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Drug Legalization: El Paso City Council Unanimously Calls for National Debate, Mayor Vetoes Resolution Same Day, Override Vote Set For Next Week

Spurred by the unending prohibition-related violence tormenting Mexico, and in particular, Ciudad Juárez, El Paso's sister city on the other side of the Rio Grande, the El Paso City Council Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution that called for, among other things, "a serious debate" on drug legalization as a means of ending the violence. But Mayor John Cook, who sat silently through the council meeting, vetoed the resolution the same afternoon.
DEA El Paso graphic (
The battle isn't over. South-West city Rep. Beto O'Rourke announced Wednesday he would seek to override the veto at the council meeting this coming Tuesday. The resolution passed 8-0; he will need six votes to override.

Drafted by the city's Border Relations Committee, the resolution outlined 11 steps the US and Mexican governments can take to help El Paso's "besieged and beleaguered sister city." But O'Rourke proposed a 12th step -- which also passed unanimously -- an amendment calling on national leaders to "support an honest open national debate on ending the prohibition on narcotics." (See the draft resolution not including the amendment here.)

"We know the war on drugs is empowering the drug lords and is costing us millions of dollars," O'Rourke told his fellow council members. "Let's start an honest national debate that would end the prohibition of narcotics," he said, successfully urging them to support his amendment.

"It's a terrible situation that calls for a more dramatic solution than just asking for stepped up enforcement," O'Rourke said after the Tuesday meeting. "What I asked for today and the council approved was urging our representatives to have an honest, open dialogue about ending the prohibition on narcotics," he told the El Paso Times."I hope our congressman, Silvestre Reyes, and our US senators hear us loud and clear and have a very difficult and politically challenging debate, one that needs to happen. We can't continue the status quo; it's not working."

But El Paso's federal representatives may not hear the council's request loud and clear, because later Tuesday afternoon Mayor Cook issued his veto. "The action of council... undermines the hard work of the committee by adding new language which may affect the credibility of the entire resolution," he said in the veto. "It is not realistic to believe that the US Congress will seriously consider any broad-based debate on the legalization of narcotics," Cook added. "That position is not consistent with the community standards both locally and nationally."

Cook's after-the-fact veto angered several council members. "I am really disappointed. I went and told him that personally," O'Rourke said. "This amendment received unanimous support from council and it also received the support of the members of the committee who wrote the resolution."

Eastridge/Mid-Valley city Rep. Steve Ortega said he respected Cook's decision, but disagreed with it. "The controversial amendment merely calls for the initiation of a debate regarding the prohibition of narcotics. It does not endorse the legalization of drugs but it places it on the table for debate," he said. "Ending cartel related violence in Juárez represents this region's biggest challenge and justifies an all-inclusive dialogue concerning potential solutions."

"I completely understand... this is a very uncomfortable conversation to have," said West-Central city Rep. Susie Byrd. "But the reason that I am compelled to support the resolution as we approved it is that whatever we have been doing in the last 40 years has not worked."

But Cook told the Times that asking for a debate on ending prohibition diverted attention from the real issue. "The whole purpose of the resolution was to get national attention to the violence in Juárez," he said. "After it was amended, the focus was placed instead on legalizing drugs in the United States."

And US Rep. Reyes, who would have been one of the recipients of the resolution, told the Times he would not have been receptive anyway. "Legalizing the types of drugs that are being smuggled across the border is not an effective way to combat the violence in Mexico," he said. "I would not support efforts in Congress that would seek to do so."

O'Rourke was irritated with the mayor's backroom maneuver. "We started a conversation about solutions ... a conversation that was supported by everyone on council," he said. "The mayor, though, didn't say a word during the meeting. It wasn't until I received a Xerox copy of his veto that I heard from him."

Now O'Rourke has to keep his fellow council members on board for Tuesday's vote. "My intention is to ask that this be on the Tuesday agenda, as adopted, for reconsideration, and we'll just see how the votes fall," O'Rourke said Wedneday. "I'm going to respect whatever the members of .council decide to do.After hearing from their constituents, they may have a different take on it."

Council members may fear the call for open debate on drug legalization will alienate voters ahead of looming elections, he said. "Unquestionably, it gets tougher for those representatives and the mayor to make this decision knowing they are going to face the voters in less than six months."

