Belize broaches decriminalization
Cannabis could soon be decriminalized in Belize following comments by Minister of Police and Public Safety Doug Singh that his ministry is preparing a paper exploring the idea to be presented to the Cabinet. Singh said that he is looking at removing criminal penalties for quantities under somewhere between five to seven grams. He emphasized that under the proposal, those caught with such personal quantities would still face a ticket and fine, and that legalization is not under consideration.
Under current law, those caught even with a small amount of cannabis face arrest and a hefty fine. Failure to pay can result in a prison term, but even those who pay willingly have a permanent criminal record.
Criminal offense or not, there has always been a robust cannabis trade in Belize, where the herb is widely grown both for local consumption and export. In the 1980s, High Times magazine dubbed cannabis imported from the small country on Central America's Caribbean coast "Belize Breeze," and took issue with the then-government of Manuel Esquivel for spraying Paraquat on plantations. Charles Bartlett Hyde, a former speaker of Belize's House of Representative, has been a longtime proponent of decrim, and hailed Singh's proposal. "This is a good beginning," Hyde told local newspaper The Reporter.
Hyde also protested that the marijuana cultivation law carries the same penalty as drug trafficking—a fine of $10,000 or three years imprisonment. "The majority of people who smoke marijuana are doing it for recreational purposes and for relaxation," Hyde said, with only a small minority involved in trafficking.
Mexico busts more Sinaloa kingpins —but still not El Chapo
Mexican federal police on Feb. 14 announced the arrest in Culiacán, Sinaloa, of Jaime Herrera Herrera AKA "El Viejito" (Little Old Man), said to be top meth manufacturer and distributor for the Sinaloa Cartel. The bust came ten days after the arrest in León, Guanajuato, of José Antonio Torres Marrufo AKA "El Marrufo"—said to be leader of the Gente Nueva gang, armed wing of the Sinaloa Cartel. Prosecutors suspect Marrufo of ordering the 2009 attack on a drug treatment clinic in Ciudad Juárez in which 18 people were killed. The cartel's maximum boss, Joaquín Guzmán AKA "El Chapo" (Shorty), still remains at large—amid growing speculation that he is protected by the Mexican government and DEA.
Patient advocates file brief in federal case to reclassify cannabis
The country's leading medical marijuana advocacy group, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), filed an appeal Jan. 26 with the DC Circuit to compel the federal government to reclassify cannabis for medical use. In July 2011, the DEA denied a petition filed in 2002 by the Coalition for Rescheduling Cannabis (CRC). The petition was denied only after the coalition sued the government for unreasonable delay. The ASA brief is an appeal of the rescheduling denial.
"By ignoring the wealth of scientific evidence that clearly shows the therapeutic value of marijuana, the Obama administration is playing politics at the expense of sick and dying Americans," said ASA chief counsel Joe Elford. "For the first time in more than 15 years we will be able to present evidence in court to challenge the government's flawed position on medical marijuana."
The ASA appeal brief asserts that the federal government acted arbitrarily and capriciously in its efforts to deny cannabis to millions of patients throughout the United States. ASA argues in the brief that the DEA has no "license to apply different criteria to marijuana than to other drugs, ignore critical scientific data, misrepresent social science research, or rely upon unsubstantiated assumptions, as the DEA has done in this case." ASA is urging the court to "require the DEA to analyze the scientific data evenhandedly," and order "a hearing and findings based on the scientific record."
Since the CRC petition was filed in 2002, more studies have been published that show the medical benefits of cannabis for disorders such as neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's. Recent studies even show that cannabis may inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Last year, the National Cancer Institute added cannabis to its list of Complementary Alternative Medicines, pointing out that it's been therapeutically used for millennia. The ASA appeal asserts that scientific evidence that was discovered or studied after 2002 is relevant and must be considered.
Passage of medical marijuana laws correlated with fewer suicides
The enactment of state medical marijuana laws is associated with reduced instances of suicide, according to a discussion paper published in February by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany. Researchers at Montana State University, the University of Colorado, and San Diego State University assessed rates of suicide in the years before and after the passage of medical marijuana laws. Authors of the discussion paper, entitled "High on Life: Medical Marijuana Laws and Suicide," found: "Our results suggest that the passage of a medical marijuana law is associated with an almost 5 percent reduction in the total suicide rate, an 11 percent reduction in the suicide rate of 20- through 29-year-old males, and a 9 percent reduction in the suicide rate of 30- through 39-year-old males.”
