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Medical Marijuana: Illinois Bill Killed in Senate

A bill that would have allowed for the use of medical marijuana in Illinois died Thursday, failing by a vote of 22-29 in the state Senate, with four senators voting "present." The vote came despite support from the Illinois Nurses Association, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, nearly a thousand Illinois doctors, 300 nurses, and 50 clergy members.

Sponsored by Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), the bill, SB 650, would have allowed people diagnosed by a physician as having a debilitating physical condition to register with the Department of Public Health to be permitted to use marijuana. Patients or caregivers could possess up to 12 plants and 2 ½ ounces of smokeable marijuana.

"I am saddened to hear that the bill did not make it out of the Senate," said Gretchen Steele of Coulterville. "As a registered nurse, I know that research and science support this legislation. As a multiple sclerosis patient, I feel slighted and have to wonder where our legislators' hearts are on this day."

"There is no logical reason to not have an implementable medical marijuana law in this state," said Dr. David Ostrow, Chicago physician, HIV/AIDS researcher and founder/director of the Medical Marijuana Advocacy Project. "The medical community strongly supported this bill, but our lawmakers unfortunately did not listen to the scientific evidence for medical marijuana's safety and efficacy this time around. I hope that someday soon, medicine, not politics, will prevail in Illinois and at the national level as well."

"We are not going to abandon the patients, doctors and nurses who have worked so hard to protect the sick and suffering," said Ray Warren, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, which had backed the Illinois effort. "Science, compassion and simple common sense say this is the right thing to do. We'll be back."

Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have all passed medical marijuana laws. Now, the best shot this year looks like Minnesota, but even there, the governor is threatening a veto. The heartland remains resistant.

Medical Marijuana: Minnesota Bill Headed For Final Vote in House, Facing Veto

The Minnesota medical marijuana bill is one floor vote away from passing the legislature, as the House Ways & Means Committee approved it on a 14-9 vote Monday. The bill, HF 655 is a companion measure to SF 345, which passed the state Senate last week.

"I hope the House follows the Senate's lead and, for the sake of Minnesota's seriously ill patients, passes this compassionate bill quickly," said Rep. Tom Huntley (DFL-Duluth).

Under the proposed law, patients with specified chronic debilitating conditions would be able to possess up to 12 plants and 2.5 ounces of marijuana. Patients can designate caregivers to grow for them. Patients must register with the state after obtaining a written recommendation from a physician, registered nurse, or physician's assistant.

But Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) is vowing to veto the measure if it passes, a position that has drawn the scorn of the Minneapolis alternative weekly, the City Pages. In an article referring to Pawlenty as Governor Buzzkill, the weekly called on him to "puff, puff, pass" the bill and chided him for "protecting cancer patients from 'the munchies.'"

The City Pages' scorn notwithstanding, the bill passed the Senate by a narrow margin, and it appears unlikely proponents can muster the numbers to overcome a veto. Still, there remains a chance that Minnesota will this year become the 13th state to embrace medical marijuana, joining Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Marijuana: Wisconsin Towns Join Decriminalization Trend

Small town Washburn, Wisconsin, may cling to the shores of Lake Superior at the northernmost tip of the state, but it's not clinging to tough marijuana law enforcement. Last week, the Washburn City Council passed an ordinance allowing city police to issue tickets to people caught with small amounts of marijuana instead of arresting and booking them.

That made Washburn only the latest Cheesehead State locality to pass a decrim ordinance -- and that distinction was short-lived. On Monday, the Two Rivers City Council passed an ordinance making possession of less than eight grams of marijuana a municipal offense.

The move to municipal decrim began in the 1970s, when 15 cities, mostly college towns, adopted ordinances, according to veteran Wisconsin marijuana and civil liberties activist Ben Masel. Milwaukee moved to the scheme in the early 1990s. Also in the early 1990s, counties were given similar authority, and Walworth County, home of the Alpine Valley Music Theater, which hosted Grateful Dead tours, notoriously turned a nice profit on $454 marijuana possession citations.

This year, Dane County (Madison) and Eau County prosecutors announced they would charge offenders exclusively under county ordinances rather than state law. But in other locales, that decision is left to local prosecutors. Being prosecuted under local ordinances has the benefit of leaving no criminal conviction and no loss of student aid or other benefits. But there can still be hefty penalties, and, Masel noted, a lower burden of proof for a civil infraction and no right to a jury trial.

It's all good with Washburn Assistant Police Chief Jeremy Clapero, who told a local radio station the ordinance would give police flexibility in dealing with pot users. Under Wisconsin law, simple marijuana possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Previously lacking a municipal ordinance, police had to put marijuana possessors in jail.

