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Video Killed the Drug Conviction: Chicago Narcs Busted Lying Through Their Teeth [FEATURE]

Part 10 of an occasional series on police and prosecutorial misconduct by Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com.

It was just another marijuana bust by Chicago's crack dope squad and should have resulted in an easy conviction, but thanks to a forgotten camera, things didn't exactly work out the way the cops planned. Now, the pot dealer is free, he has a bunch of cash in pocket, and it's the cops who are facing justice.

It went down on June 6, 2013, when three Chicago Police narcotics officer and a pair of suburban Glenview police officers pulled over Joseph Sperling on the pretext that he had failed to properly use his turn signal, then claimed Sperling told them there were drugs in his vehicle. The cops said they found marijuana in plain view and arrested Sperling on marijuana possession and distribution charges. Business as usual, so far.

But when it came time to go to court the following March, things went south for the cops. Prosecutors had been questioning Chicago PD narcotics officer William Pruente, who said in sworn testimony that when police pulled over Sperling they immediately smelled marijuana and ordered him to exit the vehicle and stand at the rear of the car.

Then, defense attorney Steven Goldman asked the veteran narc if Sperling was handcuffed after he got out of the car.

"No, he was not handcuffed," Pruente replied. "He was not under arrest at that time."

Chicago narcotic officers Sergeant James Padar and Vince Morgan and Glenview Police officers James Horn and Sergeant Theresa Urbanowski backed up Pruente's story.

Then, as Urbanowski was testifying, defense attorney Goldman dropped a bombshell. He interrupted the testimony to inform Judge Catherine Haberkorn that he needed to offer a videotape into evidence.

In a moment of courtroom drama like something out of "Law and Order," Goldman revealed that the video came from Urbanowski's police cruiser and that it flatly contradicted the sworn testimony of the police officers. The police had been lying to the court and to the judge and the video would prove it, Goldman said.

As Goldman patiently took Urbanowski back over the events she'd testified about, he played the recording and asked her to describe the difference between her original testimony and what was happening on the tape.

The footage contradicted the testimony of the police officers. Pruente had testified that Sperling had not been arrested or handcuffed until the cops had found the dope in plain view, but the video showed Pruente walking up to Sperling's car, reaching in the open window, unlocking the door, pulling Sperling out, handcuffing him, and placing him in the back seat of a patrol car. Only then did the officers move to search the car.

The video clearly showed the officers spending minutes thoroughly searching Sperling's car before finding weed and a small amount of psychedelic mushrooms in a black duffel bag.

As defense attorney Goldman noted during questioning, if the drugs had really been in plain view on the front seat of the vehicle, the officers had no need or reason to search it because they already had the drugs.

The brazen distance between the officers' testimony and what the video revealed infuriated Judge Haberkorn, who immediately granted Goldman's motion to suppress the evidence because the video showed police had neither probable cause to arrest Sperling nor a warrant to search his vehicle.

"This is very outrageous conduct," Haberkorn said from the bench. "All the officers lied on the stand today. All their testimony is a lie. There is strong evidence it was a conspiracy to lie in this case, for everyone to come up with the same lie."

Haberkorn then dismissed the criminal charges against Sperling.

"If this could happen to me, it could happen to anyone," said Sperling, then 23, during a press conference with reporters after the release of his videotaped arrest. "I just happen to be one of the lucky few that had a video that proved the officers were wrong."

The Cook County criminal justice system may have been done with Sperling, but he wasn't done with it. Shortly after the charges were dismissed, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging illegal search and seizure against the Chicago and Glenview police departments. And he won. The two cities involved settled the suit, paying Sperling $195,000 for his troubles.

Others who have been similarly victimized could do the same. Under the US Code Section 1983, citizens are allowed to sue police in federal court as a result of an illegal search and arrest if the officer acted with malice "under color of law."

In Sperling's case, attorney John Loevy argued in the lawsuit that there was insufficient legal justification for officers to stop and arrest Sperling and search his vehicle, which was done without probable cause. Those illegal actions violated Sperling's civil rights under the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth amendments, as prescribed under Section 18 US Code 242. The argument was strong enough to force the cities to settle.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez (twitter.com)
Former Houston Police homicide and narcotic gang investigator Rick Moreno told Drug War Chronicle the officers lied to protect an informant when they could simply have gone by the book and done their bust right.

"Once those officers had all the information about this guy having dope in his car they needed a warrant," Moreno explained.

But the narcs plotted a scheme disguised as a routine traffic stop to avoid having to obtain one.

"What they've done in this case was a 'wall off' technique." Moreno said, referring to a strategy most narcotic officers use to put a wall between the officer and the information provided by a snitch. And if everything goes as planned, the officer gets the dope without a warrant, they got the dope dealer and the snitch is protected."

"The biggest casualty in the war on drugs is the truth," said Chicago civil attorney Jon Loevy, who represented Sperling in his civil rights lawsuit.

"The ends justify the means," said criminal defense attorney Goldman, explaining the attitudes that drove the cops to lie on the stand. "So because they get the bad guy off the street or the drugs out of their hands, everybody's happy."

Well, not everybody, not when the lies are so blatant they cannot be ignored. The Cook County criminal justice system wasn't done with the cops caught lying on the witness stand. Sgt. Urbanowski's camera had caught them red-handed, and four of them were indicted by a Cook County grand jury on perjury, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct charges in June 2015. They all face up to five years in prison on each count. The three Chicago police officers were immediately suspended, and the Glenview police officer was later fired. Their trials got underway this week.

"The foundation of our criminal justice system rests on the concept of truthful testimony," said Cook County States' Attorney Anita Alvarez in a press statement announcing the indictments. "We expect it from our witnesses and we demand it from our police officers."

