- Who's Next?
by Phillip Smith
The government of Belize is studying the possible decriminalization of the possession of small amounts of marijuana in a bid to unclog its courts and jails. In a Monday press release, the government said it had appointed a committee headed by a former national police chief to review the issue.
The English-speaking Central American nation becomes the latest in the region attempting to find new, more effective ways of dealing with drug use and drug trafficking. Earlier this year, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina spearheaded legalization discussions at the Summit of the America, a process that will continue next month.
More recently, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica floated a proposal for a state monopoly on marijuana sales there. And Mexico’s presumptive president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, has said he is open too legalization discussions.
So far the US has held firm to its prohibitionist line, but the trickle of dissent over drug policy is threatening to turn into a torrent.
Under current Belize law, possession of up to 60 grams of marijuana is punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $26,000. The committee will study whether to decriminalize the possession of up to 10 grams. It’s not clear whether it will consider reducing penalties for up to 60 grams.
The initiative “is driven by increasing evidence that the current legislation clutters the courts and the prisons with primarily a marginalized segment of our population. The added impact of a permanent criminal record further disadvantages this already marginalized group as it establishes a barrier against meaningful employment (…) This is further supported by international trends toward decriminalization,” said the press release from Prime Minister Dean Barrow.
Given its increasing problems with violence and criminality generated by drug trafficking networks that use Belize as a springboard for cocaine exports to the US and Canada, the country’s police and criminal justice system could benefit from not having to use its scarce resources dealing with small-time marijuana smokers in a place where the habit is common.
“It is encouraging to see Belize’s government join the growing number of countries calling for alternatives to the criminalization of people who use drugs,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “This is a modest proposal, consistent with decriminalization legislation in many US states, as well as in Latin American and European countries. In a country beleaguered by drug-related crime, decriminalizing marijuana users will free up law enforcement and court resources to tackle the gang violence instead of focusing on imprisoning low-level drug offenders.
“This proposal is also notable because Belizean law enforcement officials and agencies are the ones pushing it forward,” Nadelmann noted. “It is good to see a government acknowledging the harms of marijuana criminalization, which most negatively affects society’s marginalized communities. Hopefully, this initiative will represent a first step in the Belizean government playing a more active role in regional and international discussions on drug policy reform.
“Decriminalizing drug possession appears to have little impact on levels of illicit drug use,” Nadelmann pointed out. “Its principal impacts are reducing arrests of drug users, especially those who are young and/or members of minority groups; reducing opportunities for low level police corruption; allowing police to focus on more serious crimes; reducing criminal justice system costs; and better enabling individuals, families, communities and local governments to deal with addiction as a health rather than criminal issue.
The study committee called for public comment on the proposal to take place this week. Friday was the last day to provide comment to the committee.
Job agency plans marijuana rally
OpenDoors, a nonprofit agency based in Providence, tells the Providence Journal ( http://bit.ly/JMZGzG) it is seeking smaller penalties for the possession of small amounts of pot.
The rally is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. in the State House rotunda.
State Rep. John Edwards, D-Tiverton, who has sponsored a bill that would decriminalize possession of an ounce or less of marijuana, is among those expected to speak.
There are now the antis, the pro-legals, and the deregulators......-UA
Members of the November Coalition, a foundation dedicated to ending the drug war, had no gripe with Steves’ hotel recommendations, but rather with his public support for an initiative to reform Washington’s marijuana laws that the protesters say falls short of decriminalization.
“New Approach Washington” is the name of the well-financed effort to bring before the Legislature early next year Initiative 502, which would treat marijuana like a public health issue rather than a crime.
Paid signature-gatherers had collected more than 312,000 names two weeks before the Friday deadline to deliver 241,153 valid signatures to the secretary of state.
The movement should not be confused with “Sensible Washington,” whose grass-roots volunteers have tried without success for the past two years to introduce a much more sweeping repeal of civil and criminal penalties for marijuana – most recently in the form of Initiative 1149.
Some might think that two movements with a common overarching goal would overcome their differences to repeal a marijuana policy that has cost millions of dollars to enforce and has resulted in the incarceration of thousands of people.
