Colorado lawmakers urge governor to step in on medical marijuana registry backlog

Colorado lawmakers urge governor to step in on medical marijuana registry backlog

Three Colorado legislators are calling on Gov. John Hickenlooper to intervene in the state’s medical marijuana registry backlog, an issue that one lawmaker says is a matter of “life and death.”

In the letter sent to the governor Friday, Democratic representatives Jovan Melton, Adrienne Benavidez and Steve Lebsock expressed their disappointment with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, saying “there is no excuse” for the Medical Marijuana Registry’s six- to eight-week backlog for mailed applications for medical cannabis cards.

“Without medical marijuana cards, our Colorado patients are unable to get the medicine they need,” the legislators wrote. “Emphysema patients, cancer patients, children with epilepsy and many others have been adversely (affected) by the department’s neglectful disregard for patients. We urge you to get personally involved to correct this injustice.”

The letter was carbon copied to Dr. Larry Wolk, CDPHE executive director.

The mailed application wait times, which typically hover around 35 days, spiked as a result of the state’s Jan. 1 implementation of a new online registry. Additionally, the Medical Marijuana Registry’s staff was swamped with calls and e-mails about the transition that compounded the delays, registry program manager Natalie Riggins told The Cannabist last week.

Registry officials are encouraging patients to register online, where they can receive their card in two to three business days after correctly submitting required documentation. As of this week, 23,000 medical marijuana patients, more than 20 percent of registry patients, are using the online system, according to CDPHE.

Patients will be able to submit paper applications through the end of the year; the registry moves fully online in 2018.

One issue that cardholders have had with the new online system is that in order to complete the process electronically, their recommending physician needs to be registered online as well. State officials said the requirement is a function of the site.

Lebsock, D-Thornton, received some calls about the backlog from constituents earlier this month, but didn’t know the extent of the delays until reading The Cannabist’s report.

“That just kind of put my feet to the fire and think, ‘We really do need to contact the governor,’” he said Friday. “It’s just not right for patients to literally wait for months to get their medicine.”

Lebsock said he would want the governor to pick up the phone, call Wolk and instruct him to have CDPHE prioritize this issue. From there, Lebsock asks CDPHE to identify the hangups and solve the problems.

As of Friday, the registry office was processing mailed applications received on Feb. 9, 2017.

Riggins told The Cannabist last week that she expected the registry to return to the 35-day turnaround for mailed applications by the mid-April, if not by the end of this month.

CDPHE officials, in an announcement made Monday, said that goal would be met by March 31.

When reached by The Cannabist on Friday, CDPHE spokesman Mark Salley referenced Monday’s announcement and a March 3 statement about the hiring of temporary staff.

“It is unfortunate there has been a processing backlog, and frustrating for patients in the registry or those applying for the registry,” Salley said via e-mail. “I personally received about 15 phone calls, so I know of the patients’ frustration. I have been assured by a week from today the backlog should be cleared.”

Hickenlooper was traveling and unavailable Friday for comment. Officials at the governor’s office referred queries to CDPHE.

Lebsock said getting back to a 35-day waiting period doesn’t go far enough. Medical marijuana patients should be able to receive their recommended medicine within days — not weeks and months.

“This is literally life and death for some people,” he said.


Colorado legislators’ March 24, 2017 letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper about medical marijuana registry (Text)

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Published at Fri, 24 Mar 2017 23:32:47 +0000

Minnesota lawmakers want to pull license of biz whose former execs allegedly shipped MMJ out of state

Minnesota lawmakers want to pull license of biz whose former execs allegedly shipped MMJ out of state

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota lawmakers want to crack down on one of the state’s medical marijuana companies whose former executives have been charged with illegally shipping $500,000 of marijuana oils to New York, pushing legislation allowing regulators to revoke the manufacturer’s license and levy a huge fine.

Related: Former MMJ execs in hot water for allegedly shipping $500,000 worth of cannabis oil across state lines

County prosecutors last month charged two top executives at Minnesota Medical Solutions with two felonies, alleging that they collaborated in late 2015 to ship more than 5 kilograms of concentrated marijuana oil from Minnesota to New York, where a subsidiary company faced a product shortfall ahead of New York’s January 2016 start to legal sales. The parent company, Vireo Health, is licensed to sell medical marijuana in both states, but it’s a federal and Minnesota crime to ship controlled substances across state lines.