The criminal charges filed against the officers made headlines across the state and constituted another black mark against the much criticized Chicago Police Department. But the buzz around the courthouse was not just over the charges, but whether they would lead to the dismissal of other drug cases in which the charged cops were involved.

Calls to the Cook County prosecutor's office regarding whether the four indicted officers would be investigated for perjury or illegal tactics in previous drug cases have not been returned.

While Sperling won $195,000 in damages from his illegal search and seizure lawsuit, legal experts say such victories are rare. Defendants usually don't pursue such suits due to lack of funds, and if a case involving a bad search is dismissed, most defendants are just relieved the case is over and they no longer face charges, said Penn State University law professor David Rudovsky, a leading civil rights and criminal defense attorney and author of The Law of Arrest, Search, and Seizure.

Penn State law professor David Rudovsky (law.penn.edu)
Rudovsky told Drug War Chronicle there is also another reason such lawsuits are rare.

"Why would a jury award money for damages to a criminal already proven to have committed a crime?" he asked rhetorically.

Police perjury is nothing new -- the practice has even generated its own nickname, "testilying" -- but the Sperling case has renewed debate over why law enforcers resort to breaking the law.

"Police perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace," wrote former San Francisco police commissioner Peter Keane in a much-cited article on the topic.

"I've heard some police officers say in a social setting, 'If [the defendant] is going to lie to beat the case, why can't I lie too?" Cook County Public Defender, and former prosecutor Abishi Cunningham Jr. related.

"When police lie to make a case on someone they are saying the criminal justice system doesn't work... so I'm going to do it my way," Houston civil and criminal attorney Annie Briscoe told the Chronicle.

Briscoe recalled a drug case involving police illegal search where police recovered a sizeable amount of drugs from a client of hers. Houston police claimed he resembled a fugitive they were looking for. With her client facing up to life in prison, Briscoe convinced the trial judge to throw out the charge because of illegal search and seizure through the simple expedient of showing the judge a photo of the fugitive, who looked nothing like her client.

While the judge called Briscoe's client "one lucky guy," Briscoe had a slightly different take.

"The law should be enforceable by way of truth," she said.

Police are also incentivized by the war on drugs to cut corners so they can reap monetary rewards, whether through asset forfeiture or by earning federal anti-drug grants through aggressive enforcement actions. And each bust makes their numbers look better.

As NYPD Officer Adil Polanco once revealed through a surfeit of honesty, "Our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them. You have to write somebody, arrest somebody, even if the crime is not committed, the number is there."

Yes, there are numerous reasons cops lie. But none of them justify the lying, or the corrosive effect such behavior has on public trust and respect for law enforcement. These Chicago police officers are about to find out just how seriously the system takes such dishonesty, especially when it is so blatant the system can't pretend it doesn't see it.

Chicago, IL
United States

Highway Drug Dog Searches: Two Diverging Trends in the Case Law [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Last year, in one of the Roberts' court's rare decisions not siding with law enforcement, the US Supreme Court ruled that police could not detain people pulled over for traffic violations in order to await the arrival of a drug-sniffing police dog. Once the traffic violation was dealt with, motorists were free to go, the court held.

"Absent reasonable suspicion, police extension of a traffic stop in order to conduct a dog sniff violates the Constitution’s shield against unreasonable seizures," wrote Justice Ruth Ginsberg for the court's 6-3 majority in Rodriguez v. United States.

That case was a necessary antidote for police practices that evolved after the Supreme Court's decision in Illinois v. Caballes a decade earlier. In that case, the high court held the use of drug dogs during a traffic stop did not violate Fourth Amendment proscriptions against unwarranted searches and seizures because, in the court's rather involved reasoning, people carrying drugs have no expectation of privacy. Unlike the use of infra-red cameras to peer inside homes, which the court disallowed in an earlier case, the use of drug dogs would only reveal drugs, not other intimate details of one's life, so that was okay.

What came after Caballes was repeated reports of people being stopped for alleged traffic infractions on the highway, then forced to wait on the side of the road in a sort of legal limbo ("Am I under arrest?" "No." "Am I free to go?" "No.") for the arrival of a drug dog to conduct a search of their vehicles. Then, when the drug dog would "alert" to the presence of drugs, police had probable cause to search the vehicle, find the drugs, and arrest and charge the driver.

What also came after Caballes was people being arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for drug offenses after being detained for lengthy periods. Asserting that their rights had been infringed by the lengthy detentions, some of them appealed, arguing that the evidence against them should be suppressed because it was unconstitutionally obtained.

The situation festered until the Rodriguez decision was announced. Police would no longer have a free hand to hold people against their will while awaiting the drug dog's arrival. That should have reined in the cops, but it hasn't exactly worked out that way. Instead, two distinct lines of post-Rodriguez drug dog jurisprudence have emerged, one seeking to uphold and strengthen it, but the seeking to find work-arounds for drug-hunting police and their canine helpers.

Representative of Rodriguez's positive impact was last month's Kentucky Supreme Court decision in Davis v. Kentucky. In that case, an officer pulled over Thomas J. Davis for crossing the center line, administered field sobriety tests that Davis passed, then asked for Davis's consent to search the vehicle. Davis refused to consent to a vehicle search, at which point the officer had his drug dog sniff the exterior of the car, despite Davis's protests. The dog alerted, the car was searched, and police found methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia.

At trial, Davis moved to have the evidence suppressed as fruits of an unlawful search, but he lost at the trial level and reached an agreement to plead guilty while preserving his right to appeal the ruling on the motion. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the conviction and sent the case back to the trial court.