Instead the competing initiatives have created a schism between decriminalization advocates at a time when Eastern Washington medical marijuana vendors have been driven underground once again by federal prosecutors who are far more aggressive than their West Side colleagues.
Initiative “502 does not legalize marijuana,” said Douglas Hiatt, of Sensible Washington, a Seattle criminal defense attorney specializing in medical marijuana who co-wrote I-1149. He said I-502 allows a narrow exception under the law for 1 ounce of marijuana, and then creates “a ridiculous regulatory scheme” and overtaxes it.
Hiatt’s adversary is Alison Holcomb, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who is campaign director of New Approach Washington and co-author of I-502.
“At a substantive level, people deserve to be presented with a thoughtful, well-considered proposal” that reflects “valid public health and public safety concerns,” Holcomb said.
I-502 creates a regulatory system, much like the liquor control system, in which a board oversees licensing of marijuana producers, processors and retailers, and imposes an excise tax of 25 percent at each step along the way to consumers.
Unlike state liquor stores, which voters just voted to eliminate by approving Initiative 1182, marijuana stores would be privately owned and operated. Sales tax and business and occupation tax also would be levied. Growing marijuana for personal use would continue to be illegal.
Most of the revenue generated by the excise taxes would be earmarked for drug abuse prevention, research, education and implementation of the new law. The Washington Institute for Public Policy would be tapped to do cost-benefit analyses. Part of the proceeds would fund student dropout prevention and outreach.
New Approach Washington is backed by large contributions, including $250,000 from Progressive Insurance CEO Peter Lewis. It also has an impressive array of supporters, including John McKay, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington, and Dr. Kim Thorburn, former Spokane Regional Health District officer.
“I strongly want to see marijuana legalized for public health, for human reasons,” Thorburn said. “The war on drugs doesn’t work. It has filled up our prisons unnecessarily.”
Nevertheless, the outspoken Thorburn said she has learned something about politics in her years of public service, and marijuana deregulation is not going to pass if it’s not regulated.
“People aren’t going to be comfortable with an absolutely libertarian anything-goes,” she said.
Driving the debate
So New Approach found out through polling what bothers the public the most about decriminalization and wove a tailor-made initiative.
Two potential hurdles were voter fears of increased pot-smoking by youth and a greater chance of marijuana-related auto accidents. I-502 addresses both issues in ways that distress Sensible Washington.
First, decriminalization would apply only to adults 21 and older.
“What they did was apply a zero-tolerance standard to everybody under 21,” Hiatt said. “So if you are minority kid in the city, it’s open season.”
Holcomb responds that marijuana users 18 to 21 years old “are already criminalized” and that polling “tells us the public is most comfortable with the hard-alcohol model.”
But what annoys Sensible Washington backers the most is I-502’s “driving under the influence” provisions.
Drivers would automatically be found guilty of DUI if the amount of THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana, is above 5 nanograms per milliliter of blood.
“Not a single medical marijuana patient that I know of would be able to drive legally,” Hiatt said, adding that such a DUI provision would be the toughest in the country.
In addition, he said, the 5-nanogram standard has no basis in scientific research, which is sorely lacking on the subject of driver impairment due to marijuana. Hiatt believes it is a misguided attempt to produce a law people can understand, like the 0.08 blood-alcohol standard, when it is “completely inappropriate to compare” marijuana to alcohol because of different tolerances and the way THC is metabolized differently in each individual who uses it.
Holcomb acknowledges that “the science around the THC impact on driving is not as robust as alcohol,” but what data are available suggest the 5-nanogram standard is “a workable guideline.”
“That’s why we have earmarked funds to study that exact issue,” Holcomb said. “For now, let’s err on the side of caution.”
However, the national medical marijuana advocacy organization Americans for Safe Access says testing standards for marijuana based on metabolites is extremely problematic.
“Studies have shown that marijuana may only have a minimal impact on driving performance,” ASA spokesman Kris Hermes said. Other studies have shown that levels well above 5 nanograms per milliliter can remain in the blood for several hours even though impairment may no longer be at issue.
