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Harm Reduction: San Antonio Needle Exchange Program Not To Be, Texas Attorney General Says Would Violate State Law

A state-sanctioned needle exchange program envisioned for Bexar County (greater San Antonio) under legislation passed last year will not happen -- at least not this year. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott Monday issued an opinion saying that state drug laws blocked the program from moving forward.
popular syringe exchange logo
The needle exchange program was envisioned to help slow the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C among injection drugs users and would have been the first official program in Texas, which is the only state in the nation without one. The law was scheduled to take effect last September, but was put on hold after Bexar County District Attorney Susan Reed raised objections in August, saying that it would be illegal to conduct such a program because, in her opinion, the law was defective. That sparked State Senator Jeff Wentworth's request for an attorney general's opinion.

In addition to blocking the needle exchange program, the attorney general's opinion also opens the way to the vindictive prosecution of Bill Day, a 73-year-old AIDS sufferer who was ticketed along with two other people earlier this year for passing out clean needles. District Attorney Reed, a Republican who has warned she would arrest anyone trying to hand out needles, stayed Day's case pending Abbott's opinion, but is now likely to move forward with it.

While Day faces up to a year in jail if convicted of violating Texas drug paraphernalia laws, that's unlikely, First Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg told the Dallas Morning News. "Nobody expects that Mr. Day will go to jail," said Herberg. "If people think that he's well-intentioned, that's a punishment issue, not a guilt or innocence issue."

In his opinion, Abbott wrote the law passed last year was not written clearly enough to protect needle exchange participants from prosecution because it said only that the county health department "may" set up a needle exchange, not that it "will" set one up. While the legislature may have intended to set up a program, it needs to redraft the law to fix the language, he said.

Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio), the legislation's main sponsor, vowed to make fixing it one of her top priorities next year. "Obviously, I am terribly disappointed," she told the Morning News. "The outcome [with the needle exchange] would have been much more effective in saving thousands of lives and saving millions of taxpayer dollars at the same time."

Feature: "Color Blind" Drug War Disproportionately Targets Black Americans

America's drug laws do not reference race, but the way they are enforced has a gravely disproportionate impact on African Americans, according to two reports released this week. While the two studies' conclusions are no surprise to anyone who has observed the evolution of American drug law enforcement, they provide yet more confirmation that drug prohibition in the United States reeks of racial injustice.
Released together, the two reports, one from Human Rights Watch and one from the Sentencing Project, paint a picture of a society where the color of one's skin seems to be the biggest determinant of whether one will be arrested or imprisoned on drug charges. While whites commit more drug offenses, blacks are much more likely to be busted and jailed for them, the reports found.

In its report, "Targeting Blacks: Drug Law Enforcement and Race in the United States," Human Rights Watch examined racial disparities among drug offenders in 34 states. In those states, black men were 11.8 times more likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites, and black women were 4.8 times more likely to be arrested on drug charges.

In 16 of those states, blacks are sent to prison on drug charges at rates more than 10 times greater than whites, Human Rights Watch found. The states with the most egregious racial disparities in sentencing are, in rank order, Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

While blacks make up 13% of the population, they accounted for 33% of all drug arrests and more than 53% of all drug offenders entering prison in 2003, the last year studied in the report.

"Most drug offenders are white, but most of the drug offenders sent to prison are black," said Jamie Fellner, senior counsel in the US program at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "The solution is not to imprison more whites but to radically rethink how to deal with drug abuse and low-level drug offenders."

While the Human Rights Watch report examined disparities at the state level, the Sentencing Project's 45-page study, "Disparity by Geography: The War on Drugs in America's Cities," looked at racial disparities at the municipal level. The findings were equally grim. In examining data from 43 of the nation's largest cities, the report found that since 1980, the rate of drug arrests for blacks in those cities had increased 225%. While whites have also been caught up in the ever-expanding drug war, their arrest rate increased by a much lower 70%.

In 11 of the cities examined, black arrest rates on drug charges are more than five times what they were in 1980. In half of those cities, blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be arrested, even though use rates are roughly constant along racial lines.