"They were arrested on the spot and brought to jail -- they were booked into the jail and then they would be at some point released and appear in court on that charge," said Clapero. "Now there's a situation where they can get a ticket with the fine amount and released. It's not on their criminal record at that point."

While Clapero said people could still be arrested under the state law, the ordinance will save police time and resources. "A situation where a person has a small or a very small amount of marijuana in their possession or in their car, this may be used instead of bringing that person to criminal court and having a criminal offense on their record for something would he be issued a city ordinance citation which is a forfeiture offense -- similar to like a speeding ticket."

But don't think this means Washburn police have seen the light regarding the war on drugs. "It's not intended to say that we're not tough on drugs. We're still tough on drugs it's just gives us another avenue. We're behind just what every other agency has done, so we just kind of stepped up and did what they did." Clapero said.

Europe: Vatican Registers First Drug Conviction

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St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican (courtesy Rome.info)
For the first time ever, a Vatican court has issued a drug conviction and it did so despite not having any drug laws on its books. According to Italian news reports cited by the Associated Press, the court imposed a suspended four-month sentence for cocaine possession on a former employee of the Holy See.

The ex-employee was convicted of cocaine possession after cocaine was found in a drawer in the room where he worked. He had been fired because he had recently been convicted of other criminal offenses in Italian courts.

While the Vatican legal code does not address illegal drug use or possession, the creative minds on the Vatican tribunal relied on the international anti-drug conventions to which it is a signatory. In addition, they cited a 1929 law which allows verdicts in cases not covered specifically by its laws but which involve injury to “health, morality and religion."

Now there is probably no political entity on earth that can stand proudly and say it never persecuted anyone for his choice of substances.

Public Health: DEA Puts Fentanyl OD Death Toll at More Than a Thousand

Last year's wave of overdose deaths from heroin cut with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid pain reliever, killed more than a thousand people, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The deaths began early in the year in the Mid-Atlantic states before spreading to the Midwest, with significant clusters in Chicago and Detroit.

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fentanyl packet
Early official responses to the wave of deaths was slow and spotty, but concern spread as the death toll mounted. By December, more than 120 public health experts signed an open letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt calling for a more aggressive response. The deaths have continued, but not at the torrid pace of last fall and summer.

The DEA estimate of the death toll came in an interim rule regulating a fentanyl precursor chemical, N-phenethyl-4-piperidone (NPP), published in
Monday's federal register. "The recent distribution of illicitly manufactured fentanyl has caused an unprecedented outbreak of hundreds of suspected fentanyl-related overdoses, at least 972 confirmed fentanyl-related deaths, and 162 suspected fentanyl-related deaths occurring mostly in Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania," the agency reported.

Noting that fentanyl is 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin, the DEA went on to warn of its dangers. "The legitimate medical use of fentanyl is for anesthesia and analgesia, but fentanyl's euphoric effects are highly sought after by narcotic addicts," the agency explained. "Fentanyl can serve as a direct pharmacological substitute for heroin in opioid dependent individuals. However, fentanyl is a very dangerous substitute for heroin because the amount that produces a euphoric effect also induces respiratory depression. Furthermore, due to fentanyl's increased potency over heroin, illicit drug dealers have trouble adjusting ("cutting") pure fentanyl into proper dosage concentrations. As a result, unsuspecting heroin users or heroin users who know the substance contains fentanyl have difficulty determining how much to take to get their "high" and mistakenly take a lethal quantity of the fentanyl. Unfortunately, only a slight excess in the amount of fentanyl taken can be, and is often, lethal because the resulting level of respiratory depression is sufficient to cause the user to stop breathing."

The death toll suggests the DEA is not exaggerating in this instance. Let's be careful out there, kids.

Latin America: Colombia Bans Coca Products -- Except Coca-Cola

While Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, along with hundreds of thousands of Andean coca growers, are seeking to expand legal markets for the venerable leaf, the Colombian government is moving in the opposite direction. For years, Bogota has allowed indigenous coca farmers to sell coca products, promoting the enterprise as one of the few successful commercial opportunities available to recognized tribes like the Nasa, who have grown it for years and regard it as sacred. But in February, the Colombian government quietly imposed a ban on the sale of products outside indigenous reserves.