Neither Laura Bultman, who was Minnesota Medical Solutions’ chief medical officer, nor Ronald Owens, its chief security officer, work for the company anymore, and the company has stressed the former employees acted against both state law and company policy. But while the ongoing court case has caused some alarm among public officials, state regulators have little recourse aside from hitting the employees with small fines or deciding not to renew the company’s license in December.

So several top Republicans who are part of the majority in the Legislature are pushing to give the state explicit authority to revoke a manufacturer’s license and hit the company with a $1 million fine and stiff penalties. They could eventually become law as part of a massive health care budget. Some lawmakers who supported the legislation that legalized medical marijuana sales in 2014 said Thursday they’re incensed that one of the companies entrusted with manufacturing and selling medical marijuana allegedly broke the law so blatantly.

“This was a big risk for some of us. We wanted it done well, and we need everybody involved with this to hold themselves to the highest standard,” said Sen. Michelle Benson, a Republican who backed medical marijuana legalization but is now behind the push to strip one of its licensed manufacturers. “The people responsible for executing it have put us in an incredibly difficult place.”

A spokesman for Minnesota Medical Solutions declined to comment on the bill. An attorney for Bultman said he’s seeking to have the case dismissed, while Owens’ listed lawyer did not respond.

Minnesota’s 2014 law made its program among the strictest of the more than two dozen states that have legalized medical marijuana, limiting availability to patients with just a handful of serious conditions and banning the plant from being sold or used — only marijuana oils, pills and vapors are allowed.

Minnesota Medical Solutions, or MinnMed, was chosen as one of two licensed manufacturers in late 2014. Its parent company has slowly won contracts in New York and Maryland while eyeing future expansions in Pennsylvania, Georgia and elsewhere.

The charges allege Bultman and Owens drove 5 kilograms (11.02 pounds) of marijuana oil to New York in an armored truck, then entered faulty information in the database that tracks shipments, suggesting the oil was taken to a waste facility to be destroyed. Investigators said they obtained text messages in which Bultman repeatedly referred to a specific kind of oil as “Christmas red.”

An early December 2015 email from a New York facility employee that was obtained by investigators read: “Laura is here today with Christmas presents from MN.”

Republican Rep. Nick Zerwas also voted to legalize medical marijuana sales in 2014 but authored the House bill that could hit the manufacturer with a huge penalty and kick them out of the program.

“We don’t think that type of action is excusable and should be allowed to continue,” he said.

It’s unclear whether state regulators feel as strongly about the case or if they would exercise the authority to revoke the company’s license. The Office of Medical Cannabis had sought wider latitude to punish the companies it regulates for legal missteps earlier this year. Director Michelle Larson said they’re withholding judgment on MinnMed until the court cases play out and its application for renewal — due in late May — comes through.

“We’re not oblivious to the criminal investigation going on,” Larson said. “But those are charges, not convictions at this time.”

But removing a manufacturer could further destabilize a fragile program, where registrations haven’t kept pace with projections, leading both companies to post millions of dollars in losses in the first years of legal medical marijuana sales. Fewer than 5,000 patients are currently actively registered to buy the medicine, according to state data.

Benson said a heavy fine against the company could be used to help woo a new manufacturer into the market. But she conceded that’s a challenge given the second manufacturer, LeafLine Labs, would have a monopoly on medical marijuana sales for months or more.

“We’re on the horns of a dilemma,” she said.

(Why?)

Published at Fri, 24 Mar 2017 16:44:58 +0000

ICYMI: Session’s New Controversial Statements on Pot and What they Mean for Cannabis Businesses

ICYMI: Session’s New Controversial Statements on Pot and What they Mean for Cannabis Businesses

The latest remarks on marijuana by President Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, continue to upset the cannabis community and business investors – but it’s what he didn’t say, that has peaked the interest of journalists covering the cannabis beat.

