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Medical Marijuana: Bill to Make Rhode Island Law Permanent Passes House, Senate Committees

(Interested parties in or near Rhode Island should check out the SSDP Northeast Regional Conference in Providence from later today through Sunday.)
leading RI patient activist Rhonda O'Donnell, at DC protest
A bill that would make Rhode Island's medical marijuana law permanent is headed for House and Senate floor votes after the House Health, Education and Welfare Committee passed it on a 10-3 vote Tuesday and the Senate Health and Human Services Committee passed it on a unanimous voice vote Wednesday. Unless HB 6005 and its companion legislation in the Senate, SB 0791, pass, the Rhode Island medical marijuana program will be ended on June 30.

The Rhode Island legislature last year overrode a veto by Gov. Donald Carcieri (R) to make the state the 11th to legalize medical marijuana, but the final version of the measure included a sunset provision. So far, some 244 Rhode Islanders have registered with the state to use the drug with medical approval.

One of those patients, Craig Paquette of Richmond, who suffers severe spinal pain from injuries suffered in a car wreck fifteen years ago, as well as serious side effects from narcotic pain relievers, praised the House committee vote. "I do not want my family to see me suffer. I am off the painkillers now, and with a little marijuana, my pain is reduced, my sick stomach goes away, and I feel human again," he said in a statement after the vote. "Because of this law, I have a quality of life I would never have had without it, and I would hate to have that taken away."

Gov. Carcieri doesn't care. His spokesman, Jeff Neal, told the Providence Journal Wednesday he opposes making the medical marijuana law permanent. "First," Neal said, "this Rhode Island statute is in direct conflict with the federal ban on marijuana. Second, the governor shares the concerns of the state police that a state medical marijuana law promotes the illicit drug trade while also making marijuana more available to children and others not using it for medical purposes."

But Rhode Island legislators have overridden the governor's veto once already on medical marijuana. Perhaps they will have to do it again.

Medical Marijuana: Minnesota Bill Passes Senate Committee

The Minnesota medical marijuana bill narrowly passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday on a 5-4 vote. The bill, SF 345, has already been approved by the Senate Health, Housing and Family Security Committee and now heads for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee.

The bill would allow seriously ill patients to use marijuana with a physician's recommendation.

A House companion bill, HF 0655 has so far successfully followed a similarly torturous path. It is now before the House Finance Committee for the second time.

The favorable vote came despite sometimes heated testimony by law enforcement officials who argued it would "send the wrong message," lead to increased marijuana use, be difficult to enforce, and conflict with federal law. But the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Steve Murphy (D-Red Wing) called those concerns overstated.

"I'm happy that we are one step closer to passing this bill that will help patients suffering from cancer, MS, and other diseases to receive the care their physicians recommend," said Murphy after the vote.

The number of states with laws protecting medical marijuana patients from arrest increased on April 2, when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) signed the 12th state medical marijuana law. The other states with medical marijuana laws are Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

Marijuana: After Denver Votes to Legalize It, Cops Arrest Even More

In November 2005, voters in Denver approved a municipal ordinance legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Denver police and prosecutors refused to play ball, continuing to cite people under the state marijuana law. Now, to add insult to injury, arrest figures from the police department show they are arresting more people for marijuana possession than ever.
SAFER's Chickenlooper activist (photo courtesy SAFER)
With 2,446 misdemeanor pot charges last year, Denver police busted 11% more people for pot in 2006 than they did in 2005. That's less than the increase in the overall number of arrests between the two years, which was up 14%.

But it was still too much for Mason Tvert, who as head of SAFER Colorado led the Denver legalization campaign. "If there's one, it's too many," Tvert told the Rocky Mountain News. "They (police) have the discretion not to arrest." Tvert also pointed out that the city's black population bears the brunt of marijuana law enforcement. Blacks make up 11% of the city's population, but are 32% of those arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges.

Tvert has led a band of activists on a campaign to embarrass Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper over the arrest figures. This week, the activists have trailed Hickenlooper as he conducted campaign forums called "A Dialogue With Denver." Hickenlooper, who owns the Wynkoop Brewing Company, has so far refused to answer any questions related to the arrest figures, despite being hounded by a man dressed in a chicken suit calling himself "Whine-Coop Chickenlooper" and holding a sign asking "What's So Scary About Marijuana?"

Europe: French Anti-Globalist Activist and Presidential Candidate Says Legalize Marijuana

Independent French presidential candidate and anti-globalization activist José Bové kicked off his campaign Monday by calling for the legalization of marijuana. The call came in his first nationally televised address as a candidate -- the first by any candidate, all 12 of whom participated in a drawing to see when they would get air time.
José Bové (courtesy Wikimedia)
"Marijuana needs to be decriminalized," Bové told viewers. "This is as much part of the daily routine today as drinking alcohol."

While Bové said "decriminalize" instead of "legalize," his reference to alcohol -- which is legal in France -- suggests he envisions a similar legal and regulated regime for marijuana. Under current French law, which does not distinguish between "soft" and "hard" drugs, drug possession is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Bove is a farmer and long-time left-leaning anti-globalization activist. He is best known for leading the unauthorized dismantling of a McDonald's restaurant in Millau in 1999 to protest hormone-treated beef. During his address to the nation, he called for the establishment of a leftist political force to challenge the sclerotic official French left and the rising right.

The leading contenders in next week's election are Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, a drug policy hard-liner; Socialist Ségolène Royal, and centrist François Bayrou. If the first round fails to produce a clear winner, a run-off will be held May 6. According to a poll released Tuesday, Sarkozy is leading with 28%, Royal has 22%, Bayrou 19%, and hard-right Jean-Marie Le Pen 14%. Bove is in the next tier of candidates, huddled with two others with a mere 2% of the vote. Nevertheless, his activist profile has generated some attention for the issue.

Medical Marijuana: California Begins Taxing Dispensaries

For more than a decade, Californians seeking medical marijuana have been able to purchase it through dispensaries. Now, the state of California wants a cut of the action, and the medical marijuana community is not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing.

In February, the state Board of Equalization sent a notice to medical marijuana retailers urging them to get a seller's permit like other retailers. "If you sell medical marijuana, your sales in California are generally subject to tax and you are required to hold a seller's permit," the notice said. It went on to warn sellers that "if you do not obtain a seller's permit or fail to report and pay the taxes due, you will be subject to interest and penalty charges."

Some club owners welcome taxation as part of the "normalization" of medical marijuana. But others worry that any tax information they submit could be used against them by federal drug enforcement agents.

"It's frustrating," Chris Moscone, an attorney for the San Francisco dispensary the Hemp Center, told the McLatchy Newspapers Monday. "There are basically two camps: Those that want to be treated like legitimate businesses, and the other side, where they're still rebels and don't want to be taxed."

It was a case involving the Hemp Center that led to the February letter from the Board of Equalization. As the board reviewed the Hemp Center case, it realized that while the dispensary was paying taxes on t-shirts, hats, pipes, and bongs, it was not paying taxes on the medical marijuana it sold. Upon review, the board determined that medical marijuana is subject to state sales tax because it is neither approved by the Food and Drug Administration nor supplied by a pharmacist.

To tax medical marijuana, the board had to update its guidelines. Under previous rules, sellers of illegal items could not get a seller's permit, but the dispensaries will be able to. The board will also allow dispensaries to sign a waiver instead of disclosing what they are selling, a move that could ease some concerns about federal authorities using tax records to persecute providers.

State officials estimate there are somewhere between 150 and 200 dispensaries. So far, only 27 have applied for and been issued seller's permits. But those numbers are likely to increase in the wake of the February letter.

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