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Bad Bills: Drug Tax Dies in Virginia Legislature

A bill that would have required anyone possessing an illegal drug to get a tax stamp within 48 hours and affix that stamp to the drugs has died a timely death in the Virginia legislature. House Bill 2754, introduced by Delegate Robert Hurt (R-Chatham), was killed in House finance subcommittee on Tuesday.

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Texas drug tax stamp, auctioned on ebay
Under the proposed bill, marijuana would have been taxed at the rate of $0.40 per gram for marijuana, $50 a gram for cocaine, $200 a gram for other controlled substances, and $20 a gallon for moonshine. But the tax would not be imposed on the first 1 ½ ounces of marijuana or the first quarter-ounce of hard drugs.

The Department of Taxation, which would have issued the tax stamps, would not have required identification from the stamp taxpayer, thus precluding criminal prosecution. But the tax could be applied to any substances seized by police and the bill sent to the drugs' possessor.

Delegate Hunt portrayed the measure as an effort to go after drug dealers, saying it was a "civil tax imposed upon those who require government services and aren't paying their fair share." Dealers should ante up, Hunt argued. "The big picture is that drug traffickers put a huge burden on all the rest of us who are law-abiding taxpayers," Hurt said. "This is simply to make them share in those costs."

Opponents of the bill, including Lennice Werth of Virginians Against Drug Violence and Michael Krawitz of Virginia NORML advanced unique arguments to thwart the bill. Krawitz told legislators the bill did not address the substance abuse at the root of the drug traffic and that the state would send a mixed message by profiting from criminal activity, while Werth warned that passage of the bill could lead people to think that drugs were now legal in Virginia.

"These stamps would be bought by collectors, they would be put on the Internet, they would be on eBay, and people all over the country would believe that these drugs are legal in Virginia if you pay this tax," Werth said.

Some 20 states have drug tax laws on the books, but they are unevenly enforced.

Hemp: North Dakota Issues First Licenses to Grow Industrial Hemp, but DEA Roadblock Remains

North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson Monday signed the first two licenses issued by the state to grow industrial hemp. According to an Agriculture Department press release, the first license was issued to state Rep. David Monson (R-Osnabrock), the assistant majority leader who is also a farmer and strong proponent of industrial hemp. One other license has been issued, and 16 more applications have been submitted by would-be North Dakota hemp farmers.

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first ND hemp license signing (agdepartment.com )
Hemp is the fibrous cousin to marijuana, containing only trace amounts of THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in pot. Its fibers are used to make clothing and a variety of other goods, ranging from paper to auto-body panels, while its seeds and oils are used in a rapidly increasing number of food products. While hemp products may be sold and consumed in the United States, federal law prohibits growing it here, so American farmers are forced to stand by and watch as imported hemp products cross the border from Canada and come overseas from Europe, where it is legally grown.

"Rep. Monson has been the leader in developing the necessary legislation for North Dakota to legalize production of industrial hemp," Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson said Monday. "It is fitting that he has the first license." The second license was granted to Wayne Hauge of Ray. "These two North Dakota producers have met all the requirements, including FBI background checks," Johnson said. "They have invested considerable time, money and effort to meet the letter and spirit of the law."

But although North Dakota has moved to make hemp farming legal, it remains illegal under federal law. Johnson and North Dakota would-be hemp farmers will seek registration from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), but given the agency's hostile attitude toward hemp, that seems unlikely. Just last week, the DEA refused to waive the non-refundable annual $2,293 registration fee, despite Johnson's request that it do so.

While Johnson and the would-be hemp farmers may be going through the motions of seeking DEA approval to lay the basis for a later legal challenge, for now Johnson said he wants to try to reason with the agency.

"The rules require that a state license is not effective until the licensee receives a registration from DEA to import, produce or process industrial hemp," Johnson said. "I will meet with DEA officials about this matter in Washington early next week. I will ask for DEA's cooperation with our state program, and I will ask DEA to implement a reasonable process to allow North Dakota producers to grow industrial hemp."

Johnson said he wants to have a decision from DEA on whether the agency will register farmers to grow industrial hemp, and if registration is forthcoming, what additional restrictions will be placed on growers.

"The controls placed on licensed industrial hemp farmers by North Dakota's laws and regulations include criminal background checks, identification of fields by satellite tracking, minimum acreage requirements, seed certification and mandatory laboratory tests," Johnson said. "The chain of custody for viable hemp seed must be fully documented."

