With a final vote by the state Senate Friday, the Illinois legislature has finally approved a medical marijuana bill. It only took ten years.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]If Gov. Patrick Quinn (D) signs it into law, Illinois will become either the 19th or the 20th medical marijuana state, depending on whether similar legislation in New Hampshire gets approved first. Quinn has signaled that he approves of medical marijuana, but has made no definitive statement about whether he would sign or veto the bill, so Illinois activists and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) are calling on supporters to keep up the pressure. On Sunday, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said she supported the bill.
If the bill is signed into law by the governor, Illinois will become the first state in the Midwest to approve medical marijuana through the legislative process. Michigan approved it in 2008, but that was via a voter initiative.
The bill, House Bill 1, would allow patients with qualifying medical conditions and a doctor's recommendation to use marijuana and purchase it through a network of up to 60 state-regulated dispensaries. The state will also allow up to 22 growers to supply the dispensaries. There are no provisions for patient or caregiver home cultivation.
"We applaud the Illinois legislature for taking action and adopting this widely supported and much-needed legislation," said Dan Riffle, MPP deputy director of government relations. "The final product is a comprehensive and tightly controlled system that will allow individuals with serious illnesses to safely and legally access medical marijuana with their doctors' supervision."
The bill was sponsored in the House by Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) and in the Senate by former state’s attorney Sen. William Haine (D-Alton). It designates the Illinois Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, and Department of Financial & Professional Regulation to regulate the cultivation, acquisition, and distribution of marijuana.
"We are hopeful that Gov. Quinn will join legislators and the vast majority of Illinois voters in supporting this proposal," Riffle said. "Marijuana has proven medical benefits, regulating it works, and there is broad public and legislative support for doing it. This is a no-brainer."
Faced with the prospect of having District of Columbia marijuana policy determined directly by voters through the initiative process, at least two members of the DC Council are considering introducing legislation that would decriminalize possession in the nation's capital. The Washington Post reported that Council members Marion Berry (D-Ward 8) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) are formulating a decriminalization bill.
[image:1 align:left]Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) -- who as chairmen of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee would shepherd the legislation -- are formulating a proposal to eliminate criminal penalties for those caught with small amounts of cannabis or subject offenders to fines.
"Absolutely, it's time we look at decriminalization of marijuana in the District of Columbia," said Wells, who is chairman of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and who is running for mayor next year. "It's time we enter the 21st century and stop criminalizing people... for what is not really a major crime."
Wells and Barry aren't the only council members who are thinking decrim. Anita Bonds (D-At Large) said she is also considering drafting a decriminalization bill.
And Council Member David Grosso (I-At Large) said he could get behind decriminalization, but that he wanted to broaden the discussion to include legalization.
"The people on the streets dealing are the nonviolent drug offenders who are going to jail for dealing drugs," said Grosso, who got busted for marijuana possession as a young man in Florida two decades ago. "I think that's a serious problem.”
But council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) may prove an obstacle.
"I don't think it's the right time," said Mendelson, citing congressional opposition that blocked the city from implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana program for more than a decade. "I don't think decriminalization of marijuana will go over easily with Congress."
If the council doesn't act, District marijuana reform activists are ready to step up to the plate. They have already been engaged in discussions about a possible November 2014 initiative and whether it should be a decriminalization measure or go for the fence with a legalization measure.
If activists try to take the issue to the voters, they appear to be well-positioned. A Public Policy Polling survey last month showed three-quarters of DC residents supported decriminalization and nearly two-thirds (63%) supported legalization.
special to Drug War Chronicle by investigative reporter Clarence Walker, email@example.com
Dispensaries providing marijuana to doctor-approved patients operate in a number of states, but they are under assault by the federal government. SWAT-style raids by the DEA and finger-wagging press conferences by grim-faced federal prosecutors may garner greater attention, but the assault on medical marijuana providers extends to other branches of the government as well, and moves by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to eliminate dispensaries' ability to take standard business deduction are another very painful arrow in the federal quiver.
[image:1 align:left]The IRS employs Section 280E, a 1982 addition to the tax code that was a response to a drug dealer's successful effort to claim his yacht, weapons purchases, and even illicit bribes as business expenses. Under 280E, individuals involved in the illicit sale of controlled substances -- including marijuana, even medical marijuana in states where it is legal -- cannot claim standard business expenses on their federal taxes.
"The 280E provision which requires certain businesses to pay taxes on their gross income, as opposed to their net income, is aimed at shutting down illicit drug operations, not state-legal medical marijuana dispensaries," said Kris Hermes, spokesman for the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access." Nonetheless, the Obama Administration is using Section 280E to push these local and state licensed facilities out of business."
The provision can be used to great effect. Oakland's Harborside Health Center was hit with a $2 million IRS assessment in 2011 after the tax agency employed Section 280E against. Harborside is fighting that assessment, even as it continues to try to fend off federal prosecutors' attempts to shut it down by seizing the properties it leases. Similarly, when the feds raided Richard Lee's Oaksterdam University that same year, it wasn't just DEA, but also IRS agents who stormed the premises. Lee said it was because of a 280E-related audit.
The attacks on Harborside and Oaksterdam were part of an IRS campaign of aggressive audits using 280E to deny legitimate business expenses, such as rent, payroll, and all other necessary business expenses. These denials result in astronomical back tax bills for the affected dispensaries, threatening their viability -- and patients' access to their medicine.
"Should the IRS campaign be successful; it will throw millions of patients back in to the hands of street dealers; eliminate tens of thousands of well paying jobs, destroy hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue; enrich the criminal underground; and endanger the safety of communities in the 17 medical cannabis states," said Harborside's Steve DeAngelo as he announced the 280E Reform Project to begin to fight back.
It's going to be an uphill battle. In the last Congress, Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) introduced House Bill 1985, the Small Business Tax Equity Act, designed to end the 280E problem for medical marijuana businesses, but it went to the Republican-controlled House Ways and Means Committee, where it was never heard from again.
Still, something needs to happen, said Betty Aldworth, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, which this year is working with members of Congress to try to find a fix for the 280E problem.
"When Section 280E was created in the 1980s, no one imagined state-legal marijuana providers," Aldworth told the Chronicle. "Whether or not it is part of a larger effort to curtail the development of regulated models for providing marijuana, which is a model that is clearly preferable to leaving this popular and relatively safe medicine (or adult product) in the underground market, these onerous tax rates have severely hampered the development of the regulated market."
It's a brake on the overall economy, Aldworth said.
"Not only has it resulted in stymieing job development, but it also curtails other economic activity such as reinvestment in business and the rippling positive effects of that spending," she argued. "And in many cases, it has created a tax burden that is simply unbearable: many providers have had to close their doors and lay off their staffs because the tax burden was simply too great."
Because of this unintended application of 280E, medical marijuana providers are paying overall taxes at a rate two to three times those of other small businesses, Aldworth said.
"It's important to note that just as they want to apply for licenses, follow regulations, and otherwise participate in the legal business community, state-legal marijuana providers also want to pay their fair share of taxes," she pointed out. "Most small businesses pay an effective tax rate of between 13% and 27% on net income, according to the Small Business Administration. State-legal marijuana providers pay an average effective tax rate of 65-80%. An industry that can provide thousands of jobs is being held back by these crazy tax rates."
While the lobbyists look to Congress for a fix, one academic tax law expert thinks he has hit upon a novel solution, but not everyone agrees.
Benjamin Leff, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law, raised eyebrows at a Harvard University seminar this spring when he presented his report,Tax Planning For Marijuana Dealers, where he suggested that dispensaries get around 280E by registering with the IRS as tax-exempt social welfare organizations, known as 501(c)(3)s or 501(c)(4)s.
The IRS has already ruled that medical marijuana providers can be exempt under 501(c)(3) because its "public policy doctrine" does not allow charitable organizations to have purposes contrary to law, but in the paper, Leff argued that "a state-sanctioned marijuana seller could qualify as tax-exempt under 501(c)(4), since the public policy doctrine only applies to charities, and 501(c)(4) organizations are not charities."
The organization would have to be operated to improve the social and economic conditions of a neighborhood blighted by crime or poverty, by providing job training, employment opportunities, and improved business conditions for commercial development in the neighborhood, just like many existing community economic development corporations that run businesses.
"When taxes get too high, you can drive compliant dispensaries out of business," Leff told the Chronicle.
Americans for Safe Access' Hermes would agree with that, but he's not so sure about Leff's idea.
"The concept of medical marijuana dispensaries registering with the federal government as a 501(c)(4) in order to sidestep section 280E is novel and may be hypothetically valid," he said. "However, the IRS will refuse to grant tax-exempt status to a business that the agency believes is violating federal law. Perhaps, it would be possible for a dispensary to obtain 501(c)(4) status under false pretenses, but such status would not very likely withstand an IRS audit."
There are better ways, he said.
