutors much to work with because Breyer also noted that even if he were convicted in a new trial, they could not seek to sentence him to more than the one day that he has already served. That leaves them with the equally unpalatable options of appealing the decision to the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals -- the same court that overturned the original conviction -- or pursuing a conviction where they cannot punish Rosenthal even if they win.

Assistant US Attorney George Bevan, the chief prosecutor on the case, helped Judge Breyer prove the case for a revenge prosecution. While Bevan told Breyer he would not seek additional prison time on the marijuana counts, he said he was "committed to doing the retrial and seeing the case to a conclusion." That remark came after Bevan told the court in October that Rosenthal had complained about not getting a fair trial because he could not mention medical marijuana. "So, I'm saying, this time around, he wants the financial side reflected, fine, let's air this thing out," Bevan said. "Let's have the whole conduct before the jury: tax, money-laundering, marijuana."

In Wednesday's ruling, Breyer noted Bevan's candor but said his comments only "confirm the appearance of vindictiveness."

"The government was clearly out of line to bring this case forward against me," said Rosenthal in a statement released by his attorneys. "The court's ruling is reassuring, but my continued prosecution on the marijuana charges is still malicious. To make me and my family go through a second prosecution to obtain, at most, a one-day time served jail sentence seems personally motivated."

"We are gratified that the court has recognized the vindictive nature of this prosecution and has reigned in the prosecutor," said Joe Elford, chief counsel for Americans for Safe Access, and author of the successful vindictive prosecution motion. "The additional charges brought against Rosenthal were clearly in retaliation for his criticism of the government. Taxpayer dollars should not be wasted on a vendetta carried out by a prosecutor against a defendant."

Australia: NSW Greens' Call to Decriminalize Drug Possession Causes Pre-Election Stir

Drug policy is becoming a major campaign issue in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW). With an ongoing, highly publicized "epidemic" of methamphetamine use under way and elections now less than 10 days away, the NSW Green Party is calling for the decriminalization of drug possession -- even the dreaded ice, as meth is commonly referred to Down Under -- and Liberal and Labor party foes are attacking them for it.

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Lee Rhiannon
Although Greens hold only a handful of seats in the state parliament, by throwing their support to the governing Labor Party in some key districts, they could end up holding the balance of power in the Upper House. The NSW Greens' leading Upper House candidate, Lee Rhiannon, has been the party's main spokesperson in the increasingly nasty exchanges over drug policy.

The Greens' position on the decriminalization of drug possession is not ad hoc. It reflects the party's formal platform on drug policy, adopted last October after extensive consultations with party members. The platform also calls for the stronger embrace of harm reduction measures and the decriminalization of marijuana growing for personal use.

While the Greens' drug platform is not new, Rhiannon's public reiteration of it Monday ignited a firestorm of criticism and mischaracterization. The Daily Telegraph blurted to its readers that the Greens were "effectively saying that ice junkies should be free to buy as much of the deadly substance as they want." The Daily Telegraph also described the Green position that decriminalizing drug possession was less dangerous than prohibition as "a bizarre defense."

Liberal leader Peter Debnam was also caustic, writing in his blog: "Any Member of Parliament who thinks we should decriminalize drugs, including 'Ice', should take a good hard look at themselves, do the community a favour, and resign" and "This drug is death to young people and it is undermining a whole generation."

While Debnam accused the Greens and the Labor Party of cooking up some sort of "ice deal," there was little sign of that from Labor Premier Morris Iemma. He responded to the Green drug platform by saying: "It is just an absurd, ridiculous and disgusting policy." Any MP who supported such a policy was "completely out of touch with reality," he said.

Just to make things perfectly clear, Labor Party secretary Mark Arbib added that while Labor was willing to cut an electoral deal with the Greens, it does not endorse Green drug policy. "There will be no watering down of the (Labor) party's tough drug laws or positions on other social issues," he said.

But the Greens are fighting back, against both the political attacks and the yellow journalism. "The allegation in today's Daily Telegraph that the Greens policy would allow people to buy unlimited amounts of the deadly drug 'ice' is totally false," Rhiannon said in a Tuesday statement. "The Greens policy does not support unlimited supply of any drug, least of all crystal methamphetamine. This attack on the Greens is an election scare tactic which will distract from the urgent task of protecting young people from ice. The Greens do not support drug use and our policy does not condone people using the new drug known as ice."

Rhiannon also went after Premier Iemma for both failure and hypocrisy. "The Iemma government has failed to deal with the increased use of ice," she said. "The use of crystal methamphetamine has increased during the term of the Iemma/Carr government. There are now more than 17,700 regular methamphetamine users and 14,700 dependent methamphetamine users in Sydney and the number is growing rapidly," she noted.

"The drug policies of the Labor government are failing to deal with the epidemic," Rhiannon continued. "What is needed are prevention initiatives that educate the target populations to the dangers of using the drug and effective and accessible treatment programs for dependent and addicted users."