Africa: Proposed Draconian Drug Law in Namibia Runs Into Intense Opposition

A proposed tough new drug law in Namibia that would send any drug offender to prison for 20 years—no matter which drug nor how small the quantity—ran into a buzz saw of opposition at a public hearing in the national capital, Windhoek, this week. Rastafarians, the arts community, legal scholars, and legal aid groups alike used the first of three days of public hearings to condemn the proposed measure as unduly harsh, and many called openly for the legalization of marijuana, according to a report inThe Namibian.

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Namibia coat of arms
The "Combating the Abuse of Drugs Act" sailed through the National Assembly last year, but was referred to a National Council standing committee after some members objected to the suggested sentences for convicted offenders. It calls for a 20-year sentence for a first drug offense and a 30-year sentence for a subsequent drug offense. It would also subject anyone who "imports, exports, manufactures, promotes, sells or in any other manner provides instruments or literature for illegal consumption of drugs" to a 20-year prison sentence.

But attendees at the hearing were not shy about criticizing the law or calling for the legalization of marijuana. "If lawmakers think that this law will bring the crime rate down, they know very little," argued local artist Elmotho Mosimane. "Why in 2007, while the rest of the world is moving in the opposite way, are we going this route? In Amsterdam, where it is legal, where I can smoke marijuana in a bar, the crime rate is very low. How do we know that this law was not just brought in because of someone's personal feelings and convictions?" he asked the panel.

Lawmakers should consider the large number of people in Namibia who smoke marijuana and whether it really wants to jail them for decades, said media practitioner Augetto Graig. "No study has been made to establish how many people consume marijuana ... If such a study is completed thoroughly, I'm sure you'd find that these are at all levels of society, from the lower levels all the way up to parliamentarians," he said. "Where will you house all these people? Jails are already overcrowded, and we know that our jails have a reputation for being factories that create criminals."

But it wasn't just Rastas and bohemian artists who objected to the proposed law. The punishments envisioned were disproportionate to the offenses, said attorney Kaijata Kangueehi of the Magistrate's Commission. "The sentences are just too extraordinary, in the sense that they are way too heavy," Kangueehi argued as he handed the panel a 29-page presentation. "Nowhere in the Act is it looked at the quantity a person is caught with. If you are found with an amount which fits in a match box, you're treated the same as if you were caught with two tons. You don't need Solomon's wisdom to understand the unfairness of that situation," he said.

The Namibian Legal Aid Center also raised objections to the harsh sentences in the proposed law and even raised questions about its constitutionality. Namibians would find the sentences "shocking," especially when compared to alcohol, the group argued. "The effects of alcohol on neighbors and families are documented in our newspapers every day, yet it would appear that our legislature rightly accepts that it is a personal choice should one wish to use or abuse alcohol, insofar as the rights of others are not being violated."

The Legal Aid Center recommended that proposed sentences be drastically reduced. "If it is found that minimum sentences must be entertained in respect of certain drugs, the length of sentences should be considered, a period of six months to 12 months being suggested. This would coincide with most rehabilitation treatment periods," the organization said. The Center also called for drug sentences to be served "at a facility specifically designed for such rehabilitation purposes."

The Center objected to the language about promoting "instruments or literature for illegal consumption of drugs," arguing that it could lead to people being prosecuted for selling rolling papers or water pipes, or even for promoting any literature or video related to reggae music or Rastafarianism, where marijuana smoking is part of a religious ceremony. "This provision would almost certainly offend against religious freedom and freedom of thought, consequence and belief which is protected under article 21 of the Namibian constitution," the Center said.

Namibia's new drug law is not a done deal yet. If legislators are actually listening to the people at the public hearings on the law, they will go back to the drawing board.

Law Enforcement: Atlanta NAACP Calls for Tight Restrictions on "No-Knock" Searches

The Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called Monday for tougher rules regarding the use of "no-knock" search warrants by Atlanta police. With regular search warrants, police must knock and announce their presence before entering a home, but with "no-knock" warrants, police may just kick the door down and enter.

The call for tighter rules around "no-knock" warrants was only one of a number of recommendations for reforming Atlanta's police compiled by the group in the wake of the killing of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston by police in November. Johnston was shot and killed during a "no-knock" drug raid when she opened fire on undercover narcotics officers bursting through her door. Three officers were wounded. The officers involved claimed a confidential informant had bought cocaine at the house, but no cocaine was found, and another informant has told the media and federal investigators the narcs asked him to lie and say he had bought drugs at the house after the raid went sour.

The NAACP recommended that judges reserve "no-knock" warrants for extreme cases. The group also called for police to conduct surveillance of homes prior to executing a "no-knock" warrant.

