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Dutch-Only Cannabis Coffee Shop Policy Meets Resistance [FEATURE]

A Dutch government policy aimed at barring foreign tourists from buying marijuana in the Netherlands went into effect in three southern border provinces Tuesday, but it didn't go exactly as authorities planned.

Amsterdam cannabis "coffee shop" (wikimedia.org)
In the southern border city of Maastricht, hundreds of demonstrators filled a central square to protest the move, waving signs saying "Away with the Weed Pass," "No Discrimination Against Belgians," and "Dealers Wanted!" and toting a six-foot long joint. Meanwhile, cannabis coffee shop owners across the city closed their doors to protest the imposition of the scheme, leaving the city's mayor ruffled and pot-buyers to seek out street dealers.

The weed pass plan is the brainchild of the rightist Liberal-Christian Democrat coalition government, which collapsed last month. But the Dutch parliament had already approved the plan, and it is still scheduled to go into effect nationwide beginning January 1.

Under the weed pass plan, cannabis coffee shops will be forced to become "members only" clubs, with membership limited to 2,000 people per club. Members must register their identities, and only Dutch citizens and residents will be allowed to join the clubs.

Marijuana remains illegal in the Netherlands, but under a policy of pragmatic tolerance in effect since 1976, the Dutch government has allowed for the sale of small amounts of marijuana through the coffee shops. The current lame duck government of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, playing to its conservative base, has moved against the coffee shops as part of a broader anti-drug campaign that has also seen it label hashish a "hard drug" and move to criminalize khat, which is used almost exclusively by the country's small Somali immigrant population.

The weed pass plan is now in effect in the provinces of Brabant, Limburg, and Zeeland, which border Belgium and/or Germany. Reuters reported that most coffee shops in cities such as Eindhoven, Roermond, and Tilburg were also shut, or were ignoring the weed pass.

"We've been selling cannabis to anybody who comes, as normal," said William Vugs, owner of the 't Oermelijn coffee shop in Tilburg. "We are being forced to discriminate against foreigners. They don't just spend their money here, they buy groceries and fill up their cars, too," he said.

Vugs said his shop served 800 customers a day, about one-fifth of them from Belgium. Turning them away would have economic consequences beyond the coffee shops, he said.

Vugs is one of the coffee shop owners who hopes to block the weed pass in court by arguing that it is discriminatory. That's the plan concocted by the Maastricht Coffee Shop Union (VOCM), which announced in a press release Monday that it would challenge the law in court.

"Too much is still unclear about the privacy concerns, but also on the exact requirements of the minister, said VOCM leader Marc Josemans, owner of the Easy Going coffee shop in Maastricht. "Therefore we will not register customers and will continue to sell to anyone aged 18 and older who can identify himself. "

Instead, in a surprise move, the city's coffee shops closed their doors -- except for Easy Going. Josemans opened long enough to refuse to sell pot to a group of foreigners, who then proceeded to a local police station to file a discrimination complaint. Such complaints will be the basis of the looming legal challenge to the weed pass.

Josemans then stayed open, selling marijuana to anyone who asked for it, and local police arrived shortly.

"The police paid me a visit about a half an hour later and warned me I was violating the new rules, and if I do it again, I'll be closed down for a month," he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. But he added that he planned to continue selling to all comers and that he expected his shop to be shut down. He would then take his case to the European Court of Justice, he said. "Discrimination is never the right answer,"Joseman said.

Previous efforts to overturn the law, both in the Dutch courts and the European Court of Justice, have failed, but the coffee shop owners and their supporters are determined to try again.

Tuesday also saw competing press conferences in Maastricht, with the mayor and city officials at one and coffee shop supporters at the other, held in front of Easy Going.

Maastricht Mayor Onno Hoes said the city supported the weed pass plan and that the coffee shop owners were "rude" to close their doors. "I did not think the owners would be so cheeky," he complained. "By doing this, they are hurting the local population."

But not the street drug dealers, who, according to the VOCM, are flocking to the city to take advantage of the ban on sales to foreigners.

"Maastricht is now faced with drug runners who have never been spotted in the city before, coming from Liege, eastern Europe and northern France," the group said. "They are using flyers explaining the new rules that were issued by the city of Maastricht in order to lure tourists! Thus we are rapidly returning to a long gone past where a separation of markets for cannabis and hard drugs did not exist and dealers controlled the streets."

Former head of the Netherlands Police Union Hans van Duijn echoed that sentiment at the press conference in front of Easy Going. "Everyone who is rejected here will walk a few meters down the street to the drug dealers who drive over from Rotterdam, among other places, and ride around in large numbers," he said.

The primary reasons the Dutch adopted the pragmatic tolerance policy allowing for the coffee shops were to separate "soft" and "hard" drug markets and to reduce the number of street dealers. But it appears the weed pass policy will have the opposite effect.

"This weed pass is a bizarre U-turn by a government of moralistic politicians looking for ways to score points among the conservative part of the nation," said Joep Oomen, director of the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) from his home next door in Belgium. "It is a slap in the face of the millions of non-Dutch residents who visit the coffee shops every year without ever causing any nuisance, as well as of Dutch society as a whole, that will now be faced with an increasing illegal cannabis circuit."

Oomen noted that street dealers in Maastricht Tuesday were openly defying authorities by giving interviews on Dutch TV.

"Nobody expects that people looking for good quality cannabis will now cease to do that," he continued. "They will just not be allowed in the coffee shops anymore and will instead find their stuff on the streets."

For ENCOD, the weed pass plan is a repressive last gasp that could have unintended consequences, good as well as bad.

"We consider this as a last convulsion of a dying body," Oomen said. "The problems that this effort to end the coffee shop model will create will cause the Dutch public to see that the only real solution is to regulate the 'back door' of the coffee shops."

Oomen was referring to the peculiarity in the current Dutch system which allows for marijuana to be sold, but does not allow for a legal supply for the coffee shops. That has resulted in increasing black market pot production.

The issue of the "back door" was also on Joseman's mind.

"Let's forget this right wing hobby and focus on the real problem -- the 'back door,'" he said. "This is the Achilles heel of Dutch cannabis policy. When we finally start to regulate the cultivation of cannabis and supply to the coffee shops, we will kill three birds with one stone: significantly less crime, huge profits for public health, and one billion euros a year extra in the national treasury."

But first, the coffee shops have to deal with their current "front door" problem. The looming court cases are one avenue, but the September elections set to replace the current government provide another one.