"A much more realistic and sensible approach -- pending a change to the federal classification of marijuana for medical use -- is to amend the tax code to exclude state-lawful medical marijuana businesses from Section 280E," Hermes recommended. "This is the kind of legislation that Congress should pass in order to allow states to implement their own medical marijuana laws, without undue interference by the federal government."
"I agree with everything he said," Leff replied. "But it's not just the Obama administration that is using 280E this way. The Supreme Court has held that there is no exception to the Controlled Substances Act for state-level legal marijuana sales, and since 280E makes references to Schedule I controlled substances, it applies to legal marijuana unless Congress changes the law. I totally agree that Congress should amend 280E to exempt marijuana selling that is legal under state law. Congress could also amend the Controlled Substances Act to remove marijuana from it, which would probably also make sense," he added.
Whether it is by act of Congress, internal policy shifts, or creative thinking by law school professors, some way has to be found to exempt state-permitted medical marijuana providers from the clutches of 280E and its punitive tax burden aimed at dope dealers, or there may not be any medical marijuana providers.
The feds stay on the attack in California, and fallout mounts from last week's state Supreme Court decision allowing local dispensary bans. There's news from other states as well. Let's get to it:
Last Monday, US Attorney Melinda Haag moved to seize a building housing a San Francisco dispensary. Targeted is the Shambala Healing Center, a city-approved dispensary. Under federal pressure, Shambala's landlords earlier sought to evict it, but failed because it complies with state laws. While Haag has moved to seize buildings in Oakland, Berkeley and Marin County because they housed cannabis dispensaries, this is the Justice Department's first forfeiture action against a San Francisco landlord. Shambala was one of eight San Francisco dispensaries whose landlords received asset forfeiture threat letters starting in the fall of 2011.
Last Tuesday, the city of Garden Grove told dispensaries in the city they must shut down. The city sent out a cease-and-desist notice to dispensary operators, warning they must close this week or face $1,000 a day fines. The city had banned dispensaries in 2008, but turned to a registration process in 2011, then stopping registering dispensaries last year as it awaited the state Supreme Court's ruling on whether locales can ban them. After the high court upheld local bans, Police Chief Kevin Raney sent out a letter calling on all of the more than 60 dispensaries within Garden Grove to close no later than Tuesday. Dispensary owners who do not comply could face criminal charges, the letter said, as well as fines or civil lawsuits.
Last Wednesday, US Attorney Melinda Haag defended her use of lawsuits against dispensaries. Lawsuits against landlords of medical marijuana dispensaries and letters threatening the landlords have been reasonable and are supported by educators, addiction specialists, police officers, clergy, parents and others who are "negatively affected by marijuana," Haag said in a statement. "The marijuana industry has caused significant public health and safety problems in rural communities, urban centers and schools in the Northern District of California. Because some believe marijuana has medicinal value, however, we continue to take a measured approach and have only pursued asset forfeiture actions with respect to marijuana retail sales operations very near schools, parks or playgrounds, at the request of local law enforcement, or in one case, because of the sheer size of its distribution operations."
Also last Wednesday, the Berkeley Patients Group vowed to fight Haag's efforts to shut it down. "We intend to vigorously defend the rights of our patients and the citizens of Berkeley to be able to obtain medical cannabis from a responsible, licensed dispensary," said Sean Luse, the chief operating officer of the Berkeley Patients Group. The previous week, Haag filed suit against the dispensary's landlord seeking to seize the San Pablo Avenue retail space. Haag had previously forced the Berkeley Patients Group to move by threatening to seize its old locale because it was too close to a school. The Berkeley Patients Group, founded in 1999, is the oldest continuously operating medical marijuana dispensary in the Bay Area and serves more than 10,000 patients.
Also last Wednesday, a Thousand Palms dispensary shut down after last Monday's state Supreme Court ruling. The ruling upheld the right of localities to ban dispensaries, and the owner of the Hazy Colitas dispensary said he was closing his doors on his attorney's advice -- before Riverside County sheriff’s deputies did it for him. In nearby Palm Springs, the owner of the CCOC dispensary said he feared he would have to close his doors as well. Palm Springs is the only city in Riverside County that allows dispensaries, but it limits the number of city-approved permits to three. Plans to allow a fourth are on hold. The city has already shut down 12 non-permitted operations and will continue to work on closing five dispensaries still operating without proper permits, said Palm Springs City Attorney Doug Holland. CCOC doesn't have a permit.
Last Thursday, San Bernardino police raided and closed one dispensary and raided a second only to find it had already shut down. City officials reported that 18 of the 33 dispensaries in the city had already shut down in the wake of last week's California Supreme Court ruling. The city had ordered them to close last Tuesday. City officials vow to shut down the rest, too.
Also last Thursday, the Stockton city council took its first step toward banning dispensaries just three years after it moved to allow them. The council moved after city staff warned that by allowing dispensaries the city could leave itself open to federal enforcement measures. At the Thursday meeting, the Planning Commission voted 5-2 in favor of the ban. One already permitted dispensary may be allowed to stay open.
Last Friday, San Bernardino police raided a dispensary that had previously been ordered to close but had quietly reopened, staying closed during the day, but doing business in the evening. City officials said they weren't interested in making arrests, but in closing down dispensaries.
On Monday, the Riverside County Democratic Central Committee passed a resolution calling on state legislators to "enact statewide regulations and licensing requirements that will provide for the safety and concerns of local communities as well as fulfill the mandate of Proposition 215... 'for the safe and affordable distribution of marijuana to all patients in medical need of marijuana.'" The committee said strong community support is needed to boost statewide regulation efforts at the capitol in Sacramento.
Also on Monday, San Diego's draft law on dispensaries was given to the mayor and city council. The proposal builds on an ordinance passed two years ago. Medical marijuana advocates considered the zoning law component too restrictive, however, and collected enough petition signatures to get it rescinded, but ended up with dispensaries being made illegal in the city. Mayor Bob Filner has made getting regulated dispensaries back in the city a priority. The newly drafted ordinance would allow dispensaries to operate legally for five years under a conditional use permit. A 100-foot buffer would be required between dispensaries and residential zones. It also forbid dispensaries within 1,000 of public parks, playgrounds, child care centers, schools, churches, municipal libraries, residential care facilities and other pot shops.
On Sunday, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon came out in favor of a pending medical marijuana bill, saying that testimony from seriously ill veterans and other patients helped change her mind. The bill has passed the Illinois House and awaits a Senate vote. The bill would allow patients with more than 30 medical conditions to seek recommendations for medical marijuana, but also requires background checks of both caregivers and patients, limits patients to purchasing 2.5 ounces at a time, and bars them from growing their own. They would have to go to state-regulated dispensaries.
On Monday, a dispensary workers union filed a complaint against Wellness Connection of Maine, the state's largest dispensary operator. The complaint filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers with the National Labor Relations Board accuses the company of subjecting employees to unfair labor practices, including retaliation for participating in union activity. The NLRB’s regional director in Boston will investigate the claims and determine whether they should lead to formal action.
Last Wednesday, the Public Health Council finalized medical marijuana regulations. They are set to go into effect May 24. The regulations leave the determination of appropriate medical marijuana use to doctors and patients, rather than restricting it based on an arbitrary list of conditions, restricts patients to 10 ounces every two months (but allows doctors to recommend more), allow patients to visit doctors other than their primary care physician for recommendations, allow patients to use multiple dispensaries, and sets a financial hardship threshold at 300% of the federal poverty line. Dispensaries are set to open next year.
Last Friday, Attorney General Bill Schuette ruled that parents who use medical marijuana aren't disqualified from child custody or visitation. That immunity isn't absolute, however, Schuette clarified. Judges can determine if use presents unreasonable dangers to children, but they can't independently decide if a parent is qualified to use medical marijuana. Schuette's opinion came in response to a question from a state legislator.
On Monday, it was revealed that the state Medical Marijuana Review Panel was dissolved after the state admitted it erred in setting it up. "After a careful review of the Medical Marihuana Act… the make-up of the current Medical Marihuana Review Panel does not meet the administrative rule requirements… As a result, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs will be appointing a new panel that complies with the law. No further meeting of the review panel will be held until the new panel is appointed," the state said.
Thanks to aggressive policing strategies, New York City has for more than a decade been the world's leader in marijuana possession arrests, but now those numbers are starting to go down.
[image:1 align:right]According to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, some 10,078 people had been arrested on pot possession charges through April 23, about a 20% decrease over the same period last year. And last year saw a 22% overall decline in possession arrests over 2011.
That means that if the current trend continues, New York City will still see more than 30,000 small-time marijuana busts this year. But that's better than the 50,000 of a couple of years ago or the 40,000 last year.
This is in a state that decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977. The arrests occur because possession in public view is not decriminalized, and for years, the NYPD followed a practice of police directing people to produce what they were carrying, then charging them with misdemeanor possession instead of citing them for the civil offense of possession.
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a memo in fall 2011 directing the force to stop arresting people for that, which undoubtedly accounts for some of the decline. Increased public scrutiny of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which saw some 600,000 people a year searched -- the vast majority of them young people of color -- has probably also played a role in forcing the numbers down.
Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people arrested for small-time possession would no longer be sent to Central Booking, where they typically spend 24 hours before being released, but would instead be given a desk appearance ticket. That move reduced the pain somewhat, but not the arrest numbers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has proposed decriminalizing possession in public view. If that law had been in effect last year, 39,257 of the 40,661 pot possession arrests in 2012 would have gone up in smoke.
A bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana has made it through the Vermont legislature, winning final approval Monday. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has said he supports it. If he indeed signs it, Vermont will become the 17th state to either decriminalize or legalize marijuana.
[image:1 align:right]Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Sen. Joe Benning, and House Bill 200, sponsored by Rep. Chris Pearson, would impose a civil fine on possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Under H. 200, a person under 21 who is found in possession of up to an ounce of marijuana would have to undergo substance abuse screening and possible treatment. That language was carried over in the final votes.
Under current state law, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail for a first offense and up to two years in jail for a subsequent offense.
"We applaud the Vermont Legislature for adopting this much-needed legislation and setting an example for other states in the region and around the country," said Matt Simon, a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project. "The exceptionally broad support demonstrated for this measure reflects the progress our nation is making toward adopting a new and more sensible approach to marijuana policy."
The Marijuana Policy Project has spent years lobbying for marijuana reform in Vermont.
"The days of criminalizing people simply for using a substance less harmful than alcohol are coming to an end,” Simon said.
That's already the cost in most of the states in the region. Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island have all decriminalized pot possession. In New England, New Hampshire is now the lone hold-out.
The government of the former Soviet republic of Georgia is considering legalizing marijuana, the country's Labor, Health, and Social Affairs minister said Friday.
[image:1 align:right]"As far as drugs are concerned, ban-related mechanisms very often entail a ricochet effect, which means strengthening and development of other directions and etc.," David Sergeyenko told the local Novosti-Georgia news agency. Dealing with drugs requires "a well-considered strategy" and "the legalization of marijuana could be a part of it," he said.
But don't start torching up in Tbilisi just yet, Segeyenko said.
"The fact that we are now discussing this issue does not mean that we will wake up one day and see marijuana at supermarkets. Of course, it will not happen this way," he said, leaving unclear just exactly what he did envision.
Under current Georgian law, people convicted of illegal drug possession face up to a year in jail, a fine, or community service.
This isn't the first time there has been legalization talk in Georgia. In 2005, the head of the Georgian Council for Drug Policy, Tamara Sirbiladze, called for marijuana legalization, saying it could "reduce the number of drug-related crimes."
The Colorado legislature Wednesday approved a pair of bills that will establish a regulated marijuana market for adults. The legislature was charged with doing so when voters approved the marijuana legalization Amendment 64 last November.
[image:1 align:right]On the down side, the legislature earlier approved another bill, House Bill 1325, which would set a level of THC in the blood above which drivers would be presumed to be impaired. Drivers with 5 milligrams or more of THC per milliliter of blood would be considered to be impaired, but could challenge that presumption in court.
The marijuana regulation bills are House Bill 1317 and House Bill 1318. The former creates the framework for regulations governing marijuana retail sales, cultivation, and product manufacturing, while the latter enacts a 10% special sales tax (above and beyond standard sales taxes) and a 15% excise tax on wholesale sales.
Under Colorado law, the tax bill will have to be approved by voters in November. But three-quarters of Colorado voters support such pot taxation, according a Public Policy Polling survey.
"The adoption of these bills is a truly historic milestone and brings Colorado one step closer to establishing the world's first legal, regulated, and taxed marijuana market for adults," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project, who served as an official proponent and campaign co-director for the ballot measure approved by Colorado voters in November. "Facilitating the shift from the failed policy of prohibition to a more sensible system of regulation has been a huge undertaking, and we applaud the many task force members, legislators, and others who have helped effect this change," Tvert said. "We are confident that this legislation will allow state and local officials to implement a comprehensive, robust, and sufficiently funded regulatory system that will effectively control marijuana in Colorado."
Look for an in-depth analysis of the new regulations coming soon.
Marijuana rescheduling is headed for the US Supreme Court, the California Supreme Court upheld local dispensary bans, the feds strike again in Berkeley and Washington state, and there is action in state legislatures, too. Let's get to it:
Last week, Americans for Safe Access announced it was appealing to the Supreme Court to overturn the DC Court of Appeals' ruling upholding the DEA's refusal to reclassify marijuana out of Schedule I. ASA's appeal to the Supreme Court asks that the DEA be required to apply the same standard to evaluating cannabis that it uses for other substances. The DEA claims there are no "adequate and well-controlled studies" that show cannabis has medical use, despite the many clinical trials and peer-reviewed scientific studies that show cannabis to be a safe and effective medicine for treating a wide variety of conditions.
Last Wednesday, a Fox News poll had support for medical marijuana at 85% nationwide. The figure included 80% of Republicans and is the highest level of support for medical marijuana ever in the Fox News poll.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill that will allow medical marijuana research on university campuses. Brewer had last year supported successful legislation that banned even medical marijuana on state college and university campuses, but the ban aimed primarily at students had the unintended consequence of blocking serious academic research being undertaken on medical marijuana and PTSD by University of Arizona psychiatrist Sue Sisley. The new law allows medical marijuana on campus for carefully controlled and approved studies.
Last Wednesday, prosecutors in Tuolumne County dropped marijuana trafficking charges against the owners of a local medical marijuana collective. Charges were dropped in the case of the Today's Health Collective, which had been raided in May 2011. Prosecutors complained that "inconsistencies in opinions from different courts have required a shift in the focus of law enforcement and jury instruction" and "the cumulative effect of evidence collected in 2011 has been weakened by this development."
On Monday, the state Supreme Court upheld the right of localities to ban dispensaries. Some 200 California towns and counties have already done so, but others had held off because of uncertainty over the legality of bans. The ruling means that patients' access to medical marijuana will depend in part on where in the state they live.
On Tuesday, the dispensary operator in the Monday Supreme Court case said he had closed his shop. Operator and medical marijuana activist Lanny Swerdlow said he would comply with the high court ruling and shut down Inland Empire Patient's Health and Wellness Center.
Also on Tuesday, federal prosecutors filed an asset forfeiture lawsuit against the landlord for the Berkeley Patients Group, one of the most well-respected dispensaries in the state. The feds already forced BPG to move last year, saying it was too close to a school. The dispensary relocated to a site even further from schools, but US Attorney Melinda Haag filed the forfeiture suit without warning anyway.
Also on Tuesday, the Yuba City city council adopted a marijuana cultivation ordinance requiring people growing medical marijuana at home to register with the city and trim their plants out of public view. They also have to install security fences and carbon filtration systems to reduce odor. The ordinance had been in place on a temporary basis since March 2012, but became permanent with Tuesday's 3-2 vote.
On Wednesday, a hearing on a medical marijuana bill was underway in the Senate Executive Committee. The bill would allow residents with serious illnesses, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and HIV/AIDS, to access and use medical marijuana if their physicians recommend it. If approved, the measure will be considered by the full Senate. It received approval from the full House of Representatives on April 17.
Last Thursday, Gov. O'Malley signed a medical marijuana bill into law. The measure, House Bill 1101, will allow patients to qualify for protections from arrest and prosecution if they are enrolled in a program administered by one of Maryland’s teaching hospitals. The law takes effect October 1. But it's not clear how many of the state's teaching hospitals will participate.
On Wednesday, the Public Health Council approved medical marijuana regulations. The regulations include requiring doctors to complete a full clinical checkup before issuing a recommendations, recommendations will expire after one year, and patients will not be allowed to use medical marijuana at dispensaries. The regulations approved today will go into effect on May 25. They allow the department to establish a competitive application process for non-profits seeking certifications that will permit them to operate. DPH is required to certify at least 14, but no more than 35, medical marijuana treatment centers to open by January, 2014.
Last Thursday, medical marijuana supporters outlined their bill, but conceded that no action on it is likely until next year. The measure dictates the amount of marijuana someone can possess, the types of health conditions that would permit use and the rules medical professionals must follow when issuing prescriptions. It would continue to bar smoking of marijuana on school buses and school grounds, on public transportation, in the presence of a child and while operating vehicles, boats or other transportation equipment.
On Monday, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, and Human Services approved a medical marijuana bill, but not before removing PTSD as a qualifying condition and removing a home cultivation provision at the insistence of Gov. Maggie Hassan. Other changes to the bill reduced the number of authorized dispensaries allowed statewide from five to four, added a requirement that patients get written permission from a property owner before using medical marijuana on privately owned land, and eliminated protections for out of state medical marijuana patients traveling with marijuana in New Hampshire. The measure had already overwhelmingly passed the House. Medical marijuana advocates are continuing to fight for a better version of the bill.