In his prepared remarks, Sessions was slated to repeat a line that says marijuana use is “only slightly less awful” than heroin addiction. But, in the end, he chose not to say those words.

It’s not clear why Sessions removed the line from his speech at the event, which was being held in Richmond, Virginia. Instead of outrage over his comparison of marijuana to opioids, cannabis supporters are wondering what he meant when he questioned the status quo when it comes to abiding by the Cole Memo, as the Obama administration had done previously.

The Cole Memorandum set up some policies under President Obama’s Department of Justice about how cases should be selected in those states, and what would be appropriate for federal prosecution, much of which I think is valid,” Sessions said in response to a question about whether his Department of Justice (DOJ) will sue states that have legalized rec, or if the department will prosecute any adult-use businesses.

“I may have some different ideas myself in addition to that,” Sessions said, “but essentially, we’re not able to go into a state and pick up the work that police and sheriffs have been doing for decades.”

According to Marijuana Business Daily, there are two main take-away’s from Sessions’ remarks for cannabis businesses.

First, the Trump administration may issue a stricter version of the Cole Memo, but those guidelines will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future. Secondly, the DOJ almost certainly won’t be starting a war on the cannabis industry.

It’s widely known that the comparison of pot to heroin is controversial, reports US News, “Heroin killed nearly 13,000 Americans in 2015 and related opioids another 20,000, and users often commit a wide range of crimes to support their addictions….Marijuana is used by a much larger population and doesn’t kill users — with legalization advocates arguing it’s even safer than alcohol.”

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Published at Mon, 20 Mar 2017 10:31:18 +0000

Colorado Moves to Limit Plant Count for Medical Grows from 99 to 16

Colorado Moves to Limit Plant Count for Medical Grows from 99 to 16

Colorado is a step closer to curbing the plant count for medical patients that are allowed to grow for their own needs with a state bill that would bring the home allowance of 99 plants – down to 16 plants. The House of Representatives in Colorado recently gave their preliminary approval for the measure.

Currently, the Centennial state has the nation’s most generous marijuana allowance for medical patients growing their own plants.

According to the Associated Press, the measure aims to make it harder to grow pot outside the taxed and regulated commercial pot system.

Without taxation or much oversight, the large home grows have been a thorn in the side of regulators for years. However, legalization is actually in Colorado’s constitution now – and it gives residents the right to grow as much as their doctor recommends.

Rep. KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat and sponsor of the bill, says “We need to close this loophole.”

What the new bill means for Colorado patients who grow their own:

  • A 16 plant count limit at a residential property
  • For more than 16,  patients would have to grow it on areas deemed industrial or agricultural
  • Or, patients always have the option to shop at a dispensary

“The time has come for us … to give law enforcement the guidance they need,” said Rep. Cole Wist, a Centennial Republican and another bill sponsor.

Marijuana patients are making their voices heard, at state hearings and with phone calls to their representatives.

Originally, the bill limited the plant count to 12 – the bill has since been changed to cap the count at 16 cannabis plants.

Opponents to the bill are defending low-income patients, who can’t afford marked-up pot sold in dispensary shops. “A lot of patients are on fixed incomes. They’re ill,” said Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City. “Cartels have the money to go rent warehouses.”

But in the end, enough Democrats joined the Republicans in voting for a preliminary pass for the bill. According to the AP, the bill faces one more formal vote next week before heading to the Senate, where its prospects are strong.

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Published at Fri, 17 Mar 2017 15:31:16 +0000

New York Physician Assistants Can Now Recommend Marijuana

New York Physician Assistants Can Now Recommend Marijuana

New York physician assistants (PA’s) are now allowed to recommend marijuana to medical marijuana patients, they are the newest group of professionals allowed to do so – after nurse practitioners became eligible to legally prescribe back in November.

New York physician assistants can also register with the state Department of Health (DOH) to certify patients to take part in New York’s medical marijuana program, the DOH is to announce tomorrow.

There is a catch – only those working under a supervising physician who is also registered to certify patients are eligible.

New York’s DOH also is set to announce that chronic pain will be a qualifying condition for the program effective next Wednesday, March 22, reports the Time Union. Qualifying conditions is defined as “any severe debilitating pain that the practitioner determines degrades health and functional capability,” that has intolerable side effects, that has lasted for or is expected to last for at least three months, and that other therapy has failed to treat or that cannot be treated by another therapy because it would be harmful.