"Our hope is on the outcome of the trial processes that have started today in Maastricht and Tilburg by the closure of the coffee shops that refuse to carry out the new measure, and on the general elections in September," said Oomen. "Predictions are that at least two of the five left-wing parties that are currently in opposition will participate in the next government, and they will cancel the new measures or at least diminish their impact."

Netherlands

Bills to Drug Test the Poor Face Tough Going [FEATURE]

With states facing severe budget pressures, bills to require drug testing to apply for or receive public benefits -- welfare, unemployment benefits, even Medicaid -- have been all the rage at Republican-dominated state houses this year. Fail the drug test and lose your benefits. The bills carry a powerful appeal that plays well even beyond typically Republican constituencies, combining class, gender and racial stereotypes with a distaste for wasteful government spending. But they have also faced surprisingly tough opposition.

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) workshop, District of Columbia
"If you have enough money to be able to buy drugs, then you don't need the public assistance," Colorado Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg told the Associated Press in March after sponsoring a welfare drug testing bill. "I don't want tax dollars spent on drugs."

"The message of this bill is simple: Oklahomans should not have their taxes used to fund illegal drug activity,” said state Rep. Guy Liebmann (R-Oklahoma City) in a statement on the passage of his welfare drug testing bill in the state House. "Benefit payments that have been wasted on drug abusers will be available for the truly needy as a result of this bill, and addicts will be incentivized to get treatment."

Liebmann also struck another frequently-hit note -- a moral claim that such bills were necessary even if they didn't save taxpayer dollars. "Even if it didn't save a dime, this legislation would be worth enacting based on principle," he said. "Law-abiding citizens should not have their tax payments used to fund illegal activity that puts us all in danger."

Such rhetoric has sounded in statehouses across the land, with bills for mandatory, suspicionless drug testing of people seeking public benefits introduced in almost half the states, even passing a couple -- Florida last year led the way (and this year passed a law mandating drug tests for state employees), and now Georgia this month has followed suit. West Virginia's governor has also instituted drug testing for enrollees in the state's job training program. But the most interesting trend emerging is how difficult it is to actually get them passed.

While Georgia legislators managed to get a bill through, bills have already been defeated in nine states so far this year -- Alabama Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, West Virginia, Virginia, and Wyoming -- and a number of others are either dead in the water or running out of time as legislative session clocks tick down.

The states where welfare drug test bills have not yet died include Colorado (House Bill 2012-1046) , Illinois (House Bill 5364), Indiana (House Bill 1007), Kansas (House Bill 2686), Oklahoma (House Bill 2388), Ohio (Senate Bill 69) South Carolina (House Bill 4358), and Tennessee (House Bill 2725), while a "reasonable suspicion" bill is still alive in Minnesota (Senate File 1535). Bills targeting unemployment benefits are still alive in Arizona (Senate Bill 1495) and Michigan (House Bill 5412), while one aimed at Medicaid recipients is still alive in South Carolina (House Bill 4458).

The stumbling blocks for passage are threefold: First, there are serious reservations about the constitutionality of such bills. While the Supreme Court has not ruled directly on the subject of requiring drug tests of public benefits recipients, it has held that forcing someone to submit to a drug test is a search under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and thus requires either a search warrant or probable cause. The high court has carved out only limited exceptions to this general rule, including people in public safety-sensitive positions (airline pilots, truck drivers), members of law enforcement engaged in drug-related work, and some high school students (those involved in athletics or extracurricular activities).

The only federal appeals court ruling on drug testing welfare recipients came out of Michigan a decade ago, and in that case, a divided panel found such testing unconstitutional. That case was not appealed by the state. In Florida, the welfare drug testing law passed by the Republican legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott (R), has been stopped in its tracks at least temporarily by a federal district judge who has hinted broadly she will ultimately find it unconstitutional. Civil libertarians in Georgia have vowed to challenge its law as soon as it goes into effect.

Democratic legislators across the country have used the fear of unconstitutionality as a potent argument against the drug testing bills. They have also raised the specter of legal fees reaching into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to defend such bills in the courts, and that leads to the second objection to public benefits drug testing bills: they will not save taxpayer dollars, but will instead waste them.

"It's absolutely ridiculous to cut people off from potential benefits, especially when we've found that people on welfare aren't using their money to feed addictions," said Morgan Fox, communications manager for the Marijuana Policy Project. "In Florida, when they enacted their program, very few people tested positive. It ends up costing the state money to drug test."

Fox was referring to findings reported last week that in the four months last year that Florida's welfare drug testing law was in effect, only 2.6% of applicants failed the drug test and fewer than 1% canceled the test. With the state reimbursing those who took and passed a drug test, the program was a net loser for the state, costing it an estimated $45,000 during that four-month period.

The Florida findings are similar to the findings of an earlier Florida pilot program for welfare drug testing and the short-lived Michigan program, both of which reported very low rates of positive drug tests among their subject populations.

drug testing lab
While it appears that most public benefits drug testing bills being considered would be at best a wash when it comes to spending or saving taxpayer dollars, one unemployment drug testing bill, Senate Bill 1495 in Arizona, is likely to be doomed because it will trigger the withholding of federal tax benefits for business, costing Arizona businesses millions of dollars. That Republican-sponsored bill is now stalled in the House, and some normally staunch allies of the GOP are in the opposition camp.

"Arizona is moving forward with this bill that the Department of Labor says violates federal law," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The trade-off for this testing is a pretty steep tax hike on local businesses, and the Chamber of Commerce is opposing it because they care about taxes. We're hoping that the Chamber in other states will look at that as well."

A third stumbling block for public benefits drug testing bills is not legal or economic, but based on notions of justice and fairness. While Republican legislators talk about ensuring that taxpayer dollars aren't wasted on drug users, they seem decidedly disinterested in imposing drug testing burdens on recipients of taxpayer largesse who are not poor. They are not calling for the drug testing of beneficiaries of corporate tax breaks, for instance, and for the most part they are demonstrably uninterested in subjecting themselves to similar testing, although Democrats opponents of the bills have had fun and scored political points sponsoring amendments or bills to do just that in some states.

In Colorado, Democratic foes of a welfare drug testing bill submitted an amendment to drug test legislators and state officials complete with personalized urine specimen cups for House committee members.That amendment actually passed the committee, but was largely symbolic because even if the bill passed in the House, it was doomed in the Democratically-controlled state Senate.

Instead of the powerful, the bills target the most downtrodden and disadvantaged -- the poor, the sick, the jobless -- in the guise of helping them. They are part of a broader attack on the poor, some advocates said.