The debate over whether to even talk about radical drug policy reform continues to roil El Paso, and Tuesday's meeting should be interesting, to say the least. Among the latest to join the fray was former Mayor Bill Tilney, who served from 1991 to 1993. Where he came down was evident from the title of the op-ed he penned Wednesday: "Former mayor to City Council: Stay the course on drug resolution."

Some elected officials, such as Mayor Cook and Rep. Reyes, may want to close their eyes and plug their ears, but all El Pasoans have to do is look across the border to see how well the drug war is working. More than 5,000 Mexicans died in prohibition-related violence last year, hundreds of them in Ciudad Juárez alone. Now the people closest to the border are starting to demand something besides more of the same old same old.

Feature: Proposed Medical Marijuana Rules in Michigan Stir Chorus of Complaints

The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH), which is charged with crafting rules and regulations for the state's voter-approved medical marijuana program, got an earful from patients and activists at a public hearing in Lansing Monday. The MDCH draft regulations are overly burdensome and sometimes conflict with the new law, patients and activists charged.
Michigan Capitol
Under the state's medical marijuana law, which passed with the approval of 63% of the voters, MDCH has until April 4 to craft program regulations and begin issuing ID cards to qualified patients and caregivers. But now, after the detailed criticisms of its draft regulations, MDCH will have to go back to the drawing board -- and move fast.

Under the proposed rules, those qualified to grow and use marijuana would have to register yearly and be issued registration cards that could be revoked for criminal use or sales. Registered medical producers could supply no more than five patients each, and possess no more than 12 mature plants and 2.5 ounces of marijuana per patient.

Among the proposed rules drawing the ire of patients and advocates was one that would require patients to keep an inventory of the amount of marijuana they had on hand and one that would require patients to treat their medical marijuana supply more restrictively than they treat other medicines, including prescribed opiates, by requiring that the usable marijuana -- not just the plants -- be kept in an enclosed, locked facility. Another proposed rule, barring the use of medical marijuana in view of the public, went beyond the scope of the law, which only bars use in public, patients complained. They said that rule could lead to patients being arrested for medicating on their porches or even inside their homes if visible through a window.

"It seems to me you are attempting an end-run of what the people wanted and voted for," said Ken Shapiro of East Lansing, who uses marijuana for metastatic melanoma that, he said, has afflicted him for 31 years. Shapiro said he had endured radiation, chemotherapy, and more than 50 operations during his struggle with the disease. "Marijuana helped me get through it," he said. "It should be taken for granted that seriously ill people are not dealing drugs."

Another medical marijuana patient, Tom Higgins of Bay City, who currently cultivates his own marijuana outside the protection of the law, said proposed rules requiring disclosure and paperwork requirements could create a trail that could expose him to federal prosecution. "I won't follow the rules as they are now; I'll just keep growing marijuana as I have been," said Higgins, who suffers from hepatitis.

"The regulations are far more burdensome than necessary, directly conflict with the law that the voters enacted in several areas, and would require things not permitted by the law," said Karen O'Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, which backed the November initiative. "The department doesn't have the authority to create new, restrictive requirements, but that's what they've tried to do."

O'Keefe also testified at the Monday hearing, where she presented a detailed, 22-point list of required revisions to bring the draft regulations in compliance with the medical marijuana law. Voters approved the law and the safeguards it contains "without requiring self-incrimination or making life overly difficult for the seriously ill patients whom 63% of Michigan voters chose to allow to use medical marijuana without fearing arrest," she told the hearing.

O'Keefe was guardedly optimistic that MDCH would heed the complaints. "They've said they would take all comments into consideration, and we hope they will do so. We want this to be fixed and to see the program up and running as soon as possible," she said. "Until they set the rules, they won't be issuing ID cards, and until then, patients are at risk of arrest."

"The rules as proposed were overly technical and burdensome," said Greg Francisco, executive director of the Michigan Medical Marijuana Association (MMMA), the state's largest patient group. "But once we went through the hearings and explained our concerns, I think the state realized its rules weren't workable. We were not happy with the original rules, but we are happy the state seems to be listening."

Indeed, at the end of the hearing, State Bureau of Health Professions policy analyst Desmond Mitchell, who conducted the meeting, said the MDCH "will review everything and take a look at what revisions need to be made" in the coming weeks.