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Coca Sek -- better than Coca Cola
The Nasa are pointing the finger at Coca-Cola, which last fall lost a lengthy legal effort against Coca Sek, the Nasa's energy drink popular among the Colombian young. Coca Sek infringed on its copyright, the American soft drink giant argued. With the Colombian food safety agency, Invima, decision restricting coca sales coming scant months after Coca-Cola lost its battle against Coca Sek, the suspicions are natural.

But Invima said it is merely heeding the wishes of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). While Colombia formally adheres to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which considers coca a drug to be eradicated, Colombian indigenous communities grow coca legally under indigenous autonomy provisions of the 1991 constitution, and have been selling coca products throughout Colombia. But last year, the INCB sent the Colombian foreign ministry a letter asking whether the "refreshing drink made from coca and produced by an Indian community" didn't violate the 1961 treaty.

While the treaty considers the coca plant a drug to be suppressed and eradicated, it also contains a provision allowing coca products to be used if the cocaine alkaloid has been extracted. That is Coca-Cola's loophole, and the Nasa call it hypocrisy.

"They lose their fight in October and then in February the government decides to prohibit Coca Sek," said David Curtidor, a Nasa in charge of the company that produces the drink. He is leading a legal challenge to the ban. In the meantime, the community is losing $15,000 a month from lost sales of Coca Sek and other coca products. "Why don't they also ban Coca-Cola? It's also made of coca leaves," he complained to the Associated Press.

Coca-Cola wouldn't confirm or deny to the AP that it even uses a cocaine-free coca extract, as is widely believed. It did deny having anything to do with Invima's decision. Invima told the AP Coca-Cola had no role.

But the Nasa are suspicious, and they're not the only ones who think Coca-Cola gets special treatment. Last year, Bolivia's Morales, a former coca grower union leader himself, complained to the UN General Assembly that "the coca leaf is legal for Coca Cola and illegal for medicinal purposes in our country and in the whole world."

And now, whether at the bidding of the INCB or Coca-Cola, Colombia is moving to strangle the legal market for coca, even as it leads the world in coca production despite $4 billion in US aid this decade and the widespread aerial spraying of herbicides. In so doing, it places itself directly against the current in a region where coca is increasingly gaining the respect it deserves and the power of the coca growers is on the increase.

Criminal Justice: Snapshots of the Drug War

Day after day, week after week, year after year, the war on drugs in the US is filling court dockets across the land. This week, we visit three different jurisdictions to get a snapshot of the role of the drug war down at the local courthouse.

In April, district court judges in Grayson County, Texas, about an hour north of Dallas, sentenced 95 people on felony charges. Of the 95 cases, the most serious charges in 16 were for simple methamphetamine possession, making that charge by far the most common of any before the court. Most people convicted of meth possession were given probation. One person was charged with enhanced meth possession and sentenced to 14 years, while two were charged with possession with intent to distribute. One got 20 years, the other got 10 years probation.

Seven people were sentenced for simple cocaine possession, with sentences ranging from probation to a month in jail to 10 years in prison. One person was sentenced for enhanced cocaine possession and got 6 years, while one other was sentenced for possession with intent to distribute and got 15 years. Four people were sentenced for possession of more than four ounces but less than five pounds of marijuana; two got probation, one got one year, and one got two years. One person was sentenced to two years in prison for possession of more than 50 pounds of marijuana.

Probation violators made up a sizeable contingent, with 13 being sentenced in April. Drug offenders accounted for nine of the violators, with meth, cocaine, and marijuana each accounting for three violators. Every drug-related probation violator was sent to prison, as were all other probation violators.

The rest of the cases where sentences were handed out were your typical array of assaults, aggravated and otherwise, burglaries, DWIs, frauds, robberies, and sexual assaults. In only two cases, aggravated sexual assaults on a child, were the sentences as long as the 20-year meth distribution sentence mentioned above.

All in all, persons charged under the drug laws accounted for 41 of the 95 cases adjudicated in Grayson County last month. That's more than 43% of the court's business being taken up with the drug war.

Meanwhile, down in the Pensacola, Florida, area, Tuesday was a typical day for felony arrests in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. In Escambia County, there were five arrests for probation violation (original offense unspecified), four arrests for narcotics violations, three for aggravated assault, two for aggravated child abuse, and one for introducing contraband into a jail. All in all, 29 people were arrested on felony charges Tuesday, with only six directly linked to drug prohibition.

In neighboring Santa Rosa County, there were a total of nine felony arrests Tuesday. One was for drug possession, one for possession with intent to distribute. Three were for unspecified probation violations. Throw in an aggravated assault, a failure to appear, a DWI, and "throwing/shooting deadly missiles," and there's your daily docket.