"Whether you're talking about attacks on welfare, abortion, or contraception, it's all connected," said Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. "Depriving low-income people, predominantly women, of basic financial support is part of creating a second class status for all women. Women can't make healthy decisions about their reproductive lives if they don't have enough food to eat for themselves and their children," she argued.

For Paltrow, the push for drug testing the poor "has been part of a concerted effort to undermine the notion of the social contract" that is ideologically-driven and mean-spirited. "Whether it's poverty or pregnancy, you make every problem one having to do with individual responsibility, and then you create a justification for taking away money from people who need it."

It's part of a larger move to privatize what should be public welfare and services, Paltrow argued. "You're transferring money from poor people to companies that do drug testing," she said. "That's an important part of trickling up all our money to the fewer than 1%."

While Paltrow saw malign forces at work, Piper could identify no grand conspiracy.

"We couldn't find any think tanks currently pushing this or any other common denominator in all the states other than that this gets media attention," he said. "Some dumb legislator reads something in the newspaper and decides to do it in his state. We don't see any indication the drug testing industry is pushing this. If there's a conspiracy, it's a conspiracy of stupidity, that's all."

There is another fairness issue in play as well. The rhetoric surrounding the politics of drug testing the poor suggests that it is aimed at mothers strung out on heroin or meth-ravaged fathers, but the most common drug cited in the failed Florida drug tests was marijuana. That gets the goat of the MPP's Fox.

"Considering that occasionally using marijuana is not going to affect your ability to be a productive member of society and that it has a low addiction potential, marijuana consumers are being kind of discriminated against," he said. "People who, for ideological reasons, would rather drug test everyone than pay for the welfare of a few people, especially when it's marijuana, why, that's just patently ridiculous."

Republican legislators may have thought they had a no-brainer of an issue with mandating drug tests for public benefits recipients, but for the reasons mentioned above, the going has been tougher than they expected. That doesn't mean no more such bills are going to make it through the legislative process -- one is very close in Tennessee -- but it doesn't suggest that pandering to stereotypes and prejudice isn't as easy a sell as they thought.

Legislators in some states have also responded by more narrowly crafting drug testing bills in hopes of passing constitutional muster. A Utah bill now signed into law requires drug tests for welfare recipients upon suspicion, and more such bills are in the pipeline, although they face the same ticking clocks as the more broadly drawn drug testing bills.

While the Republican offensive has been blunted, the battle is not over.

"I remain concerned that more states will pass stupid drug testing legislation, but still optimistic the courts will strike them down. They're trying to make them suspicion-based and less random, but even that may or may not pass court scrutiny," said Piper.

"This recession can't end quickly enough," he sighed. "When the economy is bad, they need to find scapegoats. Still, this isn't passing in most states, and to get bills passed, it may be that they have to water them down to the point where they're just not that effective."

Oakland 4/20: "Obama, You're Alienating Your Base" [FEATURE]

4/20 is supposed to be a day of cannabis celebration, but in Oakland last Friday it was a day of protest and demonstration. Angered by the ongoing federal crackdown on medical marijuana distribution and shocked and infuriated by the April 2 raids on Oaksterdam University and associated businesses, protestors gathered outside the federal building in downtown Oakland to denounce the administration before marching to President Obama's Northern California campaign headquarters to deliver a letter demanding the administration cease and desist.

Delivering a message to the Obama campaign: Back off!
"Terrorist Haag Wanted for War Crimes Against Humanity," read one hand-made sign, an expression of the widespread anger against the US Attorney for Northern California, who has targeted Northern California dispensaries as part of the ongoing federal offensive against medical marijuana distribution.

Printed green, white, and red "Cannabis medicine, let states regulate" sign waved among the crowd, as chants of "Obama, keep your promise!" and "Stop the lies, legalize!" echoed through the courtyard of the towering federal building.

But it's not just marijuana advocates who are angry. "What happened here two weeks ago with the raid of Oaksterdam was an attack on our local and our members," said Matt Witemyre, special project union representative for UFCW Local 5, which represents Northern California dispensary workers. "We're here to register our displeasure with the administration's actions and we're stopping by campaign headquarters to let them know we do not support these policies. We're here in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. They had good jobs and good benefits, and in the midst of the worst economic crisis in the country in decades, the administration is destroying these jobs. It makes no sense," he fumed.

Richard Lee addressing an admiring and supportive crowd.
"We're behind you 100%," said Bob Swanson, representing Oakland Supervisor Nate Miley. "We ask that President Obama back off and rein his people in. Marijuana is medicine; let the people have it. Leave Richard Lee alone -- he's a good man and had done wonders for Oakland."

Lee himself made an appearance. "This was supposed to be a day of celebration, but it's a day of protest," he said to loud cheers and cries of support.

There was also support from the other side of San Francisco Bay, with representatives of San Francisco United, a medical marijuana coalition opposing the federal attacks, standing in solidarity with their brethren in the East Bay.

"We are outraged and disgusted with what happened here two weeks ago," said SF United's Stephanie Tucker, referring to the Oaksterdam raids. "We won't be treated this way. Obama, you are alienating your voter base. Rein in the Department of Justice and the US Attorneys. They are going after a peaceful and well-regulated community," she said to more cheers.

The president isn't winning friends in Oakland...
"We're here to protest the outrageous use of federal resources and what our federal government has done, raiding Oaksterdam and many other well-respected and -loved cannabis establishments here in California," said California NORML executive director Dale Gieringer. "This is not the kind of change we were expecting from the Obama administration."

Friday was also Gieringer's birthday, and the crowd gave the veteran activist a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday to You" to mark the occasion.

"They said they wouldn't waste Justice Department resources on medical marijuana, but we've seen DEA raids all up and down the state, we've seen Treasury attacking the banks, we've seen the IRS going after dispensaries, we've seen BATF saying that medical marijuana patients don't have the right to bear arms, we've seen the Justice Department deny that marijuana has any medical value," Gieringer continued.

"They've turned down a rescheduling petition after nine years of delay and ignored hundreds of studies to the contrary. This administration was supposed to respect science, but it's turned its back on it. This makes no sense at all, and we're going to deliver a message to the Obama administration," he said before leading the chanting, banner-waving crowd on the short march to Obama campaign headquarters.

Passing cars honked in support as the crowd gathered in front of Obama headquarters. Richard Lee's replacement as head of Oaksterdam, Dale Sky Jones, and UFCW representative Dan Rush hand-delivered a letter to campaign staffers demanding the administration cease and desist.

