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  • by Allen St. Pierre, Former NORML Executive Director February 18, 2012

    By Kellen Russoniello, George Washington University Law student and NORML Legal Intern

    The recent push for implementing drug testing for potential welfare recipients across several states has revealed at least two things: 1. The policy is not economically sound; and 2. It really brings out the hypocrisy in some elected officials.

    Last summer, Florida implemented a law requiring all welfare applicants to submit to a mandatory drug test before receiving any benefits (Applicants had to pay the $30 for the test themselves, only to be reimbursed later if they passed. For more information, see this NORML blog post.). Not surprisingly, the program was brought to a quick halt. Back in October of 2011, a federal judge ruled that the Florida drug testing law was unconstitutional.

    Further, in the few months that the program was up and running, it was shown that only 2% of welfare applicants tested positive for drugs. About 9% of the general population reports using drugs in the past month. So much for Governor Rick Scott’s theory that the poor use drugs more often than the rest of the populace.

    Even more striking is the amount of money that Florida lost from this poorly designed policy. The Tampa Bay Online estimated that $3,400 to $8,200 in savings would be recognized every month from drug testing welfare applicants. As it turns out, the program is estimated to have cost Florida over $200,000. From any perspective, this policy can be regarded as a failure.

    Despite the lessons that can be learned from Florida’s debacle, several states are still considering implementing programs to subject their impoverished population to drug tests. The Huffington Post reported that twelve states attempted passing legislation in 2011 that would require drug tests for welfare applicants. Florida, Missouri, and Arizona were the only three that succeeded. However, Pennsylvania has just begun a pilot program in Schuylkill County that subjects certain applicants to drug tests. By tailoring their laws to apply only to applicants that have aroused reasonable suspicion, these states are hoping to avoid constitutional problems like those that ultimately invalidated the Florida law and a similar Michigan law in 2000 (which was affirmed in 2003). Several states have also tried to drug test those who seek unemployment benefits, state employees, and private sector employees, including the passage of an Indiana law that requires drug testing for those in a state job-training program.

    When pressed, legislators that support this policy try to justify their position by claiming that the taxpayers should not subsidize drug addiction. But taxpayers pay for much more than just welfare. Some of their money goes towards paying their legislators’ salaries. Wouldn’t this same rationale justify drug testing legislators? This has been the tactic of many Democratic state legislators to thwart Republican efforts to test welfare applicants. In fact, a Republican State representative in the Indiana General Assembly recently pulled a bill after another representative amended it to include drug testing for legislators. The bill was reintroduced and passed by the Indiana General Assembly the following week, which included a section requiring legislators to submit to random drug tests. Missouri and Tennessee currently have bills that would require legislators to submit to drug tests. These were introduced in reaction to a slew of bills aimed at requiring drug tests on different areas of the population. It seems that the legislators who want to drug test the poor aren’t really convinced of the merits of the program when applied to themselves.

    Hopefully, state politicians will come to their senses as knowledge about the failure of Florida’s policy becomes more well-known. But given this country’s track record on drug policy, I wouldn’t recommend holding your breath.

    To see a hilarious summary of Florida’s drug-test-the-poor policy, watch this Daily Show clip, which includes Florida State Representative Scott Plakon’s and Governor Rick Scott’s reactions to being asked to take a drug test.

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director January 19, 2012

    January 2012 marks the beginning of a new legislative session in all 50 states. Already, marijuana law reform legislation is pending (or has been pre-filed) in nearly a dozen states. To keep up to date with what’s pending, and how you can support marijuana-friendly reform measures in your state, please visit NORML’s ‘Take Action Center’ here.

    You can also stay abreast of 2012 statewide ballot initiative efforts, such as those ongoing in Colorado and elsewhere, via NORML’s Legalize 2012 Facebook page here.

    Below is this week’s edition of NORML’s Weekly Legislative Round Up — where we spotlight specific examples of pending marijuana law reform legislation from around the country.

    ** A note to first time readers: NORML can not introduce legislation in your state. Nor can any other non-profit advocacy organization. Only your state representatives, or in some cases an individual constituent (by way of their representative; this is known as introducing legislation ‘by request’) can do so. NORML can — and does — work closely with like-minded politicians and citizens to reform marijuana laws, and lobbies on behalf of these efforts. But ultimately the most effective way — and the only way — to successfully achieve statewide marijuana law reform is for local stakeholders and citizens to become involved in the political process and to make the changes they want to see. Get active; get NORML!