Estimates of the relationship between legalization and female suicides were less precise. But the authors theorized that the regulated availability of cannabis may "lead to an improvement in the psychological well-being of young adult males, an improvement that is reflected in fewer suicides." They further speculated, "The strong association between alcohol consumption and suicide-related outcomes found by previous researchers raises the possibility that medical marijuana laws reduce the risk of suicide by decreasing alcohol consumption." They concluded: "Policymakers weighing the pros and cons of legalization should consider the possibility that medical marijuana laws may lead to fewer suicides among young adult males."
The same team of researchers carried out last year's study finding a decline in traffic fatalities in states that have legalized medical marijuana.
NJ Supreme Court: five years in prison for MS patient
Multiple sclerosis patient John Ray Wilson must complete his five-year prison term for growing cannabis after New Jersey's Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal on Jan. 20, in what attorney William Buckman called a "wrongheaded and a vicious travesty."
Wilson was arrested in August 2008 and charged with "manufacturing" 17 marijuana plants that he used to treat his MS. The jury was not allowed to hear details of Wilson's condition, essentially removing his only defense. In December 2009, Wilson was acquitted of first-degree marijuana manufacture, with a sentence of 20 years, but convicted on a second-degree manufacturing charge. He was sentenced to five years in prison in March 2010, with protests held outside the courthouse in Somerville. In July 2011, an appellate court ruling affirmed the conviction and sentencing. Gov. Chris Christie ignored appeals from state senators Nicholas Scutari and Raymond Lesniak seeking a pardon.
MS is a qualifying condition for medical marijuana in New Jersey under the two-year-old Compassionate Use Act, but the state's Medicinal Marijuana Program is not operational yet. "This is further proof that there is no justice for medical marijuana patients in New Jersey," said Ken Wolski, RN, executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey (CMMNJ).
The National MS Society has confirmed that standard therapies often provide inadequate relief for the symptoms of disease, and that cannabis helps with such symptoms as pain and spasticity—and may limit disease progression. An estimated 15% of those with the disease in the US use cannabis for symptom relief.
Chris Goldstein, a member of the CMMNJ board of directors, said: "How many more seriously ill residents are we going to pay to send to prison? We call on Gov. Chris Christie to demonstrate his compassion for qualifying medical marijuana patients...by issuing a pardon for John Ray Wilson."
2011 NYC pot busts top 50,000
Records show New York City police arrested nearly 50,700 on low-level pot charges last year—despite a drop after officers were instructed not to use tactics that rights groups decried as trickery. New York State Division of Criminal Justice figures show arrests for the lowest marijuana misdemeanor actually rose slightly in 2011. The Drug Policy Alliance obtained the statistics and provided them to the Associated Press.
In New York, small amounts of cannabis must be openly visible to warrant arrest. Critics say police arrest people after finding the weed in pockets or bags after "requesting" a search. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly reminded officers of the law in September, supposedly putting an end to the practice. Kelly said most of those arrested had displayed the weed in public.
Low-level marijuana arrests in New York City rose for the seventh straight year in 2011, reaching 50,680. The arrest total is the highest on record since former pot-smoker Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office, and its the second highest total ever recorded in the history of the city—just 587 arrests behind the record-holding year 2000, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani oversaw some 51,267 people arrested for marijuana violations.
The Occupy Wall Street movement helped bring pressure on Kelly to announce the policy change, with some 100 protesters marching on Harlem's 28th precinct police station from the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building on Oct. 21. Some 30 were arrested for blocking the entrance to the station house. Demonstrators held signs that read "NYPD Protects and Serves the Rich" and "Cease, Desist: Stop and Frisk."
Ramarley Graham, 18, was shot and killed by a NYPD officer in the Williamsbridge section of The Bronx on the afternoon of Feb. 2 after entering an apartment as undercover officers pursued him. Department spokesman Paul J. Browne said there was "no evidence that he was armed" when the narcotics officer shot him once in the upper chest. Police found a small bag of cannabis in the toilet at the home he entered after the pursuit. He was killed in the bathroom, apparently while trying to dispose of the stash. Police said they had followed him after witnessing a drug purchase (presumably cannabis), and said they thought he had a gun.