...and neither is US Attorney Melinda Haag.
"What advantages do we derive from continuing this failed policy of prohibition?" asked Jones. "They're committing robbery with a badge, empowering terrorists and cartels, and denying a proven medicine to patients in the guise of keeping it from our kids. We ended the first failed Prohibition. We can do it again, President Obama. We must repeal prohibition," she insisted.

After handing over the letter at the doorway to the campaign headquarters, the crowd lingered to chant and wave signs, making sure the campaign noticed their presence.

"The local staff has heard our cries, and they support us," said Jones. "They will take the letter we've written and deliver it straight to him."

The Obama campaign has gotten the letter, but has it gotten the message? Time will tell, but the demonstrators in Oakland Friday put the campaign on notice that the administration is losing friends in California with its attacks on medical marijuana.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Oakland, CA
United States

Obama's 2012 Drug Strategy: The Same Old Same Old [FEATURE]

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, and while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

Drug war spending continues to exceed treatment and prevention spending (ONDCP)
"We will continue to pursue a balanced approach… in a national effort to improve public health and safety," wrote Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) head Gil Kerlikowske in the introduction to the strategy. "We will work to prevent illicit drug use and addiction before their onset and bring more Americans in need of treatment into contact with the appropriate level of care. We will continue to build on the administration’s progress in reforming the justice system, ensuring that laws are applied fairly and effectively -- protecting public safety while also ensuring that drug-involved offenders have the opportunity to end their drug use and rebuild their lives."

But that's only one half of the administration's approach. The other half, as Kerlikowske makes clear, it continued adherence to classic war on drugs strategies.

"We will continue to counter drug produc­tion and trafficking within the United States and will implement new strategies to secure our borders against illicit drug flows," the drug czar wrote. "And we will work with international partners to reduce drug production and trafficking and strengthen rule of law, democratic institutions, citizen security, and respect for human rights around the world."

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug control under the proposed budget, nearly half a billion dollars more than this year. And despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years. In fact, the 58.8% of the proposed budget that would go to drug war programs is exactly the same percentage as George Bush's 2008 budget and even higher than the 56.8% in Bush's 2005 budget.

ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske
In the 2013 drug budget, treatment and early intervention programs would be funded at $9.2 billion, an increase of more than $400 billion over this year, but most of that increase is for treatment covered under the Medicaid and Medicare programs. Grant programs under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), including Access to Recovery, early screening and referral, and drug courts are all reduced under the 2013 budget, although drug courts would see an increase in funding under the Department of Justice's Problem Solving Justice Program.

One area where treatment funding is unequivocally increased is among the prison population. Federal Bureau of Prisons treatment spending would jump to $109 million, up 17% over this year, while the Residential Substance Abuse Treatment Program for state prisoners would be funded at $21 million, up nearly 50% over this year.

The drug strategy's rhetorical emphasis on prevention is not reflected in the 2013 budget, which calls for a 1% decrease in funding. SAMHSA prevention grants and Drug Free Communities funding would decrease slightly, while the administration seeks $20 million to restart the much maligned and congressionally zeroed-out Youth Drug Prevention Media Campaign.

On the drug war side of the ledger, domestic anti-drug law enforcement spending would increase by more than $61 million to $9.4 billion, with the DEA's Diversion Control Program (prescription drugs) and paying for federal drug war prisoners showing the biggest increases. The administration anticipates shelling out more than $4.5 billion to imprison drug offenders.

But domestic law enforcement is only part of the drug war picture. The budget also allocates $3.7 billion for interdiction, a 2.5% increase over the 2012 budget, and another $2 billion for international anti-drug program, including assistance to the governments of Central America, Colombia, Mexico, and Afghanistan.

Critics of the continued reliance on prohibition and repression were quick to attack the new drug strategy and budget as just more of the same.

"The president sure does talk a good game about treating drugs as a health issue but so far it's just that: talk," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a former narcotics officer in Baltimore. "Instead of continuing to fund the same old 'drug war' approaches that are proven not to work, the president needs to put his money where his mouth is."

"This budget is appalling. The drug czar is trying to resurrect those stupid TV ads, like the one where a teenager gets his fist stuck in his mouth," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "The budget intentionally undercounts the federal government's expenditures on incarcerating drug offenders, who comprise more than half of the federal prison population. And the budget dangerously proposes a massive escalation in using the military to fight drugs domestically. Congress should just ignore this budget and start from scratch. Specifically, Congress should not provide the Obama administration with any money to go after nonviolent marijuana users, growers, or distributors."

In the 2013 drug strategy, the administration is highlighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing attacking the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

For Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, the 2012 drug strategy was all too familiar.

"This strategy is nearly identical to previous national drug strategies," he said. "While the rhetoric is new -- reflecting the fact that three-quarters of Americans consider the drug war a failure -- the substance of the actual policies is the same. In reality, the administration is prioritizing low-level drug arrests, trampling on state medical marijuana laws, and expanding supply-side interdiction approaches -- while not doing enough to actually reduce the harms of drug addiction and misuse, such as the escalating overdose epidemic."

The release of the drug budget comes just days after President Obama returned from the Summit of the Americas meeting, where he was pressed to open up a debate on legalizing and regulating drugs by sitting Latin American presidents like Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala. And it comes as marijuana legalization is at the cusp of majority support and trending upward.

It is past time to keep making minor adjustments -- a slight funding increase here, a decrease there, a shift of emphasis over there -- in what is fundamentally a flawed and failed policy, said LEAP's Franklin.

"The chorus of voices calling for a real debate on ending prohibition is growing louder all the time," said Franklin. "President Obama keeps saying he is open to a discussion but he never seems willing to actually have that discussion. The time for real change is now. This prohibition strategy hasn't worked in the past and it cannot work in the future. Latin American leaders know it, and President Obama must know it. Let's stop the charade and begin to bring drugs under control through legalization."

Washington, DC
United States

Obama Releases 2012 National Drug Control Strategy

The Obama administration released its 2012 National Drug Control Strategy and accompanying 2013 drug budget Tuesday, but while the administration touted it as a "drug policy for the 21st Century," it is very much of a piece with anti-drug policies going back to the days of Richard Nixon.

The federal government will spend more than $25 billion on drug law enforcement under the proposed budget, and despite the administration's talk about emphasizing prevention and treatment over war on drugs spending, it retains the same roughly 60:40 ratio of law enforcement and interdiction spending over treatment and prevention training that has obtained in federal drug budgets going back years.

The administration is high-lighting a renewed emphasis on drugged driving and is encouraging states to pass "zero tolerance" drugged driving laws. It is also emphasizing the massive increase in non-prescription use of opioid pain pills.