Last Thursday, Health Commissioner Mary O'Dowd said two more dispensaries will likely open soon. Years after medical marijuana was legalized in the state, only one dispensary is open. The first dispensary opened in Montclair, Essex County, in December, but is limiting its clientele to North Jersey residents. A second dispensary operator is renovating a former warehouse in Egg Harbor, Atlantic County, and plans an opening in September. A third dispensary operator is renovating its location in Woodbridge, O'Dowd said.
Last Wednesday, news broke that the DEA had sent cease-and-desist letters to 11 dispensaries. The agency complained in the April 29 letters they were within 1,000 feet of schools. The DEA told recipients of the letters to stop distributing marijuana within 30 days or face property seizure and forfeiture.
Ten members of the House Judiciary Committee have agreed to form an Over-Criminalization Task Force to review the expansion of the federal criminal code and make recommendations for paring it down. There are roughly 4,500 federal crimes on the law books, with new ones being added at a rate of about 50 a year.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]This proposed review of federal criminal laws is the first since the 1980s, when the number of federal crimes on the books was about half what it is now. The task force will conduct hearings and investigate issues around over-criminalization and will have the opportunity to issue reports to the Justice Committee on its findings and policy recommendations.
Task force members include Reps. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), Karen Bass (D-CA), Steve Cohen (D-TN), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), George Holding (R-NC), Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Raul Labrador (R-ID), Jerold Nadler (D-NY), Bobby Scott (D-VA), and James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). The group contains both prominent drug law reformers, such as Cohen and Scott, and prominent drug warriors, such as Gohmert and Sensenbrenner.
Among possible topics for the task force are federal drug laws and sentences in general and federal marijuana prohibition in particular. The group could also explore the issue of mens rea, or criminal intent, particularly in relation to the expansion of the use of conspiracy laws since the late 1980s. The use of those laws has led to low-level offenders, including some who were not even part of a drug trafficking enterprise, being sentenced to years or decades in federal prison -- sentences that were supposed to be reserved for high-level offenders.
"As former chairman and long-serving member of the Judiciary Committee, I've seen first-hand just how muddled the criminal code is," said Sensenbrenner. "It's time to scrub it clean. The Over-Criminalization Task Force will review federal laws in Title 18, and laws outside of Title 18 that have not gone through the Judiciary Committee, to modernize our criminal code. In addition, I reintroduced the Criminal Code Modernization and Simplification Act [not posted as of Tuesday] today, which would reform Title 18 of the US Code, reduce the existing criminal code by more than one-third, and update the code to make it more comprehensible."
"Unduly expansive criminal provisions in our law unnecessarily drive up incarceration rates," said Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the committee's ranking Democrat. "Almost one-quarter of the world's inmates are locked up in the United States, yet Americans constitute only five percent of the world population. In addition, the incarceration rate for African Americans is six times that of the national incarceration average. I welcome the work of the over-criminalization task force in analyzing this serious issue."
"Although crime is primarily a matter for states and localities to handle, over the last 40 or so years Congress has increasingly sought to address societal problems by adding criminal provisions to the federal code," said Scott. "There are now over 4,000 federal criminal provisions, plus hundreds of thousands of federal regulations which impose criminal penalties, often without requiring that criminal intent be shown to establish guilt. As a result, we are hearing many complaints of overuse and abusive uses of federal criminal laws from a broad-based coalition of organizations ranging from the Heritage Foundation to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Today, we are establishing a bipartisan task force on over-criminalization to assess issues and make recommendations for improvements to the federal criminal system, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on this worthy endeavor."
"This Task Force is a step in the right direction and could propose recommendations to significantly alleviate mass incarceration and racial disparities in the federal system," said Jasmine Tyler, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The establishment of this Task Force is long overdue for the drug policy reform movement. It is past time for Congress to re-examine marijuana laws, conspiracy laws, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the appropriate role and use of the federal government’s resources."
In a ruling that will leave California's patchwork approach to medical marijuana dispensary regulation in place, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday that local governments can ban dispensaries from operating within their jurisdictions. For patients, that means access to medical marijuana at dispensaries will depend on the political currents in their city or county.
[image:1 align:left]The decision likely means that cities and counties that had been holding off on banning dispensaries will now take steps to do so. It will also increase pressure on the state legislature to come up with a means of statewide medical marijuana regulation, something it is working on right now.
The case was City of Riverside v. Inland Empire Patients Health and Wellness Center, Inc., in which Inland Empire sued the city after Riverside using its zoning power to declare that dispensaries were nuisances and ordered them shut down. Inland Empire went to court to block the city from forcing it to close.
The decision was eagerly -- and anxiously -- awaited by all sides. Cases on local bans had been percolating through the state court system for several years, with state appeals courts splitting on the issue. An appeals court had earlier sided with the city of Riverside, but a trial court last summer held that Riverside County could not ban dispensaries, and an appeals court in Southern California had struck down Los Angeles County's ban on dispensaries.
The move by the city of Riverside was part of a broader counter-offensive against the proliferation of dispensaries after the Obama administration signaled in 2009 that it would take a largely hands-off approach. According to the medical marijuana defense group Americans for Safe Access, more than 200 cities or counties in the state have since moved to ban dispensaries. That move toward local bans has since slowed, in part because of uncertainty over their legality and in part because the federal offensive since the Obama administration shifted gears in the fall of 2011 has driven hundreds of dispensaries out of business.
Patient and industry advocates had argued that allowing localities to ban dispensaries ran counter to the intent of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. The law called for making medical marijuana accessible to people with doctors' recommendations for its use. But the state's high court sided with the localities.
"The issue in this case is whether California's medical marijuana statutes preempt a local ban on facilities that distribute medical marijuana. We conclude they do not," wrote Justice Marvin Baxter for a unanimous court. "The CUA and the MMP [state medical marijuana laws] do not expressly or impliedly preempt Riverside's zoning provisions declaring a medical marijuana dispensary, as therein defined, to be a prohibited use, and a public nuisance, anywhere within the city limits."
"While the California Supreme Court ruling ignores the needs of thousands of patients across the state, it simply maintains the status quo," said Joe Elford, chief counsel with Americans for Safe Access, which filed an amicus 'friend of the court' brief in the case. "Notably, the high court deferred to the state legislature to establish a clearer regulatory system for the distribution of medical marijuana, which advocates and state officials are currently working on."
"There is nothing surprising about this; it affirms the status quo," said Dale Gieringer, longtime head of California NORML. "I've been following the court cases and reading the state constitution, and it seems pretty clear that local governments have broad authority under California law."
"Today's decision allowing localities to ban will likely lead to reduced patient access in California unless the state finally steps up to provide regulatory oversight and guidance," said Tamar Todd, senior staff attorney for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The good news though is that this problem is fixable. It is time for the state legislature to enact state-wide medical marijuana oversight and regulation that both protects patient access and eases the burden on localities to deal with this issue on their own. Localities will stop enacting bans once the state has stepped up and assumed its responsibility to regulate."
"We're hoping that we can fix this by having some sort of state regulation system where people have access wherever they live in the state, if not by local dispensaries, then at least by some sort of delivery service," Gieringer said. "I think they're trying very hard to do something this year. Remember, last year, the Assembly passed a regulation bill and the Senate came very close, and now we have the leader of the state Senate supporting the same concept, so I think the prospects are pretty good for action."
The statewide medical marijuana regulation bills this year are Assembly Bill 473, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), and Senate Bill 439, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). Both bills have passed their first committee votes and are supported by a broad coalition of patients, dispensaries, and law enforcement groups.
But until and unless statewide regulation is passed in Sacramento, the battle over patient access to dispensaries is now going to be fought in city council chambers and county supervisor meeting rooms in cities and counties across the state. That is going to mean differential access to medical marijuana depending on the political complexion of the localities where patients reside.
Idaho is officially not a marijuana-friendly state. Although it is bordered on most sides by medical marijuana states (Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and Montana), it so far refuses to accept the medicinal use of the herb. And even though one of those states (Washington) has legalized marijuana and two others (Nevada and Oregon) have decriminalized it, Idaho remains firmly grounded in 20th Century attitudes toward the plant. The state legislature this year took the time to approve a non-binding resolution noting its opposition to marijuana legalization.
[image:1 align:right]But that doesn't mean there aren't reformers in the Gem State. There have been sporadic local marijuana legalization efforts in past years, and this year, medical marijuana supporters are in the midst of signature-gathering campaign to put an initiative on the ballot.
That campaign is led by Compassionate Idaho, some of whose most stalwart and publicly visible members are Lindsey and Josh Rinehart and Sarah Caldwell. But with an incident that began while Caldwell and the Rineharts were away on a retreat, the trio are learning a harsh lesson in hardball pot politics. When they got back home, their kids were gone, and the police and child social services had them.
According to Boise Police, who released a statement on the matter as controversy grew, on April 23, they were contacted by a local school official about a child who had apparently eaten marijuana and fallen ill. Police "learned from witnesses" that the supposed marijuana supposedly came from the Rinehart residence, and, "concerned for the safety of children at the residence," they went there and found a baby sitter caring for the Rinehart and Caldwell children.