DOH Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker is a fan of the improvements.

“Improving patient access to medical marijuana continues to be one of our top priorities, as it has been since the launch of the program,” he said in a statement. “These key enhancements further that goal. Medical marijuana is already making a difference for patients across New York State, and we are constantly evaluating the program to see how we can make it better.”

Overall, New York has a tighly-run and extremely limited medical cannabis industry. So far, only five companies are allowed to grow marijuana.

Another much-criticized limit is the rule that producers are only allowed to make non-smokeable forms of cannabis, which eliminates the possibility of patients smoking the plant.

With only 20 dispensaries statewide, the New York cannabis industry has complained about a severe lack of patients signing up – which hurts their bottom line, making it difficult to operate a thriving business

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Published at Fri, 17 Mar 2017 15:43:53 +0000

The Changing Face of the Cannabis Industry and How it Caters to the Senior Population

The Changing Face of the Cannabis Industry and How it Caters to the Senior Population

Cannabis use has taken its place in the mainstream, and the population of seniors is getting with the times. The booming senior demographic has great health care needs. Treatment with cannabis has become a welcome option for many. Cannabis companies are taking notice of this trend and are trying to get seniors engaged in voting for cannabis policy reform as well as catering to this population with education, microdosing, design, and more. Industry leaders and entrepreneurs weigh-in on what they are doing to better serve this growing demographic, as well as consumption trends and the future of marijuana for an aging U.S. population:

Sally Vander Veer, President of Medicine Man Denver

We have seen a steady increase of approximately 50% in the last year of senior customers at both the medical and recreational counters.  As information surrounding the benefits of marijuana becomes more prevalent and more mainstream, we are welcoming several categories of customers over the age of 55.  Some were former marijuana users in their earlier years who gave it up for fear of legal repercussions. Many are trying cannabis to treat ailments and symptoms ranging from arthritis to severe illnesses like cancer or MS. We even see a large number of new users who are curious about marijuana now that it’s legal.

For the most part, the older demographic who come into our stores have reached a point in their lives where they are not concerned about the stigma of cannabis.  They don’t care what others think of what they do and make decisions on their recreational activities and/or medical choices without considering the judgement of others.

New users will tend to ask more questions of our budtending staff and are eager to understand what to expect from their products. These customers are most interested in flower or pre-rolls, edibles, and topical preparations. We don’t see many who use concentrates. Medicine Man offers a senior discount and no limit to the time they spend with our trained staff at the point of sale.  Our stores are clean and professional which is appreciated by not just their demographic!

David “Bean” Bienenstock, Head of Content at High Times

Seniors are increasingly discovering that cannabis provides incredible relief for many ailments associated with aging—without serious side effects or dangerous interactions with other drugs. Word spreads fast in retirement communities and other places seniors gather, and once they see one of their peers enjoying a vastly improved quality of life through the herb, they’re open to learning more and trying for themselves.

Jeffrey Zucker, CEO of Dipstick Vapes

Much of the older population of medical cannabis users is struggling to find their preferred consumption method. Smoking is often too harsh, while vaping and edibles often provide inconsistent experiences. However, much of the population is very open to trying new methods as they learn about the safety and effectiveness of cannabis for treating their ailments.

Concentrates can be very intimidating to the uninitiated. The standard method of a torch and dab rig often leaves people avoiding it all together. The Dipper vaporizer by Dipstick Vapes allow for easy hand-held, torchless concentrate consumption. New users are also attracted by the ability to control exactly how much concentrate they’re consuming. With Dipstick Vapes, we’re working to make concentrates more accessible to the average consumer by alleviating the pain points of consumption.

Christie Strong, Kiva Confections

Safety is absolutely key to helping seniors transcend the lingering stereotypes around this plant. Companies must lab test their products and provide accurate nutritional information and clear instructions. Products need to be consistently dosed so users can feel confident that the same dose will result in the expected experience each time. This is the only way that medical cannabis products will be taken seriously as a medicine by seniors.