While the strategy calls for lesser reliance on imprisonment for drug offenders, it also calls for increased "community corrections" surveillance of them, including calling for expanded drug testing with "swift and certain" sanctions for positive tests. But drug testing isn't just for parolees and probationers; the drug strategy calls for expanded drug testing in the workplace, as well.

The drug strategy acknowledges the calls for recognition of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but only to dismiss them.

"While the Administration supports ongoing research into determining what components of the marijuana plant can be used as medicine, to date, neither the FDA nor the Institute of Medicine has found the marijuana plant itself to meet the modern standard for safe or effective medicine for any condition," the strategy said. "The Administration also recognizes that legalizing marijuana would not provide the answer to any of the health, social, youth education, criminal justice, and community quality of life challenges associated with drug use."

This year's drug strategy looks like last year's drug strategy, which looked like Bush administration drug strategies, which looked like Clinton administration drug strategies. When it comes to the federal drug war, it's more of the same old same old.

Look for an expanded version of this news brief Thursday afternoon, with deeper analysis and commentary from drug war observers.

Washington, DC
United States

Most of North Carolina Grand Jury's Cases Are Drugs

A Pitt County (Greenville), North Carolina, grand jury offered up a batch of indictments on April 9 that suggest that the war on drugs is generating most of the criminal justice system activity in the county. This snapshot offers a revealing glance at just what law enforcement and prosecutors are spending their resources on, at least with this grand jury.

City Hall, Greenville (wikimedia.org)
Grand juries are empanelled by local prosecutors to bring charges when prosecutors believe they have evidence a person can be charged with a crime. Grand jury indictments are a strong indicator of law enforcement and prosecutorial priorities.

Overall, the April grand jury indicted 37 people felony charges. Only two were for violent offenses, both of which were assaults with a deadly weapon. Another two people were indicted for child sex offenses.

One person was indicted for possession of a stolen firearm and carrying a concealed weapon, one for obstruction of justice, one for breaking and entering, and four more for various theft offenses (obtaining property under false pretenses, larceny by an employee, larceny of a merchant, financial card theft).

Overall, 15 people were indicted on non-drug offenses. But 22 were indicted in cases where drugs were the leading charge, and eight of them were indicted for possession of marijuana with the intent to sell and deliver. That's 22% of all the indictments, or nearly one-quarter of the grand jury's business.

Another four people were charged with possession of cocaine with intent to sell and deliver, three people were charged with trafficking heroin/opium, three with trafficking a Schedule II controlled substance (pain pills), two with conspiracy to traffic cocaine, one with possession of cocaine, and one with attempting to obtain a controlled substance by fraud.

Drug possession or sales cases thus accounted for a whopping 60% of all indictments by the April 9 grand jury. If drug possession and sales were not criminal offenses, police and prosecutors could use those resources elsewhere, or elected officials could decide that police and prosecutors don't need as many resources and reallocate those taxpayer dollars to more fruitful ventures. Or they could lower taxes.

Greenville, NC
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Monday's federal raid on Oaksterdam University in Oakland has ignited a firestorm of criticism of heavy-handed federal efforts to clamp down on medical marijuana distribution. Meanwhile, battles continue to be fought from Washington, DC, to local city halls.

National

On Monday, lawmakers from five states urged the Obama administration to back off from its policy of interference in state medical marijuana programs. The lawmakers are Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-CA), Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-WA), Rep. Antonio Maestas (D-NM), Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-NM), Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-CA), Rep. Deborah Sanderson (R-ME) and Sen. Pat Steadman (D-CO). They called on President Obama to live up to his campaign promise to leave the regulation of medical marijuana to the states, adding raids would only "force patients underground" into the illegal drug market. "Please respect our state laws," the lawmakers wrote. "And don't use our employees as pawns in your zealous and misguided war on medical marijuana."

On Tuesday, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson criticized the Oaksterdam raids, saying the Obama administration needs to "find better things to do with our tax dollars than raiding Richard Lee's home in selective enforcement of a bad law." Johnson, who governed as a Republican, is seeking the Libertarian Party presidential nomination this year.

On Wednesday, six national drug policy groups called on the Obama administration to end its assault on medical marijuana providers. They were the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Marijuana Policy Project, the National Cannabis Industry Association, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "You have turned your back as career law enforcement officials have run roughshod over some of the most professional and well-regulated medical marijuana providers," the groups said in a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. "We simply cannot understand why you have reneged on your administration's earlier policy of respecting state medical marijuana laws… "We hope that you will immediately reconsider your drug control strategy and will work with, not against, states and organizations that are attempting to shift control of marijuana cultivation and sales, at least as it applies to medical marijuana, to a controlled and regulated market."

California

Last Monday, three San Francisco supervisors expressed concerns about the city Health Department's stance on medical marijuana. Supervisors David Campos, Scott Wiener, and Christina Olague signed on to a letter to the department questioning "some recent media statements" from the department, especially regarding its decision -- since rescinded -- to ban edible medical marijuana products.

Last Thursday, collective members in Murrieta said they were being targeted by police. The conservative Riverside County town is in an ongoing fight with the Green House Cannabis Collective, and collective members told Fox LA that police were pulling them over on pretexts to search their vehicles. One patient and volunteer showed Fox LA a GPS tracking device he found attached to his vehicle after being pulled over by police. The property owner of the collective said he was being fined $109,000, but that city officials offered to drop the fine if he would evict the collective. City officials had no comment, but one told the station off-camera that they don't want marijuana businesses in their city. Period.

Also last Thursday, an Arcata woman sued the city and the police over a raid at her home. Barbara Sage, 64, alleges that officers had an unlawful search warrant and used excessive force in investigating marijuana cultivation at the residence she shared with her husband. She argues that police didn't have sufficient probable cause for the search because they failed to present any evidence that the Sages' suspected marijuana cultivation fell outside the bounds of state and local medical marijuana laws and regulations. The Sages had grown medical marijuana in compliance with state law and local regulations, but were not growing any when police arrived. Aside from the probable cause issue, Sage argues that police violated the "knock-notice" rule, which requires them to announce their presence and that they are serving a warrant when entering someone's home, and that Hoffman failed to include a statement of expertise and qualifications to support the warrant. She also claims officers used unnecessary force when they came into her home with guns drawn, allegedly pulled her sick husband from bed -- tearing oxygen tubes from his nose -- and put him on the ground in handcuffs. "This rough treatment affected his mood drastically, and he went into a state of depression after the search that hastened his death," the suit claims.