    ARIZONA: Legislation has been reintroduced to defelonize marijuana possession penalties in Arizona. House Bill 2044 amends state law so that the adult possession of up to one ounce of marijuana is reduced from a potential felony (punishable by 1.5 years in prison and a $150,000 fine) to a “petty offense” punishable by no more than a $500 fine. You can contact your state House member in support of this measure here.

    CALIFORNIA: State lawmakers have until January 27 to act on a pair of 2011 marijuana reform measures. Assembly Bill 1017 would reduce penalties for marijuana cultivation from a mandatory felony to a “wobbler” or optional misdemeanor. Senate Bill 129 makes it unlawful “for an employer to discriminate against” persons who are authorized under state law to use medical cannabis. You can learn more about these important measures by visiting the California NORML website here. You can read my testimony in favor of SB 129 here.

    INDIANA: For the first time in recent memory, legislation has been introduced to ‘decriminalize’ marijuana possession penalties in Indiana. Senate Bill 347 amends state law so that the adult possession of up to three ounces of marijuana is reduced from a potential felony (punishable by up to three years in prison and a $10,000 fine) to a noncriminal infraction. Senate Bill 347 also amends Indiana’s traffic safety code to halt the prosecution of motorists who test positive for the presence of inactive marijuana metabolites in their urine (so-called zero tolerance per se legislation) but who do not otherwise manifest any other evidence of behavioral impairment. Indianans are strongly encouraged to contact their state Senators in support of SB 347 via NORML’s ‘Take Action Center’ here.

    NEW JERSEY: A coalition of lawmakers have pre-filed legislation for introduction in the 2012 session to significantly reduce penalties for those who possess personal use quantities of marijuana. Assembly Bill 1465 removes criminal penalties for the possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana (presently punishable by up to six-months in prison and a $1,000 fine) and replaces them with civil penalties punishable by no more than a $150 fine. Additional information is available from NORML NJ here or via NORML’s ‘Take Action Center’ here.

    VIRGINIA: Legislation seeking to establish a joint study committee to investigate the fiscal impact of regulating the production and sale of marijuana to adults 21 and over is before the Virginia House of Delegates. To learn more about House Joint Resolution 140, please visit Virginia NORML or consider contacting your state officials here.

    To be in contact with your state officials regarding these measures and other pending legislation, please visit NORML’s ‘Take Action Center’ here.

  • by Russ Belville, NORML Outreach Coordinator May 31, 2011

    At Least 1 – 1.5 Million Americans are Legal Medical Marijuana Patients

    Market for these patients in sixteen states and D.C. estimated at between $2 – $6 billion annually

    MAY 31, 2011 – We don’t know his or her name, but somewhere in one of sixteen states and the District of Columbia is America’s 1,000,000th legal medical marijuana patient. We estimate the United States reached the million-patients mark sometime between the beginning of the year to when Arizona began issuing patient registry identification cards online in April 2011.

    16 states, the Capitol, and ONE MILLION legal marijuana users.

    Between one to one-and-a-half million people are legally authorized by their state to use marijuana in the United States, according to data compiled by NORML from state medical marijuana registries and patient estimates.  Assuming usage of one-half to one gram of cannabis medicine per day per patient and an average retail price of $320 per ouncethese legal consumers represent a $2.3 to $6.2 billion dollar market annually.

    Based on state medical marijuana laws, the amounts of cannabis these legal marijuana users are entitled to possess means there is between 566 – 803 thousand pounds of legal usable cannabis allowed under state law in America.  These patients are allowed to cultivate between 17 – 24 million legal cannabis plants.  There may possibly be more, as California and New Mexico “limits” may be exceeded with doctor’s permission and some California counties explicitly allow greater amounts, so there may be as much as 1 million pounds of state-legal cannabis allowed under state law in America.

    Active Medical Marijuana State (Total population of sixteen medical marijuana states + D.C. = over 90 million.  D.C., Delaware, and New Jersey programs are not yet active.) # Legal Medical Marijuana Patients (% of state population)
    California (1996) – No central state registry, 2% – 3% of overall population estimate by Dale Gieringer at California NORML by comparing rates in Colorado & Montana. ~750,000 (2.00%)

    ~1,125,000 (3.00%)

    Washington (1998) – No registry, 1% – 1.5% of overall population estimate by Russ Belville at NORML by comparing rates in Oregon & Colorado. ~67,000 (1.00%)

    ~100,000 (1.50%)