Even law enforcement complained about some of the proposed rules, especially one that would require that the medicine of patients who died or left the program be turned over to the state police. "It's burdensome for law enforcement to have someone come in, asking to destroy 12 plants," said Greg Zorotney of the State Police executive division. "Plants can grow quite big."

But Zorotney also told the panel that the ID card system should be entered into the same database as drivers' licenses, and that raised a red flag for advocates. "The state police don't want to be running around gathering up plants and medicine," said MPP's O'Keefe. "That's reasonable, and so is wanting the ability to verify ID cards 24-7. But they also want some kind of access to the patient database, and the law says that patient information is confidential. The only information they are entitled to is whether the patient is indeed registered," she said.

During the campaign to pass the initiative, the public face of patients was the Michigan Coalition for Compassionate Care, but that MPP-funded group went out of business once its electoral objectives had been achieved. Now, MMMA, representing patients and activists who kept a low profile during the campaign, is coming to the fore.

"MPP asked us to lay low during the campaign, but we organized behind the scenes so we would be ready to go," explained Francisco. "We launched at the close of the polls on November 4. MMMA is about patients and what's right for the state and coming up with a workable medical marijuana program for the state," he said.

Now, MDCH has about three weeks to revise the rules and submit them to a legislative committee. The committee can either approve or reject the rules. If it rejects them, the legislature will have two weeks to write a bill with new rules, get it passed, and have it signed by the governor. In either case, the April 4 rollout date looms large.

"They have one more chance to get it right," said Francisco. "Once the revised rules go in, that's it. I really do believe these are just bureaucrats trying to do their job and that they will make the necessary changes. If not, it's litigation time."

"This has gotten a lot of attention in Michigan," said O'Keefe. "There was a really strong patient and advocate presence at the hearing, and there was a lot of media there. I think the department understands that it is important to get this right. If not, we are prepared to litigate," she warned.

Drug Testing: Federal Judge Rejects West Virginia School Board's Random Tests of Teachers

A federal judge in Charleston, West Virginia, Monday stopped the Kanawha County school system's plan to randomly drug test teachers in its tracks, issuing a scathing rebuke of the policy and the school board as he did so. US District Judge Robert Goodwin said the plan would force teachers to submit to an unjustified and unconstitutional search.
drug testing lab
Despite being warned ahead of time that the county was in for a costly and probably futile legal battle if it approved the policy, the school board did so anyway in a 4-1 vote in October. The West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers filed suit to block the policy from being implemented in late November, and the West Virginia Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union joined the fray last month.

On Monday, Judge Goodwin granted the motion for a temporary injunction. Goodwin said the school board's plan to test one-quarter of teachers and other school workers each year was crafted although there was no evidence of a pervasive drug problem in the community and was based on unreasonable worse-case scenario hypotheticals. He asked why the district did not also have a policy to randomly test teachers for tropical diseases.

"Total security for us and our children is only possible -- if unlikely -- in a totalitarian state," Goodwin said. "Who wants to live in a society when a government will stop at nothing to prevent bumps and bruises," he added.

Previous federal court decisions have held that government employees cannot be subjected to random suspicionless drug testing -- with a handful of exceptions, most related to public safety and security. The school board offered up the novel argument that teachers -- and cafeteria workers and janitors -- held "safety sensitive" positions and if they were impaired by drug use their inability to supervise a classroom could jeopardize student safety. But Judge Goodwin wasn't buying that.

Coerced Snitching: Fall-Out Continues in the Case of Murdered Informant Rachel Hoffman

The death of Rachel Hoffman, a 23-year-old social pot dealer in Tallahassee, Florida, who was killed by criminals police sent her to buy hard drugs and guns from after they arrested her and intimidated her into becoming a confidential informant, may not have been entirely in vain. This week, more than six months after her May murder, Hoffman's parents have filed a lawsuit over her death. Her family is now also working with lawmakers to craft legislation that would regulate the use of confidential informants.
Rachel Hoffman
Law enforcement use of snitches in drug cases is routine, mainly because since the parties involved in drug deals are not complaining to the police, they have no other easy way to develop cases. But American law enforcement has also developed a system that relies on "flipping" people arrested on drug charges -- getting them to agree to become informers in the hopes of seeing their own charges reduced. Such offers are usually accompanied by graphic predictions of how the arrestee would be mistreated in prison.

