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Medical Marijuana: First New Federal Prosecution in Three Years Underway in California

The US Justice Department had not prosecuted a California medical marijuana patient since 2003, but that changed Wednesday as the federal trial of Merced County medical marijuana patient and provider Dustin Costa got under way in Fresno. Costa, a leading medical marijuana activist, was originally arrested on state charges, but Merced County prosecutors handed his case over to the feds when it became apparent that California's Compassionate Use Act would make it impossible to convict him under California law.

The last federal medical marijuana patient and provider trial in California was the Ed Rosenthal debacle. In that case, Rosenthal was convicted on federal marijuana manufacture charges after the jury was not allowed to hear testimony relating to medical marijuana. Rosenthal was convicted, but when jurors learned the rest of the story, many of them publicly denounced the trial and the verdict, and the federal judge trying the case sentenced him to only one day in jail.

In Costa's case, the 60-year-old retired Marine who headed the Merced Patients Group, a nonprofit cultivation collective, was originally arrested by Merced County sheriff's deputies when they raided a greenhouse he was using to cultivate marijuana for patients in March 2004. But local prosecutors turned the case over to the feds, and Costa was re-arrested on federal charges in August 2005. Since then, he has been imprisoned at the Fresno County Jail. If convicted on the charges, he faces a mandatory minimum 20-year federal prison sentence.

Costa now faces federal charges of cultivation, possession with intent to distribute, and possession of a firearm. As in the Rosenthal case, Costa will not be allowed to even mention medical marijuana or its legality under state law during the trial.

"Dustin Costa is a victim of the federal government's refusal to respect medical science," said Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a national medical marijuana advocacy group. "He and all the others being denied a medical defense at trial are the new targets in our government's war on patients."

Costa may be the first medical marijuana patient to be tried by the feds since the Rosenthal trial, but he probably will not be the last. According to figures compiled by Americans for Safe Access, at least 91 other California patients and providers have been arrested on federal marijuana charges and are awaiting trial.

Higher Education: Federal Court Dismisses Challenge to HEA Drug Provision

A federal court judge in Aberdeen, South Dakota, last Friday dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Higher Education Act's drug provision, which bars students from receiving federal financial assistance if they receive a drug conviction while in college. The suit had been filed by three individual students -- two recruited by DRCNet -- backed by Students for Sensible Drug Policy and the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project.

Under the HEA drug provision, nearly 200,000 students have been denied financial aid. As originally passed, the drug provision applied to any drug conviction, but under rising attack from educators, students, and civil rights groups, the act's sponsor, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) drafted a "fix" limiting it to drug offenses committed while students are in college. Souder's partial reform to the law passed earlier this year as part of a larger educational package. But that reform does not satisfy the act's opponents, who seek a total repeal.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU argued that the HEA violated the Fifth Amendment on two counts. First, the group argued, by singling out drug law violators, the act violated the amendment's due process clause. Second, the HEA drug provision amounted to double jeopardy by penalizing a student twice for the same offense.

But federal Judge Charles Kornmann didn't agree. In his decision granting a government motion to dismiss, he rejected both Fifth Amendment arguments. Still, Kornmann agreed that the provision is unfairly. "It is true," he wrote, "as pointed out by the plaintiffs, that students convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana may be prevented from receiving federal student financial aid while those students convicted of serious sexual or violent crimes would not suffer a similar fate. However, the mere fact that the classification results in some inequality does not, in and of itself, offend the Constitution."

"This decision is flat wrong. It's completely irrational to attempt to reduce drug abuse by kicking students out of school. Putting up roadblocks on the path to education only causes more drug abuse," said Kris Krane, SSDP's executive director. "It's unfortunate that students won't yet have our day in court, but we will soon be heard in the halls of Congress. On November 17, hundreds of SSDP members will take our concerns directly to lawmakers' doorsteps when we gather in Washington, DC for our national lobby day. The Removing Impediments to Students' Education (RISE) Act, which would repeal the penalty, already has 71 cosponsors."

At last report, a decision had not been made as to whether to appeal the decision.

Medical Marijuana: Patients Challenge DEA Head at San Diego Conference, Seven Arrested

Police arrested seven medical marijuana patients demanding to speak with Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) head Karen Tandy at a San Diego hotel Wednesday after they refused to leave. One other patient was cited, and two others were cited earlier for hanging a banner that read "The DEA is Not My Doctor."

