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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.

Medical Marijuana: Minnesota Bill Passes Senate, House Version Moving Too

The Minnesota Senate Tuesday gave final approval to a medical marijuana bill, passing SF 345 on a narrow 33-31 vote. The vote marks the first time a medical marijuana bill has been approved by a full vote in either House in Minnesota.

Also Tuesday, the House version of the medical marijuana bill, HF 655, overcame one more committee hurdle, passing the House Finance Committee on a 20-14 vote. It should soon be on the way to a House floor vote.

While there are differences between the House and Senate bills, both would essentially set up a system where qualified patients could obtain marijuana to ease their pain and symptoms through nonprofit organizations registered with the state.

"I'm happy the Senate has voted to protect some of Minnesota's most vulnerable citizens from the threat of arrest for trying to alleviate their pain, per the advice of their doctor," said Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), the bill's lead sponsor. "I'm hopeful we are only a few weeks away from Minnesota becoming the 13th medical marijuana state."

But Minnesota is not there yet. The House must still approve its version of the bill in a final floor vote. And even if it passes and is reconciled with the Senate version, Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), backed by law enforcement organizations, is vowing to veto it.

Methamphetamine: Senators Feinstein and Grassley Introduce Bill to Heighten Penalties for Meth Dealers Who Flavor Their Product

Responding to a handful of reports from across the country about the appearance of "Strawberry Quick" methamphetamine, or meth flavored with sweeteners, Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) have introduced legislation that would increase penalties for persons convicted of selling flavored meth. Following the lead of law enforcement and drug treatment spokesmen, the senators are portraying the flavored meth as a marketing tool aimed at kids and their bill as a response to the perceived threat.

That is evident from the title of the bill, S 1211, or the "Saving Kids from Dangerous Drugs Act." The bill would (purportedly) save kids from dangerous drugs by applying the current penalty enhancement for selling meth to minors (doubles the sentence, with a one-year mandatory minimum) to anyone who "manufactures, creates, distributes, or possesses with intent to distribute a controlled substance that is flavored, colored, packaged or otherwise altered in a way that is designed to make it more appealing to a person under 21 years of age, or who attempts or conspires to do so."

"This bill will send a strong and clear message to drug dealers -- if you target our children by peddling candy-flavored drugs, there will be a heavy price to pay," Senator Feinstein said in a statement announcing the legislation. "Flavored meth -- with child-friendly names like Strawberry Quick -- is designed to get people to try it a few times. It's all about hooking young people, and we have to stop this practice before it grows any further. So, this legislation will increase the criminal penalties for anyone who markets candy-flavored drugs to our youth -- by imposing on them the same enhanced penalties applied to dealers who distribute drugs to minors."

"New techniques and gimmicks to lure our kids into addiction are around every corner. Candy flavored meth is the latest craze used by drug dealers," Senator Grassley said. "Research has shown time and again that if you can keep a child drug-free until they turn 20, chances are very slim that they will ever try or become addicted. This makes it all the more important that we put an end to the practice of purposely altering illegal drugs to make them more appealing to young people."

But the bill has several problems. While ostensibly aimed at meth makers and sellers, it applies to any controlled substance, including marijuana. There is also little evidence of the threat the bill supposedly addresses. While law enforcement and drug treatment people can claim that flavored meth is aimed at kids, there is no smoking gun in the form of a meth marketing manual or anything like that.

But the most serious problem with the bill is the subjective nature of its language. What exactly is a controlled substance that is "flavored, colored, packaged, or otherwise altered in a way that is designed to make it more appealing" to kids? If it is flavored, does that mean it is aimed at kids? If ecstasy tablets are marked with a smiley face or cartoon character, does that mean they are aimed at kids? What if the dealer is selling flavored drugs to adults? Hopefully this bill will die and these questions will not have to be answered.

Pain Medicine: Dr. Hurwitz Convicted of 16 Counts in Retrial

Prominent Northern Virginia pain specialist Dr. William Hurwitz was convicted last Friday on 16 counts of drug trafficking after a jury for the second time decided that he had overstepped the bounds of legitimate medical practice in prescribing large doses of opioid pain relievers to patients. Hurwitz' original conviction was overturned on appeal, and supporters hoped he would walk free after his second trial.