Last Friday, an appeals court ruled that a dispensary does not owe the city of Dana Point $2.4 million. The city had shut down the Beach Cities Collective in January 2011, alleging violations of building codes and state law, and the two sides have been embroiled in lawsuits ever since. The city won the $2.4 million summary judgment from an Orange County Superior Court judge, but the 4th District Court of Appeals threw out the judgment, finding that it was improper because the facts in the case are still in dispute. The city has spent $400,000 trying similar tactics against two other dispensaries. Once there were six dispensaries in Dana Point; now, there are none.

Also last Friday, Vallejo police raided the same dispensary for the second time in a month. Police hit the Better Health Group and arrested owner Jorge Espinoza, 25, and three workers on suspicion of selling marijuana. That makes the fourth dispensary raid in the city since February 21. Better Health was raided the first time on February 29. The city has passed a measure to tax dispensaries, but its police continue to raid them anyway.

Also last Friday, medical marijuana regulation initiatives were announced in five cities in the San Diego area. The cities are Encinitas, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Lemon Grove and La Mesa. The proposed ballot measures largely mirror one planned for the city of San Diego. All are being coordinated by Citizens for Patient Rights in connection with the Patient Care Association, a trade organization of and for nonprofit dispensaries. None of the five cities currently allow medical marijuana dispensaries. A judge last year ordered the lone collective in Del Mar closed. A separate group of medical marijuana supporters has launched a citizen-initiated petition to reverse a dispensary ban in Imperial Beach.

On Saturday, San Francisco's HopeNet Cooperative stayed open in defiance of federal threats. US Attorney Melinda Haag had warned the dispensary's landlords it had to close by last Friday or the property could be seized and the owners imprisoned. Similar letters from Haag have led five other San Francisco dispensaries to shut down since October 7. The letters warn of 40-year prison terms and asset forfeitures if the "marijuana distribution" is not stopped.

On Monday, DEA and other federal agents raided Oaksterdam University, associated businesses, and the home of Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee. Lee was briefly detained, but later released without charges. DEA and IRS agents accompanied by US marshals seized seedlings, computers, and records, effectively shutting down the school, although it has vowed to reopen. Oakland police had to provide crowd control for the feds as angry emergency response protestors spilled onto Broadway.

On Tuesday, hundreds of medical marijuana supporters rallied in San Francisco. Although the rally had been planned in advance of Monday's Oaksterdam raids, the federal assault on the movement icon energized and outraged attendees, who marched from city hall to the federal building to tell US Attorney Melinda Haag to knock it off. The rally drew support from city supervisors, state legislators, and state officials.

Also on Tuesday, a Los Angeles judge denied a business license for a medical marijuana testing lab. Golden State Collective Cannabis Laboratories had sought the license, but was denied by city officials. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge upheld the city's decision.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles NORML director Bruce Margolin announced he is running for Congress. He is challenging veteran Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman in the newly created 33rd District. He emphasized ending the failed war on drugs in his announcement.

Also on Wednesday, a Butte County judge denied a motion to suppress the evidence in a medical marijuana case that is fueling outrage over the seizure of children from their parents. Daisy Jean Bram and Jayme Jeff Walsh are charged with marijuana cultivation and sales as well as child abuse charges -- apparently for nothing more than having children in a home where marijuana was being grown. Earlier, a judge had thrown out the child abuse charges, saying there wasn't sufficient evidence for them, but Butte County prosecutors refilled them. The children have since been returned to Bram's care.

Arizona

On Tuesday, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed a bill barring medical marijuana on college campuses. The law prohibits the possession or use of medical marijuana at public universities, community colleges, and child-care facilities. The bill was the brainchild of Rep. Amanda Reeve (R-Phoenix) and was supported by prosecutors. Medical marijuana advocates foresee a legal challenge on state constitutional grounds.

Colorado

On Tuesday, the state announced it is cutting its medical marijuana regulatory staff because the state isn't collecting enough revenues from licensing fees to pay for them. The Department of Revenue said it would lay off 20 of 37 staffers at the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. The department blamed the shortfall on a state moratorium on medical marijuana licenses, which is set to end this summer.

Maine

Last Wednesday, Portland saw its first dispensary open for business. The dispensary will eventually serve about 100 patients. It is the second Wellness Connection of Maine dispensary to open in the state.

Michigan

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved four medical marijuana bills that compromise patients' rights. The Marijuana Policy Project says it will absolutely oppose one and will oppose two more if not amended. Click the link above for details on the bills.

Montana

On Tuesday, four medical marijuana providers suing the federal government were arrested on federal drug charges. The attorney representing the four in their civil lawsuit over last year's raids on medical marijuana businesses across the state said they were indicted on Tuesday and last Thursday. The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the searches of more than 26 homes, businesses and warehouses is before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Their claim was rejected by a district judge in January.

Ohio

Last Wednesday, the Ohio Medical Cannabis Amendment campaign held a press conference to kick start its signature-gathering effort. They have until July 4 to turn in 385,000 valid voter signatures in order to make the November ballot.

Washington, DC

Last Friday, DC officials selected six growers for the city's medical marijuana program. Later this summer, the city will select up to eight dispensary operators. By then, the chosen growers should have a crop to provide to the dispensaries, and the law approved by voters in 1998, but blocked by Congress until 2009 will finally be in effect.

Also on Friday, the weGrow medical marijuana superstore opened on Rhode Island Avenue NE. The supplier of lights, hydroponic equipment and other growers' goods advertises itself as "the one-stop-shop for the products and services one would need to grow plants indoors -- from tomatoes to medical marijuana."

Feds Raid Oaksterdam University

Federal agents raided Oaksterdam University and associated businesses in downtown Oakland Monday morning shortly before 8:00am local time. The entire building was surrounded by yellow crime scene tape, and an hour later, agents were spotted carrying trash bags filled with unknown materials to a waiting van.

Also hit in the early morning raids were the nearby Oaksterdam Museum, the Oaksterdam gift shop, and the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. None of those businesses actually distribute medical marijuana.

The Bay Citizen reported that Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee had been detained at his home and that four university plant tenders had been arrested. The Bay Citizen also reported that the former location of Lee's Blue Sky dispensary had been raided.

Oaksterdam University is the beating heart of the Oakland cannabis revival, which has helped revitalize the city's downtown core. Founded in 2007, it was the first institution in the country devoted to providing instruction in medical marijuana cultivation.

Owned and operated by Richard Lee, who put his personal fortune into getting 2010's Proposition 19 to legalize marijuana on the ballot, the university has trained thousands of people in how to grow their own medicine and other aspects of medical marijuana business. It has also served as an organizing center for the Bay area medical marijuana movement.