Holcomb said law enforcement would still be required to have probable cause for an arrest and reasonable grounds to believe a driver is impaired by drugs before a drug test may be administered.
“The reality is we have had a medical marijuana law since 1998, and you just don’t see a lot of people getting pulled over and taken in for blood tests,” she said.
Hiatt is skeptical.
“I’ve been a criminal defense attorney for 20 years. Don’t talk to me about probable cause to pull somebody over,” he said. “(Police) can pull anybody over any time, and everybody knows it.”
Hiatt favors a broader approach to decriminalizing marijuana – similar to state withdrawal from prohibition in the early 1930s.
“Washington essentially took alcohol out of the state law,” he said. “Then they said to the feds, ‘If you want prohibition, you pay for it.’ ”
Hiatt presumes the Legislature is capable of crafting regulations for control of marijuana after it is decriminalized by a less onerous method than I-502, which he believes federal law would pre-empt anyway.
“What we would end up with is a really terrible DUI law and 1 ounce of marijuana with nowhere legally to buy it,” Hiatt said of I-502.
Holcomb said she doubts the federal government would expend federal resources going after people that are in clear and unambiguous compliance with state law. As for the recent federal prosecution of Spokane medical marijuana dealers, Holcomb suggested they were “operating outside the letter and spirit” of Washington law.
“We drafted I-502 to withstand a legal challenge,” Holcomb said. “But more importantly, we drafted it to present a solid policy proposal that will make it difficult politically for the federal government to come in and try to strike it down.”
If the requisite number of signatures is found to be valid, I-502 will be referred for consideration by the Legislature next month. If lawmakers fail to pass it, the initiative will go on the November general election ballot.
Seth Walser, of the November Coalition in Colville, fears signers of the New Approach petitions are confusing the drive with the Sensible Washington efforts, and that I-502 actually will be a step backward for medical marijuana patients.
“There are some really big differences, but the real issue is we have people gathering signatures (for I-502) who are not educating people as to what they are signing,” Walser said.
“It is not just a legalization bill but a bill that has significant unintended consequences,” he said. “We want a law that people have voted on in an educated manner and not just one that has managed to get its foot in the door.”
Jamaica to Look Again at Decriminalizing Marijuana
POWER TO THE PEOPLE! POWER TO THE TOURISM! POWER TO THE PLANT! BUDDA-BYE-BYE-BYE! -UA
by Phillip Smith, stopthedrugwar.com
Ten years ago, Jamaica's government-appointed National Commission on Ganja produced a report calling for marijuana decriminalization, which the Jamaican government, under pressure from the US, promptly forgot about. But now, the government of Prime Minister Bruce Golding has announced that it will again review those recommendations.
According to the Associated Press, the decision was announced Monday in Kingston. Six cabinet ministers will review the 2001 report.
That report, which was authored by academics and physicians, found that pot smoking was "culturally entrenched" in the island nation and that most moderate users suffered no ill effects. While it called for decriminalization, ominous rumblings from the US Embassy in Kingston at the time ensured that the notion died a quiet death.
Ganja has broad public acceptance in Jamaica, where it is considered a sacrament by adherents of Rastafarianism. But its possession or cultivation is illegal under Jamaican law.
The Rev. Webster Edwards, who was a commission member, told the Associated Press Tuesday he was relieved that the report would be reviewed by cabinet members and that he hoped the review would eventually lead to loosening the marijuana laws. That would require legislative action.
"There have been many persons who have been lifelong smokers of ganja who have not moved to harder drugs at all," Edwards said. "Decriminalizing very, very small quantities will allow persons not to get strikes against them in the justice system."
The US has long worked with Jamaican authorities to eradicate marijuana cultivation and smuggling from Jamaica to the US. Embassy officials told the AP Tuesday that they did not know why the Jamaican government was taking up the issue, but that it was an internal affair.
"Whatever the impetus, it's an internal Jamaican issue, and we therefore don't comment on either the debate or the outcome," Embassy spokeswoman Yolonda Kerney said.
Has enough changed in the past decade for the Jamaican government to actually move forward on the ganja commission recommendations this time? Let's hope so.