Our War @ Home
Some silver linings
by Aaron Neumann
With the re-election of Bush et al and Republicans tromping to victories last fall, the outlook for reforming our nation’s draconian drug policies and finally developing an exit strategy from our home-grown quagmire – the War On Drugs (WOD) – is looking a little bleak.
But overlooked by the corporate media were some silver linings on the dark cloud of punitive U.S. drug policy that shined in 2004. But first, let’s recap some of the bad news from last year.
Police arrested an estimated 755,187 persons for marijuana violations in 2003.
This total, according to the latest Federal Bureau of Investigation's annual Uniform Crime Report, is the highest ever recorded by the FBI, and comprised 45 percent of all drug arrests in the United States. A marijuana smoker is now arrested every 42 seconds in America for choosing to enjoy one of the safest, most therapeutically active substances know to mankind -no one known has ever died from smoking or ingesting cannabis. Of those charged with marijuana violations, 88 percent - some 662,886 Americans - were charged with possession only. That’s right, over a half a million Americans per year are arrested for simply enjoying a joint. Marijuana arrests for 2003 increased 8 percent from the previous year, and have now nearly doubled since 1993.
California voters narrowly rejected Proposition 66.
The measure would have restored California's "Three Strikes" law to the voters' original intent -- providing for sentences of 25-years-to-life for violent repeat offenders. Right now, several thousand people are serving 25-to-life sentences only for petty, nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession or shoplifting. The prison guards' union, three former governors and current Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spent millions of dollars in a late advertising buy to spread falsehoods about the measure.
In televised ads, The Govenator claimed that under Prop. 66, "26,000 dangerous criminals will be released from prison." But Superior Court Judge Raymond Cadei called this statement "patently false" and "mathematically impossible." The Sacramento Bee took the governor to task for this, calling it a "desperate bid" full of the "worst kind of late attack ads." Yet again, the politics of fear superceded the politics of justice.
Medical Marijuana Initiative failed in Oregon, Berkeley (CA), and Minneapolis.
Both Oregon's Measure 33, which sought to greatly expand the state's existing medicinal cannabis law, and Berkeley’s California's Measure R, which sought to replace the city's 10-plant medical cannabis limit with an amount in accordance with a patient's needs, failed to gain voter approval by narrow margins.
In Minneapolis, a grassroots organization has the necessary 12,000 + signatures to place a medical marijuana question to the voters, but the Minneapolis City Council voted not to allow the proposed charter amendment on the ballot (see Pulse, 9/1/04). Minneapolis Charter Commission Chair Jim Bernstein opposed the initiative because “manifestly unconstitutional,” and that “it conflicts with federal or state law.” Yet, the language in the measure was contingent upon passage of a state law permitting medical marijuana, and would then
set up a framework for a medical marijuana system in Minneapolis where private distributors would be licensed and monitored by the city to distribute marijuana to certified patients. The spinelessness of the Charter's and Council's actions were noted around the country.
Feds To Employ Hair, Sweat And Saliva Testing For Government Workers -
Guidelines proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in 2004 would allow federal agencies to collect samples of employees' hair, sweat and saliva to test for illicit drugs. About 400,000 federal workers are subject to federal drug testing and stand to be impacted by the new regulations, which would also clear the way for the expanded use of alternative testing technologies in the private business sector.
In 2000, the most recent year for which figures are available, urine tests were performed on 106,493 federal workers at a cost of $6.1 million, according to the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - which sets and oversees the federal drug testing guidelines. Of those tested, 532 persons tested positive for illicit drugs, as a cost to taxpayers of $11,466 per positive test result. So the question remains: How does manditory drug testing for all have anything to do with competent job performance?
An Alaska marijuana initiative was defeated.
With Alaska courts having ruled possession of up to four ounces of marijuana is legal in one's home, the state already has the most progressive pot laws in the country. But voters there last fall narrowly turned down an opportunity to advance even further, rejecting an initiative that would have removed all criminal penalties for marijuana use, possession, and distribution. Initially there was support and momentum for this initiative, yet what grounds were made were lost with the arrest of a 16-year-old Anchorage youth in October of ‘04 on charges of raping and killing (or killing and raping) his stepmother.
According to sensationalized and widely-repeated press accounts, the youth confessed to fighting with his stepmother over his marijuana use and "maybe" hitting her with a baseball bat, but being "too stoned" to remember for sure. He denied sexually assaulting her, either before or after her death, but was charged and convicted of murder and sexual assault. This initiative also faced heavy opposition from the Office of National Drug Control Policy and Alaska drug warriors. Sadly, too many voters wrongly associated the youth's mental illness and subsequent violent actions with the most peaceful substances known.
While the opposition is well-financed and has the ear of those currently in power, there were a variety of strikingly positive reforms that surfaced last year.
New York: Rockefeller Reform in Albany County
- Voters in Albany County, New York have made history by ousting their district attorney because of his support for the state's harsh Rockefeller Drug Laws and choosing a successor based on his commitment to real reform. Former deputy prosecutor David Soares, 35, was victorious over his one remaining opponent, Republican Roger Cusick.
Albany District Attorney Paul Clyne, a noted drug warrior and Rockefeller proponent, dropped out of the race for his own office last week. Clyne quit the race after many prominent New York politicians called on him to do so. One of those politicians was Soares -- who made real reform of New York state's Rockefeller Drug Laws a focal point of his campaign.