Those cited or arrested were among about 60 demonstrators who showed up at the Marriot San Diego Mission Valley, where the DEA is holding a conference on medical marijuana. San Diego area patients and their supporters are furious with the federal drug agency for its role in raiding and closing medical marijuana dispensaries in the area.

According to Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the medical marijuana defense group that organized the action, protestors dumped 1,500 empty pill bottles in front of the hotel as a way of showing that the DEA's actions left them without their medicine. The patients refused to leave until Tandy came out to speak with them, and when she declined, they remained and were arrested.

While medical marijuana was legalized by California voters a decade ago, the federal government does not recognize it and views any marijuana use as illegal. Acting with the support of San Diego County political officials and law enforcement, the DEA has effectively shut down what was a growing network of medical marijuana dispensaries serving the San Diego area.

"Doctors recommend cannabis and patients use it because it works," said ASA executive director Steph Sherer. "The DEA is inflicting unnecessary suffering on tens of thousands of Americans by denying them a safe, effective medicine. It has to stop."

The action may not have reined in the rogue agency, but it helped turn up the heat on Tandy, who, according to ASA California state coordinator Alex Franco, came down and apologized to the Marriot staff for the "commotion" caused by the protest and arrests. When you head an agency that is taking medicine from seriously ill people, sometimes you have to pay the price, both personally and professionally.

South Pacific: Sympathy for Marijuana Growers in Vanuatu

A recent National Drug Squad raid on Malekula, part of the 80-island New Hebrides archipelago that makes up the country of Vanuatu, has led at least one member of parliament to say that harsh economic conditions justify the growing of marijuana by community members. In the raid in question, police rounded up 20 villagers and took them to jail in the capital, Port Vila. Police also seized 40 bags of freshly harvested marijuana.

In reaction to the raid, MP Donna Browny, who represents Malekula, told Radio New Zealand that people are justified in planting marijuana to earn money for their children's school fees when the copra price is down and the government has not found an alternative commodity to replace it. Browny urged leniency for the villagers, saying they planted pot instead of coconut trees because they needed the money.

Browny's is the first voice in opposition to the rising clamor from local law enforcement and some nonprofit groups in the Connecticut-sized archipelago of some 200,000 people. Vanuatu police took advantage of the annual Law Week last week to warn that marijuana growing and use is on the rise. "Vanuatu is lucky, yet, because at this stage we haven't come across a case of hard drug consumption like cocaine or opium but with the current trend there is a risk," a drug squad spokesman told the audience at a cannabis awareness session, according to an account in the Vanuatu News.

The association of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Vanuatu, VANGO, was raising similar concerns a week earlier. Marijuana use is on the rise and so is use among young people, warned VANGO spokesman Henry Vira. "Every week there is young people being arrested for the use of marijuana or possession and cultivation of the plant," he told Radio New Zealand.

The police want more resources for law enforcement. The NGOs want increased drug treatment and substance education. The marijuana growers and smokers undoubtedly just want to be left alone.

Marijuana: Massachusetts Gubernatorial Candidate Favors Legalization, Just Not During His Term

Democratic Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick has, according to recent polling, a huge lead on his opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Kealey. It isn't because of the clarity of his position on marijuana policy.

At the fourth and final gubernatorial debate October 26, both major party candidates and two minor party candidates were asked the following question by the debate moderator: "Since the 1970s at least a dozen states have decriminalized the possession by adults of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Massachusetts is not one of them. In a 2003 Boston University study estimated that the thousands of arrests for pot possession each year cost more than $24 million in law enforcement resources. There's a bill before the legislature that would reduce the penalty for possession of less than an ounce to a $100 civil fine. Would you sign it if it reached your desk?"

After saying that he hoped the bill never reached his desk because that was not his priority, Patrick added that law enforcement should emphasize large drug traffickers and that the same person who provided marijuana to his drug addict uncle also provided him with heroin. He concluded his initial response by saying, "I'm very comfortable with the idea of legalizing marijuana. I just don't think it ought to be our priority."

The moderator was reduced to asking Patrick directly if he would veto the bill. "I would veto that," he responded.

Republican candidate Healey didn't dance around in her response. "I would veto that proposal," she said, citing the cost of drug addiction and the "tragedy" of kids in the social service system because of drug-addicted parents. "Anything that leads to drug addiction should be absolutely off the table and I would never legalize drugs."