Medical marijuana defense groups, such as Americans for Safe Access, were mobilizing their members Monday morning and calling for supporters to head to the scene. They did so in large and angry numbers, shouting obscenities and imprecations at the federal agents. Oakland police were called in for crowd control after protestors spilled onto Broadway. Two people were arrested during the protest.

Federal officials were tight-lipped, with IRS spokeswoman Arlette Lee saying little more than that the raids were part of "an ongoing investigation."

Federal officials have been cracking down on California dispensaries for the past year, breaking with an earlier Obama administration stance that it would not bother operations that were in compliance with state law.

While in some cases, the federal crackdown has been assisted, or even instigated by, local officials, that is not the case in cannabis-friendly Oakland. The city has worked closely with medical marijuana providers and derives substantial tax revenues from them. It recently announced plans to double the number of dispensaries in the city from four to eight.

A previously scheduled press conference and protest march in San Francisco set for Tuesday should be even more energized after Monday's raids directed at what many see as the heart of the California medical marijuana scene.

Stay tuned.

Oakland , CA
United States

Fight Is On to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor in California [FEATURE]

At the end of February, state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) introduced a bill that would make drug possession for personal use a misdemeanor in California. If the bill passes, California would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia that have taken the cost-saving and rehabilitation-aiding step of not making felons out of mere drug users.

California needs to reduce prison and jail overcrowding (US Supreme Court)
The measure, Senate Bill 1506, would make the possession of any controlled substance -- except up to an ounce of marijuana, which is already decriminalized -- a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail. Under current law, possession of controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine, is a felony punishable by either up to 16 months in county jail or two to three years in state prison.

A felony conviction doesn't just mean jail or prison time. It becomes a permanent barrier to reentry into society, making access to education, employment, and housing more difficult, as well as barring people with such convictions from obtaining professional licenses and subjecting them to various other obstacles.

The bill is backed by an array of drug policy, civil liberties, and human rights groups, including early supporters the American Civil Liberties Union, the California State NAACP, the Drug Policy Alliance, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.

Budget-conscious California voters have shown an interest in drug sentencing reform in the past. In 2000, they passed Proposition 36 to divert drug offenders from prison to treatment by a margin of 61%. Since then, the state's economic situation has only gotten worse, and pressure to do something about its gargantuan $9.3 billion corrections budget is on the rise.

A Lake Research Partners poll released last April found that 72% of respondents favored changing drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, with 40% saying small-time drug possession for person use should be considered an infraction, with no jail time. Strong support for such a reform cuts across party lines, with support among Democrats at 79%, among independents at 72%, and among Republicans at 66%.

"Over the years we have learned that long prison sentences do little to deter or limit personal drug use," said Sen. Leno. "In fact, time behind bars and felony records often have horrible consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave. This legislation will help implement public safety realignment and protect our communities by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenders," he said.

"This bill merely revises the charge from a felony to a misdemeanor," Leno told the Chronicle Tuesday. "It will save the counties about $160 million a year, according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, and the state another $65 million. Thirteen states have already done this, and they have higher rates of treatment and lower rates of drug use and property and violent crime."

"The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure we can no longer afford," said Allen Hopper, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director at the ACLU of California. "California voters agree the punishment should fit the crime, and a felony for simple possession is ridiculous. Those who are addicted to drugs need treatment, not a jail cell and a felony conviction with severe and life-long consequences, like reduced access to job opportunities, student loans, and small business loans."

Drug possession would be a misdemeanor in California rather than a felony if SB 1506 passes (wikimedia.org)
"The goal is to make the penalty closer to what people think it should be," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy analyst for criminal justice and drug policy at the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. "People think a felony charge is too harsh, and there is pretty universal support for treating drug use more as a health issue and prioritizing law enforcement resources for people convicted of serious offenses," she told the Chronicle.

The push for the bill is picking up steam, Dooley-Sammuli said.

"We have quite a broad coalition, and the list of groups coming out in support is long and getting longer by the day," she said. "We have faith, treatment, and housing groups; we have job placement organizations; we have family members and other folks who realize the this penalty is just too harsh. We've just added two more: California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a defense attorneys' group, and the William Velasquez Institute, a group that will bring Latino communities into the process of helping to shape policies that impact them."

While an impressive coalition is budding to support the bill, and while polls suggest strong public support for such a measure, not everybody is on board, particularly law enforcement. 

"We're opposed to this bill for a variety of reasons," said John Lovell, a Sacramento attorney who is a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association. "We don't think it's appropriate to reduce these offenses to misdemeanors because of severe unintended consequences. No one in California is being incarcerated for a first or second drug possession offense; instead, they are sent to a Proposition 36 drug treatment program," Lovell told the Chronicle.

"We believe this will create a disincentive for people to participate in a Prop 36 treatment program, and that is not a good thing," the lobbyist continued. "To the extent we can have a successful treatment result, that is one less person in a cycle of drug addiction."

"Oh, please!" exclaimed Dooley-Sammuli. "Lovell said the same kinds of things when Prop 36 passed. They were saying the sky would fall, that nobody would be in treatment and there would be crime in the streets, but the crime rate continues to go down."

Given the current fiscal constraints on the state criminal justice system, the "real world" result of downgrading drug possession to a misdemeanor would be that drug offenders essentially walk free, Lovell said.

"Say a person is convicted of meth possession," he said. "He is told he has a choice of Prop 36 treatment or going to the county jail, but the jails are all filled to capacity, and nobody does any time for a misdemeanor offense. An attorney representing such as person is ethically bound to say 'If you refuse treatment, there is no real sanction at all,'" Lovell maintained. "These will be misdemeanants, not felons, not under supervision and not breaking the cycle of addiction, which means the crimes they commit to purchase their dope will continue," he said. "It's not like you get a scholarship to pay for the cost of your meth."

But the bill provides for up to three years probation -- five years in some cases -- and would allow judges to order drug treatment as a condition for probation.

Saying that the state will benefit from saving money on not prosecuting drug users as felons is "a hackneyed argument," Lovell said. "If you say it will save money because these people aren't being supervised, yes, it will save that money, but if they're not being supervised they're more likely to go out and commit the economic crimes addicts commit. It's not so much a savings as a cost shift," he argued.

"We do not see this bill as yielding any positive public policy results," Lovell summed up.