But the 12-member jury instead found him guilty on the 16 counts, not guilty on 17 others, and presiding Judge Leonie Brinkema dismissed the remaining 12 counts, saying she did not want jurors to have to come back and deliberate further. Brinkema had earlier dismissed the most serious charges against Hurwitz -- that his prescribing had caused the death of a patient and injury to two others.

Brinkema's dismissal of the remaining counts irked prosecutor Arthur Rossi, who behaved like a sore winner after managing to run up enough convictions against Hurwitz to send him to prison for centuries. Although he could be sentenced to time served,
he could also get up to 20 years in prison on each count. He has been jailed since he was originally found guilty in November 2004.

Still, although Hurwitz and his defense team would be hard-pressed to claim victory, he is in a substantially better position than after his first conviction. In his first trial, Hurwitz was found guilty of 50 of 62 felony counts, including causing the death of one patient and injury to two others. He was sentenced to 25 years by Judge Leonard Wexler, five more than the mandatory minimum he faced for the patient death. In the current case, the number of convictions against him has shrunk dramatically, the counts of patient death and injury were dismissed, and while he theoretically faces up to 320 years in prison, none of the counts carry a mandatory minimum sentence.

He may also fare better before Judge Brinkema, who has demonstrated fairness from the bench. That's in contrast to the judge in his original trial, the irascible Leonard Wexler, whose performance during the first Hurwitz trial raised serious questions about his fairness and objectivity.

While prosecutors portrayed Hurwitz as little more than a drug dealer, pain patients and their advocates saw him as a brave and heroic figure who prescribed necessary drugs for patients with nowhere else to turn.

The case "is not about the lawful practice of medicine... but rather about the unlawful drug trafficking of pain medication," said US Attorney Chris Rosenberg. "Drug traffickers come in all shapes and sizes. This one just happened to wear a white coat and be a doctor."

But Richard Sauber, a lawyer for Hurwitz, said defense attorneys are "disappointed in the verdict. We think that Dr. Hurwitz was a doctor first and foremost and not a drug dealer." He added that Hurwitz "saved a number of lives."

New York Times science reporter John Tierney, who has covered the trial in great detail on his TierneyLab blog, spoke with several jurors after the verdict was announced and reported that "they said that the jury considered Dr. William Hurwitz to be a doctor dedicated to treating pain who didn't intentionally prescribe drugs to be resold or abused. They said he didn't appear to benefit financially from his patients' drug dealing and that he wasn't what they considered a conventional drug trafficker."

Then why did they find him guilty of "knowingly and intentionally" distributing drugs "outside the bounds of medical practice" and engaging in drug trafficking "as conventionally understood"? Tierney asked. "After attending the trial and talking to the jurors, I can suggest two possible answers: 1. The jurors were confused by the law. 2. The law is an ass (to quote Mr. Bumble from 'Oliver Twist')."

The law may be an ass, but it's enough to send Dr. Hurwitz to prison for the rest of his life. The verdict is a victory for federal prosecutors in their war on what they regard as excessive prescribing of pain medication. Chronic pain patients are unlikely to be as pleased.

Marijuana: It's That Time Again -- Marijuana Marches Set for Saturday in More Than 200 Cities Worldwide

On Saturday, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of marijuana aficionados and supporters will take to the streets of more than 200 towns and cities around the globe in the annual Million Marijuana March pro-legalization demonstrations. Long coordinated by veteran New York City marijuana (and ibogaine) activist Dana Beal and his organization Cures Not Wars, and lately joined by Canadian "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery and Cannabis Culture magazine, the marches are now in their fourth decade.

Marches or other events will take place in most major North American and European cities, as well as numerous smaller towns and cities, especially college towns like Asheville, Boulder, and Chapel Hill. Latin America will also be represented, with rallies set for Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities, Lima, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Santiago, and Sao Paulo. Kingston, Jamaica, will also be on the marijuana map this year. Capetowners will march in South Africa, and marches are scheduled for cities in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Israel as well.

Check out the complete list of cities to find the one nearest to you and then go out and exercise your rights. The Chronicle will be covering the event in San Francisco, and we will have scene reports from around the world next week.