Graham's devastated grandmother, Patricia Hartley, 58, was held for seven hours at the 47th Precinct stationhouse after the shooting, where she was questioned for over five hours by cops and representatives from the District Attorney's office. The revelation further fueled community outrage.
Graham was the third person the NYPD had killed in a week. On Jan. 26, an off-duty police lieutenant shot a 22-year-old carjacking suspect in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn. On Jan. 29, an off-duty detective shot an unarmed 17-year-old in Bushwick, Brooklyn, apparently during a mugging.
An angry crowd of some 500 protesters gathered Feb. 6 outside of the residence where Graham was shot. "We are human beings. Stop treating us like animals," Frank Graham, the slain teen's father, told the crowd. "My son did nothing wrong. I want justice for my son, my baby."
Some self-defense for medical providers after high court turns down handgun case
Two men wearing clown masks and wielding handguns burst into the Creme de Canna medical marijuana dispensary in Santa Cruz Feb. 2, forcing employees to turn over the contents of the safe before fleeing. The hit mirrors one on Dec. 15, when two men wearing carnival masks held up the city's Herbal Cruz dispensary.
The heists come amid growing concerns about gunplay in the West Coast cannabis industry, exacerbated by the frequent refusal of local authorities to issue concealed handgun permits to medical marijuana users. Such policies by mostly rural counties on the West Coast and elsewhere were dealt a blow by the US Supreme Court's recent refusal to hear an appeal of a lower court decision upholding the rights of permit-holders who use cannabis legally under state law.
The case concerned Cynthia Willis of Gold Hill, Ore., a retired school-bus driver and longtime concealed handgun permit holder. Willis was refused a renewal of her permit by the Jackson County Sheriff's Office on the grounds that she a is a registered medical marijuana user. In 2008, Willis went to court over the matter.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters argued that issuing the license would violate federal law—specifically the Gun Control Act of 1968, which forbids anyone who uses or is "addicted" to a controlled substance from possessing a firearm. A court initially ruled for Willis, but the sheriff appealed. When Willis prevailed again, Winters went to the Oregon Supreme Court. The state's highest court also agreed with the lower courts, finding that the 1968 law gives the states authority to set their own rules for gun ownership and concealed weapons permits. Winters then had the county legal team take the case to the US Supreme Court. In early January, the federal high court declined to hear the case, along with a similar gun-permit case from Washington County, Ore. Winter was forced to provide concealed handgun licenses to Willis and other medical marijuana patients.
NORML attorney Lee Berger, a well-known activist lawyer in Oregon, saw the case from the lower courts on up. He said he hopes this message from the Supreme Court will force other sheriffs to respect the rights of medical marijuana patients. The case has cost Jackson County about $50,000 in legal fees.
Spike in Southern California sea seizures
An estimated $500,000 worth of cannabis was found floating off the coast of Marina del Rey on Feb. 2. A boater alerted authorities to 30 bales, or 900 pounds, found some six miles west of the Marina del Rey harbor entrance, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said. The US Customs and Border Protection took over the case from the Marina del Rey Sheriff's Station, which first responded in the incident, the latest in a string of nautical cannabis seizures. A fishing boat, called a panga, washed ashore in Malibu three days earlier carrying about 1,500 pounds, officials reported. The area it was found is tellingly known as "Smugglers Cove."
Authorities speculate that beefed up enforcement along the US-Mexican border has led to cannabis smuggling in waters further up California's coast. At least 10 such incidents have occurred in Southern California waters in fiscal 2012 so far, authorities reported. There were 26 for all of fiscal 2011; nine in fiscal 2010; and two in 2009.
Was Cessna pilot who buzzed Obama buzzed himself?
Two Air Force fighters on Feb. 16 intercepted a private Cessna that entered the same Los Angeles airspace as Marine One—the official presidential helicopter, with Barack Obama onboard. Police discovered about 40 pounds of cannabis in the plane after instructing it to land at Long Beach Airport, an official anonymously told the Associated Press.
The Secret Service said the president was never in any danger. However, North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) said it scrambled two F-16 fighters from March Air Reserve Base in Riverside county to intercept the Cessna. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson said the agency's Homeland Security Investigations unit questioned the pilot, who has been turned over to Long Beach police and remains in custody. He will face local prosecution, ICE said.