    Oregon (1998) – Centralized state registry data published online. 39,774 (1.04%)
    Alaska (1998) – No data online, verified by author’s call to Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics. 380 (0.05%)
    Maine (1999) – Centralized state registry data published online. 796 (0.06%)
    Nevada (2000) – 2008 figures from ProCon.org, awaiting return call from state for official number. 860 (0.03%)
    Hawaii (2000) – Estimate from Pam Lichty of Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii; program is run by law enforcement who are reluctant to release data. ~8,000 (0.59%)
    Colorado (2000) – Centralized state registry data published online. 123,890 (2.46%)
    Vermont (2004) – No data online, verified by author’s call to Vermont Criminal Information Center. 349 (0.06%)
    Montana (2004) – Centralized state registry data published online. 30,609 (3.09%)
    Rhode Island (2006) – Centralized state registry data published online. 3,069 (0.29%)
    New Mexico (2007) – Centralized state registry data published online. 3,615 (0.18%)
    Michigan (2008) – Centralized state registry data published online. 75,521 (0.76%)
    Arizona (2010) – Centralized state registry data published online. 3,696 (0.06%)
    TOTAL US LEGAL MARIJUANA USERS ~1,100,000 (1.22%)

    ~1,500,000 (1.67%)

    Yet after fifteen years, one million patients, and a million pounds of legal marijuana, few if any of the dire predictions by opponents of medical marijuana have come to fruition.  Medical marijuana states like Oregon are experiencing their lowest-ever rates of workplace fatalities, injuries, and accidents.  States like Colorado are experiencing their lowest rates in three decades of fatal crashes per million miles driven.  In medical marijuana states for which we have data (through Michigan in 2008), use by minor teenagers is down in all but Maine and down by at least 10% in states with the greatest proportion of their population using medical cannabis. (more…)

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director May 16, 2011

    Police prosecute over 850,000 Americans annually for violating state marijuana laws. The penalties for those busted and convicted vary greatly, ranging from the imposition of small fines to license revocation to potential incarceration. But for the citizens arrested in these five states, the ramifications of even a minor pot bust are likely to be exceptionally severe.

    Alternet.org’s editors recently asked me to compile a list of ‘the worst of the worst’ states to be busted for personal pot possession. Without further ado, here they are:

    The 5 Worst States to Get Busted With Pot
    via Alternet.org

    [excerpt]

    1. Oklahoma — Lawmakers in the Sooner State made headlines this spring when legislators voted 119 to 20 in favor of House Bill 1798, which enhances the state sentencing guidelines for hash manufacturing to a minimum of two years in jail and a maximum penalty of life in prison. (Mary Fallin, the state’s first-ever female governor, signed the measure into law in April; it takes effect on November 1, 2011.) But longtime Oklahoma observers were hardly surprised at lawmakers’ latest “life for pot” plan. After all, state law already allows judges to hand out life sentences for those convicted of cannabis cultivation or for the sale of a single dime-bag.

    2. Texas — On an annual basis, no state arrests and criminally prosecutes more of its citizens for pot than does Texas. Marijuana arrests comprise over half of all annual arrests in the Lone Star State. It is easy to see why. In 2009, more than 97 percent of all Texas marijuana arrests — over 77,000 people — were for possession only. Those convicted face up to 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine, even upon a first conviction.

    3. Florida — According to a 2009 state-by-state analysis by researcher and former NORML Director Jon Gettman, no other state routinely punishes minor marijuana more severely than does the Sunshine State. Under Florida law, marijuana possession of 20 grams or less (about two-thirds of an ounce) is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to one-year imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Marijuana possession over 20 grams, as well as the cultivation of even a single pot plant, are defined by law as felony offenses – punishable by up to five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. In recent years, state lawmakers have revisited the state’s marijuana penalties – in each case electing to enhance Florida’s already toughest-in-the-nation criminal punishments.

    4. Louisiana — In Louisiana, multi-decade (or even life) sentences for repeat pot offenders are hardly a rare occurrence. Under Louisiana law, a second pot possession conviction is classified as a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison. Three-time offenders face up to 20 years in prison. According to a 2008 expose published in New Orleans City Business online, district attorneys are not hesitant to “target small-time marijuana users, sometimes caught with less than a gram of pot, and threaten them with lengthy prison sentences.”

    5. Arizona — Forty years ago virtually every state in the nation defined marijuana possession as a felony offense. Today, only one state, Arizona, treats first-time pot possession in such an archaic and punitive manner. Under Arizona law, even minor marijuana possession offenses may be prosecuted as felony crimes, punishable by up to 18 months in jail and a $150,000 fine. According to Jon Gettman’s 2009 analysis only Florida consistently treats minor marijuana possession cases more severely.

    For a comprehensive breakdown of state-by-state marijuana penalties, visit NORML’s online map here. To get active in changing the laws of your state, visit NORML’s ‘Take Action Center’ here, sign up for free NORML news and legislative alerts, get involved with your local NORML chapter (or start your own chapter here), and join national NORML.