Independent gubernatorial candidate Christy Mihos joined the consensus, saying that he supported medical marijuana, but would veto a decrim bill. Only Green-Rainbow candidate Grace Ross gave any positive indication about the decrim bill, but that was vague too. "I'm not big for throwing people in prison for small amounts of marijuana but what the real issue is -- drug addiction, and every other industrialized nation doesn't have as many people in prison and there's a reason because when someone's addicted to something they can get treatment on demand, they can get treatment immediately because universal health care means when you know you need treatment you go in and you get it. So I think if we're going to talk about drugs lets catch the big folks who have the big amounts of money who bring them into communities, not the small fish."

Still, Ross refused to say whether she would sign or veto a decrim bill, saying she would want to see the context of other "much more important" policy changes. She did, however, obliquely attack Healey's comments about drug-addicted parents. "I think we have got to be real here because it's not about what's legal and what's not legal completely because a lot of those kids in DSS their parents are addicted to alcohol, not to illegal substances and I think that the one piece about this kind of question that's legitimate is that addiction is not connected with which substances are legal or not. And so we need to be honest here. I think the question of where marijuana sits in comparison to alcohol is a legitimate question and we need to deal with addiction as addiction and not about criminalizing people who are addicted. We need to deal with it as addiction."

In local ballot questions in the 2000, 2002, and 2004 general elections, more than 410,000 Massachusetts residents have voted for marijuana law reform.

Middle East: After Lebanon War, Israeli Cannabis Prices Spike

During last summer's 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, some Israeli hash smokers called for a boycott of Lebanese hash. Now that hostilities have ceased, however, Israeli hash heads have a new problem: The stuff is just too damned expensive.

According to an article published in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and picked up by various news agencies, supply disruptions during the war and increased border security since then -- not only on the Lebanese border, but also those with the Palestinian Territories and Egypt -- have caused the price of cannabis to spike eight-fold.

Smoking and selling cannabis are illegal but popular activities in Israel.

The report on increased prices came during a briefing on security and drug trafficking at an Israeli village near the Lebanese border. "While we are sitting here, dozens of kilos of drugs are making their way into Israel through the village," an unnamed Israeli security officer told the newspaper. The official also claimed that Hezbollah militants not only smuggle the drugs, but use the commerce to gather intelligence along the border.

The hash shortage and resulting high prices are only aggravated by the security crackdown in Gaza and along the Egyptian border. Conducted by the Israeli Defense Forces to deter arms smuggling into Gaza, the crackdown is putting a damper on the extra-legal cross-border cannabis trade, too.

Africa: As Marijuana Growing Expands, Swaziland Begins to Ponder Hemp

Faced with agricultural crisis and an irrepressible and growing marijuana farming sector, the southern African kingdom of Swaziland is now considering the production of another form of cannabis -- hemp. "Swazi Gold," as the locally produced pot is known, is a valuable commodity, fetching up to $5,000 a pound in the European market, and with growers of traditional crops such as cotton and sugar seeing tough times because of falling prices, generations-old, small-scale, traditional marijuana cultivation is being transformed into a major cash crop in the economically staggering nation.

Known in the local parlance as "dagga," Swaziland marijuana is consumed locally and exported to neighboring countries in southern Africa, as well as Europe. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), marijuana production in southern Africa generated about 10% of the $142 billion annual global marijuana trade. The UNODC's 2006 annual drug report calls Swaziland one of the major producers in the region. The other major regional marijuana producers are identified as Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland and Tanzania.

"People here will get around R80 [roughly US$11] for a 10kg bag of maize when they sell it at the market, but they will get R3,000 [about $405] for a 10kg bag of cannabis if they can sell it to someone who is going to take it outside of Swaziland," local informants told the UN's IRIN News Service. "A person can grow 30 10kg bags in a year up in the hills here, and they use the money to buy cows, furniture, send their children to school. We are in a good situation because our fathers grew dagga, so we could afford to go to school, have clothes and other benefits."

According to South Africa's Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the Swazi pot crop is being integrated into existing regional and global criminal networks. "Of the cannabis that is harvested, the best quality is earmarked for compression into one- or two-kilogram blocks that are smuggled via South Africa and Mozambique to Europe and the UK [United Kingdom]," said a recent ISS report on Swaziland's cannabis trade. "Nigerian criminal networks have moved into the dominant position in the Swazi cannabis trade during the past few years, and the proceeds of their sales in Europe are used to pay for cocaine purchased in South America, which is then smuggled to South Africa and elsewhere."