In fact, as the Greens noted in a Wednesday press release, Labor actually quietly supports many Green harm reduction notions and treatment and diversion programs for meth users. "The Premier is quick to put the boot into the Greens for our approach to ice. But the reality is Labor has instituted innovative ice programs, based on the harm minimization principles advocated by the Greens," Rhiannon said.

Among those programs is a stimulant treatment program at two hospitals, the safe injection room at Kings Cross, and the "MERIT" program that diverts meth users into treatment instead of jail. "If we really want to make NSW ice free, these programs need to be expanded and receive a massive increase in funding," said Rhiannon. "Premier Iemma should shout these initiatives from the rooftops instead of hiding behind his tough "law and order" policies. It appears that he is more concerned about a political backlash. To successfully eradicate ice politicians must be willing to take action that may be at first unpopular. Without brave policy from government, ice will continue to wreak havoc in our society."

Perhaps Debnam, Arbib and Iemma should listen to prominent Australian physician Dr. Alex Wodak's interview last year with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Among Wodak's quotes of note: "Prohibition didn't work in America in the 1920s and it won't work now."

Marijuana: Grassroots Protest in Small Town Wisconsin After Drug Bust

When police in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, wrapped up a 16-month investigation into the drug trade there, they patted themselves on the back for rolling up 62 people, mostly in their twenties, mostly for small-time sales of marijuana and prescription pills. But while police got some expressions of community support, not everyone was happy.

On Monday, for the second time in as many weeks, a handful of teenaged protestors gathered near the courthouse downtown to protest the busts and call for the legalization of marijuana. According to the Stevens Point Journal, the young demonstrators held up signs reading "Be Wise, Legalize," and "Hemp Can Save the World" as passing motorists honked in support.

"People should be able to choose what goes in their body," said Ben Eisner, 18. "Caffeine has more deaths per year than marijuana," he told the newspaper. Legalization would promote healthier user habits, he said. "With legalization comes responsibility," Eisner said.

"I think it should be used the same way alcohol is used," said Eryn Edelbeck, 17, adding that abuse of alcohol is more damaging to long-term health than marijuana.

And support is broad -- one of the demonstrators, Eleni Schuler, 16, said she has never even used marijuana herself. "I just support the idea," she said.

With their friends and colleagues facing possible long years in prison, the group is vowing to return every week to draw local support, "possibly with the goal of starting a chapter of NORML…" Add another handful to the ranks of the reformers. And with every small town bust, another handful.

Search and Seizure: Utah Supreme Court Holds Mere Odor of Marijuana Not Enough for a Warrantless Home Search

In a ruling last Friday, the Utah Supreme Court held that the odor of burning marijuana is not sufficient to allow police to enter a residence without a warrant. The ruling in Utah v. Duran means that in Utah, police will no longer be able to use the old "I think I smell marijuana" routine as a pretext for conducting warrantless searches of homes.

The case began in Price, Utah, in 2003, when police were called to a residence by relatives who claimed people were smoking marijuana inside. When police arrived, they reported that "marijuana smoke was leaking out the cracks of the trailer," thus giving them probable cause to seek a search warrant. But police feared the suspects were "in the process of smokin' up all the evidence," so they entered without taking the time to get a warrant.

Inside, they found three people, as well as marijuana. The three were arrested, and one of them, Bernadette Duran, sought to have the evidence against thrown out as the result of an unlawful search. Duran lost at the trial court level, but won in the state appeals court, and now that victory has been ratified by the state Supreme Court.

In its 4-1 decision, the high court said that while there are exceptions to the search warrant requirement, such as preventing the imminent destruction of evidence, smelling pot smoke is not one of them. "We decline to grant the aroma of burning marijuana a place on an exclusive, limited roster of exceptions to the requirement that a warrant be secured before a lawful search can occur," Justice Ronald Nehring wrote for the majority. "The aroma of marijuana must be accompanied by some evidence that the suspects are disposing of the evidence, as opposed to casually consuming it."

That was a step too far for the lone dissenter in the case, Associate Chief Justice Michael Willkins, who argued that the odor of pot smoke could at times justify a warrantless search. "In a case where illegal drugs are being burned out of sight but not out of smell, and where the quantity of drugs is unknown to the officers, a presumption that the drugs are being destroyed rather than merely consumed is not unreasonable," Wilkins wrote.

But thankfully, his was the dissenting opinion.

Medical Marijuana: Minnesota Bill Approved by House Committee

The Minnesota medical marijuana bill, HF 655 is on the move. In the bill's first House committee test, the Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday passed the bill on an 8-6 vote. It now heads for the House Public Safety and Civil Justice Committee.

A companion bill is the Senate is also moving. That legislation passed the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee on February 19 and is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Thomas Huntley (DFL-Duluth), lead sponsor of the House bill, hailed the vote as a victory for humane, common-sense legislation. "Politicians in St. Paul should trust physicians to know what's best for their patients," he said.