Cannabis companies should keep seniors in mind when branding and marketing their products. There’s an abundance of products made with recreational users in mind- less so for seniors. Good design has the power to destroy the stigmas around this plant because tasteful branding makes cannabis accessible to a much wider demographic of users.

Microdosed products are perfect for introducing seniors to the benefits of cannabis edibles. Kiva Confections’ Petra mint only has 2.5 milligrams of THC, a fraction of the potency of many common edibles. The subtle dose shifts one’s understanding of cannabis from a psychoactive drug to a productivity tool. It allows anyone to safely manage stress and anxiety without any interference with their focus or energy levels. We hope that with a product like the Petra mint, seniors can be eased into cannabis and see the myriad benefits this medicine can have on their own lives. Cannabis has been used for thousands of years- it is not a niche product, and it’s time to remind people of that.

(Why?)

Published at Thu, 16 Mar 2017 13:12:05 +0000

How Does an Old Man Party at CannaCon? On a Cloudy Bus Smoking Willie’s Reserve

How Does an Old Man Party at CannaCon? On a Cloudy Bus Smoking Willie’s Reserve

While visiting Seattle for CannaCon 2017, I spent some time with two of my friends from PDX Weed Week, Max Montrose of the Trichome Institute, and Anthony Nitowski, the Dab Doctor.  Max was there as both a lecturer and an exhibitor, and his small table was almost always crowded with folks learning about his classes as well as the TAG assessment of cannabis.  If you don’t know of his work, please visit his website and learn what is in store for objectively evaluating cannabis.

Anthony, on the other hand, was there as an attendee, to view new ideas and to rekindle acquaintances and friendships throughout the cannabis community.  Once we hooked back up Friday afternoon, we caught a bus that shuttled folks back and forth to the parking lot.  It was then a relatively short walk (for me, at least) to the party bus, parked along a city street and not on Federal property.  It took only a few minutes for the Dab Doctor to setup one of his e-nail dab rigs and for us to begin vaporizing some extracts.  I feel incredibly honored that Anthony trusted me with his rig and his product.

The bus was also stocked with a few refreshments and many packages of pre-rolled joints.  Many folks came and went while I was there; many different joints made their way along both seating benches.  Everyone seemed to be in a great mood and, although crowded, the vibe on the bus was upbeat.  I stuck mainly to sampling the extracts that were being vaporized in the quartz bowl of the dab rig, but I will admit that I did take a hit or two of a joint as it floated by.

Saturday, knowing that I would be returning to PDX in the afternoon, I spent a couple of hours at the Pier before heading off to the party bus.  This time the bus was being sponsored by Willie’s Reserve,  the cloud was thicker and the aroma was definitely more pungent than my experience on Friday.  I did find Anthony’s dab rig right where we had left it, and the choices of extract had increased.  It was my intention to enjoy the tastes and effects of as many different extracts as possible; after all, I would be sitting on public transportation for many hours.

The aroma of the joints, as well as the visuals of the packaging, finally convinced me to pay attention and seek knowledge of Willie’s Reserve.  There were many empty samples of the packaging that Willie’s Reserve employs use to get your attention and set the image of the product.  The tubes are thick and substantial, and fit together very well.  According to the representative with whom I spoke, all of the packaging is recyclable.  Good to know, considering how much packaging there is.

As an example of how my life unfurls, as I am floating away from the party bus on my way to the bus stop to begin my journey back to PDX, along the chain link fence separating city property from federal property I notice a blue cylinder, around the right size for cannabis as it is sold in Oregon.  But I am in Washington.  The container is from Oregon Bud Company and still holds a medium sized nugget of cannabis.  The label states that it was sold as 2.0 grams of GSC.  Thank you Universe.

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Published at Wed, 15 Mar 2017 14:11:41 +0000

Hungry for weed news: Cannabist visitors up 48 percent year-over-year in January

Hungry for weed news: Cannabist visitors up 48 percent year-over-year in January

The Denver Post’s digital properties together reached more than 7.1 million people in January, a figure more than double the next largest media outlet in Colorado, according to digital analytics firm comScore.