Swazi police attempt to eradicate the crops, but without much success. While the Swazi government gets limited anti-drug aid from the US, more important support from South Africa has ended because Swaziland can't afford to pay its share.

An IRIN reporter accompanied the head of Swaziland's anti-drug unit, Supt. Albert Mkhatshwa, on one search-and-destroy operation where a plantation was burned. "This is just dagga being grown by some of the villagers close by," Mkhatshwa explained. "We will spray it with weed killer and the plants will be dead in a day or so, but if we come back in a month's time it is likely more will be growing in the same spot. The people know we don't have the necessary resources to cover the whole area, so they will take a chance that we will not come back soon. People have been growing herbal cannabis for a long time in Swaziland, long before it was illegal," he said.

And if some local entrepreneurs and government officials have their way, people may be growing hemp as well. According to IRIN, the Swazi government is set to allow small-scale production of hemp to see if it has the potential to become an economically viable crop.

"In hemp we have an alternative to cotton, which has let us down badly over the last few years. It has been because of marijuana that we have found it difficult to talk about hemp, but that is changing, and we are beginning to shape public opinion to its benefits," said Lufto Dlamini, the Swazi Minister for Enterprise and Employment. "The government is considering a proposal to grow hemp, and a decision will be reached by the end of this month. But I expect it will be given the go-ahead to grow for research purposes, and if that proves successful then we will see," he told IRIN.

Dr Ben Dlamini, 70, a former education administrator in the Swazi Department of Education, was an early hemp advocate. "The major emphasis on cannabis in Swaziland has always been on smoking it and getting a 'high,' but if we were to grow hemp commercially it would solve a lot of problems," he told IRIN. "It can be used to manufacture fuels, textiles, healthy oils and lotions," he pointed out. "People are getting the idea that hemp can be used for purposes other than smoking, but the process of understanding this is very slow."

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A Virginia sheriff and most of his department goes down for reselling seized drug and guns, a Border Patrol guard gets caught turning a blind eye in exchange for sex and cash, dope is missing from the Boston Police evidence warehouse, a small town police chief pleads guilty to protecting crack dealers, and two cops are going to prison for dealing drugs.

Two of our stories this week are from Mississippi, but there are a lot more crooked cops down in the Mudcat State, as the Jackson Clarion-Ledger noted last Friday in an article simply -- and aptly--titled "Accused-Lawmen List Grows." Let's get to it:

In Henry County, Viriginia, Henry County Sheriff Harold Cassell was indicted for covering up the sale of seized guns and drugs by 13 of his deputies. The sheriff's department crew made up 14 of 19 people indicted on charges including racketeering conspiracy, weapons offenses, narcotics distribution, obstruction of justice and perjury. The crew is accused of stealing drugs and guns being held by the department; distributing cocaine, marijuana, and "a date rape drug; money laundering; and obstruction of justice. Virginia state police have been sent in to patrol the county now that a substantial portion of the sheriff's department is behind bars. Cassell himself is out on $25,000 bond. He is accused of failing to take action after being notified of corrupt activities, helping to launder money, and lying to federal investigators.

In Seattle, a US border guard made bail Tuesday after being accused of letting drugs get through the border in return for cash and sexual favors from a female drug smuggler. Desmone Bastian allegedly allowed the smuggler, who is also a brothel madam, to make repeated trips into the United States carrying marijuana and Oxycontin. He came under suspicion when he was observed leaving his post at the Blaine, Washington, border crossing to approach her car, which was found to contain 3,000 Oxycontin tablets when it was searched. A review of border crossing records revealed she had made repeated trips through the border checkpoint, often in Bastian's lane, but had never been subjected to close inspection.

In Boston, the Boston Police Department's anti-corruption unit is investigating whether police officers stole drugs missing from an evidence warehouse. Earlier this month, police announced that some seized drugs could not be accounted for, but suggested they might only have been misplaced as they were moved from one section of the warehouse to another. Now, however, Boston police admit the drugs are missing, although they won't say which drugs or how much. As the investigation continues, local prosecutors are pondering how they will prosecute criminal cases without the evidence.