"As recently clarified by the United States Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), a police officer may not extend a traffic stop beyond its original purpose for the sole purpose of conducting a sniff search -- not even for a de minimus period of time," the state high court concluded. "Under Rodriguez, any nonconsensual extension of the detention beyond the time taken to verify Appellant's sobriety, unless accompanied by additional grounds to believe other criminal activity was afoot, was unconstitutional… With no articulable suspicion to authorize an extended detention to search for drugs, [the officer] prolonged the seizure and conducted the search in violation of Rodriguez and Appellant's Fourth Amendment protections."

"While Davis isn't perfectly clear, it strongly suggests that the use of drug dog without reasonable suspicion a crime has been committed offends the reasonableness clause of the Fourth Amendment, said John Wesley Hall, a Little Rock criminal defense attorney, former head of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys (NACDL), and author of Search and Seizure, 5th Ed.

Keith Stroup, the founder and currently counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), liked what he saw in Davis, too.

"This is a great decision," Stroup said. "It will help a lot of drivers, but it doesn't totally write drug dogs out. With no articulable suspicion to authorize an extended detention to search for drugs, the police are out of luck."

Police erred in this case, Stroup said, but not in the sense that the court meant.

"The mistake the cops made is that they didn't lie and claim they smelled marijuana," he said. "They will learn very quickly that the first thing to say is 'I smell marijuana.' Then they can at least do a search of the passenger compartment."

Still, Stroup pronounced himself pleasantly surprised at the ruling.

"In some states, the Supreme Court is very law enforcement-oriented and willing to give police the benefit of the doubt. That this came out of Kentucky is promising," he said.

The Kentucky case shows how the courts are applying Rodriguez to protect the rights of motorists, but other post-Rodriguez cases are heading in a different direction. As Hall notes on his Fourth Amendment blog linked to above, various US district and appellate courts are bending over backwards to find ways to allow drug dog searches to continue without any reasonable suspicion a crime is being committed.

"Dog sniff by second officer while first officer wrote ticket didn't extend stop," he wrote describing a case> out of the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

"Dog sniff during the normal computer checks are valid," is how he characterized another case in federal district court in Georgia.

"GA holds that a dog sniff of a car before dispatch confirms ID is valid because it didn't extend the traffic stop," he wrote about another Georgia case.

The upshot of these and similar cases is that they provide an opening for police to get their drug dog searches in simply by delaying what should be routine, quickly accomplished, procedures, such as verifying license, registration, and outstanding criminal warrants. "I severely disagree with that case law," said Hall. "It just offends every sense of justice and privacy. It makes a car a target without any reasonable suspicion whatsoever, and it essentially rewards the cop with the drug dog in his car."

And he scoffs at the reported delays in those routine procedures. "The cops deliberately delay the response," he said. "As fast as these computers are, if it takes more than 60 seconds, it's complete bullshit. Or they call in the drivers' license number and it takes forever for the call to come back, so the cop can sit there and chat with you and try to find excuses to come up with reasonable suspicion.

Clearly, Rodriguez hasn't settled the issue. While law enforcement is now somewhat constrained in the use of drug-sniffing dogs on the highway, police -- and friendly courts -- are working assiduously to find ways to continue to use them. Ironically, the current state of the law could result in not fewer but more drug dogs on the highway, because under some of these rulings, the police officer who has a dog with him can get away with a quick sniff, while the officer who has to call and wait for one to arrive would be out of luck.

And that means the litigation likely isn't over. "The Supreme Court is going to have to take this up one of these days," said Hall. "This whole idea of pulling people over with dogs smacks of Nazi Germany."

Chronicle AM: Michiganders Say Legalize, Kansas MedMj Mom Sues Over Son's Removal, More... (3/28/16)

Popular sentiment favors marijuana legalization in Michigan, Denver activists plan an initiative to approve cannabis social clubs, Florida's CBD cannabis oil law gets expanded, and more.

Shona Banda is suing the state of Kansas, local police, and a local school district over her son's removal from her home.
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Poll Has Majority Support for Legalization. A new SurveyUSA poll commissioned by Michigan marijuana activists finds support for legalization at 54%. The poll comes as activists there struggle to get legalization initiatives on the ballot.

Denver Activists Renew Push for Cannabis Clubs. Activists with Responsible Use Denver submitted ballot language last Friday for an initiative to allow for private marijuana social clubs and to allow for public pot use at special events with a permit. The move comes a year after backers of a similar measure dropped it in favor of working with city officials to craft a policy. The initiative will need 5,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot; the group says it is aiming at 10,000 raw signatures.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Governor Signs CBD Expansion Bills Into Law. Gov. Rick Scott (R) has signed into law House Bill 307 and House Bill 1313, which expands the state's CBC cannabis oil law and fixing some problems related to that law which resulted in patients not getting their medicine because of challenges setting up the industry.

Kansas Medical Marijuana Mom Sues Over Son's Removal. Activist Shona Bana last Thursday filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last Thursday over the state's questioning and removal of her 11-year-old son after he spoke up in school about her using and possessing marijuana. She is claiming the state deprived her of her civil rights by not allowing her to use medical marijuana to treat her Crohn's Disease and that local police and school officials improperly questioned her son.

MPP-Backed Ohio Initiative Cleared for Circulation. The initiative from Ohioans for Medical Marijuana, which is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project, has been cleared for circulation. Attorney General Mike DeWine last Friday approved the summary language. At least two other proposed medical marijuana initiative have been rejected by DeWine, as was an earlier version of this one.