    Get active; get NORML!

  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director May 4, 2011

    The Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana, circa 2009 (via the Ogden memo to all United States attorneys):

    “The prosecution of significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, and the disruption of illegal drug manufacturing and trafficking networks continues to be a core priority in the Department’s efforts against narcotics and dangerous drugs, and the Department’s investigative and prosecutorial resources should be directed towards these objectives. As a general matter, pursuit of these priorities should not focus federal resources in your States on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

    The Obama administration’s position on medical marijuana, circa 2011 (via the May 2, 2011 letter sent from the office of the United States Attorney, District of Arizona, to the Arizona Department of Health Services re: the implementation of the voter-approved Medical Marijuana Program):

    “The United States Attorneys Office … will vigorously prosecute individuals and organizations that participate in the unlawful manufacturing, distribution and marketing activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.”

    A lot can change in two years — including the administration’s attitude toward the state-authorized use and distribution of cannabis for medical purposes.

    In April, NORML blogged about the U.S. Department of Justice, particularly U.S. Attorneys Jenny Durkan of Seattle and Michael Ormsby of Spokane, threatening “civil and criminal legal remedies” (read: sanctions) against Washington state citizens, including state employees, who assist with or engage in the production or distribution of medical cannabis, “even if such activities are permitted under state law.” The U.S. Attorneys’ threats came in response to an inquiry from Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, who most likely was seeking ‘political cover’ so that she could publicly ‘justify’ her veto of legislation (SB 5073) that sought to license and regulate the dispensing of medical cannabis to qualified persons, and would have enacted additional legal protections for patients who voluntarily participated in a statewide registry. The threats worked; Gov. Gregoire cited them in her veto statement Friday.

    In fact, the threats worked so well, that in recent days U.S. Attorneys in other states with active medical marijuana programs have begun issuing similar menacing statements.

    Last week in Colorado, where state regulators have licensed over 800 state-licensed medical cannabis dispensaries, U.S. Attorney John Walsh sent a letter to the state’s Attorney General alleging that the federal Justice Department will “vigorously” prosecute individuals or organizations engaged in “unlawful manufacturing and distribution activity involving marijuana, even if such activities are permitted under state law.” A spokesman for Walsh’s office adds, “In the eye of the federal government, there’s only one type of marijuana. And marijuana is a Schedule I controlled [federally prohibited] substance.”

    Arizona U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke fired off a similarly worded letter this week to Will Humble, the director of the state Department of Health Services, which is overseeing the implementation of Proposition 203. Under the law, which was approved by voters last fall and was enacted on April 15, the state must register qualified patients who have a doctor’s recommendation for cannabis and also license dispensaries to provide it to them. However, according to Burke, said dispensaries that are compliant with the state’s law will “not [be] protect[ed] from [federal] criminal prosecution, asset forfeiture, and other civil penalties.”

    Finally, in Rhode Island, Gov. Lincoln Chafee announced this week that he is suspending the state’s nascent medical marijuana distribution program, set to begin this June. In March, the representatives from the Rhode Island Department of Health selected three applicants to operate the state’s first-ever, government licensed medical cannabis dispensaries. (The dispensaries program was initially approved by lawmakers in 2009, but the winning applicants were not decided upon until two years later.) Predictably, Chafee’s abrupt change of heart came after receiving a hand-delivered letter from U.S. Attorney Peter F. Neronha Friday threatening to prosecute civilly and/or criminally those involved in the dispensary program.

    So what’s the impetus for the Obama administration’s sudden decision to play rhetorical hard ball? NORML Outreach Coordinator and podcaster Russ Belville speculates:

    “Mr. Obama’s … true intention is to stifle the development of any viable legal cannabis distribution industry. By sending threat letters to Rhode Island and Arizona, states that have created clear and unambiguous laws for medical cannabis providers to follow, it is obvious that Mr. Obama isn’t opposed to medical cannabis, per se, but terribly opposed to medical cannabusiness.

    Belville adds: “If (medical cannabusiness) establish (themselves), people will become accustomed to safe, secure, well-run businesses that deliver consistent, reliable, tested cannabis products. They’ll appreciate the way these places revitalize sagging economies, provide jobs, and contribute taxes to budget-starved localities. They’ll realize all the scaremongering by the government about what would happen if marijuana was legal, even for sick people, was hysterical propaganda. [And] they’ll begin to wonder why we don’t just legalize cannabis for everyone, create more jobs, raise more revenue, and use these established businesses as the distribution points.”

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