In Oxford, Mississippi, Ruleville Police Chief Ronald Durelle Robinson pleaded guilty October 26 to extortion for accepting cash payments to not file drug and gambling charges against a crack cocaine distributor. Robinson, 46, and Ruleville Assistant Police Chief Larry Mitchell, 33, were indicted by a federal grand jury in July on charges they provided protection to crack dealers and people they thought were crack dealers between December 2003 and June 2006. Robinson was originally charged with two counts of extortion and four counts of attempting to aid in the possession of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute, but the feds dropped all but one extortion count in exchange for the guilty plea. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

In Biloxi, Mississippi, a veteran Biloxi Police Department officer was sentenced Monday to 5 years in prison for selling Ecstasy. Officer Darrell Cvitanovich Jr. pleaded guilty earlier this month after he was arrested when a June raid of his home turned up several Ecstasy tablets. Circuit Court Judge Robert Clark sentenced Cvitanovich to 15 years in prison, but suspended 10. Cvitanovich has until noon on November 15 to turn himself over to the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

In Milwaukee, a former Milwaukee Police Department detective was sentenced last Friday to four years in prison on federal cocaine distribution and conspiracy charges. Detective Larry White, a 10-year veteran of the force, transported cocaine from Illinois to Wisconsin for his then brother-in-law in 2004 and 2005, earning $1,000 per trip, according to court records. During sentencing, White's lawyers played for sympathy, arguing that White had become addicted to cocaine because of job stress and the killing of a nephew. The sob story must have worked because US District Court Judge Lynn Adelman sentenced him well below the advisory federal sentencing guidelines. Under the guidelines, he should be doing 5 ½ to 6 years.

Europe: Belgian MP Joins Growing Cannabis Social Club Movement

Belgian Representative Stijn Bex of the left liberal party Spirit has become the first Belgian elected official to publicly join the growing Cannabis Social Club movement. The movement is designed to create associations of marijuana users who come together to grow limited amounts of marijuana to satisfy their needs without resorting to the black market. A project of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), cannabis social clubs currently operate in Spain and Belgium.

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Stijn Bex
The cannabis social clubs are a concrete manifestation of ENCOD's Freedom to Farm campaign, which, according to the cannabis social club web site, is "aimed at the right of every adult citizen in the world to grow and possess natural plants for personal use and non-commercial purposes."

In an open letter to the newspaper De Morgen, Bex announced he would become a member of Draw Up Your Plant, a cannabis social club in the Antwerp area. Draw Up Your Plant is working to establish a marijuana collective farm on the principle of one plant per member. Under current Belgian drug policy, possession of one female marijuana plant by an adult is given the lowest law enforcement priority.

Draw Up Your Plant is planning to start its first indoor garden at the end of November, and ENCOD reports that Belgian authorities plan some sort of hostile response. But the group is building support among the media, and now it has its first MP.

Canada: Supreme Court Overturns Conviction of Medical Marijuana Activist

In a decision handed down Thursday, the Canadian Supreme Court has thrown out the conviction of Alberta medical marijuana activist Grant Krieger, who had been convicted of marijuana possession with the intent to distribute. The high court held that the trial judge had erred by directing the jury to find Krieger guilty.

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Grant Krieger (courtesy cannabiscoalition.ca)
Krieger, who claims the right to distribute marijuana to seriously ill people to alleviate their symptoms, did not kowtow to judicial power during his trial (or before or after), and the trial judge repaid him by instructing the jury at his 2003 trial to "retire to the jury room to consider what I have said, appoint one of yourselves to be your foreperson, and then to return to the court with a verdict of guilty."

Two jurors objected at the time, one citing religious reasons and one citing reasons of conscience, and asked to be excused from the case, but the judge refused.

The judge's jury instructions were clearly unconstitutional, the high court ruled. "The trial judge's direction was not a 'slip of the tongue' to be evaluated in the context of the charge as a whole," the court wrote in its decision. "His purpose and words were clear. In effect, the trial judge reduced the jury's role to a ceremonial one: he ordered the conviction and left to the jury, as a matter of form but not of substance, its delivery in open court."

Krieger, who has legal permission from Health Canada to smoke marijuana for multiple sclerosis, is begging for a retrial. He wants to continue to use the courts as a forum for challenging the legitimacy of Canada's marijuana laws.

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