Heroin

Pennsylvania Coroner Now Classifying Heroin Overdoses as "Homicides." Lycoming County Coroner Charles Kiessling has started listing accidental fatal heroin overdoses as homicides. "If you are selling heroin to someone and they die, isn't that homicide?" he asked. "If you are dealing drugs, you are a murderer." Most coroners in the state list heroin overdose deaths as "accidental," not "homicide."

Drug Testing

West Virginia Imposes Drug Testing on High School Students in Tech Ed Courses. All high school students in third and fourth year career technical education courses will be required to submit to drug tests beginning next school year. It's part of the Department of Education's Simulated Workplace program. It's unclear whether the drug testing complies with Supreme Court rulings that limit mandatory, suspicionless drug testing to select groups of students, but would appear to be ripe for a legal challenge.

Chronicle AM: TN Pregnant Women Drug Law Fails, AR Welfare Drug Testing Starting, More... (3/24/16)

An asset forfeiture reform bill moves in New Hampshire, Arkansas and West Virginia advance welfare drug testing, a global commission on public health calls for drug decriminalization, and more.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana House Committee Approves Bill to Set Up Medical Marijuana Shops. The House Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday approved House Bill 446, sponsored by Rep. H. Bernard LeBas (D-Ville Platte). The bill would create a licensing scheme for the distribution of medical marijuana products. The bill now heads for a House floor vote. It must still be approved by the Senate.

More Michigan Protests Over Dispensary Raids. Dozens of patients, advocates, and supporters took to the steps of the state capitol in Lansing Tuesday to protest a new wave of raids by the Michigan State Police and local narcotics teams. Both state Sen. Coleman Young (D-Detroit) and Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) addressed the crowd.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Kentucky Senate Restores Funding for Heroin Fight. The Senate Wednesday agreed to restore $12 million in funding for anti-heroin efforts that had been proposed by Gov. Matt Bevin (R), but cut by the House last week. House Democrats had slashed the $32 million over two years proposed by the governor to $20 million. Now, the House and Senate will have to thrash out the difference in conference committee.

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire House Approves Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. The House Wednesday approved House Bill 636, which would require a criminal conviction before assets could be seized and which would move seized goods from the drug forfeiture fund to the state's general fund. Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) is threatening to veto the bill, saying that because of the state's opioid crisis, this isn't the time to eliminate law enforcement resources.

Drug Policy

Hawaii Lawmakers Take Up Resolution Urging Study on Drug Decriminalization. The House Judiciary Committee today is hearing a resolution, HCR 127, that calls on the state's Legislative Research Bureau to "conduct a study on the feasibility and advisability of decriminalizing the illegal possession of drugs for personal use in Hawaii" so that it "would constitute an administrative or civil violation rather than a criminal offense." If the resolution passes both chambers, the study would be due before year's end to be ready for next year's legislative session. The study would examine Portugal's experience with decriminalization as a possible model for the state.

Drug Testing

Arkansas Welfare Drug Testing to Begin Within Days. The head of the Department of Workforce Services, Daryl Bassett, said Wednesday that the state's welfare drug testing program would get underway within "seven to 10 days." Under the program, all applicants for government aid would be screened for possible drug use and those deemed likely to have been using drugs would have to undergo drug testing. Refusal to take the drug test will result in being denied benefits for six months. Someone who tests positive can continue to receive aid if he follows treatment and recovery plans set by state officials.

West Virginia Governor Signs Welfare Drug Test Bill. Gov. Early Ray Tomblin (D) today signed into law a bill that mandates screening of all welfare applicants for drug use and drug testing those for whom case workers have "reasonable suspicion" of drug use. Applicants who fail drug tests can continue to receive benefits as long as they enroll in drug treatment and job training programs, but a second failed test could mean loss of benefits for up to a year, and a third would earn a lifetime ban.

Harm Reduction

King County Sheriff Says He Would Not Arrest Drug Users Going to Seattle Safe Injection Site. King County Sheriff John Urquhart edged ever closer Tuesday to outright support of a safe injection site in Seattle. "I guarantee you," said Urquhart, "that if you're going into a safe injection site, you will not be arrested by any of my deputies, period." But he was careful to add that while he was "intrigued" by the success of Vancouver's InSite supervised injection facility, he is not yet ready to endorse them for Seattle.

Pregnancy

Tennessee Law That Allows Assault Charges for Pregnant Drug Users Not Renewed. The state's two-year experiment with arresting pregnant drug users is about to come to an end after the legislature failed to re-authorize the law this week. At least a hundred women have been prosecuted under the program, which has been condemned by human rights, civil rights, and pregnant women's rights advocates.

International

Leading Global Health Commission Calls for Reform of Drug Policies Worldwide. A leading global public health commission is calling for new policies that would transform our approach to drug use, addiction and control worldwide, including the decriminalization of minor and non-violent drug offenses. According to a report released this morning by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Lancet, the war on drugs and zero-tolerance policies have undercut public health across the globe and have directly contributed to many of today's most urgent public health crises, while doing little to affect drug markets or drug use. The Johns Hopkins University -- Lancet Commission on Public Health and International Drug Policy calls for worldwide reform of drug policies, including: the decriminalization of minor and non-violent drug use, possession and petty sale; enactment of policies that reduce violence and discrimination in drug policing; increased access to controlled medicines that could reduce the risk of overdose deaths; and greater investments in health and social services for drug users. The report is based on an extensive review by the Commissioners of the published evidence, and on original analyses and modeling on violence, incarceration and infectious diseases associated with drug policies.

Chronicle AM: Joep, We Miss You; Supreme Court Rejects NE, OK Pot Lawsuit; Bud Business Going Big, More... (3/21/16)

The international drug reform movement has lost a valued member way too soon, the Supreme Court rejects Nebraska and Oklahoma's efforts to derail Colorado's pot law, a new report says the pot business is going big, Ohio medical marijuana initiatives keep hitting roadblocks, and more.