San Diego: trial prepared in controversial cultivation case
Jury selection is set to begin in the trial of San Diego area medical marijuana patient Benjamin Gasper—a case that has local advocates outraged over what they call a vindictive crusade against legal cannabis users by San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. The charges were dismissed last year on procedural grounds, but re-filed by Dumanis. Because Gasper never actually stood trial, this does not constitute double jeopardy.
In the summer of 2009, Gasper, along with two other seriously ill medical marijuana patients, rented a warehouse space in the Sports Arena area of San Diego—a commercial district far from residences and other "sensitive uses." In November—a month after the "9-9-9" mass sweep of San Diego dispensaries led by Dumanis' office—police raided the warehouse under the guise of a "safety check" after finding the front roll-up gate was partially open. Charged with felony cultivation and possession with intent to distribute, Gasper refused a plea bargain and sought representation from attorney Bahar Ansari of the San Diego chapter of Americans for Safe Access. In June 2010, Ansari won dismissal of the charges on the basis of procedural irregularities at his initial hearing. But Dumanis responded by filing the charges anew.
Dumanis' office considers sale of cannabis to be illegal in all cases, despite California's medical marijuana law—and that the quantity of plants found at the warehouse was indicative of intent to sell. This is contested by Gasper and his legal team. His current attorney Melissa Bobrow says the 133 plants in and of themselves are not indicia of intent to sell. Court documents show that all three members of Gasper's collective signed an agreement which stated: "As qualified medical marijuana patients under California law, we choose to associate collectively or cooperatively to cultivate marijuana for medical purposes. All members of our medical marijuana collective will contribute labor, funds, or materials, and all will receive medicine."
San Jose suspends restrictive medical ordinance
Mayor Chuck Reed issued a memo Jan. 27 calling for the city of San Jose to suspend its controversial medical marijuana ordinance. He cited the California Supreme Court's decision to review four medical marijuana cases dealing with localities' power to regulate, as well as a referendum that has qualified for the ballot to repeal the ordinance. He said the city will remain in talks with dispensaries and will continue to collect taxes on them. "We're just in a position where we can't fix this without some clarification on this unsettled area of the law," Reed said. "It's just impossible for local government to do. So, we’re just going to have to wait." The City Council still has to act on Reed's memo.
The San Jose ordinance approved in September would have limited the number of cannabis collectives permitted in the city to 10—about a tenth of the current total. The first 10 to submit qualified applications would be chosen, and they would have to grow all of the cannabis they distribute on site. Reed, who supported the law, had initially signaled he would let voters decide its fate in June if a referendum qualified. But now he says that with so many things pending, the city should hold off on its own regulations. Other local governments, including Santa Cruz County, have taken a similar approach.
The more than 100 San Jose cannabis clubs remain illegal under city zoning codes and officially subject to closure, Reed said—though they still must pay the medical marijuana business tax. With a limited staff, the city has closed few to date. Reed says he will prioritize enforcement against operations considered to be a nuisance. "We can focus on those that are causing trouble," Reed said.
Police and thieves scare Humboldt County
Fear is growing in Northern California’s cannabis hub of Humboldt County over a wave of busts and home break-ins. The Sheriff's Office is searching for four unidentified male suspects after a report of a home invasion robbery in Salmon Creek Feb. 9. Sheriff's deputies were dispatched to the residence before 6 AM after a 911 call from the residence reporting that four men with ski-masks and shotguns had forced entry, tied up the caller and his wife, and made off with 30 pounds of cannabis and more than $3,000. Held for about an hour as the assailants searched the premises, the caller managed to free himself after they fled.
That same week, Humboldt Sheriff's deputies arrested three men during a two-day stakeout of the Humboldt Sanitation company in McKinleyville, after complaints from management that people were entering the facility and removing discarded cannabis trimmings and other items after business hours. The three were arrested on trespassing, petty theft, and possession of cannabis, methamphetamine, hypodermic syringes and a other charges.
In a move that raised eyebrows among local residents, in January the accused head of a cannabis cultivation operation near Bridgeville was sentenced to serve 1,000 hours of community service and forfeit almost $40,000 in cash under terms of a plea agreement. Thomas William Morgan, a naturalized US citizen from Bulgaria also known as Taco Nikolov Budnakov, was arrested Oct. 19 and charged with cultivation and possession of marijuana for sales after the Sheriff's Office reported finding 190 pounds of dried cannabis, more than 60 pounds of processed buds, a handgun and the cash at his property. Morgan pleaded guilty to a felony charge of maintaining a residence for the purpose of marijuana cultivation in exchange for not doing any prison time. In a statement, Humboldt District Attorney Paul Gallegos defended the deal: "The way I look at it is people who broke the law but are not dangerous shouldn't be sitting in jail at county expense, they should be out in the street doing work. There's plenty of need and plenty of work to do."