Southwest Asia: Drug Trade a Pillar of the Afghan Economy

The opium trade generates $6.7 billion a year, with much of that money staying in the hands of farmers and local traffickers, Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Mohammed Daud Daud told reporters at a Kabul press conference last Friday.

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opium poppies
The opium trade also generates jobs, creating posts for some 110,000 Afghans involved in the traffic, Daud said, citing figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). That's not including the two million people involved in poppy production across the country. Daud estimated that farmers garner about 20% of the money generated, or about $1.4 billion last year, making opium far and away the country's top cash crop.

The division of proceeds between Afghan and foreign traffickers is unknown. Also unknown is just how much of the profits are ending up in the coffers of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, although all observers conclude they, too, are profiting from the trade.

They're not the only ones. Daud told the press conference anti-drug forces had arrested more than a thousand people in the past three years, including government officials.

Afghanistan provides more than 90% of the global opium supply, from which heroin is derived. According to the UNODC, this year's harvest will be another record-breaker, despite the limited eradication efforts of the Afghan government and its Western backers.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Three police officers and a prison guard arrested, and another prison guard gets sent to prison. Once again, we present the corrosive impact of the drug war on police ethics and morality in all its mundane banality. Let's get to it:

In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the former police chief is charged with leaking word of an impending drug raid. Former Chief Rolf Garcia and his 17-year-old son were arrested April 19 on charges Garcia told his son about a looming raid in February 2006, and his son called four other people to warn them. As a result, two men escaped the residence that was the target of the raid before they could be identified. Garcia told a grand jury that while he never told his son the location of a planned raid, he might have warned him to stay away from a certain area. His son testified that he had provided false information about drug busts in the past to obtain marijuana, but he denied telling anyone about the raid in question. Garcia and his son are charged with hindering apprehension or prosecution, while Garcia is also charged with obstruction of justice. A preliminary hearing is set for May 24. [Ed: Whether reformers should be upset about Garcia's actions in this case is another question.]

In Columbus, Georgia, a Columbus police officer has been arrested for cocaine trafficking.
Officer Larry Lightning, a 23-year veteran of the department, was arrested last Friday after a two-year investigation by the Columbus office of the FBI, the Columbus Police Department, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the Metro Narcotics Task Force. He faces federal charges of conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base, extortion by a public official, and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

In Evansville, Indiana, an Evansville police officer will soon face trial for allegedly stealing money from a drug suspect. Officer Gerald Rainey, 33, faces one count of felony theft for allegedly taking $1,000 out of a backpack containing $19,500, which he seized from a cocaine dealing suspect. The accused dealer cried foul, police investigated, and they found the missing $1,000 in Rainey's patrol car. He faces a June 27 court date.

In Garden City, New York, a New York City jail guard was charged with supplying heroin to the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. Gary Morton, 25, surrendered to state police last Friday as part of the roll-up of a drug distribution network on the reservation, which is on the eastern end of Long Island. Morton was one of more than a dozen people arrested. He is charged with second-degree conspiracy. Authorities planned to arrest him at his job at Rikers Island, but he didn't show up for work, instead turning himself in later that day.

In Sacramento, a former prison guard was sentenced to prison for smuggling methamphetamine in to inmates. John Charles Whittle, 47, a 22-year veteran of the California Department of Corrections, pleaded guilty last month. He was busted after internal affairs agents intercepted a package of meth sent to Whittle's home, then raided the residence after he accepted delivery. The former guard at Mule Creek State Prison admitted to receiving more than $5,000 to smuggle drugs into the prison. He will now serve two years himself.

Europe: Belgium, Germany Need to Open Their Own Cannabis Coffee Shops, Says Dutch Mayor

Gerd Leers, the mayor of the Dutch border town of Maastricht, has called for neighboring Belgium and Germany to open their own cannabis coffee shops and regulate the sale of marijuana in a bid to reduce the flow of "drug tourists" pouring into his city. He also said the regulation of cannabis is a problem that should be addressed at the European level.

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downstairs of a coffee shop, Maastricht (courtesy Wikimedia)
"The best way out of the problem is for Europe's political leaders to sit together, listen to these problems and open their eyes for a real solution," Leers said.