Soares, who worked under Clyne as Assistant DA, won the Democratic primary with 62 percent of the vote. After his defeat, Clyne decided to run in the general election as an Independence Party candidate. Clyne later dropped out and endorsed Republican Roger Cusick, who lost to Soares. "For your belief in me, I promise to clean up Albany and get you Rockefeller reform," Soares said in his victory speech.
The Albany County DA is the most important prosecutor in the state, because the office has jurisdiction over the state legislature. Some district attorneys have also been a significant obstacle in trying to overhaul the Rockefeller laws, and having a powerful friend of reform will set precedent for other prosecutors to follow.
Oakland voters have overwhelmingly approved Measure Z.
By amending the city’s Charter, the citizen initiative set the groundwork for decriminalizing marijuana while making private, adult cannabis use the lowest enforcement priority for police, therefore allowing the police to focus their resources and energy on fighting violent crime and lowering the city's murder rate. The initiative will also raise funds for the city and allow medical marijuana users to buy their medicine from legitimate businesses.
Endorsers of Measure Z
included public health groups, community leaders and elected officials. Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland in Congress, recorded a phone message to Oakland voters urging their support. The Bay Area has a long history of championing reforms that lead to desperately-needed changes on the state and national levels. Reformers take note of Oakland, their strategies and tactics are leading the way to a sensible drug policy.
Voters in Columbia, (MO), Ann Arbor (MI), Montana, and Massachusetts liberalize pot laws.
Over 70 percent of voters approved The Missouri Medical Marijuana Initiative
(Proposition 1), which amends the Columbia city criminal code so that "adults who obtain and use marijuana and/or marijuana paraphernalia for medical purposes pursuant to the recommendation of a physician shall not be subject to any arrest, prosecution, punishment, or sanction." Six out of ten Columbia voters also approved The Missouri Smart Sentencing Initiative
(Proposition 2), which amends the city criminal code to depenalize the possession of marijuana and/or paraphernalia to a fine-only offense.
In Michigan, an estimated 75 percent of voters in Ann Arbor approved Proposal C, the Ann Arbor Medical Marijuana Act
, which directs the city to allow qualified patients to possess and cultivate marijuana for medicinal purposes under the authorization of their physician. Detroit voters endorsed a similar initiatives this past August.
In Montana, 63 percent of voters approved a similar statewide measure, I-148
, which legalizes authorized patients to possess up to six marijuana plants and one usable ounce of marijuana to treat certain qualified medical conditions, including cancer, AIDS, and Multiple Sclerosis. Montana is the eleventh state to exempt medicinal marijuana patients from state criminal penalties, and is the seventh to do so via state initiative. In Massachusetts, voters in three state Senate and eight House districts overwhelmingly backed several non-binding "public policy questions" depenalizing the possession of marijuana for personal use, and legalizing the medical use of cannabis for patients who possess a doctor's authorization.
All of these reforms were enacted by an initiative an referendum process, a form of direct democracy that is lacking in Minnesota. Interestingly enough, it is the Republicans in the State Legislature that push for such a process.
Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments On Whether Feds Can Prosecute Medical Marijuana Patients
- The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in late November to determine whether patients who use marijuana in compliance with state laws are constitutionally protected from federal arrest and prosecution.
"If our Constitution means anything, it should mean that 'the war on drugs' cannot be made to be a war on the quality of life of the chronically orterminally ill," NORML (The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) stated in an amicus curaie filed with the Court on behalf of the respondents, patients Angel Raich and Diane Monson. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by March 2005. This keystone ruling will set the precedent for all states that have passed medical marijuana laws, including Minnesota, on whether states right have validity.
Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Hemp Foods Ban
- The Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in February struck down Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) regulations criminalizing the possession and manufacture of edible hemp seed or oil products that contain trace amounts of THC. The Hemp Industries Association (HIA), which represents over 200 hemp companies in North America, had urged the court to invalidate the DEA regulations because the agency lacks legal authority to regulate non-psychoactive hemp, and because minute amounts of THC in hemp products represent no threat to public safety.
The federal appeals court agreed with appellants that the DEA's ban was improper because it classified non-psychoactive hemp as a Schedule I controlled substance without following the required legislative procedures. "The DEA's Final Rules purport to regulate foodstuffs containing 'natural and synthetic THC,'" the court determined. "But [the DEA] cannot regulate naturally-occurring THC not contained or derived from marijuana - i.e., non-psychoactive hemp products - because non-psychoactive hemp is not included in Schedule I. The DEA has no authority to regulate drugs that are not scheduled, and it has not followed procedures required to schedule a substance." Now the next bottle-neck on the hemp front is to allow our U.S. farmers to compete in the global hemp market - essentially legalizing farming. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation in the world that prohibits it's farmers from growing hemp.
A Silver Lining
While some may be still retching from last year’s political outcomes and direction, it appears that after over 70 years of strict prohibitionist policy, the tide may be turning. NORML Founder Keith Stroup noted last year’s generally positive trend.
"What these results appear to be telling us is that Americans strongly support reforming America's marijuana laws,” he said, “The results, once again, affirm that a majority of US citizens strongly back the legalization of medical marijuana for qualified patients, and that they don't want adults who use marijuana responsibly to face arrest or jail."
Like all silver linings, the rays of hope, justice and freedom are always beaming right behind that dark cloud. The sunshine of a sensible drug policy will always remain a constant, while the dark cloud of Our War at Home will inevitably be blown away by the winds of change.