The data — released in mid-February — was 41 percent higher than January 2016, when the Denver Broncos began their playoff run to winning Super Bowl 50. Those figures include de-duplicated data for denverpost.com, The Cannabist and The Know, The Post’s new entertainment vertical.

Mobile devices accounted for 5.56 million of those unique visitors, nearly 5 million on smartphones and 613,000 on tablets. About 1.9 million came from desktop. The audience was split roughly equal between men and women — 47.5 percent to 52.5 percent, respectively.

The Cannabist hauled in 959,000 unique visitors, a 48 percent increase over the same month a year ago, comScore reported. That figure was ahead of industry publication marijuana.com, which drew 937,000 unique visitors, and High Times, which pulled in 736,000 uniques, a 27 percent decrease. About 30 percent of The Cannabist’s audience was 18 to 24 years old, 24.3 percent was 25 to 34 years old.

By itself, denverpost.com reached 5.9 million unique visitors, an 18.5 percent increase over January 2016.

Among Denver news organizations, KDVR-Channel 31 continued its months-long digital growth spurt, which couples with an increase in its TV ratings. The outlet climbed to 3.46 million unique visitors in January, a 59 percent increase over the same month a year ago. That figure topped longtime TV ratings behemoth KUSA-Channel 9, which drew 3.28 million unique visitors, a 37 percent drop since January 2016. In third was KMGH-Channel 7 with 2.27 million uniques, followed by CBS Denver, which had nearly 2 million uniques, a 15 percent decrease. The Gazette in Colorado Springs drew 884,000 uniques, a 20 percent increase, and Westword pulled in 609,000 uniques, a 39 percent increase.

ComScore data for other media outlets — Colorado Public Radio and Denverite, among them — was not available. But data from the Amazon-owned web analytics firm Alexa showed The Post was the 319th most popular website in the U.S. in mid-March, followed by 9NEWS at 3,393, KDVR at 4,134, Westword at 7,164, the Gazette at 13,218, CPR at 26,723 and Denverite at 40,345. Globally on Feb. 15, The Post was the ranked 1,552 in the world by traffic, according to Alexa.

In total, The Post pulled in 27 million page views across its properties in January, 16 million of them mobile, while KUSA pulled in 31 million, 12 million of them mobile. KMGH had 11 million page views, KDVR pulled in 10 million, and CBS Denver and The Gazette each pulled in 4 million. Westword attracted 2 million. In the Denver market, KUSA attracted 17 million page views to The Post’s 5 million.

The Post’s audience continues to skew toward older millennials and younger Generation X consumers. In January, 45 percent of its unique viewers were between 18 and 34 years old compared to 35 percent of KUSA’s. Those 18 to 24 years old (22.6 percent) and 25 to 34 (23.6 percent) were the two largest groups in The Post’s audience. That remained true for only denverpost.com, with about 1 in 5 unique visitors between the ages 18 and 24, and 23.5 percent 25 to 34 years old.

In the Denver market in January, The Post reached 17.6 percent of the total internet audience, or 448,000 uniques, according to comScore. 9News was second with 14.1 percent, or 358,000 uniques; KMGH third with 9.7 percent, or 248,000 uniques; KDVR fourth with 8 percent, or 204,000 uniques; CBS Local was next with 6 percent, or  and Westword with 2.4 percent.

The Gazette did not register in the Denver market in January, but averaged 1.3 percent reach of the Denver market over November, December and January. In the Colorado Springs-Pueblo market, it averaged 9.3 percent (54,000 unique visitors) over those three months, while The Post reached 5.7 percent (33,000 uniques) of that market during the same stretch.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com

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Published at Tue, 14 Mar 2017 14:14:31 +0000

Arrest or essay-writing for marijuana possession in Alabama? It depends which school you go to

Arrest or essay-writing for marijuana possession in Alabama? It depends which school you go to

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For students at the University of Alabama who use marijuana, life can change dramatically overnight.

That’s what happened to 61 UA students when the West Alabama Narcotics Task Force arrested them during a SWAT-style drug raid that began around 3 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2013.