Despite being something of a drug reform activist herself, Hoffman fell into that trap after being charged with possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana and possession of Ecstasy with the intent to distribute. She agreed to act as a snitch for Tallahassee police and went off to do a controlled buy of guns and cocaine. Her police handlers lost contact with her as she met two men. Her body was found two days later.

While Tallahassee police initially defended their operation and blamed Hoffman for not following instructions, since then, one investigator has been fired and four others got two week unpaid vacations for their role in sending her to her death.

Now, Hoffman's parents want more. In the lawsuit filed Tuesday in state court in Tallahassee, they accuse the Tallahassee police of negligence and are seeking unspecified monetary damages. Their attorney, Lance Brock, told the Tallahassee News the city would pay big time.

"It is a multi-million dollar case," he said. "Three words come to mind: Keystone Cop tragedy," said family attorney Lance Block. "It is mind-boggling that there were so many acts of incompetence by the TPD, combined with a cavalier lack of appreciation for the high risk of danger that its officers were exposing Rachel Hoffman to."

The city has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. Efforts to reach a settlement have been underway, but Hoffman's parents did not want to wait any longer.

Hoffman's parents are also working with legislators to tighten the standards for using young people as snitches. The family is seeking passage of legislation to provide greater protections for police informants. A bill is expected to be filed in the coming weeks. State Sen. Mike Fasano (R-New Port Ritchie) said he is working with a Hoffman attorney on drafting a bill to be introduced shortly. The bill could include banning police from using some people as informants or requiring them to take extra measures to protect informants and ensure that they understand the risks involved.

"It was a very sad, very sad situation," Fasano said. "We've got to do our best in working with law enforcement to protect young people like that... who don't realize what they're getting themselves into," he said. "We're not talking about a hardened criminal... We're talking about a young lady who may have had personal problems, but that doesn't mean we put her out there in a dangerous situation."

"Rachel Hoffman's parents have suffered the worst kind of loss a human being can endure: the loss of their only child," Block said. "The passage of Rachel's law and just compensation that sufficiently places the TPD and other law enforcement agencies on notice that what happened to Rachel is totally unacceptable are the only means our system offers the family to make sure that her death will not be in vain."

Medical Marijuana: Maine Activist Wins Acquittal on Growing, Trafficking Charges

Long-time Maine medical marijuana and marijuana legalization advocate Donald Christen is innocent of marijuana cultivation and trafficking, a jury found last week as it acquitted him of the charges. The verdict could have far reaching effects in the state, according to Christen's lawyer, Walter McKee.

"We had raised the affirmative defense that the marijuana being cultivated or being furnished was medical marijuana," McKee told the Kennebec Journal after the verdict. "Don acknowledged that he cultivated marijuana and he acknowledged that he possessed it with the intent to furnish it, but indicated that what he was cultivating and what he had possessed with the intent to furnish was medical marijuana, for one patient in particular."

The jury's acquittal came after Justice William Anderson told jurors Christen had met the criteria for medical marijuana under the state statute. Christen was arrested on the charges in December 2004 when police raided his home, which had served since the previous October as the Medical Marijuana Distribution Center. He was growing plants for a handful of patients. Under Maine's medical marijuana law, there are provisions to protect patients from prosecution, but none for allowing them to obtain their medicine. Christen filled that gap, and now he has broken new ground with his acquittal.

This is just the latest poke in the eye of Maine authorities from Christen. The veteran gadfly has bedeviled police and politicos in the state for more than a decade as founder of the legalization group Maine Vocals and organizer of the annual Maine Hempstock celebration. Don't count on him to rest on his laurels now.

Feature: Gazing Into the Crystal Ball -- What Can We Expect in 2009?

In the other feature article in this issue, we looked back at last year, examining the drug policy high and lows. Here, we look forward, and not surprisingly, see some of the same issues. With a prohibitionist drug policy firmly entrenched, many issues are perennial -- and will remain issues until they are resolved.
gazing into the future of drug policy reform '09 (picture from
Of course, America's drug war does not end at our borders, so while there is much attention paid to domestic drug policy issues, our drug policies also have an important impact on our foreign policy. In fact, Afghanistan, which is arguably our most serious foreign policy crisis, is inextricably intertwined with our drug wars, while our drug policies in this hemisphere are also engendering crisis on our southern border and alienation and loss of influence in South America.