If the drug war seems mellow in the Florida Panhandle, that's definitely not the case in Licking County, Ohio. Last Thursday, five people had bond hearings in Licking County Municipal Court in Newark. All five were on drug charges, and every case seems to be an example of over-charging. Three people were charged with drug trafficking offenses for buying drugs. As the local paper noted in the case of a woman charged with crack cocaine trafficking: " On April 11, she allegedly was observed by Central Ohio Drug Enforcement Task Force buying less than one gram of crack cocaine, according to court reports."

One woman was charged with aggravated drug possession for having a methadone tablet without a prescription. But most bizarre was the charge facing a Newark woman. She was charged with "permitting drug abuse, a fifth-degree felony." As the local paper noted: "Between March 29 and 30, [she] allegedly allowed an associate to buy about seven grams of methamphetamine on two occasions. Both alleged purchases were made in the vicinity of a Newark City school, according to court reports."

In Licking County, Ohio, the drug war accounted for all the court's business one day last week. In Grayson County, Texas, the drug war accounted for nearly half of the court's business last month. In the Florida Panhandle, the proportion was much lower. But all across the country, drug prohibition is taking up the time of police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards. But then again, that's their choice because policing and prosecuting drug offenses is a matter of deliberate policy.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A Boston cop gets busted, a Tacoma probation officer peddles meth, two former Memphis cops cop pleas, so does a former NYPD officer, and a small-town Texas lawman heads for federal prison. Let's get to it:

In Boston, a Boston police officer was arrested May 2 for acting as a debt collector for major drug dealers. Jose Ortiz, a 21-year veteran of the force, faces federal attempted extortion and cocaine conspiracy charges for allegedly showing up in uniform at the workplace of his target and threatening to kill him and his family if he did not pay a pair of drug dealers $260,000 for a deal gone bad. Ortiz accepted partial payments and agreed to take cocaine in payment, although he did not want to touch it himself. Ortiz was arrested in Revere as he met with his target, who was cooperating with authorities. He was fired last week.

In Tacoma, Washington, a Washington Department of Corrections probation officer was arrested May 5 for selling meth. Cheri Lynn Cantrell, 38, went down after a former neighbor reported to Tacoma police that the pair used to do meth together and she bought meth from Cantrell. The former neighbor and speed sharer turned informant then set up a recorded buy from Cantrell. After the drugs tested positive for meth, Cantrell was arrested at the Department of Corrections office where she worked.

In Memphis, two former Memphis police officers pleaded guilty May 3 to conspiring with other officers to shake down drug dealers. Former officers Harold McCall, 35, and Trennis Swims, 34, acknowledged targeting drivers of older cars with expensive hubcaps and taking money from them during traffic stops. McCall pleaded to violating civil rights and faces up to 10 years in prison. Swims pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts and faces up to two years behind bars. At least four other Memphis police officers have been charged or convicted in the conspiracy, which continues to be investigated by the FBI and the Memphis Police Department Security Squad.

In New York City, a former NYPD officer pleaded guilty to conspiring to steal cocaine from drug houses. Former officer Kirsix De La Cruz admitted introducing two co-conspirators in a scheme to hit stash houses while she was an active NYPD officer in April 2005. De La Cruz pleaded to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and conspiracy to commit robbery. She was set to take the NYPD sergeant's exam when arrested, but now she is looking at a minimum of 10 years in federal prison.

In McAllen, Texas, a former Elsa police officer was sentenced to eight years in federal prison May 2 for taking bribes to protect drug shipments. Ismael Gomez, 27, pleaded guilty in December to pocketing $2,500 in return for protecting a vehicle he believed contained 22 kilograms of cocaine. It was actually an FBI sting. Gomez is the second Elsa police officer to go down for taking bribes to protect drug traffickers. Last August, Herman Carr pleaded guilty to taking a $5,000 bribe to protect a vehicle. He will be sentenced May 31. Gomez, meanwhile, is already in prison and serving his sentence.

Medical Marijuana: By a Veto-Proof Margin, Rhode Island Legislature Passes Bill to Keep It

The Rhode Island House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to make the state's marijuana law permanent, and the state Senate followed right behind Thursday. The vote was 50-12 in the House and 28-5 in the Senate.

The votes set the scene for an expected veto by Gov. Donald Carcieri (R), who has indicated he will do just that. But the margin of victory in both chambers appears sufficient to easily overcome any veto. That would ensure that the Edward O. Hawkins and Thomas C. Slater Medical Marijuana Act, which was passed last year with a one-year sunset provision, becomes a permanent part of Rhode Island law.