A $23 billion industry by 2020? Arcview thinks so. (wikimedia.org/hampuforum)
Marijuana Policy

Supreme Court Rejects Nebraska and Oklahoma Lawsuit Over Colorado Marijuana Legalization. The US Supreme Court today declined to hear the case brought by Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado's marijuana legalization law. The two states had claimed the Colorado law created an increased law enforcement burden in their states and claimed that federal marijuana prohibition trumps the state law. But the Obama administration urged the high court to reject the case, and today it did on a 6-2 vote.

Legal Marijuana Could Be a $23 Billion Business By 2020, Report Says. In its 4th Edition State of Legal Marijuana Markets Report, the Arcview Market Research and the data-analysis firm New Frontier said that the legal marijuana industry is creating thousands of jobs and is online to reach $23 billion in sales by 2020, driven largely by adult use.

Vermont House Panels Will Hold Hearing on Pot Legalization Bill on March 31. The House committees on Judiciary and on Government Operations will hold a joint hearing on the marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 241. The measure has already passed the Senate, and Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) supports it. If the bill passes, Vermont will become the first state to legalize it via the legislative process.  

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Attorney General Rejects Two More Initiatives. It's back to the drawing board for two more medical marijuana initiatives after Attorney General Mike DeWine found problems with their ballot language. The Medical Cannabis and Industrial Hemp Amendment, submitted by a group led by attorney and veteran marijuana activist Don Wirstshafter, had inconsistencies between its text and its summary, DeWine said. Last Friday, he rejected a fourth petition for the Ohio Medical Cannabis Amendment for similar reasons. The groups behind the initiatives will now have to gather an additional 1,000 signatures and then resubmit their initiatives.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

New CDC Prescribing Guidelines Urge Doctors Not to Test for Marijuana. New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines aimed at reducing opiate addiction and overdose deaths recommend that doctors stop drug testing patients for the presence of THC and discourages them from dropping patients who test positive for pot. "Clinicians should not test for substances for which results would not affect patient management or for which implications for patient management are unclear. For example, experts noted that there might be uncertainty about the clinical implications of a positive urine drug test for tetrahyrdocannabinol (THC),” the guidelines state. "Clinicians should not dismiss patients from care based on a urine drug test result because this could constitute patient abandonment and could have adverse consequences for patient safety, potentially including the patient obtaining opioids from alternative sources and the clinician missing opportunities to facilitate treatment for substance use disorder."

Asset Forfeiture

Utah Poll Has 86% Opposing Current Asset Forfeiture Laws. A new Public Policy Polling survey commissioned by Drug Policy Action, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, shows overwhelming dissatisfaction with the state's civil asset forfeiture laws. More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents said they were unaware of civil asset forfeiture, but when provided a brief summary, 86% supported the position that "Police should not be able to seize and permanently take away property from people who have not been charged with a crime." The poll comes as asset forfeiture reform legislation has been stalled by organized opposition from law enforcement.

Pregnancy

Tennessee Law That Criminalized Drug Use By Pregnant Women Could Be Modified. On Tuesday, lawmakers will vote to amend the state's "fetal assault" bill, which makes it a crime for women to use drugs while pregnant. The amendment being offered would only prosecute woman who are more than 25 weeks pregnant.  But advocates are calling for a better solution: don't renew the law.

International

European Drug Reform Stalwart Joep Oomen Dead at 54.Joep Oomen, a key figure in European civil society drug reform efforts, has died unexpectedly of natural causes at his home in Antwerp, Belgium. He was found by colleagues dead in bed Friday when they went looking for him after he failed to show up for a meeting.  He was 54 years old. A veteran activist with more than a quarter century of organizing under his belt, Oomen was the co-founder of numerous drug reform NGOs, including the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), the Trekt Uw Plant cannabis cultivation social club in Antwerp, and the Dutch Union for the Abolition of Cannabis Prohibtion (VOC). Joep's vision of a world without drug war drew his attention beyond Europe's borders as well. He had been active with groups like Mama Coca and Friends of the Coca Leaf in working to see the coca plant treated with the respect it deserves, and had been a steady presence at organizing around the United Nations' international drug prohibition bureaucracy. We consider Joep a friend and colleague. We are shocked and saddened by his untimely departure.  

Chronicle AM: VT Gov Urges Lawmakers to Pass Legal Pot Bill, House Dems Urge Obama to Stand Tall at UNGASS, More... (3/18/16)

The taxman is happy in Oregon, Vermont's governor would be happy if the House passed the pot bill, New Orleans is a signature away from decriminalizing pot, Wisconsin's governor signs a package of bills to tamp down heroin and pain pill use, and more.

Some House Democrats are calling on President Obama to use the UNGASS on Drugs as a bully pulpit for global drug reform.
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Took in $3.48 Million in Marijuana Taxes in January. Even though legal marijuana is still for sale only through medical marijuana dispensaries, the state still sold an estimated $14 million worth of non-medical weed, resulting in the $3 million-plus funding gift to the state. State officials had predicted the take would be about $1 million.

Vermont Governor Urges House to Pass Legalization Bill. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) told legislators "the time is now to take a smarter approach to marijuana" in a statement released Friday. "The stakes are important. The bill passed by the Vermont Senate would represent the most careful, deliberate attempt to regulate marijuana in America. Before passing the bill, the Senate took testimony from experts, asked the right questions, and learned lessons from those states that have legalized marijuana already. The result is a bill to create a system which would represent a huge improvement over the status quo….The choice in front of Vermonters and their elected representatives in the next couple of months is whether we want our state to take a rational step to end an antiquated War on Drugs policy that almost everyone agrees has failed. We can take a smarter approach in Vermont and be prepared for whatever other states around us do. But we must have the courage to do it." The House has taken up the legalization bill, Senate Bill 241, this week.  