Police persuaded the baby sitter to let them search the residence and "found drug paraphernalia, items commonly used to smoke marijuana, and a quantity of a substance that appeared to be marijuana in locations inside the house accessible to the children." Police at the scene then contacted both narcotics investigators and the department's Special Victims Unit.
(Rinehart, a Multiple Sclerosis sufferer, said she indeed had medical marijuana at home, but that she had a small amount and a pipe on a dresser in her bedroom, a larger amount of trim locked away in a freezer, and some marijuana tincture in a bottle in a kitchen cabinet atop her refrigerator.)
"Based on the fact that illegal drugs and drug paraphernalia were located in an area that appeared to be commonly used by the children in the residence and the fact that one child had already become ill from ingesting what he assumed was marijuana, and the inability to contact the children's parents, detectives made the decision to contact Idaho Health and Welfare officials and place the children in imminent danger, meaning they were placed in the protective custody of the state until it can be determined they are in a safe environment," the statement said.
At this point, it is unclear whether whatever made the school child sick was marijuana. It is equally unclear that any marijuana came from the Rinehart residence. What is clear is that both the Rineharts and Sarah Campbell are up-front, in-your-face medical marijuana patients and activists, and that their children were being subjected to the tender mercies of the state.
Sarah Caldwell has had her kids returned to her -- it was not her child who is suspected of providing the suspected marijuana -- but the Rineharts are still fighting to get their kids returned.
"My sons were not involved," Caldwell said. "They were at the house the police searched, the police decided my kids were in 'imminent danger,' and it took three days to get them back."
While the two boys and the Rinehart kids were held at the same foster home, providing them with the small comfort of being with friends, Caldwell said her younger son was traumatized.
"My six-year-old is autistic," she explained. "I noticed when he came home, he started packing his favorite toys. I asked him why and he said, 'In case the police make me go away again.' He doesn't understand why," Caldwell said, her voice breaking.
While Caldwell has her children at home again, both she and the Rineharts are going to have to comply with the requirements of the child welfare system to ensure that their children can return to their old lives. But, Lindsey Rinehart said, Child Protective Services is moving more quickly than usual in her case.
[image:2 align:left caption:true]Normally, Child Protective Services requires parents to meet with them at the department three times, then allows them to have three visits with their children in the community, then inspects the home to ensure a safe environment is being provided, and only then considers returning the kids, most likely with the added provision that the parents must undergo parenting and drug education classes. But when the Chronicle last spoke to Rinehart Saturday, she was in the middle of a home visit with her kids -- one that ends Sunday morning.
"They seem to be expediting the process because they realize they messed up," she said. The state taking her kids wasn't doing them any favors, she added.
"My oldest son now will only talk if you ask him really specific questions, and my younger one is acting out," she said. "He is upset and argumentative; he has a hard time vocalizing things," she said of her six-year-old. "I told him I had to go to the store, and he freaked out; he didn't want me to leave him. He's reacting like I've never seen before. He was a happy kid; now he's mad and confused. He doesn't understand what's going on."
The older Rinehart son is having issues, too, she said.
"He's mad. Both of the kids have been educated about my medicine, so they know this is wrong," the multiple sclerosis sufferer explained. "They're mad that they were taken away because mommy had her medicine. I'm trying to comfort them as best as I can. They just know that somebody took them away, and now I have to explain that they have to go back to foster care tomorrow," Rinehart said, her voice trembling.
Both the Rineharts and Sarah Caldwell suspect they were set up.
"I'm the director of Compassionate Idaho. Everybody knows who I am. I'm on the news at least once a month," said Rinehart. "We had just done the Hemp Fest in Moscow and signature-gathering in five towns. The police knew what they were looking for, and they knew where to look without anyone telling them. Those kids on the playground didn't know where to look. There were kids from several other families involved in that playground incident, but we think the police got who they wanted."
"I do think they were targeting us," Caldwell agreed. "That incident at the school was just an excuse for them to try to get us."
"This has got me fired up," Caldwell said. "They took my children to try to keep me focused on getting my kids back so I wouldn't do my activism, but I'm not going to stop."
The use of children as pawns in the marijuana culture wars is shocking and distressing, but nothing new, said Keith Stroup, founder and currently counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
"We get calls three or four times a week from people who have lost custody of their children because they tested positive at birth or in a situation where parents are feuding over custody," Stroup said. "One will say 'My spouse smokes marijuana and is thus not a fit parent,' and once that child welfare issue is raised, it's a totally separate matter from the criminal justice system. Even if no one is proposing to arrest the parent, this is far more damaging and destructive to the family."
That's at least in part because once child welfare has its clutches on you, it doesn't want to let go, and it typically has an attitude toward marijuana use that is reminiscent of Reefer Madness, Stroup said.
"They can require that you take parenting and drug education courses right out of the 1950s," he said. "It's a worthless routine, but you have to do it, you have to pay hundreds of dollars to do it, and you can't get your kids back until you do it. It doesn't matter how nice or good a parent you are or how well-intentioned you are, once you get caught up in this, you are in for a bad time."
NORML is doing what it can to assist the Idaho activists, Stroup said, adding some words of advice for other marijuana-using parents, especially (but not only) in places where attitudes toward the herb are hide-bound and hardened.
"If you're in a place like Idaho and you're a young parent, never smoke in front of your kids, so if that issue ever arises, you can make sure nobody can say you were smoking marijuana and kids were playing in the same room," he counseled. "You have to be able to demonstrate convincingly that you are providing a safe and secure place for your kids. In places like Idaho, you could lose custody over your kids for something many of us in many parts of the country take for granted."
Getting the kids back is only part of the problem for the Rineharts. Idaho treats even small-time pot possession seriously -- it's one of those place where people still actually do get jail time for it -- and the couple is facing possible felony charges for possessing more than an ounce of trim.
[image:3 align:right caption:true]"I'm living in an ongoing panic attack," said Lindsey Rinehart. "They update their warrants every five hours, so I check in frequently, and first thing in the morning. Because of my illness, I can't handle physical pressure very well, and I'm afraid they could hurt me when arresting me, so my lawyer has asked that if they do charge me, they just cite me."
All the stress isn't helping, and now, Rinehart can't have her medicine, either.
"I have prescribed meds to suppress my immune system, but those make me really sick. With cannabis, I only had to take it every other day," she explained. "Now, I have to take it every day, and it's so dangerous we have to regularly check my heart, liver, kidney, and eye function. And if I have pain, I'll have to go back to hydrocodone. I'll be going back on those meds I had been able to taper down from with cannabis."
But despite the trials and tribulations, neither the Rineharts nor Sarah Caldwell have been cowed, and their travails have energized supporters as well.
"People are really mad about this and are getting involved," said Rinehart. "We even have people reaching out to help fund Compassionate Idaho.
"People are coming out of the woodwork after hearing our kids got taken because of our activism," said Caldwell. "People are saying they want to help. Education is key here -- a lot of people here believe the Reefer Madness, but this is a non-toxic plant; it can't hurt you."
"The bigger picture is that we don't want this to happen to more families," said Rinehart.
"We're getting more calls than we ever did about child custody," Stroup reiterated. "There are still people being seriously damaged from what's left of marijuana prohibition. Few go to jail for marijuana anymore, but many lose custody of their kids. These repercussions may be more subtle, but they are not insignificant."
The Rineharts and Sarah Caldwell still have to deal with Child Protective Services, and the Rineharts are still waiting to see if they will face criminal marijuana and child endangerment charges. But in the meantime, there are 55,000 signatures to be gathered to get medical marijuana on the ballot and start changing Idaho's reactionary response to marijuana.
[image:1 align:left]New Hampshire won't be the next state to decriminalize marijuana possession, at least not this year. The state Senate Thursday voted down a decriminalization bill, with senators calling it "deeply flawed."
Introduced by Rep. Kyle Tasker, House Bill 621 would have decriminalized the possession of up to a quarter ounce and imposed a maximum fine of $200. The bill passed the House in March on 214-115 vote.
But it had a rougher reception in the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee gave it a negative recommendation in April, and now the Senate has killed it.
The bill was too lenient, opponents claimed. Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) told the Associated Press the bill made punishments for pot possession more lenient than those for alcohol or tobacco (presumably for minors), that the House version of the bill had no age parameters, and that there were no increased penalties for repeat offenders.
Marijuana decriminalization or legalization bills have been introduced in nearly two dozen states this year. Some, like New Hampshire's, are already dead, but others remain alive.
Lots of action in California this past week, including more raids and more threat letters, plus action in various state legislatures and elsewhere. Let's get to it:
Last Wednesday, local law enforcement raided three San Bernardino dispensaries. City Attorney's office officials, and police, fire, and code enforcement officers served search warrants and issued demands that they cease and desist from allegedly unlawful activities. The dispensaries hit were Trio Holistic Center, Berdo Medical Center, and THC First Time Patients. San Bernardino authorities banned dispensaries last year. In February, they raided three other dispensaries.