"The medical marijuana law has made life better and safer for me and over 250 other patients," said Rhonda O'Donnell, a registered nurse from Rockville, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. "Patients deserve permanent protection, and I still hope the governor will change his mind and sign it. A veto would be nothing less than an attack on the sick and suffering," she added in a Marijuana Policy Project press release.

"The science supporting medical marijuana is now beyond doubt, and Rhode Island's experience with this law has been completely positive," said Ray Warren, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The only controversy seems to be in the governor's mind, but strong support from the public and the medical community overcame his veto once, and if necessary, will do so again."

Gov. Carcieri vetoed the 2006 bill, but was overridden by the legislature. Look for history to repeat itself soon and for Rhode Island to become a permanent medical marijuana state, joining Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

It's a real motley crew this week: a small-town police chief gone bad, cops escorting drug shipments, and, of course, more crooked prison guards.

First, a brief note about this weekly feature and what we are and are not trying to accomplish with it. Our purpose in publishing the corrupt cops stories is to make the points about how vast the problem of police corruption really is, how drug prohibition is a major cause of police corruption, and how much hypocrisy there is in the system.

What we're not doing is "gloating" over cops getting a taste of their own medicine or calling for harsh punishments for them. Some of the police officers mentioned here undoubtedly were unethical people when they took the job. Others either bent to temptations or pressures existing in their individual situations or gradually strayed down the wrong path. How harshly they deserve to be punished is an individual matter. Most of all want to end the drug war so that none of this happens at all.

Now, let's get to it:

In Cabot, Arkansas, the former Lonoke police chief and his wife were sentenced Tuesday for running a criminal organization dealing in drugs and jewelry. Former Chief Jay Campbell had been convicted on 23 counts, including conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine and running a continuing criminal enterprise. His wife, Kelly Campbell, was convicted of 26 counts, including residential burglary and obtaining a controlled substance through theft or fraud. The ex-chief is going down for 40 years, while his wife got a 20-year sentence. Trials are pending for the former mayor and two others in this tale of small-town corruption writ large.

In Hollywood, Florida, two Hollywood police officers pleaded guilty April 25 on heroin trafficking charges. Detective Kevin Companion and Officer Stephen Harrison admitted running a protection racket and using police vehicles to escort heroin shipments for people they thought were traffickers, but who were really undercover FBI agents. According to court documents, they also transported stolen diamonds from New Jersey, protected an illegal card game on a yacht, and trafficked in stolen bearer bonds. The pair face 10 years in federal prison when they are sentenced on July 20. Two other Hollywood police officers involved in the racket, Sgt. Jeffrey Courtney and Detective Thomas Simcox, are expected to plead guilty as well, but no hearing dates have been set in their cases.

In Hartford, Connecticut, the New Haven Police Department's recently-fired head narc was formally indicted on corruption charges on April 25. William White, 63, chief of the New Haven drug squad, narcotics detective Justen Kasperzyk, 34, and three bail bondsmen were arrested a month ago after an eight-month investigation by state and federal authorities. Now, White is charged in the indictment with two counts of theft of government funds and bribery conspiracy after he was videotaped stealing money planted by the FBI in what he thought was a drug dealer's car. Kasperzyk was not mentioned in the indictments. The bail bondsmen were indicted for paying White and other officers bribes of up to $15,000 to track down clients who had become fugitives. They face up to 20 years in prison.

In Clovis, New Mexico, a Curry County jail guard was arrested April 24 for smuggling marijuana and tobacco into the jail. Curry County Adult Center Officer Raul Lopez, 23, told investigators he needed cash when an inmate offered to pay him to bring in the goodies. He now faces three counts of bringing contraband into a place of imprisonment and three counts of distribution of a controlled substance. All the charges are felonies. He has now been fired and is being held on $30,000 bond in neighboring Pecos County. Lopez is the fifth Curry County jail guard to be arrested in the past year, on charges ranging from contraband to assaulting prisoners.

In Rutland, Vermont, a state prison community corrections officer was arrested April 27 for selling cocaine. Sheri Fitzgerald, 43, went down after selling coke to a confidential informant that same day and is accused of selling it to offenders she oversaw in the community corrections program. She faces felony charges of cocaine possession, cocaine distribution, distribution of narcotics, and a misdemeanor count of illegal possession of a narcotic. That could get her up to 19 years in prison. The 18-year veteran of the Vermont Department of Corrections employee is now jailed on a $250,000 bond.

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