But many are outraged that Budnakov's four trimmers—three Bulgarians and a Ukrainian—spent almost two months in jail before they were allowed to plead "no contest" to misdemeanor charges of being an accessory to a crime, receiving time served (54 days). Five others—from Bulgaria, Ukraine, Germany and Thailand—are awaiting deals. Budnakov himself was released on $75,000 bail, and only served two days.
While looking to arrest the landowners associated with a massive outdoor growing operation busted in October near Mad River, police on Dec. 20 uncovered an entire McKinleyville apartment complex rigged for growing cannabis. The October bust lead to the seizure of almost 2,000 live plants, more than 1,500 pounds of harvested cannabis, and over 40 arrests—all but one trimmers. The one exception, Meghan Moody, was released on bail and has not been formally charged. Executing search warrants on the owners of the Mad River property led to discovery of the mega-scale indoor grow op in McKinleyville. No actual growing plants were found at the McKinleyville, indicating the grow op was not yet functioning.
Montana constitutional initiative would legalize in Big Sky country
The group Montana First is seeking signatures for a ballot initiative that would legalize cannabis in the state. Constitutional Initiative No.110 (CI-110) would add two sentences to the state constitution: "Adults have the right to responsibly purchase, consume, produce, and possess marijuana, subject to reasonable limitations, regulations, and taxation. Except for actions that endanger minors, children, or public safety, no criminal offense or penalty of this state shall apply to such activities."
The ballot language informs voters which part of the constitution is to be amended, notes that "federal criminal laws regarding marijuana will not be changed by the passage of this initiative," and specifies that it would go into effect July 1, 2013, if approved by the voters.
This is largely the same group of activists and supporters who last summer and fall organized the successful signature-gathering campaign to put the IR-124 initiative on the November 2012 ballot. That initiative seeks to undo the legislature's evisceration of the state medical marijuana distribution program.
This time around, it will be more difficult, however. Because this is a constitutional initiative, organizers will have to gather more than double the number of signatures they needed for I-124. To qualify for the ballot, campaigners need to gather some 45,000 valid voter signatures, and Montana law also requires that those signatures include 10% of voters in at least 40 of 100 of the state's electoral districts. They have until June 22.
Small-town haven for medical marijuana in northern Colorado
With medical marijuana dispensaries banned by local ordinance in Loveland, Fort Collins and Longmont, Herbs Medicinals in the small town of Berthoud, Larimer county, is one of the few remaining in northern Colorado. There are two dispensaries in unincorporated parts of Larimer county and two in Garden City, just south of Greeley in neighboring Weld county. Kevin and Michele Ballinger run Herbs Medicinals so it fits in, even putting up a Nativity scene during the holidays. "We heard from a lot of churches who were very happy with our display," Michele Ballinger, a Berthoud native, told the Denver Post. "We want to be respectful and just part of the town. Because the town had been very good to us."
"We're the only community in Larimer County that now allows dispensaries," town administrator Michael Hart told the Post, "so you can imagine we've had a few inquiries." To help respond to this new status, the town is drafting a medical marijuana ordinance that will be introduced in March. Officials say it will address state and federal requirements for dispensaries and caregivers, as well as local concerns. "We're just trying to be very, very careful," Hart said.
Dispensaries will be limited to a block-long area zoned for industrial use, and barred from within 1,000 feet of a school. That means perhaps one more dispensary might be added, said Greg Bell, a Fort Collins attorney helping to craft the ordinance. But town fathers don't seem interested in kicking out medical marijuana altogether. "There doesn't appear to be any move to regulate them out of business," Bell said.
Veteran journalist Bill Weinberg is the former news editor of High Times magazine and now producer of the websites Global Ganja Report (globalganjareport.com), monitoring the global war on cannabis, and World War 4 Report, monitoring the global “war on terrorism.” His books include Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000) and Cannabis Trips: A Global Guide that Leaves No Turn Unstoned (Ivy Group, 2010).