A large percentage of the students collared that day would later be exonerated or found to have committed only minor crimes, such as owning a bong or a couple grams of pot. But they were all subjected to aggressive police tactics, thrown into the Tuscaloosa County jail and the Alabama criminal justice system, and introduced to what many of them now describe as the dark side of modern life at UA.

While the police tactics are highly controversial among UA students and parents, some other Alabama colleges cultivate more protective environments, going out of their way to keep their students from being arrested for having or using drugs.

‘Like a police state’

A freshman at the time, James Blackwood was arrested in his dorm during the 2013 drug sweep. The shaggy-haired outdoors lover was charged with one count each of marijuana and paraphernalia possession, but like many of his classmates he was never convicted of a crime. Still, he and many of the other young people arrested that day had to pay thousands of dollars for lawyers and to participate in expensive drug courses and other diversion programs.

Blackwood said the experience left him and many other students fearing police, angry at the way the narcotics unit and the university treated them, and feeling like “we’re heading toward what seems like a police state” in Tuscaloosa.

“The whole thing was a really intense experience, a really terrible experience for a lot of people because … if it didn’t end up in the charges getting dropped, kids had to spend a lot of money and it ruined a lot of people,” he said.

“A lot of people left the university – one, because of financial issues associated with those arrests and, two, because they just kind of felt threatened, you know?”

But there is another way, which can be found on the hilly campus of Birmingham-Southern College, on the north side of Alabama’s most populous city.

Different cultures

The differences in culture could hardly be more stark than between UA, a sprawling public university campus with top-tier Greek life and football and more than 36,000 students but relatively low tuition; and the pricier, more intimate, private liberal arts school Birmingham-Southern, which has a student body of fewer than 1,400.

The differences between the two schools extend to the crime statistics they report to the federal government each year.

Of the 11 Alabama institutions of higher learning with the highest student populations, UA reported the most drug arrests between 2005 and 2010 with a total of 308, according to a 2011 Birmingham News analysis of crime data reported by the schools over that six-year period.

Between 2013 and 2015, UA reported that 272 drug violations took place on the university’s campus that resulted in an internal disciplinary action or judicial review, and a total of 242 arrests for drug violations.

Meanwhile, though Birmingham-Southern reported 87 drug violations on the campus, it made zero arrests for such violations over the same three-year period. It didn’t make any arrests for drug violations in 2012 either, and that’s no coincidence. It’s a reflection of conscious decisions by campus leaders, and their attitude toward marijuana use.

Those leaders include Birmingham-Southern College Police Chief Randy Youngblood, Dean of Students Ben Newhouse, Vice President of Student Development David Eberhardt and Communications Director Hannah Wolfson, who all sat down for a joint on-campus interview with AL.com in December.

“Philosophically for a first-time marijuana offense … we try to treat that as educationally as possible,” Newhouse said, explaining that students’ parents would be notified, and that they would probably have to take a drug course and write a paper. “If they were to have a second offense, they would face suspension.”

But they would almost definitely not be arrested or passed along to another law enforcement agency. Nor would they be for most any other drug crimes short of large-scale dealing, according to Youngblood, who has been with the force 32 years and said he has never made a drug arrest at the school.

“If we found just a roach or something in a car, we may treat that differently than finding a gram or this or that,” he said. “And again none of those (low-level marijuana crimes) would constitute an arrest.”

‘The entire picture’

UA has made a push in recent years to try to find ways to keep students who commit low-level marijuana violations out of the criminal justice system, instead directing them into diversion programs aimed at rehabilitation.

But dozens of students continue to be arrested for drug crimes on the university campus each year. In 2015, UA reported 111 drug arrests, up from 70 in 2014 and the 91 in 2013. And law enforcement officers are increasingly convincing UA students arrested for minor marijuana crimes to serve as drug informants, sowing distrust among students and between the student body and law enforcement.

In response to questions about the school’s approach to drug use, UA spokesperson Monica Watts said it is important to “look at the entire picture,” emphasizing the size difference between the state’s flagship public university and Birmingham-Southern.

“(On) campus, UAPD responds to and investigates cases of illegal drug use when they are made aware of or locate illegal drug activity,” she said in an emailed statement.