"This is of utmost urgency," said Atlanta NAACP head the Rev. RL White Jr., speaking to reporters at the chapter's Atlanta headquarters. "The situation that happened last year was only the tip of the iceberg."

The group also called for police to launch a goodwill initiative in Atlanta low-income, high-crime neighborhoods and for the department to require officers to receive sensitivity training. The NAACP also recommended that a citizens' review board be created to review incidents like the Johnston killing. Such a board currently exists, but it is toothless and has not reviewed a case in five years.

"I commend the NAACP for their input and involvement on how the Atlanta Police Department conducts business," Chief Richard Pennington said in a statement. "Even though we are currently reviewing our internal policies and procedures, I do not oppose any measure that will strengthen our relationship with the community. I look forward to working together to reclaim the public's trust in our hard-working men and women."

The NAACP's recommendations will be delivered to the Atlanta city council, Mayor Shirley Franklin, and Georgia Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears, White said.

Sentencing: No Relief for Louisiana's Heroin Lifers

In a blow to prisoners sentenced under a tough 1970s drug law, the Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that a 2001 law cutting sentences for heroin distribution is not retroactive. That means an estimated 90 remaining "heroin lifers" sentenced under the old law will stay in prison -- and, in at least one case -- go back to prison after being released by a judge.

The court ruled last week in the case of Wesley Dick, who had been released by a judge in July after serving years of a life sentence for selling heroin to an undercover officer. Dick got a job, began paying child support for his two children, and saved enough money to buy a pick-up truck, but now he will be returned to prison to finish serving his sentence, perhaps as early as March 20, when a hearing has been set.

The state high court also ruled against release for heroin lifer Melvin Smith, who was sentenced to life in 1977 for possession with intent to distribute heroin. Smith never made it outside the prison walls.

The rulings were hailed by prosecutors, who had opposed granting relief to the aging heroin lifers. "Our interpretation of the law has again been upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court," Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said.

"The original life sentence for this crime was a strong deterrent, and I am pleased that the Louisiana Supreme Court has maintained the conviction and the penalties imposed under the law at the time of conviction," St. Tammany Parish District Attorney Walter Reed said.

The law mandating a life sentence for heroin distribution was amended in 2001, when the legislature set new a new sentence of from five to 50 years for the offense, but it was unclear whether it could be applied retroactively. Dick and Smith each went to court arguing that the law should apply to them. Each won in district court, but state appellate courts split on the issue. The state Supreme Court has now settled the question.

"We find the legislature did not intend, nor did it legislate, that these offenders may seek resentencing in the courts after a sentence has become final," Justice Jeannette Knoll wrote in the 6-1 majority opinion. The court has long held that the law in effect at the time of the crime sets the penalty, Knoll wrote, adding that only the governor has the power to commute sentences.

But all is not lost for the heroin lifers. The same 2001 law that cut sentences also created the Louisiana Risk Review Panel, which can recommend eligible defendants be released from prison if it determines they are not a threat to society. Defendants seeking relief should go through that process, not the courts, the Supreme Court held.

Southwest Asia: British Conservatives Call for Afghan Opium to Be Licensed, Converted to Pharmaceuticals, Not Destroyed

As they prepare for pending elections, British Conservatives have joined the call for licensing of the Afghan opium crop. The move comes just days after the British Medical Association called for Afghan opium to be processed into heroin and prescribed to addicts.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
The US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan have an official policy of eradicating the country's poppy crop, but given the potential dangers of pushing opium farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban, politicians and officials across Europe are increasingly seeking other options. A 2005 proposal by the European defense and drug policy think tank the Senlis Council to license the crop and divert into the legitimate medicinal market has proved to be a convenient starting off point for those seeking alternatives to eradication.

Conservative leader Lord Howell told parliament last week that the "very dangerous" policy of eradication was "just not working." He said alternatives like licensing the crop needed to be looked at. "The more we try to eradicate, the more poppies seem to get grown," he said. "Trying to stop poor farmers growing poppies to survive and live and feed their families is going to be almost impossible," he said.

Lord Howell's comments came just days after the British Medical Association argued that Afghan opium could be used to help deal with a shortage of prescription heroin, or diamorphine, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, told the BBC. "If we actually were harvesting this drug from Afghanistan rather than destroying it, we'd be benefiting the population of Afghanistan as well as helping patients and not putting people at risk," said Nathanson. "There must be ways of harvesting it and making sure that the harvest safely reaches the drug industry which would then refine it into diamorphine," she suggested. "It should be possible, and really Government and the international groups that are in Afghanistan should be looking at this and saying how can we convert it from being an illicit crop to a legal crop that is medicinally useful."