"The alarming increase in drug arrests since 1980, concentrated among African Americans, raises fundamental questions about fairness and justice," said Ryan King, policy analyst for The Sentencing Project and author of the report. "But even more troubling is the fact that these trends come not as the result of higher rates of drug use among African Americans, but, instead, the decisions by local officials about where to pursue drug enforcement."

The impact of local decisions about how to prosecute the drug war can be seen in cities across the country. In Tucson and Buffalo drug arrests have increased more than eight-fold between 1980 and 2003; in Kansas City and Toledo, more than seven-fold; in Newark and Sacramento, about six-fold. In some other cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, policing decisions have resulted in much lower increases in drug arrests.

As Human Rights Watch's Fellner noted above, the answer is not to arrest and imprison more white people for drug offenses. Instead, Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project urged public officials to address racial inequities and restore credibility to the criminal justice system with a number of reforms, including:

  • Eliminating mandatory minimum sentences and restoring judicial discretion to sentencing of drug offenders;
  • Increasing public funding of substance abuse treatment and prevention outreach to make these readily available in communities of color in particular;
  • Enhancing public health-based strategies to reduce harms associated with drug abuse and reallocating public resources accordingly.

Salvia Watch: Magic Mint Now Illegal in Kansas, But Alabama Bill Dies

Efforts in state legislatures to ban or otherwise restrict the sale and possession of salvia divinorum, a fast-acting, short-lived psychedelic member of the mint family, continue apace. So far, ten states -- Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Delaware, Maine, North Dakota, Illinois, Virginia, and Kansas -- have passed laws criminalizing or restricting the sale and possession of salvia. More than a dozen other state legislatures are considering criminalizing the drug.
salvia leaves (courtesy
One state where that won't be happening this year is Alabama, where bills sponsored by Sens. Hank Erwin (R-Montevallo) and Roger Bedford (D-Russellville) that would have scheduled salvia like marijuana failed to move in the legislature. They died Tuesday night, the last day for bills to be passed in the chamber where they were introduced.

This marks the second year Alabama solons failed to act on a salvia measure. But Erwin and Bedford are undeterred and say they will be back again next year. They cited concerns for young people in seeking to criminalize the substance.

That was enough for the Kansas legislature and Gov. Kathleen Sibelius (D), who late last month signed into law a bill criminalizing salvia possession and sale in the Jayhawk State. That law went into effect last week.

The DEA, which is in charge of scheduling drugs at the federal level, has been reviewing salvia's status for several years, but has yet to determine that it qualifies as a dangerous drug needing scheduling under the federal Controlled Substances Act. But clearly, that isn't stopping legislators from going off half-cocked. A simple-minded and sensationalist press has been part of the problem, too, as Slate's Jack Shafer noted in Salvia Divinorum Hysteria, which is well worth the read.

Press Release: New Hampshire Senate Stops Effort to Reduce Marijuana Penalties

 [Courtesy of NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy]

MAY 1, 2008

Senate Stops Effort to Reduce Marijuana PenaltiesReformers Concede Battle, Celebrate Progress

CONTACT: Matt Simon, NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, (603) 391-7450

CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE — After being rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee in a 4-0 vote last Thursday, HB 1623 was defeated this afternoon in a voice vote by the full Senate. The bill, which would have reduced the penalty for possessing less than a quarter ounce of marijuana, had been marked for death since it received a rare veto threat from Governor Lynch following passage by the House.

    Matt Simon, executive director of the NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, was not discouraged by the result. "A strong majority of voters now understand that our marijuana laws were written for the 1970's, and that they need to be updated for the 21st Century," he explained.  "Through this process, I think we have demonstrated that a reform of this nature is both wise and inevitable."

    Simon cited the 193-141 House vote as a turning point for marijuana reform in New Hampshire. "It's tough to raise this kind of issue in an election year," he said, "but given the results from our recent poll, we're confident that decision-makers will catch up with public opinion when the next opportunity arises."