Medical Marijuana in the States

In November, Michigan voters made it the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. Now, nearly a quarter of the US population resides in medical marijuana states, and it is likely that number will increase this year. Legislative efforts are underway in Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York, among others, and chances are one or more of them will join the club this year. Interest in medical marijuana is also emerging in some unlikely places, such as Idaho, where one legislator has vowed to introduce a bill this year, and South Dakota, where activists who were defeated at the polls in 2006 are trying to get a bill in the legislature this month.

California's Grand Experiment with Medical Marijuana

As with so many other things, when it comes to medical marijuana, California is a different world. With its broadly written law allowing virtually anyone with $150 for a doctor's visit to seek certification as a a registered medical marijuana patient, and with its thriving system of co-ops, collectives, and dispensaries, the Golden State has created a situation of very low risk for consumers and significant protections even for growers and sellers.

With tax revenue streams from the dispensaries now pouring into the state's cash-starved coffers, medical marijuana is also creating political facts on the ground. The state of California is not going to move against a valuable revenue generator.

And if President-Elect Obama keeps his word, the DEA will soon butt out, too. But even if he doesn't, and the raids against dispensaries continue, it seems extremely unlikely that the feds can put the genie back in the bottle. The Bush administration tried for eight years and managed to shut down only a small fraction of operators, most of whom were replaced by competitors anyway.

The state's dispensary system, while currently a patch-work with some areas well-served with stores and other whole counties without any, is also a real world model of what regulated marijuana sales can look like. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by pot foes, the dispensaries have, for the most part, operated non-problematically and as good commercial and community neighbors.

California's medical marijuana regime continues to evolve as the state comes to grips with the reality the voters created more than a decade ago. We will continue to watch and report as -- perhaps -- California leads the way to taxed and regulated marijuana sales, and not just for patients.

What Will Obama Do?

It will be a new era in Washington, DC, when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama in less than three weeks. While the president cannot pass laws, he can provide leadership to the Congress and use his executive powers to make some changes, such as calling off the DEA in California, which he has promised to do.

The one thing we know he will not do is try to legalize marijuana. In response to publicly generated questions about marijuana legalization, his team has replied succinctly: No.
What will President Obama do?
One early indicator of Obama's proclivities will be his selection of a replacement for John Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While there has been speculation about some possible candidates, none of them very exciting for drug policy reformers, no candidate has yet been named.

President Obama will also submit budgets to Congress. Those documents will provide very clear indications of his priorities on matters of interest to the reform community, from the controversial program of grants to fund anti-drug law enforcement task forces to spending levels for drug prevention and treatment, as well as funding for America's foreign drug war adventures.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama is not going to expend political capital trying to undo decades of drug war policies, but perhaps the budget axe will do the talking. Goodness knows, we don't have any money to waste in the federal budget these days.

What Will the Congress Do?

Democrats now control not only the White House, but both houses of Congress. One area we will be watching closely is the progress, if any, of federal sentencing reform. There are now more than 100,000 federal drug war prisoners, too many of them low-level crack offenders serving draconian sentences thanks to the efforts of people like Vice President elect Joe Biden, a long-time congressional drug warrior. Several different crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity bills have been introduced. The best was authored by Biden himself, a sign of changing times, if only slowly changing. It is past time for one of these bills, hopefully a good one, to pass into law.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a federal marijuana decriminalization bill last year. The best prediction is that it will go nowhere, but we could always stand to be pleasantly surprised.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), head of the House Judiciary Committee, has emerged as a strong critic of federal interference in state medical marijuana programs. Conyers could use his position to highlight that issue, and possibly, to introduce legislation designed to address the problem of federal interference.

One area where the Congress, including the Democratic leadership, has proven vulnerable to the politics of tough on crime is the federal funding of those anti-drug task forces. In a rare fit of fiscal sanity, the Bush administration has been trying for years to zero out those grants, but the Congress keeps trying to get them back in the budget -- and then some. We will be watching those funding battles this year to see if anything has changed.
Coca Museum, La Paz, Bolivia

With the death toll from prohibition-related violence topping 5,000 last year, Mexico is in the midst of a multi-sided war that is not going to end in the foreseeable future, especially given America's insatiable appetite for the forbidden substances that are making Mexican drug trafficking organizations obscenely wealthy. With the $1.4 billion anti-drug military and police assistance known as Plan Merida approved last year by the Bush administration and the Congress, the US is now investing heavily in escalating the violence.