Law Enforcement: Jacksonville Narcs Kill Two Men in Separate Incidents Eight Days Apart

Undercover narcotics officers in Jacksonville, Florida, killed two people in separate incidents in late January. Both men were black, and neither is alleged to be a drug dealer. Now, local black leaders are calling for a federal investigation, and the local prosecutor is questioning the value of such operations.

On January 20, undercover officers posing as drug dealers during a drug sting shot and killed 18-year-old Douglas Woods on January 20. Police claimed that Woods was armed with a pistol and attempted to rob what he thought were drug dealers. But family members and witnesses said Woods had no weapon and was holding only a cell phone.

"He was standing in the parking lot, like they always do, and the police pulled up on them. Everybody ran away except my child, and he threw his hands up. They said they shot him about eight times," Woods' mother, Machealle Woods said. "Why? I want to know why."

Witness Tyronnie Dennis, who was sitting on her steps smoking a cigarette when Woods was shot in her apartment complex courtyard, said Woods was holding a cell phone, not a gun. "I heard the shots ring out, and the boy hit the ground. There was only one gun fired. He didn't shoot back. He had a cell phone. He did not have a gun," said Dennis.

"We want a thorough investigation on this from the federal side to make sure that this is done fair and justly. We do not condone criminals. We do not condone drugs dealers and we never will," said Rev. RL Gundy of the Jacksonville Leadership Coalition. "We just want to make sure. Too many stories have been told too many different ways, and we want to make sure that the mother and the father get a thorough investigation about this."

Jacksonville County Sheriff John Rutherford was defending the shooting early last week. "At this point in the investigation, I am confident that the officer fired in self-defense after being approached by someone who was trying to rob him with a gun," Rutherford said. "I can tell you that we have statements from witnesses who were at the scene and are telling us one thing -- that told us one thing the night it occurred -- and the next afternoon were telling the electronic media something else." Rutherford said his office wouldn't put out a statement unless it was confident it was true. "We are not going to put that out there until we know -- it was gun, and I can tell you that it was a gun that was lying beside that individual not a cell phone," Rutherford said.

Then, on the day that Woods was buried, undercover narcotics officers shot and killed 81-year-old Isaac Singletary in his yard after the neighborhood fixture apparently mistook them for drug dealers and confronted them. "An individual approached from between two houses brandishing a handgun. The officers gave several commands to drop the gun, he did not, so they exchanged gunfire," said Chief Dwain Senterfitt.

"The man came out three times and said move out of my yard. So after the third time he came out with a 357 and started shooting at the individuals," one witness who did not want to be identified told local media.

Singletary's nephew, Gary Evans, said his uncle was a respected man in the neighborhood. "He got his enjoyment from sitting under a tree and watching his collard greens and cabbages grow," said Evans. "The only time anybody would hear anything out of my uncle is if they stopped in front of his house and tried to do whatever deals they wanted to do," Evans added.

"I never would have thought he would have gotten shot by a police officer," said niece Sheree Bea. "I thought if he ever got shot it would have been in a confrontation with a drug dealer."

Now, it isn't only community organizations raising questions about police practices. Jacksonville County States Attorney Harry Shorstein said in the wake of the two killings he questioned the value of undercover narcotics stings. "If we're just selling drugs to addicts, I don't know what we're accomplishing," Shorstein said. "This could wind up being the tragic death of one kid -- arguably a bad kid -- and a gentleman who had the right to protect his property."

Methamphetamine: Epidemic, What Epidemic? Meth Use Down, SAMHSA Says

Despite the methamphetamine mania rampant among the media and law enforcement officials, annual national drug use surveys show that meth use levels were stagnant between 2002 and 2004, and declined dramatically in 2005. According to an analysis of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), first-time meth users declined from 318,000 in 2004 to 192,000 in 2005.

The number of people who admitted using methamphetamine within the last year was also on the decline during the years between 2002 and 2005. In 2002, 0.7% of the population above age 12 admitted past year use; in 2005, that figure had declined to 0.5%. Past year use was highest in the West (1.2%), followed by the South and Midwest (0.5%), with the Northeast trailing with 0.1%.

According to the study, about 1.3 million people used meth during 2005. Some 500,000 used it at least once a month. Despite all the hoopla about meth addiction, methamphetamine users accounted for only 8% of all drug treatment admissions.

"Methamphetamine is a very destructive drug that can do serious harm to families and entire communities," said SAMHSA Administrator Terry Cline, Ph.D. "We are pleased to see these decreases in use, and SAMHSA is continuing to provide funding opportunities so that communities can fight the use of this insidious drug and provide treatment to those who need it."