The German and Belgian governments have complained for years that their citizens are going to Holland to purchase cannabis. Dutch authorities, meanwhile, complain of crime and congestion associated with foreigners at the coffee shops, and the conservative Dutch government is considering various schemes to bar foreigners from enjoying the shops. An estimated 1.5 million "drug tourists" visit Maastricht each year, according to official estimates.

Leers' comments came in an interview with EUX-TV, in which he responded to an angry letter sent by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhoftstadt to Dutch Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende. Verhoftstadt was objecting about Maastricht plans to relocate some of its coffee shops to within walking distance of the Belgian border.

While Belgium has decriminalized marijuana possession, it has no provision for the supply of cannabis. But Verhoftstadt's complaints may have more to do with a pending Belgian parliamentary election, and Belgium is part of the problem anyway, said Leers.

"Verhofstadt should first carefully read my proposals and my ideas, instead of presenting them in a simplistic way to the people during an election campaign," he said. "The point is that he does not have a clear idea about what I am doing. I invite him to discuss this. We are not bringing our coffee shops to the border... we are just trying to overcome the problems around the coffee shops, to make them manageable," he said.

Belgium should deal with its marijuana users at home, Leers said. "What he is doing, he is bringing his clients to Maastricht, and then you should be fair. Either he bans the use of drugs completely, and fights against it. Or he should give it free and organize a way of selling these drugs to the people. But he should not complain because Maastricht is trying to get rid of all these problems that are caused by the Belgians themselves," Leers complained. "They say that we are exporting our drugs problems because we have our so-called coffee shops where you can use small amounts of drugs. But it's exactly the other way round. They are causing our problems because they are sending their clients, their inhabitants because in Belgium and Germany you can't buy it."

While conservative European governments insist that the Dutch could solve the problem by shutting down their coffee shops, Leers begged to differ. "If closing them were the solution, I would be the first one to do it," he said. "But the point is -- and it's been proven -- is that if you 'say no to drugs,' it goes underground. It becomes illegal and then the problem would be even worse. I think it's better to regulate and keep your hands on it than to close your eyes. Be open for new solutions, because the way we are doing it now, we are losing, and the criminals will be the winners, the big winners. They earn a lot of money. Let's stop that. Let's organize it. Let's regulate it, so that we can clear it up for our people."

Search and Seizure: Supreme Court Takes Up Rights of Vehicle Passengers

When police pull over the driver of a vehicle, are they also "seizing" the vehicle's passengers? That's the question the US Supreme Court pondered Monday as it heard oral arguments (transcript here) in the case of a California man arrested on methamphetamine charges after the vehicle in which he was riding was pulled over. Questions from the justices suggested they would not feel free to leave if they were passengers in a vehicle pulled over by police, and if that sentiment holds, the court could rule that passengers have the right to make Fourth Amendment challenges to any evidence seized and used against them.

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US Supreme Court
The case pits the state of California against Bruce Brendlin, a former convict wanted for parole violation. Brendlin was a passenger in a car pulled over ostensibly to inspect possibly expired inspection tags. The officer recognized Brendlin, arrested him, searched the car, found methamphetamine supplies, and added a drug offense to the charges.

Brendlin eventually pleaded guilty, but appealed on the ground that the evidence should have been suppressed because the traffic stop was later found to be bogus. (The officer already knew the tags were good because he had stopped the car earlier that same day). The California Supreme Court rejected Brendlin's appeal, holding that only the driver had been "seized" during the traffic stop -- not Brendlin -- and thus Brendlin had no basis for challenging an illegal search.

Brendlin's attorney, Elizabeth Campbell, told the court that when a police officer pulls over a vehicle, "he seizes not only the driver of the car but also the car and every person and everything in that car."

California Deputy Attorney General Clifford Zall argued that it is only the driver, not the passenger, who is "seized" because it is the driver who submits to the officer's authority. That caused some skepticism among the justices, a majority of whom indicated through their comments that they believe passengers as well as the driver are "seized." That is also the position of the courts in most states.

While Brendlin appears likely to prevail on this issue, he is still likely to be imprisoned as a parole violator. Still, what would likely be a symbolic victory for Brendlin could become a substantive victory for the rest of us.

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