    The poll of 625 registered voters conducted by telephone April 7 to 8 by Mason-Dixon Research for the Marijuana Policy Project and NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy found that New Hampshire voters support an even more ambitious penalty reduction by a 53 to 34 percent margin. A breakdown on the poll, which asked voters if they supported reducing the penalty for possessing up to a full ounce of marijuana to a violation punished by a $100 fine, is available at

Concord, NH
United States

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Bill Under Attack

[Courtesy of Marijuana Policy Project] 

Dear friends:

Some members of Minnesota's law enforcement community are lying in order to kill MPP’s medical marijuana bill in the state — in other words, in order to keep patients in pain. This small but vocal contingent is claiming that marijuana has no medical value, that “every prosecutor in every medical marijuana state” opposes its use, that you can “overdose” on marijuana, and more than a dozen other outrageous lies.

We’re fighting back. Yesterday, MPP held a news conference at the Minnesota statehouse to refute the outright false testimony that law enforcement officials have been providing the legislature and the news media. And we distributed to reporters and legislators an 18-page booklet cataloguing the opposition’s litany of mistruths — along with facts and proof to the contrary — and we’re releasing to the public, legislators, and media one video clip each day showing law enforcement's lies about medical marijuana.

But we're relying on the generosity of supporters to ensure we have the resources to combat our opposition. Would you please give whatever you can today so we can fight back?

MPP's bill, which passed out of the Senate last year, is currently awaiting an historic vote on the House floor. The vote could happen any day now, so it is urgent that supporters like you donate what you can today.

Our campaign has generated an enormous amount of media coverage in Minnesota, which you can read here. And the two largest papers in the state — the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press — have editorialized in favor of the bill, which also has the support of the Minnesota Nurses Association, the Minnesota Public Health Association, the Minnesota AIDS Project, the Minnesota Senior Federation, and 2-to-1 support among Minnesota voters.

Also yesterday, MPP debuted the second in a series of hard-hitting TV ads featuring seriously ill Minnesotans who are pleading with Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) not to veto MPP’s medical marijuana bill. The new TV ad features Ely resident K.K. Forss, who suffers from excruciating, debilitating pain after a disc in his neck exploded, causing extensive nerve damage. "This doesn't have anything to do with culture wars," Forss says in the ad, noting that he is a registered Republican and a born-again Christian. "We have people suffering in horrible pain, and we talk politics — it doesn't have to be that way."

If you agree that K.K. and others like him shouldn't face the threat of arrest and jail for trying to alleviate their pain, would you please consider donating $10 or more today so that we can keep these ads on the air at this critical moment?

Thank you,

Kampia signature (e-mail sized)

Rob Kampia
Executive Director
Marijuana Policy Project
Washington, D.C.

P.S. As I've mentioned in previous alerts, a major philanthropist has committed to match the first $3.0 million that MPP can raise from the rest of the planet in 2008. This means that your donation today will be doubled.