New Orleans City Council Approves Decriminalization. The council voted unanimously Thursday night to approve an ordinance allowing police to write tickets instead of arresting people caught in possession of small amounts of marijuana. Fines will start at $40 and be capped at $100. The ordinance still needs to be signed by Mayor Mitch Landrieu.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Wisconsin Governor Signs Bill Package Targeting Heroin, Pain Pills. The package signed by Gov. Scott Walker (R) includes Assembly Bill 364, which requires doctors to check a database whenever they fill or refill a prescription for abusable drugs; Assembly Bill 365, which requires police to provide information to the Prescription Drug Monitoring database when they find evidence of prescription drugs being abused or stolen; Assembly Bill 366, which requires pain clinics to be certified by the state; Assembly Bill 367, which requires methadone clinics to provide relapse and other information to the state;  Assembly Bill 658, which makes it a crime to possess a use a masking agent to foil a drug test; and Assembly Bill 659, which streamlines rules for opioid treatment programs.

Drug Policy

House Democrats Urge Obama to Go Big at the UNGASS on Drugs. Fourteen House Democrats have urged President Obama to use the UNGASS as a bully pulpit for a call for substantive global drug reforms and moving away from failed criminalization strategies. Led by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (OR) and John Conyers (MI), the group urged the president to "take full advantage of this timely and powerful event to communicate our progress toward a more effective, science-based approach to drugs to the rest of the world." The Democrats called for Obama himself to deliver the US position before the General Assembly. "That unique platform gives you the opportunity to elevate the 2016 UNGASS on the World Drug Problem and change the way drug policy is approached, not only domestically, but also around the world, establishing the United States’ commitment to a new approach on an international scale," the letter reads.

International

Canada Petition Calling for Full Marijuana Legalization Gaining Steam. A petition asking the Canadian government to fully repeal marijuana prohibition is picking up signatures, especially in British Columbia. There are more than 12,000 signatures so far, more than 5,000 of them from BC. The petition launched by federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May calls for removing marijuana from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, ending police actions against existing storefronts, granting of pardons and expungements of criminal records to pot criminals, and leaving the regulation and taxation of marijuana commerce to the states. The Liberal government has said it is going to legalize it, but it hasn't said how or when. 

Chronicle AM: ME Legalizers Sure Over Invalidated Signatures, Civil Society Groups Sign UNGASS Letter, More... (3/10/16)

A South Dakota GOP lawmaker tells the parents of sick kids they should move to another state if they want to use CBD cannabis oil, Maine legalizers are suing over disqualified signatures, the Senate passes a major bill dealing with heroin and opiates, but without funding, and more. 

UNGASS on Drugs is now just five weeks away. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Legalization Initiative Files Lawsuit Over Disqualified Signatures. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol today filed a lawsuit in Kennebec County Superior Court challenging a decision by the secretary of state to disqualify more than 17,000 voter signatures because of an issue surrounding one notary's signature. That was enough to knock the measure off the fall ballot, but the campaign says the signatures should be counted because the notary's signature does indeed match the one on file and because the secretary of state acted outside his authority in rejecting the petitions. The court has 30 days to rule.

North Dakota Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. Secretary of State Al Jaeger Wednesday approved a marijuana legalization initiative for circulation. Organizers now have until July 11 to gather at least 13,452 valid voter signatures. They say they are aiming at 20,000 to have a cushion.

Medical Marijuana

South Dakota House Kills CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. A bill that would have allowed for the use of CBD cannabis oil was killed in the House Wednesday on a 25-43 vote, with one "no" voter suggesting parents who lobbied for it should move to another state. The measure, Senate Bill 171, had already passed the Senate, and Republican Gov. Dennis Daugard had suggested he would sign it. Rep. Kristin Conzet (R-Rapid City) told people suffering seizure disorders they should move elsewhere. "I don’t like the road that we’re going down at this time," she said. "This is not a bill for South Dakota."

Heroin and Opiates

Senate Overwhelmingly Passes Landmark Opioid Bill – the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA). The measure now goes on to the House. CARA advances a large number of treatment and prevention measures intended to reduce prescription opioid and heroin misuse, including evidence-based interventions for the treatment of opioid and heroin addiction and prevention of overdose deaths.

White House Will Announce Funding to Fight Drug Addiction. Just hours after the Senate passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA), the Obama administration said it will announce "a significant federal investment" to help fund its goals. Democrats had tried unsuccessfully to add $600 million in funding to the bill, but were blocked by Republicans.

Asset Forfeiture

Florida Poll Finds Strong Support for Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. A new poll released by Drug Policy Action finds that 84% of registered Florida voters do not think police should be able to seize property from people who have not been convicted of a crime. And two-thirds of those polled said they would be more likely to support a presidential candidate who opposed civil asset forfeiture.  The poll comes as an asset forfeiture reform bill, Senate Bill 1044, passed out of the legislature Wednesday and awaits the signature of Gov. Rick Scott (R).

Drug Testing

West Virginia House Overwhelmingly Approves Welfare Drug Testing Bill. The bill, Senate Bill 6, would mandate drug testing for any welfare applicant who gives state workers "reasonable suspicion" he or she is using drugs, including having a drug conviction in the previous three years. The bill has already been approved by the Senate, but that body will have to take it up again in concurrence since the House added amendments note voted on in the Senate.