Last Tuesday, the Vallejo city council approved a 45-day moratorium on new dispensary applications. A number of dispensaries already operate in Vallejo without the city's permission, although voters last year approved a 10% tax on their sales. The city quit accepting business license tax applications for dispensaries in January. City officials said they need time to sort out the confusion. Now, the city must move forward to either regulate or ban dispensaries, although the moratorium could be extended another two years.
On Wednesday, Vallejo police returned marijuana to two dispensaries raided last year. Nearly 60 pounds of medical marijuana and hundreds of dead plants were returned to Better Health Group and the LES collective. Police gave the property back after a judge dismissed the criminal cases against the two dispensaries. Police last year raided numerous Vallejo dispensaries, but have lost every criminal case they have brought, and prosecutors have dropped the charges in others.
On Tuesday, a medical marijuana regulation bill passed the Senate Public Safety Committee. Senate Bill 439 is described by its sponsor, Sen. Steinberg, as a placeholder, "a vehicle to engage stakeholders" in the process of legislating statewide regulations. Steinberg said he is in close contact with Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who has introduced companion legislation, Assembly Bill 473, and that it could take one to two years to complete the process.
Also on Tuesday, the Senate Public Safety Committee refused to pass a drugged driving bill that could impact medical marijuana patients. The bill, Senate Bill 289, would create a zero-tolerance drugged driving offense, but the committee was skeptical. It did, however, leave the door open for the bill to be amended.
Also on Tuesday, word emerged that federal prosecutors have sent out more dispensary threat letters. They were issued by the office of US Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag and target the landlords of dispensaries in San Jose, San Francisco, and Ukiah. The letters warn landlords that the facilities are operating too close to a school or park. In addition, the letters warn landlords that they are liable for forfeiture under USC Title 21, Section 881(a) 7. Unlike some previous letters, they do not threaten immediate prosecution or set a deadline for compliance.
Last Thursday, the Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that employers can fire medical marijuana users who fail a drug test. The ruling came in the case of a quadriplegic telephone operator for the Dish Network, who was fired after failing a drug test. He argued that he shouldn't have been fired because his actions were legal under state law, but the court held that because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the state law he cited did not apply.
On Wednesday, two medical marijuana bills were approved by the state legislature. House Bill 668 transfers control of the medical marijuana program from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Public Health, while Senate Bill 642 increases the amount of medicine a patient can possess from three to four ounces and allows patients to have up to seven plants, but also amends the law so that only a patient's primary care physician can recommend marijuana.
On Monday, Idaho medical marijuana activists fought back after authorities seized their children. The children were taken from a Boise couple and a Boise single mom who are leading Idaho activists after a child at the school their children attended fell ill and marijuana was blamed. Police and child protective services workers went to the home while the parents were on a retreat and took the kids, as well as some marijuana and paraphernalia. One set of kids has been returned, the other two remain in foster care.
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley confirmed he will sign a medical marijuana bill. The formal signing is set for Thursday. The bill allows academic medical research centers to establish programs to dispense marijuana to sick patients.
On Tuesday, Gov. Maggie Hassan said she wants home cultivation stricken from a pending medical marijuana bill. Bill supporters said they were disappointed and that patients with terminal conditions couldn't wait the 18 months to two years it could take for dispensaries to get up and running. The governor "shares the concerns of law enforcement about the state's ability to effectively regulate a home-grow option," spokesman Marc Goldberg said in a statement. Hassan voted for a medical marijuana bill in 2009 that included a home-grow option. The proposal is now being rewritten in a Senate committee.
On Tuesday, the state Department of Health agreed that PTSD should remain a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. The move upheld a recommendation by the Medical Cannabis Program's Medical Advisory Board, which had faced an effort to withdraw PTSD as a qualifying condition.
In the wake of the marijuana legalization victories in Colorado and Washington last November, and buoyed by a series of national public opinion polls showing support for pot legalization going over the tipping point, marijuana reform legislation is being introduced at state houses across the land at levels never seen before.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]While the mere fact that a bill has been introduced is no guarantee it's going to pass, that such bills are being introduced in record numbers speaks to how far the marijuana reform movement has come. According to a legislative activity web page maintained by the Marijuana Policy Project, decriminalization bills have been introduced in 10 states and the dependency of the Northern Mariana Islands this year, while outright legalization bills have been introduced in 11 states and the dependency of Puerto Rico.
(This article does not review current medical marijuana legislation, which will be the subject of an additional report. In the meanwhile, our Medical Marijuana Update each week provides extensive info on legislation and other developments in the issue.)
Some of the legalization and decrim bills are dead already (see below), but others remain alive. While passage of a legalization bill this year remains a long shot, decriminalization bills in some states may fare better.
NORML founder, erstwhile executive director and current legal counsel Keith Stroup has been fighting for marijuana law reform for more than 40 years. It's never looked better, he said.
"I wasn't sure I'd live long enough to see this happening, even though the demographics are on our side," he said. "A lot of these legislatures, though, are still playing around with medical marijuana, when the truth is voters are ready to go much further, probably for decriminalization and maybe for legalization. But after we won Colorado and Washington, you can see the increased confidence a number of legislators have demonstrated, and there's only going to be more of that."
Karen O'Keefe is director of state policies for MPP. She hasn't been at it as long as Stroup, but she has a solid decade of reform efforts under her belt, and she, too, said things were definitely looking up.
"When I first started at MPP, I don't think a single state had a tax and regulate bill, and now we have 11 states, and probably Ohio coming on board, too, with tax and regulate. People are realizing it's a serious issue with majority support, and legislatures are starting to catch up," said O'Keefe.
"We first saw majority support in the Gallup poll a couple of years ago, but there wasn't nearly as much activity as this year," she said. "Having two states approve marijuana legalization with solid majorities made it seem real. Colorado and Washington were initiative states, and the first medical marijuana states were initiative states, too. Once the people have led the way, legislators begin to realize it's a popular issue that makes sense and they start to act on it."
Here's what's going on in the state legislatures (excerpted with edits from the aforementioned MPP web page), with further discussion following:
Marijuana Legalization Bills
Alabama -- House Bill 550, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, would allow adults 21 and older to possess or grow limited amounts of marijuana. It would also allow a regulated and taxed marijuana industry, in addition to setting up a medical marijuana program. The bill was referred to the House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.
Hawaii -- Speaker Joe Souki introduced House Bill 150 and House Bill 699, which would have allowed the taxed and regulated sale of marijuana to adults 21 and older. Both bills would also have allowed adults to cultivate marijuana in a locked, secure facility. On February 12, the House Judiciary Committee deferred action on HB 699, killing the bill for the year. Because of legislative deadlines, the other tax-and-regulate bill also will not be able to advance in 2013, which is the first year of Hawaii's biennial legislative session.
Maine -- Rep. Diane Russell’s LD 1229 would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate limited amounts of marijuana. It would also set up a system to license and regulate growers, infused product makers, retail stores, and labs. LD 1229 would impose a $50 per ounce tax on marijuana at the wholesale level. It was referred to the Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety on March 26.
Maryland -- House Bill 1453, sponsored by Del. Curt Anderson, would have provided for a taxed and regulated marijuana industry. It would have also allowed adults 21 years of age and older to possess and cultivate limited amounts of marijuana. HB 1453 was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which heard testimony on the bill on March 19. The bill did not advance out of committee before the deadline to pass the House.
Massachusetts -- Rep. Ellen Story has sponsored House Bill 1632, which would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate marijuana. It would allow a regulated, taxed marijuana industry once it is legal under federal law. HB 1632 was referred to the Joint Committee on Judiciary.
Nevada -- Assembly Bill 402, sponsored by Assemblyman Joe Hogan, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and cultivate limited amounts of marijuana. It would also create a taxed and regulated legal marijuana industry. AB 402 was referred to the Committee on Judiciary, but it did not advance before the deadline.
New Hampshire -- Rep. Steve Vaillancourt proposed House Bill 492, which would tax and regulate marijuana for adults’ use. It would also allow adults 21 and older to cultivate up to six plants. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee retained HB 492, meaning it will study the issue this fall. In addition, Rep. Mark Warden introduced House Bill 337, which would have made marijuana legal without imposing regulations. HB 337 received 112 votes on March 13, including from 52 Republicans, but 239 representatives voted against the bill, so it is dead for the year.
New Mexico -- Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino introduced Senate Joint Memorial 31, which would have directed the state's Economic Development Department to study the budgetary implications of a legal marijuana industry. The legislative session ended without SJM 31 receiving a floor vote.
Oregon -- The House Committee on Revenue introduced House Bill 3371, which would allow persons 21 and older to grow and possess marijuana. It would also set up a system of taxation and regulation for the commercial production and sale of marijuana, similar to alcohol. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Judiciary, which approved the bill on April 2. The bill is now pending in the House Committee on Revenue.