United States

Important news about the Rockefeller Drug Laws

[Courtesy of Drug Policy Alliance] Dear Friends: Back in February, I wrote you about our efforts to create a new paradigm in New York, an approach to drug policy that is centered in public health, not prison politics. Many of us have worked together in this effort. We agreed that getting rid of the failed Rockefeller Drug Laws is not enough—New York needs a coordinated drug policy guided by public health principles that will save taxpayer dollars while enhancing safety in our communities. I write you now to let you know about an important development in this effort: The New York State Assembly has taken the first step towards heeding our call. On Monday, the Assembly announced an unprecedented joint hearing on Rockefeller Drug Laws and the future of drug policy in New York. The joint hearing is being convened by six Assembly Committees: Codes, Corrections, Judiciary, Health, Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, and Social Services. We know of no other time that this has ever happened in New York, making this an unprecedented opportunity for us to advance our cause. The hearing announcement is enclosed. There are two hearings: the first on May 8th – the 35th anniversary of the Rockefeller Drug Laws – in New York City, and a second one on May 15th in Rochester. This is a remarkable opportunity to let the Assembly know that we want not only reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but to shift the discussion of drug use and abuse from a criminal justice framework to one of public health. The Assembly hearing announcement states that “Drug addiction is a treatable disease, so among issues raised is whether a system that focuses on preventing and treating drug addiction rather than simply incarcerating individuals will result in a reduction in the use and sale of drugs – something mandatory imprisonment laws have failed to accomplish.” There are four things you can do now to get involved: 1. Sign up to testify at the hearings in New York City or Rochester. Can you testify at one of the hearings in New York or in Rochester? If you would like to testify at the hearing, please contact us and we will help you apply to testify and make your voice heard. Not everyone will be able to testify, which is why we are going to hold a rally outside the hearings on May 8 in NYC (see below). 2. If you are in NYC on May 8, join us at a rally for Public Health, not Prison Politics. Please join us and hundreds of other New Yorkers on May 8th for a rally outside 250 Broadway, the location of the hearing in New York City. We will call on the Assembly to go beyond Rockefeller and treat drug use and abuse in New York State as a public health issue. Details to follow next week. 3. Send this message to three other people. Let your friends, family, and co-workers know about the hearings. 4. Join our Legislator Education Teams: Drug Policy Alliance is spearheading a project to meet with every New York State Legislator from the New York City area. Want to talk with your elected representatives about the Rockefeller Drug Laws? Come join us on May 5, 2008, from 6 – 7:30 for the training to learn how to be part of the Education Teams. The training is free and there will be food. After the training, you can join one of our education teams in New York City. For more info, please email Jill Battagline at, or call 212-613-8053. That’s it. If you have any questions, please email me directly. Thanks for all you do. Onward, Gabriel ----------------------------------------------------------------- Gabriel Sayegh Director, State Organizing and Policy Project Drug Policy Alliance 70 West 36th Street, 16th Fl. New York, NY 10018 (212) 613-8048 ph. (212) 613-8021 fax
United States

Marijuana: New York City Pot Arrest Capital of the World

Police in New York City arrested more than 39,700 people on marijuana charges last year, and that is no fluke. In the last decade, nearly 400,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for carrying small amounts of marijuana, the vast majority of them black or brown.
The figures come from a just released report by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine and Breaking the Chains executive director Deborah Small. According to the report, "Marijuana Arrest Crusade," whites constituted only 15% of those arrested, while Hispanics were 31% and blacks made up more than half of all pot arrests, with 52%.

"Racial profiling is a fact of life on the streets of New York City," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, during a news conference at the group's Manhattan headquarters.

New York is among the small number of states that decriminalized marijuana possession in the late 1970s, but that hasn't stopped police from arresting people carrying small amounts of weed and then subjecting them to average 24-hour stays in New York City jails while they await arraignment. Police get around the decrim law by "manufacturing" arrests for "possession in public view," said Levine. Police routinely stop young black and brown men on the streets, force them to empty their pockets, then charge them with the more serious "possession in public view" offense.

Since Big Apple marijuana arrests started going through the roof during the administration of Mayor Rudolf Giuliani, the city has sometimes accounted for one out of 10 marijuana arrests in the entire country. Last year, that figure was lower, with New York accounting for roughly 5% of pot arrests nationwide, still a huge number.

That makes New York City "the marijuana arrest capital of the world," said Lieberman.

Sentencing: Woman Who Fled Michigan Drug Sentence 32 Years Ago Caught in California, Faces 20 Years

Susan LeFevre was a Michigan teenager when she was arrested in 1974 for selling relatively small amounts of heroin to an undercover officer. At the request of her conservative family, she pleaded guilty and hoped for mercy, but was instead sentenced to 20 years in prison despite having no previous record. With the help of family members, she bolted from prison in 1976 and fled to California, where she started a new life with a new identity.

Last week, thanks to an anonymous tip to the Michigan Department of Corrections, she was tracked down and arrested in San Diego, where she had lived a quiet upper middle-class life and raised three children with her husband of 23 years. Now, Michigan wants her back to do the rest of her sentence.

The case of LeFevre, now known as Marie Walsh, is putting the issues of crime and punishment and redemption and forgiveness, not to mention harsh drug sentencing, in the national spotlight. While the nation debates her fate, LeFevre sits in a California jail cell awaiting extradition to her home state.

"It's been a secret no one knew for so long, and now everyone knows," LeFevre told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday at Las Colinas Detention Facility in Santee, a San Diego suburb. "I hope there's some mercy."