International

Civil Rights, Health, Faith-Based, Justice Reform Groups Call on Obama to Push to End Global Drug War. More than 225 civil rights, health, faith-based and other organizations sent a letterto President Obama Thursday calling on him to use an upcoming United Nations high-level session on global drug policies to push for a fundamental change in course away from criminalization. The letter was submitted as the UN prepares for its highest level session on drug policy since 1998 – the "UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem,"or UNGASS, scheduled for April 19-21 at UN headquarters in New York. US diplomats and drug and crime officials have played a central role in negotiations over the UNGASS Outcome Document, an official product of the meeting that will impact policy.The sign-on campaign for the letter was coordinated by David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org.

Chronicle AM: ME Legalizers Vow Court Fight Over Rejected Signatures, LA Won't Ban Music Festivals, More... (3/4/16)

The Maine marijuana legalization campaign will fight to get its signatures counted, Tampa takes a first vote to decriminalize pot possession, an Idaho medical marijuana initiative gets pulled, a West Virginia welfare drug testing bill gets a hostile reception, and more.

Electronic music festivals will continue in Los Angeles County, but with restrictions. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Legalizers Vow Court Fight to Get Signatures Counted. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol will appeal the state's ruling that its legalization initiative did not qualify for the ballot after the state rejected 17,000 signatures certified by one notary. "We think they've made a big error in judgment," said campaign director David Boyer. The campaign had handed in 99,000 raw signatures and only needed 61,000 to qualify, but after the 17,000 signatures in question were disallowed, the campaign only had 51,000 valid voter signatures. The campaign has 10—make that nine—days in which to appeal the decision, and the courts must decide the issue within 30 days after that.

Maine Bill Would Set Blood Level for Marijuana-Impaired Driving. The legislature's Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is considering LD 1628, which would set the level for operating under the influence of marijuana at 5 nanograms of THC per 100 milliliters of blood. If the bill passes, Maine would become one of a half dozen states that have adopted such laws

Tampa City Council Takes First Vote to Decriminalize. The city council voted 5-1 Thursday to pass a marijuana decriminalization ordinance. A second and final vote will take place on March 17. The ordinance would decriminalize the possession of up to 20 grams of pot, with a $75 fine for a first offense, $150 for a second offense, and $450 for subsequent offenses.

Medical Marijuana

Florida House Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The House Thursday approved House Bill 307, which allows terminal patients to use nonsmokable marijuana and adds regulations for dispensing groups, patients, and doctors under the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act. Similar legislation is moving in the Senate.

Idaho Activists Stop Initiative Campaign in Wake of Misstated Petition Language. New Approach Idaho has stopped its petition campaign after the American Academy of Pediatrics objected to being identified on the front page of the petition as medical marijuana supporters. New Approach Idaho said the misrepresentation of the academy's position—it has called for rescheduling marijuana—was unintentional.

Rhode Island Bill to Double Dispensaries Filed. Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence) has filed House Bill 7808, which would increase the number of dispensaries in the state from three to six

Drug Testing

Alaska Bill to End Ban on Food Stamps for Drug Felons Would Require Drug Testing. Alaska is one of only 10 states that still bar people with drug felonies from obtaining food stamps, and legislation to end the ban is progressing, but the latest version of the bill, Senate Bill 91, would require drug felons getting food stamps to pass both scheduled and random drug tests. The bill also contains a provision stating that if the drug testing provision is overturned in the courts, the state would revert to the blanket ban on drug felons receiving food stamps. The Alaska Criminal Justice Commission, which helped shape the bill, had recommended removing the ban without any eligibility restrictions, including drug testing.

West Virginia Welfare Drug Testing Bill Gets Criticized at Hearing. A measure to require welfare recipients to first be screened for drug use, Senate Bill 6, got a hostile reception from witnesses at a House Judiciary Committee hearing today.  "Investing in substance abuse treatment is an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, but expensive and unnecessary policies that are based more on stereotype and punishing the poor rather than on facts and evidence are not," said Sean O’Leary, policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. The state ACLU affiliate called it an invasion of privacy. The bill has already passed the Senate.

Festivals and Clubbing

Los Angeles County Won't Ban Electronic Music Festivals, But Will Add Restrictions. The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to reject a total ban on music festivals, instead approving an ordinance that will allow it to approve them on a case-by-case basis. The county has been under pressure to do something after two young women died of drug overdoses during the HARD Summer music festival last year. 

Chronicle AM: Senate Kills $600 Million in Emergency Heroin Funding, UT Calls for Pot Rescheduling, More... (3/3/16)

The Utah (!) legislature has passed a resolution calling for marijuana rescheduling, there will be no pot drive-throughs in Oregon's largest city, Senate Republicans kill $600 million in emergency funding to fight heroin and opioid abuse, and more.  

"Strike Dead" brand heroin. (New Jersey State Police)
Marijuana Policy

Pot Legalization in the US Is Hurting Mexican Marijuana Exports. According to data from the U.S. Border Patrol, marijuana seizures along the US border are at their lowest level in at least a decade, with agents seizing 1.5 million pounds of pot, down from 4 million in 2009. Even government officials, such as Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) head Michael Botticelli, have suggested the decline is the result of increasing domestic production with four states have legalizing it already.

Pittsburgh Decriminalization Ordinance Being Fine-Tuned. The decrim  ordinance passed by the city council last week is on hold as city lawyers try to figure out how to impose fines on violators. The head of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, Judge Jeffrey Manning, says the city can't file the citations with the court because the court must enforce state law. In the meantime, police continue to file misdemeanor pot possession charges instead of citations.

Portland, Oregon, Kills Drive-Through Pot Sales. The city council voted unanimously Wednesday to ban recreational marijuana drive-through sales, even though no one has any planned for the city. State law bans drive-through alcohol sales, but is silent on marijuana. At least one Oregon town, Gold Beach, has a drive-through slated to open next month.