Pennsylvania -- Senate Bill 528, sponsored by Sen. Daylin Leach, would regulate marijuana similarly to alcohol. It would allow adults 21 years of age or older to purchase, cultivate, and possess limited amounts of marijuana. On April 3, the bill was referred to the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
Puerto Rico -- Sen. Miguel Pereira has introduced a bill, Senate Bill 517, which would make it legal for adults 21 and older to possess marijuana but would not provide for regulated distribution or cultivation.
Rhode Island -- On February 6, Rep. Edith Ajello introduced House Bill 5274, the Marijuana Regulation, Control, and Taxation Act, which was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would tax and regulate marijuana sales for adults' use and would allow adults to cultivate up to three mature marijuana plants. Sen. Donna Nesselbush sponsors the Senate companion bill, Senate Bill 334. The bills are pending in the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Vermont -- Rep. Susan Davis’ House Bill 499 would have allowed adults 21 and older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and to grow up to three plants. It would have required the Department of Liquor Control to regulate marijuana wholesalers, retailers, and labs and impose a $50 per ounce tax at the wholesale level. The bill did not advance before the crossover deadline. In addition, Sen. Jeanette White's Senate Bill 160 would create a Study Committee on the Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana, which would be a legislative committee that would study a process for licensing marijuana businesses along with a taxation and regulatory structure.
Decriminalization Bills (generally speaking, see the notes)
Hawaii -- Sen. Kalani English sponsored Senate Bill 472, which would punish possession of up to an ounce of marijuana with a civil fine, while Sen. Donovan De la Cruz sponsored Senate Bill 739, which would impose a civil fine of up to $100 for no more than an ounce of marijuana. The Senate unanimously approved SB 472 on March 5. Both bills are dead for the year, but they will carry over to the second year of the state's two-year session.
Illinois -- House Bill 2332 would have imposed a civil fine on possession of a tiny amount of marijuana -- 0.1 gram. It did not advance before the deadline.
Indiana -- Senate Bill 580, sponsored by Sen. Karen Tallian, would have made possession of less than two ounces of marijuana a class C infraction punishable by a fine only with no possibility of jail time. The bill, which was referred to the Senate Committee on Corrections and Criminal Law, would also have made other reforms to Indiana's marijuana laws, including allowing hemp. The bill did not advance before the crossover deadline.
Maryland -- Senate Bill 297, sponsored by Sen. Robert Zirkin, would have reduced the maximum penalty for possession up to 10 grams of marijuana to a $100 civil fine. The Senate approved the bill in a 30-16 vote on March 19, but it did not get a vote in the House Judiciary Committee before the legislature adjourned on April 8. Another bill sponsored by Sen. Zirkin -- Senate Bill 394 -- would have made the maximum fine for marijuana possession a $100 civil fine. That bill was withdrawn.
Michigan -- House Bill 4623, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Irwin, would replace possible jail time and criminal penalties with civil fines of $25, $50, or $100, depending on the number of prior convictions the person has for marijuana possession. The bill was introduced on April 24 and was referred to the House Committee on Judiciary.
Missouri -- Rep. Rory Ellinger has introduced House Bill 512, which would reduce the penalty for possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana from up to a year in prison to a fine of no more than $250 and a suspended sentence.
New Mexico -- House Bill 465, sponsored by Rep. Emily Kane, would have reduced the penalty for first offense possession of up to an ounce of marijuana to a $50 civil fine. A second offense would have been a petty misdemeanor carrying a $100 fine. It would have also imposed fines for up to eight ounces of marijuana. The bill passed the House, but the session ended before the Senate could vote on it.
New Hampshire -- Rep. Kyle Tasker proposed House Bill 621, which would impose a fine on simple possession of marijuana. On March 21, the House of Representatives amended the bill to apply only to a quarter of an ounce of marijuana and to impose a fine of up to $200. It then approved the bill in a 214-115 vote, sending it to the Senate. On April 16, the bill received a negative recommendation in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
New Jersey -- Senate Bill 1977, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, would impose a $50 fine on up to 50 grams of marijuana (nearly two ounces). Assembly Bill 1465, sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, was introduced in 2012 and passed the Assembly. The bill would impose civil fines starting at $150 on possession of up to 15 grams of marijuana. Both bills are pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
New York -- Senate Bill 3315 would eliminate the "public use" exception to the state's decriminalization law, a reform supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. [Note: Although New York decriminalized in the 1970s, New York City police have continued to arrest tens of thousands of people each year under the "public use" exception.]
North Carolina -- Rep. Rep. Kelly Alexander sponsors House Bill 637, which would downgrade the penalty for possession of a small amount of marijuana from a misdemeanor that does not carry jail time to a civil infraction. [Note: This is a depenalization, not a decriminalization, bill.]
Northern Mariana Islands -- House Bill 18-42, sponsored by Rep. Christopher Leon Guerrero, would impose a $50 fine on marijuana possession in the U.S. territory.
Texas -- Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr. sponsors House Bill 184, which would make up to one ounce of marijuana a class C misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine. It was referred to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, which approved an amended version of the bill on April 23. The bill would now only apply to persons under 21 for their first offense.
Vermont -- Senate Bill 48, sponsored by Sen. Joe Benning, and House Bill 200, sponsored by Rep. Chris Pearson, would impose a civil fine on possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Under H. 200, a person under 21 who is found in possession of up to an ounce of marijuana would have to undergo substance abuse screening and possible treatment. On April 16, the House of Representatives approved H. 200 in a 92-49 vote, sending the bill to the Senate. Gov. Peter Shumlin has been a strong proponent of replacing criminal penalties with a civil fine.
[image:2 align:right caption:true]As the lists demonstrate, some bills have died already, but others still breathe, and some could even pass this year.
"We're most involved in Vermont, and we're very hopeful the decriminalization bill there will pass before the legislature adjourns," said MPP's O'Keefe. "The bill is in the Senate, and the governor is supportive. That's probably the best chance for removing criminal penalties this year."
Passing a legalization bill could take a little longer, she said.
"Tax and regulate could end up taking a couple of years," said O'Keefe, "but the bills in Maine and Oregon are getting serious consideration, and Rhode Island legislators seem very reasonable. But we don't think it's likely to pass in Rhode Island this year, although we are hopeful in will in the next couple of years be one of the first states to pass it."
That it should take a year or two or three to get marijuana legalization passed in any given state legislature is no surprise, O'Keefe said.
"We've had a lot of bills that got a vote one year, but legislators needed more time to think and be educated," she pointed out. "In Illinois, the House twice voted down medical marijuana before passing it, and in New Hampshire tax and regulate has slowly been gaining more and more support. This isn't something legislators are used to, and in most cases it takes them awhile to get used to it."
For Stroup, using the initiative process in states that allow for it is the best bet, but he cautioned that the movement is going to have to be able to win victories at the statehouse, too.
"Any time we have the choice of going to the people, it's always in our interest to do so," he said. "We know increasingly from the public opinion surveys that if the people decide, we win. Elected officials remain more timid about this than the public -- they're really worried about getting reelected and less worried about reform legislation -- but realistically, we have to be able to win in the states that don't have initiatives."
When it comes to passing bills, though, Stroup drew a parallel with the first burst of decriminalization efforts in the 1970s. Oregon and Maine went for decriminalization early in the decade, but the other handful of states that decriminalized in that era only came in at the end of the decade.
"When we won those first couple of states in the 1970s, we thought we were off and running, but the other states were all waiting to see what would happen, so we didn't win anything for a couple of years," he recalled. "I think we're in the same phase now when it comes to legalization. I have no doubt we will eventually win full legalization everywhere, but for the next couple of years, people in Colorado and Washington are going to have to be especially careful that they are demonstrating responsible use."
Cannabis culture celebrations like 4/20 have their place, said Stroup, but the rest of the time, it should be about responsible use.
"That's not the tactic we need the rest of the year," he said. "We want to demonstrate to the average person that nothing really changes when you legalize marijuana except you quit arresting responsible marijuana smokers and raise some revenue. What we don't want is a bunch of out-of-control pot smokers driving crazy -- that will scare neighboring states and cause a political backlash," the veteran activist warned.
"A backlash because of bad behavior won't stop us -- the demographics are on our side -- but whether it takes five years or 15 depends to some degree on how well we behave ourselves. We may see decriminalization pass somewhere, but I don't think we'll win legalization this year. I think before that passes in state legislatures, those lawmakers need to see that what Colorado and Washington did was a good thing."
The process of turning legalization victories at the voting booth into actual taxed, regulated, and legal commerce in Colorado and Washington is a process in progress in both states right now. By next year, those two states should be living experiments in marijuana legalization. Doing it right there will make it easier to get it done elsewhere. If not this year, next year. Or 2016.
Colorado employers can legally fire marijuana users from their jobs, the state Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in a 2-1 decision. Although the case was brought by a medical marijuana user, the ruling will have any even broader impact given that the state has now legalized marijuana for all adults.
