State Roundup

Federal court rules doctors can't be punished for recomending marijuana

U.S. District Judge William Alsup, ruled on September 7, 2000 that doctors may recommend marijuana to patients who may benefit from it without fear that federal authorities may strip them of their license to prescribe medicine, or otherwise impose sanctions.

When the voter-approved medical marijuana law known as Proposition 215 passed in California in 1996, the Clinton administration thereafter announced that doctors who recommend marijuana face losing their federal license to prescribe medicine. In January 1997 doctors and patients statewide filed a class action suit against the federal government alleging the government's threat violated their free speech rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In his decision Judge Alsup expanded a previously granted temporary injunction that prevented the government from revoking a doctor's license to prescribe medicine and made it permanent.

"Contrary to the government's argument, it is not true that a mere recommendation will necessarily lead to the commission of a federal offense," Alsup wrote in his decision. "To the contrary, such recommendations can lead to lawful and legitimate responses. In the marketplace of ideas, few questions are more deserving of free-speech protection than whether regulations affecting health and welfare are sound public policy."

Citing the importance of a doctor being able to freely treat patients, Alsup wrote, " [I]t will be the professional opinion of doctors that marijuana is the best therapy or at least should be tried. If such recommendations could not be communicated, then the physician-patient relationship would be seriously impaired."

"My hope is that this ruling effectively puts an end to the fear that physicians have been experiencing," said attorney Graham Boyd, Director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Drug Policy Litigation Project that represented the doctors and patients suing the federal government. "This decision puts the federal government on notice that if they do threaten doctors, they'll be back in court and they'll lose," Boyd concluded.
Source: The NORML Legislative Bulletin, Fall 2000

Washington DOC proposes drug prisoner release

According to wire service reports on December 7th Washington State prison officials, responding to a request by Gov. Gary Locke to identify possible budget cuts, say shorter sentences for some drug offenders could save taxpayers $26 million during the next two years.

The proposal is part of an effort by state agencies to identify possible cuts to help resolve an upcoming budget shortfall. The state is facing expenses that exceed the voter-approved spending cap by at least $1.1 billion.

Under the proposal sent to Governor Locke by the Corrections Department, drug law violators already in custody could have their sentences shortened, freeing up 525 to 700 prison beds. Another option is to reduce prison terms for nonviolent drug users convicted in the future for possessing or selling drugs, according to published interviews with Corrections' officials.

The suggested changes would buck a trend toward longer sentences. "You'd be looking at people who pose the lowest risk to public safety," one official said. "We've talked about a lot of different sentencing changes."

Locke is still reviewing spending proposals saying the ideas deserve a public discussion. "The budget problems the state faces are very large and very, very real," he said. "I don't think anything is going to be off the table in terms of how the Legislature deals with them."

Unfortunately, cuts are also proposed for drug treatment inside prison walls for some inmates, as well as elimination of all vocational training behind bars.

Cuts to drug treatment and vocational training are "antithetical" to the agency's efforts to rehabilitate offenders and see them re-enter society with a smaller risk of committing more crimes, but DOC bureaucrats apparently see no other way to make large spending cuts without cutting full programs.

Pennsylvania prisoners hold conference on rehabilitation

At SCI Dallas in Pennsylvania the Incarcerated Citizens' Coalition (ICC) has established itself in the forefront of a proposed National Prisoners' Day of Responsibility. At the in-prison conference on November 18th ICC President Richard Carter said that "if we are going to affect Death Penalty Laws and get parole for those serving life sentences, we are gonna have to change the way people see people in prison."

Richard wrote November Coalition with news about the unique Conference which attracted 50 prisoners and 22 outside guests from a cross-section of the community. While praising the Razor Wire and our positive impact in Pennsylvania's Department of Corrections, he also said "while we (prisoners) here share the November Coalition's view that it's not a war on drugs - it's a war on poor people - we have reached a consensus. By destroying the impetus by which all of the new oppressive legislative proposals are aiming to justify their attacks against the poor, we can call for restructuring the mentalities that victimize the poor in this nation."

Carter asks for assistance in "building the foundation for a new kind of prisoners' rights movement." He notes that from studying the Razor Wire, particularly from learning about the outrageous sentences women receive, he now believes that "if we do not support your efforts to sponsor new laws on a national level - pretty soon those same harsh sentences will be meted out here (in Pennsylvania)."

"As I see it, intense action from both sides of the prison wall needs to be organized and must unite to bring about a new mind-set respecting the improvement and treatment of incarcerated citizens in this nation," Carter insists. On May 19, 1999, and virtually unreported by news sources, "thousands of prisoners in 23 different states adopted a pledge to spend their time in prison learning how to return to society, not as agents of destruction in their communities, but as productive citizens," adds Carter.

Plans are in the making for another Prisoners' National Day of Responsibility for May 19, 2001. The Dallas prisoners are asking for supporters and sponsors to join in the spirit of transforming prisons into places where the confined are ready and willing to participate in a movement to eliminate the thinking and behavior that make people agents of destruction in our communities.

Interested parties should contact:

Richard Carter AY-5092
1000 Follies Road
Dallas, Pennsylvania 18612

Or call November Coalition at 1-509/684-1550 with questions about above proposal.

Governor Johnson wants legislature to reform state drug laws

New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson took an important step toward bringing reason to drug policy when he started criticizing the drug war. Now, he says he is going to move beyond rhetoric by attempting to work with the state legislature to propose drug law reform.

Naturally, traditional drug war supporters are expressing dismay over the challenge to absolute drug prohibition without even waiting to see the nature of the reform. But some media in the state seem to be swayed by Johnson's ideas.

As a good editorial from the Albuquerque Journal noted in January, "What is needed next is for the Legislature to objectively consider the drug-related bills Johnson has promised to present, including a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana."

Per capita, New Mexico is the worst in the nation in drug overdose deaths. People are dying, prisons are filling up and treatment facilities are inadequate. It is time to seek "common sense" drug policy reform.

That is what Gov. Gary Johnson asked for in creating a special committee last summer; that is what he has received in its recommendations to him this week. What is needed next is for the Legislature to objectively consider the drug-related bills Johnson has promised to present, including a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Current drug policy, the committee found, is "expensive, harmful to families, wasting taxpayer money, filling prisons and is not letting the Legislature prioritize its resources," in the words of chairman W. C. "Woody" Smith, a retired state court judge. "What we've been doing for decades is making things worse."

The committee approached its task, as Johnson requested, in terms of "harm reduction." What could the state do with drug policy to decrease death, disease, crime and suffering, and at the same time exercise fiscal responsibility with taxpayer dollars?

The state Department of Health has already acted to reduce harm in northern New Mexico: in early January it delivered to Espanola Valley doctors 100 syringes of naloxone ( cost to the state: $1.50 each ), a drug which reverses the deadly effects of overdosing on heroin, morphine or methadone. Dr. Steve Jenison, of the state Public Health Division, and Alex Valdez, state health secretary, helped facilitate the action; both are members of the drug policy committee.

The panel also recommends amending laws to allow the sale of sterile syringes in pharmacies and to allow doctor-prescribed medical use of marijuana. It recommends amendment of criminal statutes on drug possession to reduce first and second offenses to misdemeanors, as is done in Arizona and California, and require treatment rather than jail time.
It suggests a number of ways to make effective treatment available and to enhance drug education. It points out that particular attention should be paid to the needs of children and teen-agers suffering from mental illnesses who are self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs.

(Thanks to Mark Greer, Executive Director of DrugSense and Media Awareness Project for the above information.)