"None of California's existing programs to make treatment available will be affected by this," countered Dooley-Sammuli, "and counties will have the freedom to use these dollars more wisely to make treatment more available. Compared to five years ago, treatment dollars have absolutely been gutted, and we're really working to identify ways to preserve funding so we can protect treatment. It's really disingenuous for our opponents to talk about this getting in the way of access to treatment. If Jerry Lovell is worried about access to treatment, we call on him to support this bill."

Leno responded more tersely to Lovell's arguments. "He's a dogmatic extremist. If you think drug use is a bad thing, the states that have actually lowered drug use are not felony states," the San Francisco Democrat said. "By making these offenses misdemeanors, we can remove barriers to housing, education, and employment -- the very things a felony conviction makes it more difficult to obtain, those unintended consequences of a felony conviction."

Now, it's up to the measure's supporters to get it moving. The bill will be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee next month. For it to pass this year, it has to get out of committee, win approval in the Senate, and then go through the same process in the Assembly. And it has to happen by August, when the session ends.

"It's a very tight time-frame," said Dooley-Sammuli. "We're still educating people about this bill, but this is a serious effort, and we believe we can get that support with the right coalition partners and more education. Sen. Leno doesn't introduce bills just to make a statement, but because he thinks they have a political chance."

"We're looking for support anywhere and everywhere," Leno said. "We are talking to law enforcement agencies to educate them that there is no data showing that felony convictions reduce drug use."

There's clearly some work to be done on that score. But more important is getting actual legislators to vote for the bill.

"I believe there will be significant, and hopefully sufficient, Democratic support for the bill," said Leno, "and I'm also hoping Republican colleagues will see we can't waste the money and must invest in evidence-based programming."

California has the chance to pass a smart, cost-effective, and humane drug sentencing reform bill, but the clock is ticking.

The other states that treat drug possession as a misdemeanor are Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, as well as the District of Columbia.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Battle for Restored Needle Exchange Funding Heats Up [FEATURE]

After 20 years of walking in the political wilderness, public health and harm reduction advocates for federal funding for needle exchange programs made it to the Promised Land in December 2009, when the Democratic-controlled Congress overturned the longstanding funding ban. But just two years later, led by the Republican-controlled House and with the acquiescence of the Democratic-controlled Senate, Congress reinstated the ban in its 2012 federal omnibus spending bill.

Needle exchange advocates arrested on Capitol Hill Wednesday (Stephanie Simpson, Housing Works)
Advocates were outraged and dismayed by the congressional action, but are determined to fight back to restore funding for a harm reduction practice repeatedly proven to save lives and reduce the spread of infectious blood-borne diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C. This week, they came out swinging with a national day of action Wednesday that saw organized call-ins to members of Congress and civil disobedience actions leading to dozens of arrests at the offices of four of them, as well as actions in a dozen others cities across the county.

Although the funding ban's main proponents are Republicans, repealing the ban is actually the states' rights, deregulation position. Each year the federal government authorizes funding for grants to states to be used for AIDS prevention and treatment. When the ban was temporarily lifted, it neither increased nor decreased the amount of AIDS funding, but it meant that states could choose for themselves whether or not to use some of those funds to support needle exchange programs.

The activists have science and the evidence on their side. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Medical Association, National Academy of Sciences, American Public Health Association, and numerous other scientific bodies have found that syringe exchange programs are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Eight federal reports have found that increasing access to sterile syringes saves lives without increasing drug use.

More than 200 needle exchange programs operate across the country in cooperation with local law enforcement officials and health departments, but many are in danger of closing their doors or cutting back services without access to federal funds. That puts lives and the public health at risk.

Needle exchange supporters said the restored the ban will result in thousands of Americans contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C or other infectious diseases next year alone. According to the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), needle sharing by injection drug users accounts for 8,000 new cases of HIV and 15,000 new cases of hepatitis C each year. In New York City, there has been a 75% reduction in new HIV cases as a result of instituting such programs, according to a 2005 study cited by HRC.

"We need Congress to stand behind public health and science, and declare a cease-fire on syringe exchange," said HRC executive director Allan Clear. "All of the research tells the same story: Syringe exchange prevents infections, promotes drug treatment, and reduces drug use. Congress must stop treating syringe exchange as an ideological pawn in partisan politics."

"The federal syringe funding ban was costly in both human and fiscal terms -- it is outrageous that Congress has restored it given how overwhelming and clear the science is in support of making sterile syringes widely available," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Make no mistake about it -- members of Congress who supported this ban have put the lives of their constituents in jeopardy."

Cherry blossoms bloom in DC as arrestee is detained (Stephanie Simpson, Housing Works)
The renewed ban on federal funding for needle exchanges couldn't come at a more inopportune time. With a wave of drug users who began their careers with opioid pain pills finding succor in the needle, making access to clean needles more difficult is likely to make matters worse.

"We need to support syringe exchange programs now more than ever," said HRC policy director Daniel Raymond. "Health officials in many states report a disturbing new trend of hepatitis C outbreaks in young people, driven by a new wave of injection drug use linked to the prescription painkiller epidemic. We're in danger of starving programs of federal funds, just when the demand for syringe exchange is increasing."

In Washington, while a coordinated campaign of phone calling kept the congressional switchboard humming, dozens of AIDS and harm reduction activists went to Capitol Hill and held sit-ins at the offices of four House Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-MT), Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Eric Cantor (R-VA) for their role in reinstating the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange programs last December.

Carrying signs reading "Syringe Exchange: A Fix for AIDS," the activists chanted and blocked doorways before being arrested by Capitol Police. They were expected to be booked and released later Wednesday.

At least 32 people were arrested at Congress, according to Housing Works, a New York City-based group that provides services for AIDS sufferers. Housing Works participated in the action as part of the We Can End AIDS Coalition, an umbrella group coordinating a July 24 mass protest in Washington around economic justice and human rights for AIDS patients.

"Our government should be embarrassed as this year's host of the International AIDS Conference to have sneaked this into an unrelated bill under the cloak of night last December," said Housing Works CEO Charles King. "The US cannot be any shining example to the rest of the world on how to end the AIDS epidemic when we’re still fighting foolish policies that reject what we know works."

Wednesday's action was only an opening skirmish in what will be a determined battle to restore the federal funds. The AIDS, public health, and harm reduction communities are not going to just roll over and play dead while Congress makes decisions that will result in real people becoming really dead.

"We refuse to let the close-mindedness of anti-science conservatives dictate public health policy," said Clear. "We can't afford these political games, and we can't afford any more new infections. Our communities are struggling; Congress needs to listen and show leadership by rescinding the funding ban."

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