[image:1 align:right]The case was Coats v. Dish Network LLC, in which Brandon Coats, a quadriplegic telephone operator for Dish Network and registered medical marijuana patient, was fired by Dish Network after testing positive for marijuana during a drug test. Paralyzed by a car crash as a teen, Coats had been a registered patient since 2009. Dish Network cited no other reason for firing Coats other than his positive drug test result.
Coats challenged his firing, citing Colorado's Lawful Activities statute, which prohibits employers from firing workers for "engaging in any legal activity off the premises of the employer during nonworking hours." But both the trial court and now the appeals court rejected his challenge, holding that because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the Lawful Activities statute does not apply.
"For an activity to be lawful in Colorado, it must be permitted by, and not contrary to, both state and federal law," the appeals court said.
Judge John Webb dissented, saying he could not find a case addressing whether Colorado judges must consider federal law in determining the meaning of the Colorado statute.
Coats' attorney, Michael Evans, said in a statement that the ruling will have a broad impact in the state.
"This case not only impacts Mr. Coats, but also some 127,816 medical marijuana patient-employees in Colorado who could be summarily terminated even if they are in legal compliance with Colorado state law," Evans said.
And with adult marijuana legalization now in place in the state, it is not just medical marijuana users who stand to be affected.
The ruling is expected to be appealed.
Similar rulings allowing employers to fire medical marijuana users have been upheld by courts in other states, including California, Michigan, and Montana.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its 2013 National Drug Control Strategy Wednesday. The strategy is being billed as a "21st Century Approach" to drug use and trafficking, but despite some rhetorical softening maintains the US hard-line approach to the issue.
[image:1 align:left]"The president has outlined his vision of an America built to last -- where an educated, skilled workforce has the knowledge, energy and expertise to compete in the global marketplace. Yet -- for far too many Americans -- that vision is limited by drug use, which not only diminishes the potential of the individual, but jeopardizes families, communities and neighborhoods," ONDCP wrote on a blog post announcing the strategy's release and touting reductions in cocaine and prescription drug abuse as progress made.
"Today we are releasing a science-driven plan for drug policy reform in America to build upon this progress," ONDCP continued. "This 21st century drug policy outlines a series of evidence-based reforms that treat our nation's drug problem as a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. This policy underscores what we all know to be true: we cannot arrest or incarcerate our way out of the drug problem."
The strategy emphasizes treatment and prevention, but despite the rhetoric, the Fiscal Year 2014 federal drug budget it accompanies continues to be imbalanced, with 58% of federal anti-drug spending directed at law enforcement and interdiction efforts. That figure does mark a decline from previous years, but only a marginal one.
And even its emphasis on treatment also includes punitive criminal justice elements, such as its embrace of the drug court system, where drug-addicted people are subjected to legal sanctions for such addiction-related behaviors as failing a drug test or missing an appointment. That has some drug reformers calling foul.
"The administration says drug use is a health issue but then advocates for policies that put people in the criminal justice system," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Until the drug czar says it is time to stop arresting people for drug use, he is not treating drug use as a health issue no matter what he says. I know of no other health issue in which people are thrown in jail if they don't get better."
While much of the strategy is little more than the same old same old, the strategy does call for expanded access to naloxone, a low-cost antidote that can reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. That is in response to the rapid growth in prescription drug overdose deaths in recent years.
"Director Kerlikowske should be applauded for taking steps to reduce drug overdose fatalities, but he's not doing much to reduce drug arrests or the many other problems associated with treating drug use through the criminal justice system," said Piper.
But while the drug strategy shows flexibility in its efforts to deal with fatal drug overdoses, it maintains a staunch opposition to marijuana reform and includes attacking outdoor and indoor marijuana cultivation as one of its key goals.
"The administration's continued opposition to marijuana law reform shows they're not serious about reforming US drug policy," said Piper. "At the very least they should stop getting in the way of states that are trying to improve public health and safety by regulating marijuana like alcohol."
The first dispensary in Phoenix has opened, dispensaries in Washington, DC, are ready to go, and there has been more federal enforcement activity in California. Let's get to it:
On Saturday, the first licensed dispensary in Phoenix opened its doors, but it couldn't serve any customers because an Arizona Department of Health Services computer server was shut down, affecting all the state's dispensaries. The Bloom Sky Train dispensary rescheduled its official grand opening to Wednesday. It will serve some of the state's 35,000 medical marijuana card holders.
Last Thursday, federal prosecutors moved against 63 dispensaries in Santa Ana. Prosecutors filed three asset forfeiture lawsuits against properties where seven dispensaries are operating and raided two of the stores involved. Also, prosecutors send threat letters to people associated with 56 other dispensaries. That is every known dispensary in the city. The Santa Ana Police and Santa Ana City Attorney's Office cooperated with the feds.
Also last Thursday, San Diego Mayor Filner published his proposed dispensary ordinance.The proposal is based on the recommendations of the medical marijuana taskforce, organized by City Council President Todd Gloria in 2010. It allows medical cannabis dispensaries to exist in designated commercial and industrial areas of the city with large buffers from sensitive areas, including a 600 foot buffer from schools and parks and a 1,000 foot buffer between dispensaries. The proposal also contains additional strict operating requirements including security systems, restriction on hours of operations and signage.
On Monday, the San Diego city council rejected Mayor Filner's proposed ordinance. Instead, the council voted to reintroduce a more restrictive zoning proposal overturned by a voter signature drive in 2011. The decision came after the council heard hours of testimony, with most speakers favoring the mayor's proposal. But Councilmember Marti Emeral put forth a motion to disregard the mayor’s proposal without any discussion of its provisions and to instead resurrect the proposal put forth by the council, and repealed through voter referendum, in 2011. That measure passed the council.
On Tuesday, the DEA and a local drug task force raided the last dispensary in San Diego and nine associated grow sites. Raided was the One on One Patients Association, whose director, Ken Cole, had testified the previous night at the city council's hearing on the mayor's proposed dispensary ordinance. No arrests were made, but marijuana and other items were seized. Cole is also the director of the area dispensary industry group, the United Patients Alliance.
Also on Tuesday, a medical marijuana regulation bill was approved by a legislative committee. Sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco), Assembly Bill 473 would create a medical marijuana regulation division in the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to "regulate the cultivation, manufacture, testing, transportation, distribution, and sale of medical marijuana" on a statewide basis. The measure passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee, which is chaired by Ammiano.
Also on Tuesday, Tulare County supervisors extended their ban on new dispensaries or the expansion of existing for another two years. An existing ban was set to expire next week, and officials said the ban was needed because of constantly changing laws, regulations, court rulings and lawsuits. The county said the changing legal landscape for medical marijuana makes it difficult to license new facilities. The ordinance only bans new facilities or the expansion of those already in existence. Those currently operating will not be forced to close.
On Wednesday, the DEA raided two San Diego area hydroponics stores. Local activists reported that the targets were Miramar Hydroponics in San Diego and Santee Hydroponics in Santee. No word yet of what was seized or whether anyone was arrested.
On Monday, a hearing on proposed medical marijuana regulations drew a standing room only crowd at the Department of Consumer Protection. Crowd members voiced concerns about the regulations' potential effect on lawful marijuana producers and distributors. The two most frequent concerns among the business community came in response to proposed requirements for escrow accounts and brand naming. The regulations stipulate that marijuana producers establish a $2 million escrow account or line of credit which the state could seize if the producer failed to maintain a timely and successful operation. Drug abuse activists on hand at the public hearing expressed their own concerns about the regulation, mostly related to the possible diversion of medical marijuana for recreational use and advertisements targeting youth. The Department of Consumer Protection is expected to submit the final regulations to the General Assembly by July.
District of Columbia
On Tuesday, the Capital City Care dispensary announced it had received its business license. Dispensary operators said they would begin serving patients "as soon as possible," but they have to wait for the DC Department of Health to begin its patient registration process. Two other DC dispensaries, Takoma Wellness Center and the Metropolitan Wellness Center, are also waiting to accept patients. It's only been 15 years since DC voters approved medical marijuana in a 1998 initiative.
Last Friday, the state's first dispensary opened. The Thomas C. Slater Compassion Center opened in Providence. At least two more are slated to open in coming months.
Puerto Rico has become the latest US state or dependency to see a marijuana legalization bill filed this year. Sen. Miguel Pereira earlier this month filed Senate Bill 517 (link is in Spanish) earlier this month.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]Ten states have seen marijuana legalization legislation so far this year. They are Alabama, Hawaii (already dead), Maine, Maryland (already dead), Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
The bill introduced by Periera, a former police chief and federal prosecutor, would amend the island's drug statute so that it "will not be applicable to the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and over." It does not address marijuana cultivation or commerce.
While the bill's prospects are cloudy, space is emerging in the island dependency for a discussion of marijuana policy. Last week, Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla suggested he was open to such a discussion.
"I don't have a problem with an open debate about the possibilities, benefits or drawbacks of such a measure," Garcia Padilla said during a press conference.
The bill has been assigned to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Security, and Veterans Affairs.