The National Drug Information Center has identified Mexican drug trafficking organizations as the nation's number one criminal threat, and chances are the violence south of the border will begin to ooze across the line. That will only add to the pressure among law enforcement and political figures to "do something." But given the current mindset among policymakers, just about anything they may be inclined to do to "help" is unlikely to be helpful.

The cartel wars in Mexico are also having an impact on Mexican domestic politics, with President Felipe Calderón's popularity suffering a significant decline. The angst over the escalating violence has already provided an opening for talk about drug policy reform in Mexico, with the opposition PRD saying that legalization has to be on the table, and Calderón himself announcing he wants to decriminalize drug possession (although how that would have any noticeable impact on the traffic or the violence remains unclear).

Look for the violence to continue, and watch to see if the resulting political pressure results in any actual policy changes. Drug War Chronicle will likely be heading down to Tijuana before too long for some on-scene reporting.

The Andean Drug War

... is not going well. Despite pouring billions of dollars into Plan Colombia, coca production there is at roughly the same level as a decade ago. Cocaine exports continue seemingly immune to all efforts to suppress them, although more appears to be heading for Europe these days. During the Bush administration, the US war on drugs in Colombia has morphed into openly supporting the Colombian government's counterinsurgency war against the leftist FARC rebels, who have been weakened, but, flush with dollars from the trade, are not going away. Neither are the rightist paramilitary organizations, who also benefit from the trade. Will an Obama administration try something new?

Meanwhile, Bolivia and Venezuela, the only countries singled out by the Bush administration as failing to comply with US drug policy objectives, have become allies in an emerging leftist bloc that seeks to challenge US hegemony in the region. Both countries have thrown out the DEA -- Venezuela in 2005, Bolivia last fall -- and are cooperating to expand markets for Bolivia's nascent coca industry. Bolivian President Evo Morales acknowledged this week that some coca production is being diverted to cocaine traffickers, but said that he does not need US help in dealing with it.

And in Peru, where President Alan García has sent out the army to eradicate coca crops in line with US policy, unrest is mounting in coca growing regions, coca farmers are pushing into indigenous territories, causing more problems, and the Shining Path insurgency, once thought decisively defeated, has reemerged, although apparently minus its Maoist ideology, as a criminal trafficking organization and protector of coca farmers. The Peruvian government blames the Shining Path for killing 25 soldiers, police, and anti-drug workers in ambushes last year. Look for that toll to increase this year.
Afghan opium

More than seven years after the US invaded to overthrow the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and has been each year since the Taliban were driven from power. While US drug war imperatives remain strong, they are in conflict with the broader objectives of the counterinsurgency there, and any efforts to suppress poppy planting or the opium trade will not only have a huge impact on the national economy, but are likely to drive Afghan farmers into the waiting arms of the resurgent Taliban, which is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year off taxing and protecting the trade. That buys a lot of guns to point at Afghan, American and NATO troops.

President elect Obama has vowed to reinvigorate the US war in Afghanistan by sending 20,000 additional troops, and NATO has reluctantly agreed to attack the drug trade by going after traffickers linked to the Taliban or various warlords -- but not those linked to the government in Kabul. Last year was the bloodiest year yet for coalition forces in Afghanistan; look for this year to top it.

Feature: New Jersey Medical Marijuana Bill Heads for Senate Floor After Favorable Committee Vote

New Jersey took a step toward becoming the 14th medical marijuana state Monday as a Senate committee heard testimony, then voted 6-1 (with two abstentions) to send Senate Bill 119, the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act, to the Senate floor, where it could be voted on as early as next month. The state Assembly has yet to vote on the bill, but Gov. Jon Corzine (D) has indicated he would sign the bill if it reaches his desk.
Jim and the late Cheryl Miller, with Gary Storck and Jacki Rickert, outside former US Rep. Bob Barr's office (photo from
The bill, passed by the Senate's Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, would set up a registry program with the Department of Health and Senior Services for people with debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, HIV or AIDS, or other diseases that cause wasting, chronic pain, severe nausea, seizures, or severe and persistent muscle spasms. Registered patients or their caregivers could possess up to six marijuana plants and an ounce of usable marijuana.