Among those who testified in support of the bill was Shannon Pakonen, whose son was pulled out of class and interrogated about his medical marijuana use by schoolteachers earlier this week. Pakonen went public with his medical marijuana use by testifying about it before a Senate committee about how he uses it to treat involuntary tics related to his Tourette's Syndrome.

"My son should not have to be treated like a criminal on the basis that he is my son," Pakonen testified, adding that this incident is precisely why Minnesota needs a medical marijuana law to protect patients and their families from harassment.

With both the House and Senate versions of the medical marijuana bill moving, and a new bill in New Mexico on the way to the desk of a governor who pushed to get it there, Minnesota could be on the way to becoming the 13th state to recognize medical marijuana. It's already the law in Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington.

Southwest Asia: 2007 Afghan Opium Crop Could Be Record-Breaker, UN Predicts

Already by far the world's leader in opium production, Afghanistan could set a new global record this year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime warned Monday. According to its assessment of winter planting trends, increases are expected in 15 provinces, mainly in the volatile south and east, decreases in seven provinces, no change in six provinces, and six provinces will produce no opium.

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trader's opium, outside Jalalabad, Afghanistan, photo by Drug War Chronicle editor Phil Smith
"The real increase is taking place in the provinces characterized by insurgency, and the problem there is not only a narcotic problem but an insurgency problem," Antonio Maria Costa, the director of the drugs and crime office, based in Vienna, said in Kabul Monday. "The southern provinces are a textbook case of lawlessness prevailing, and therefore everybody from farmers and labs, traffickers and warlords are trying to profit from the bonanza of the product."

Last year was already a record crop, with Afghanistan harvesting more than 6,000 metric tons of opium, enough to produce more than 600 metric tons of heroin. Increased cultivation area, along with ample rain and snowfall this winter, should result in a bountiful harvest this year, the UN reported.

The report comes as US and NATO troops prepare for the spring fighting season against the Taliban in the south and east. According to all accounts, the Taliban is among those profiting nicely from the opium trade. But efforts to repress the trade to cut funding for the Taliban threaten to drive peasant farmers right into the guerrilla group's waiting arms.

Still, the US and NATO follow a policy of eradicating the opium crop and substituting alternative development, a program that has not worked so far. They continue to reject an increasing clamor to try a different approach, including various proposals to license and market the crop through legitimate channels.

Costa also warned that more than $1 billion of opium from last year's bumper crop had not yet made it to market, with traders holding onto it in a bid for higher prices. "Is it in the insurgents' hands?" he asked. "It is not under the bed of the farmers," he said, adding, "It could become a serious problem down the road."

Europe: British Panel Calls for Complete Drug Law Overhaul

An expert panel in Britain Thursday called for a complete overhaul of the country's drug laws, saying Britain's Misuse of Drugs Act is so unscientific and unrealistic it should be scrapped in its entirety. The recommendation came in a 335-page report based on two years of deliberations by a panel of experts and laypeople convened by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (RSA).

The report, Drugs -- Facing Facts is startlingly blunt in its assessment of current British drug policy -- which is very similar to US drug policy -- warning that "a radical rethink" of drug policy is needed before the government's review of the National Drug Strategy next year. Among its recommendations:

  • The Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) should be repealed and replaced with a Misuse of Substances Act which incorporates alcohol, tobacco, solvents and over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
  • The new framework should be based on an index of substance-related harms -- physical, social and economic -- and drugs policy outcomes should be judged in terms of harms reduced rather than drugs seized or offenders prosecuted.
  • More emphasis should be placed on drugs education in primary school and less in secondary school, and more resources should be devoted to prevention work outside schools to reach young people in their own social settings.
  • Drug users should be treated in the same way as any other chronic disease sufferers. They should have better access to a range of options for their treatment including heroin prescribing where appropriate, better methadone prescribing, residential rehabilitation, psychological therapies and whole-family treatments.
  • Drug addicts who are managing their condition should not be discriminated against by public services such as housing and employment.
  • Through the framework of Local Area Agreements, local drugs policy should be joined up and include a renewed emphasis on creating resilient communities. Therefore, the lead in drugs policy should move from the Home Office to the Department for Communities and Local Government
  • Cannabis should continue to be controlled. But its position on the harms index several places below alcohol or tobacco suggests that the form this control takes might have to correspond far more closely with the way in which alcohol and tobacco are regulated.

"One of the themes of this report has been the need to shift drugs policy away from its current focus on crime reduction and the criminal justice system and onto a concern with drugs as posing a much more varied and complex set of social problems," said Professor Anthony King, chairman of the RSA drugs commission in a press statement accompanying the release of the report. "Drugs in our society are not just about crime; they are about individual health, public health, family life and the health and well-being of entire communities. It cannot be good for the UK that it is currently the drug-using centre of Europe."

With an eye on 2008, King called for the government to get to work on a radically new drug policy. "We urge ministers to set in train work on a new Misuse of Substances Act and to undertake with urgency the task of re-orienting drugs policy and redirecting it towards a broader conception of harm prevention and reduction. Current policy is broke and needs to be fixed."

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