There sure wasn't any mercy when she copped a plea in Michigan more than 30 years ago. She plea bargained in a bid for a lenient sentence, or even probation. Instead she was sentenced to the maximum 10 to 20 years. "I kept thinking it had to be a mistake. I was supposed to have probation," LeFevre said.

And it doesn't sound like Michigan is feeling any more forgiving now than it was back when Gerald Ford was president. "Just because she escaped and evaded capture for 30 years doesn't mean your prison sentence is negated," said Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan. She would have to do at least nine years to satisfy her sentence, he said.

That his wife has turned out to be a fugitive from justice means little to Alan Walsh, who never knew about LeFevre's secret past. "I've known my wife, Marie, for 23 years," he said in a statement. "She is a person of the highest integrity and compassion. During that time she's been nothing but a caring and wonderful wife and mother. She has raised three beautiful children and worked hard to build a good life for them, and has dedicated her life to their well-being. Her family is now threatened to be destroyed."

Barring a refusal by the state of California to extradite her back to Michigan, which is highly unlikely, LeFevre's only hope would appear to be a commutation of her sentence. Otherwise, she will become just one more drug war prisoner in Michigan's prisons overflowing with drug war prisoners.

New York City's Marijuana Arrest Rate is Wildly Out of Control

Two of my colleagues, Deborah Small and Prof. Harry Levine, have analyzed New York City's marijuana policy in a major report released Wednesday the New York Civil Liberties Union. The chart appearing above pretty makes the central point, but check out Jacob Sullum's piece in Reason for a good general discussion of the report's findings and implications. Also, Scott wrote here last night about an important side angle, why it's a bad idea to take out your marijuana to give it to police. Yesterday's is a must-read too. The report itself, and the authors' summary, are online here
New York, NY
United States

Press Release: Medical Marijuana Bill Lead Sponsor Announces Law Enforcement Requested Changes to Bill

[Courtesy of Illinois Compassion Access Network] 


Medical Marijuana Bill Lead Sponsor Announces Law Enforcement Requested Changes to Bill

CONTACT: John Walker, Illinois Compassion Access Network, (847) 769-1772

SPRINGFIELD, IL. – In a press conference today, Sen. John Cullerton (D-Chicago), lead sponsor of a bill to protect from arrest seriously ill Illinoisans who use medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation, announced significant changes to the legislation based on input from law enforcement.

    Although members of the law enforcement community have been among the most vocal opponents of the bill, Cullerton said the recent amendments reflected specific objections law enforcement officers raised in good faith in a meeting with bill proponents last month.

    "I'm grateful to the members of the law enforcement community who sat down with us to help us craft this improved medical marijuana bill," he said. "Thanks to their help, I'm confident we have legislation here that protects our most suffering patients while ensuring law officers are able to do their jobs and keep our streets safe."

    A comprehensive list of the amendments made at the request of law enforcement representatives can be viewed online here:

    Also at the press conference, medical marijuana activist and Chicago multiple sclerosis patient Julie Falco announced a new campaign to reach out to representatives by sending personal video appeals by seriously ill patients asking for support on the medical marijuana bill.

    Many of the videos are available online here:

    "I think it's important for people like me – who are counting on compassion to prevail – to let legislators know who we are and why we need this law, especially those whose conditions prevent them from appearing in person," Falco said. "It's very easy for hysteria and fear to take over the debate, but this medical cannabis bill is about only one thing: easing the suffering of seriously ill people with a medicine that is proven safe and effective."

    Despite opposition from some elements of the law enforcement community, medical marijuana enjoys great support among the medical community and among Illinois voters. In February, the American College of Physicians – the second largest physician organization in the country with 124,000 members – became the latest major medical association to endorse laws protecting patients and doctors from arrest for using medical marijuana.

    Also in February, a Mason-Dixon telephone poll of 625 randomly selected Illinois voters – commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C. – found that 68 percent of respondents agreed that "seriously and terminally ill patients should be allowed to use and grow medical marijuana for personal use if their doctors recommended it." Full poll results are available here:

    SB 2865 – the medical marijuana bill – is expected to reach the Senate floor within weeks.

Springfield, IL
United States

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