The bill would also address what has been a thorny issue in some states that have approved medical marijuana laws: the question of supply for people who cannot grow their own. To address the supply problem, the bill foresees the licensing of collective gardens where patients could obtain medical marijuana.

Monday's hearing featured testimony from patients, experts, and drug reformers, as well as written testimony from the New Jersey Academy of Family Physicians, the New Jersey League for Nursing, the New Jersey chapters of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization in support of the bill.

It began with an impassioned argument by Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union County), the bill's original sponsor. "There is no price we would not pay, no limits to which we would not go" to prevent loved ones from suffering needlessly, Scutari told his colleagues on the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.

Scutari addressed opponents who argued that the state should wait for the US Food and Drug Administration to approve marijuana. "There is little comfort in the promise of a better drug 10 years from now," he said, noting that the federal government has ignored recommendations to conduct clinical trials with medical marijuana.

Dr. Denis Petro, a board-certified neurologist in neighboring Pennsylvania with a quarter-century of experience in neurology, clinical pharmacology, and marijuana research also testified. He told the committee how he conducted the first American study of marijuana's beneficial effects for multiple sclerosis (MS) patients 1981. It was time for New Jersey to approve a medical marijuana bill, he told the committee.

"There is no doubt that medical marijuana will eventually be allowed in New Jersey", said Kenneth Wolski, an RN, who with Jim Miller, the widow of New Jersey medical marijuana patient/activist Cheryl Miller, co-founded the Coalition for Medical Marijuana--New Jersey to press for such a bill five years ago. "There is too much logic, common sense, compassion and science that supports it. Logic says that doctors prescribe far more dangerous and addicting drugs than marijuana; common sense says that this issue ought to be decided in the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship, in the best interest of the patient; Compassion says that no patient should suffer needlessly; and there is a wealth of scientific evidence that supports the safety and efficacy of medical marijuana," Wolski concluded.

Although medical marijuana legislation had been offered each year since 2004, it had failed to move. But the Senate Health committee made up for lost time Monday, immediately voting to send the bill to the Senate floor with its stamp of approval. Patients and advocates were quick to thank the committee.

"It really brings me to tears, not just for me as someone suffering from multiple sclerosis, but as a registered nurse and for all the people that I've treated," said Elise Segal, who had testified in support of the bill earlier in the day.

"We want to thank the senators on the committee for voting for the New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act," said Roseanne Scotti, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Jersey office and a tireless campaigner in Trenton. "The bottom line is about compassion. If you or someone you love is seriously ill and none of the available medications relieved the suffering, wouldn't you want access to medical marijuana if a doctor recommended it? New Jerseyans overwhelmingly support this legislation and we are grateful to the committee for hearing their voices."

"I am pleased to see the support of the committee for Senate Bill 119," said Dr. Petro. "With passage of the legislation, patients with serious and life-threatening disorders can be offered a safe and effective alternative when conventional therapy is inadequate. The bill represents a positive step toward a rational policy regarding medical marijuana."

"I am thrilled that today members of the Senate Health Committee supported the common sense and compassionate response to suffering," said Nora Bertocci, a registered nurse and chair of the New Jersey Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, which works with sick and dying patients on a daily basis. "Medical marijuana is used very successfully in other states and in other countries. We should not be asking 'why should we legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes?' but rather 'why shouldn't we?'"

Since California led the way in 1996, 13 states have passed laws providing for the medicinal use of marijuana: Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington State. Last month, Michigan voters made it the first Midwest state to join the list. If the New Jersey Assembly acts next year, it could become the first Mid-Atlantic state to join.

Student Drug Testing: ACLU Sues Northern California High School Over New Expanded Policy

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Northern California chapter has joined with a small number of students and their parents in filing a lawsuit against the Shasta Union High School District, charging that its newly-expanded drug testing policy for students violates the state constitution. The move came after the district failed to act to address ACLU concerns over the new policy.
drug testing lab
Under previous district drug testing policy, only students involved in athletics were subject to suspicionless random drug testing. But earlier this year, the school board expanded the program to include students who participate in choir, band, drama and other competitive co-curricular and extracurricular school programs at the district's three main high schools. It also required students and their parents to consent to the drug testing regime in order for students to be able to use school computers.