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Here's a new twist for you: This week, we have a prison guard charged with smuggling drugs OUT of a prison. Of course, there are several more charged with smuggling drugs in, as well as a teenage military policeman gone bad, a retirement age former cop gone bad, and yet another Nashville officer found guilty of drug corruption. Let's get to it:

In White Plains, New York, a Yonkers Police Department jail guard was arrested January 25 for helping an inmate smuggle drugs out of the Alexander Street Jail. Patricia Streams-Correa, 39, is charged with sale and possession of drugs and promoting prison contraband in the first degree. When a new prisoner was brought to the jail for possessing eight bags of heroin, she allegedly had another 36 bags hidden on her. A friend brought a change of clothes to the jail, and Streams-Correa is accused of helping hide the 36 bags of smack in the prisoner's dirty clothing and letting the friend take the clothes and heroin from the jail. Streams-Correa was popped after the department's Narcotics Unit and Internal Affairs Division "developed information" about the incident. The heroin was recovered. Streams-Correa now faces nine years in prison.

In Phoenix, a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office detention officer is accused of smuggling drugs to two prisoners with whom she had a personal relationship. Officer Michele Samaniego, 27, faces charges of promoting prison contraband and possession of dangerous drugs and drug paraphernalia after Sheriff's officers found her with suspected marijuana, methamphetamine, and a needle and syringe. Detectives also searched Samaniego's home and arrested her roommate on related drug conspiracy charges.

In Darlington, South Carolina, a state Department of Corrections employee was arrested Saturday on drugs, contraband, and misconduct charges. Adrian Concepcion, 20, allegedly told an undercover agent he would bring marijuana to an inmate at the Lee Correctional Institution, where he worked. He is now being held at a different jail.

In Stateline, Nevada, a 17-year-old military police officer was arrested in a casino parking lot January 25 on charges he sold cocaine. Nevada National Guardsman Elliot Paul Liebowitz had his military uniform in his car at the time of his arrest. The Douglas County Sheriff Street Enforcement Team says Liebowitz sold at least 83 grams of cocaine during its month-long investigation of him. Authorities say they will seek to try him as an adult, and if convicted, he could face 25 years to life in prison. Meanwhile, he has been booked into a juvenile detention facility.

In Wilmington, North Carolina, a former Long Beach (now Oak Island) police officer was arrested last Friday on drug sales charges after police executed a search warrant at his home. William Sisk Sr., 71, is charged with possession with intent to manufacture, sell and deliver cocaine and other controlled substances as well as maintaining a dwelling to keep a controlled substance. He was raided after a year-long investigation, and police found crack cocaine, 109 hydrocodone tablets, 57 alprazolam tablets, 28 diazepam tablets, a .410-gauge shotgun and $6,277 in cash, as well as drug paraphernalia. Sisk, who retired in 1996, is a former candidate for sheriff and registrar of deeds in Brunswick County. He was out on bail as of last Saturday and denied any wrongdoing.

In Nashville, a Nashville Metropolitan Police officer who failed to report a fellow officer's involvement in a cocaine heist was found guilty in federal court January 29. Officer Charles Williams III, a 16-year veteran of the force, was convicted of misprision of a felony for conspiring with fellow officer Ernest Cecil and Cecil's nephew Corey to arrest a man carrying three kilograms of cocaine and allow Corey Cecil to get away with the stash. Officer Cecil is currently awaiting trial on drug trafficking and false arrest charges. Williams, who resigned from the force Wednesday, faces up to three years in prison.

Canada: Vancouver Mayor Calls for Large-Scale Methamphetamine, Cocaine Maintenance Trials

According to a Monday press release, Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan wants the Canadian federal government to grant the city an exemption from the country's drug laws so he can pursue a plan to provide at least 700 hard-core cocaine and methamphetamine users with maintenance doses of stimulant drugs. The idea, commonly known as substitution therapy, is similar to that of providing heroin addicts with maintenance doses of other opiates.

While researchers led by John Grabowski at the University of Texas at Houston have had success with small-scale methamphetamine substitution trials, the proposed Vancouver trials would be the largest ever. Mayor Sullivan is ready to take the plunge.

"Prescribing legally available medications provides people an opportunity to regain stability in their lives and ultimately a path to abstinence," he said. "Recognizing that drug addiction is one of the root causes of property crime and public disorder, I believe that this new approach will also help to reduce harm to the community."

It comes as part of a broader package of initiatives aimed at cleaning up homelessness, panhandling, and drug dealing before the 2010 Winter Olympics. Known as Project Civil City, the initiative sets out goals of a 50% reduction in the three areas by then.

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