Medical Marijuana

Utah Lawmakers Call for Marijuana Rescheduling. Both houses of the legislature have now unanimously approved a resolution, SCR11, which calls on the federal government to reschedule marijuana after the House approved it yesterday. The resolution now goes to the governor.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Senate Republicans Block $600 Million in Funding to Tackle Heroin and Opioids. In a 48-47 procedural vote on the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (Senate Bill 524) Wednesday, Senate Republicans killed a $600 million emergency funding amendment intended to improve prescription monitoring, fund treatment and prevention, and help law enforcement fight heroin and opioid use. Nearly half ($240 million) of the funds would have gone to law enforcement. Republican critics called it "duplicative," while drug reformers scorned its law enforcement funding component.

Asset Forfeiture

Wisconsin Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Killed. Despite strong bipartisan support, a civil asset forfeiture reform bill, Assembly Bill 537, is dead, killed by fevered law enforcement lobbying and the strong opposition of a Republican committee chair. Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) refused to move the bill.  

Law Enforcement

New Jersey Lab Tech Faked Results in Drug Case, Thousands More Cases Now in Question. A State Police lab technician has been caught faking the results in a drug case, throwing into doubt more than 7,000 drug cases on which he had worked. Tech Kamlkant Shah "dry labbed" a suspected marijuana sample, meaning he ran no tests on it before writing "test results" that identified it as marijuana. He has been suspended without pay since January. Although he has only been caught "dry labbing" that one sample, all of his cases are now in doubt, prosecutors said.

International

Mexico Suffering Crisis of "Violence and Impunity," Human Rights Report Says. In a new report, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission said tens of thousands of cases of torture, disappearances, and killings go uninvestigated in Mexico, leading to a "a serious crisis of violence and impunity." More than 120,000 have been killed in the country's drug wars since 2006 and another 27,000 have disappeared.  

Chronicle AM: VT Senate Votes to Legalize Marijuana, DC Pot Arrests Plummet, More... (2/25/16)

The Vermont Senate passes marijuana legalization, DC enjoys the benefits of legalization, Pennsylvania will finally get a vote on medical marijuana, and more.

Legalization advances at the statehouse in Montpelier. (Wikimedia Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Senate Votes to Legalize Marijuana. The state Senate today voted 17-12 today to approve a bill that would end marijuana prohibition in the state and replace it will system of taxation and regulation. The vote today was the second Senate vote this week to approve the bill, which will now go to the House for consideration. The measure, Senate Bill 241, would allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, but not to grow it after some powerful lawmakers said that provision would be a deal-breaker. Instead, the bill now contains a provision to create a study commission to examine home cultivation and the issue of edibles, which are also not allowed. The bill also envisions a system of tightly regulated commercial marijuana cultivation, testing, and distribution, which would include licensed retail marijuana outlets.

DC Marijuana Arrests Plummet in Year After Legalization. On Friday, the District celebrates a year of marijuana legalization, and one of the things it's celebrating is a dramatic decrease in people being sucked into the criminal justice system for pot. Overall, marijuana arrests declined 85% from 2014 to 2015, and pot possession arrests declined by an amazing 98%, from 1,840 in 2014 to only 32 in 2015.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill to Get House Vote. A long stalled medical marijuana bill will get a House vote after House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana County) agreed to quit holding up the measure. The move prompted a supportive statement from Gov. Bill Wolf (D), who said, "I support the legalization of medical marijuana and I believe it is long past time to provide this important medical relief to patients and families across the commonwealth… It is time to legalize medical marijuana because we should not deny doctor-recommended treatment that could help people suffering from seizures or cancer patients affected by chemotherapy. I urge quick action by the legislature to legalize medical marijuana."

Georgia House Committee Expands Qualifying Conditions. The House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Wednesday approved adding seven medical conditions to the state's CBD cannabis oil program. Included are autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and HIV or AIDS, among others. The bill, House Bill 722, now goes to the House Rules Committee. But bill sponsor Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon) isn't so pleased -- the bill was designed to allow cultivation of CBD cannabis oil in the state, but that provision was gutted in committee.

Asset Forfeiture

US Senator Kelly Ayotte Files Bill to Restore Asset Forfeiture Funding for Cops. Sen. Ayotte (R-NH) Wednesday filed Senate Bill 2576, which would require the federal government to recommence distributing funds from the Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Program. The Justice Department turned off the asset forfeiture spigot last year, and state and local law enforcement agencies have lost nearly $1.2 billion they would have used for drug investigations.

Wyoming Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Passes Legislature. The House Wednesday gave unanimous final approval to Senate File 46, which would reform -- but not end -- civil asset forfeiture. It requires law enforcement officials to consult with the attorney general on whether to proceed with forfeiture and a hearing before a judge within 30 days. It also shifts the burden of proof to the government to show there is "clear and convincing" evidence the property was involved in a crime. Gov. Matt Mead (R) last year vetoed a bill to end civil asset forfeiture, and similar legislation this year went nowhere.

Drug Testing

Michigan Driver Drug Testing Bill Stirs Opposition. A bill that aims to set up a pilot program allowing state police to conduct roadside saliva testing for marijuana, cocaine, heroin, and other drugs has passed the Senate, but is stirring opposition as it moves through the House. The bill, Senate Bill 434, is "bad science" and would set a "dangerous precedent," said criminal defense attorney Neil Rockind. "A pilot program is a test program and, in this case, treats people as guinea pigs to be studied," he said. "People are not guinea pigs. No citizen should be the subject of a test program when their liberty and way of life are on the line." The bill is currently before the Michigan House Judiciary Committee.

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