Such requirements violate the students' right to privacy, equal protection, and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the state constitution, the ACLU argued in its filing. The group and the plaintiffs seek an injunction blocking the drug testing program to avoid "irreparable harm" to the students.

But last week, the district was still talking tough. The district's new drug testing policy is "within the confines of the law," Superintendent Jim Cloney, who is named as a defendant in the law suit, told the Redding News. "We've discussed it," Cloney said. "The board chose to follow the policy as it's written."

The district doesn't have to waste its money defending an unconstitutional drug testing policy, said the Northern California ACLU's Michael Risher. "We are still... happy to speak with the district and try and resolve the issue," he said.

In the meantime, the Shasta school board can continue to throw away money as it tilts after windmills.

Salvia Divinorum: Ohio House, Senate Pass Ban Bill, Governor Expected to Sign

Both the Ohio House and Senate voted this week for a bill, HB 215, which will, among other things, make salvia divinorum and its active ingredient, Salvinorin A, a Schedule I controlled substance with penalties the same as those for heroin, cocaine, or psychedelics. Gov. Ted Strickland is expected to sign the bill into law shortly.
salvia leaves (photo courtesy
The Ohio bill was sponsored by Rep. Thom Collier (R-Mount Vernon) after an incident where a 12-year-old Loudonville boy was shot and killed by another boy who had smoked the herb, a fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogenic member of the mint family. But while Collier repeatedly cited that tragic incident, as the Columbus Dispatch noted: "There was no direct evidence, however, that the shooting was drug-related."

If Strickland signs the bill as expected, Ohio will be the sixth state to ban salvia outright, treating it as a proscribed substance. A handful of others, most notably California, have moved to restrict its sales, especially to minors.

While the Masatec Indians of Mexico have used the plant for religious purposes for centuries, it is only within the past few years that its psychedelic properties have become widely known among inner explorers and youthful experimenters in the US and elsewhere. Typically, some of those youthful experimenters post their tripped-out experiences on YouTube, where some legislator or drug cop or self-appointed watchdog eventually runs across them and demands that the plant be banned. Legislatures reflexively go along, with the ban bills typically passing with no organized opposition and by large majorities, as in this week's 90-4 Ohio House vote.

Press Release: Sacramento Becomes 48th California County to Adopt Medical Marijuana ID Card Program


DECEMBER 16, 2008

Sacramento Becomes 48th California County to Adopt Medical Marijuana ID Card ProgramCounty Was Third Largest Without State-Mandated System

CONTACT: Aaron Smith, MPP California policy director, 707-291-0076

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors decided today to adopt a medical marijuana identification card system, 4 to 1, making it the 48th county to adopt plans to comply with a requirement of a 2003 state law.

    By giving patients the option of obtaining cards identifying them as qualified medical marijuana patients, law enforcement officers will be able to quickly discern whether they are operating within the law, sparing taxpayers the burden of costly, time-consuming false arrests, advocates said.

    The only counties larger than Sacramento that have yet to obey the law requiring a medical marijuana I.D. card program are San Diego and San Bernardino. Those two counties have challenged the program in court three times, all of which have failed. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has announced its intention to make a final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Meanwhile, Ventura County became the last in Southern California – other than San Diego and San Bernardino – to implement a medical marijuana I.D. card program Monday.

    "The decision today signals the beginning of a new an era for California's medical marijuana law,” said Aaron Smith, California policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It should now be crystal clear to all state and local officials that it's their duty to carry out state law and the will of the voters – regardless of their personal opinion on this issue."

    Patients hailed the Sacramento board's vote as a boon for medical marijuana patients and law enforcement alike.

    "By choosing to offer medical marijuana I.D. cards, the supervisors aren't just demonstrating their respect for the law and the will of the voters," said Candice Works, a Sacramento medical marijuana patient and former substance abuse counselor with Kienböck's disease, a rare and painful bone condition. "They're also showing they care about protecting patients from false arrest and saving our police from wasting time investigating law abiding patients. It's in everybody's interest to ensure our medical marijuana program functions as smoothly as possible, and that's what the I.D. card program does."

    With more than 26,000 members and 100,000 e-mail subscribers nationwide, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest marijuana policy reform organization in the United States. MPP believes that the best way to minimize the harm associated with marijuana is to regulate marijuana in a manner similar to alcohol. For more information, please visit

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