“The University is committed to promoting a safe environment for student learning, to foster responsible decision making, to identify or distinguish safe and legal uses regarding alcohol and other drugs, and to inform the campus community of the consequences of illegal and/or inappropriate use.”

Auburn takes a similar approach

Auburn University reported that it made 90 arrests for drug violations between 2013 and 2015. It also reported 91 drug violations that resulted disciplinary action over the period.

The number of drug arrests there fell each year over the period, from 34 in 2013 to 25 in 2015, while the number of violations reported for disciplinary action rose from 14 to 59.

Auburn spokesman Charles Martin provided a brief emailed statement in response to a list of questions about the university’s approach to drug enforcement.

“Marijuana isn’t allowed on campus,” Martin’s statement said. “The City of Auburn Police Division enforces drug violations, and the university offers treatment programs for any student or employee who needs it.”

Impacts on students

As school leaders in Alabama make different decisions about how to deal with marijuana use, the policies and attitudes they adopt have a wide range of impacts on students.

While enforcing drug laws may sound like a no-brainer, experts say that schools need to balance the need to deter drug use and criminality with the sometimes life-altering consequences of a harsher, more aggressive approach.

Jordan Ostroff, a criminal defense attorney in Orlando, specializes in academic hearings over drug use, alcohol abuse and other minor offenses at Florida colleges and universities. A former prosecutor who brought drug cases against numerous students, he now represents many college students who have been caught with marijuana.

He says that if institutions of higher learning truly want to do what’s best for their students then they should not allow first-time possession of a small amount of marijuana to escalate into a permanent stain on a young person’s academic or criminal record.

“With so many of these cases I feel like I’m going from being a lawyer to being a psychologist and talking to the student and saying, ‘this isn’t going to end your life or end your dreams,’” he said. “It’s a crazy concept that 13 years of a kid going through school can be taken away by half a gram of marijuana.”

But Watts, the university spokesperson, said that deterrence is an important driver behind the school’s enforcement practices.

“UA expects its policy and its enforcement will dissuade students from choosing to engage in illegal activity or taking action that may negatively impact their academic success and/or the campus environment,” she said. “It also helps ensure access to treatment and resources for those who need it.”

‘The wrong message’

Asked about his thoughts on the 2013 raid at UA and other programs that law enforcement agencies have used on students – including using a number of them as undercover drug informants – Ostroff said, “it’s a giant scare tactic for them – ‘we’re going to show these kids that nothing is beneath us, were going to scare the rest of them from doing anything like this.’”

But that can have negative impacts on perceptions of the university, as UA students repeatedly told AL.com during its 2015 reporting on the tactics police used against students at UA.

Samuel Major was a sophomore majoring in business at Alabama when he, Blackwood and 59 other UA students were arrested during the 2013 drug sweep. He was charged with two counts of selling marijuana within three miles of a school and a count each of possessing marijuana and paraphernalia. He admitted in an interview with AL.com in 2015 that he sold small quantities of pot to his friends, but says that the experience was so traumatic and disturbing that it eventually led him to drop out and move back to his home state of Florida.

Major ultimately received two years of unsupervised probation under a plea deal. But he also spent more than $20,000 on legal bills and court fees and ended up not earning a degree from UA.

“I’ve come to terms with it, but I ended up leaving school,” he told AL.com in a December 2015 phone interview. “It’s defined me, I guess; it’s made me a better person, I suppose. I learned that bad things happen to good people. I was being stupid at the time and I was 19, but I wasn’t a bad person. I wasn’t selling cocaine or anything.”

Dr. Howard Samuels, a licensed therapist and CEO of The Hills Treatment Center in Los Angeles, said that he has heard many stories like those of Blackwood and Major.

He strongly believes it is counterproductive to students’ well-being to use aggressive police tactics and throw the book at young people accused of relatively minor marijuana violations.

“That approach is wrong. You’ve got to have a treatment approach and an educational approach,” he said.

“To go to the point where you have, for example, informants going around turning kids in, that’s just wrong. You can’t do that; that’s sending the wrong message. You can’t be that harsh because you’re dealing with a mental health issue and you want to have an open dialogue with the students.”

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Published at Mon, 13 Mar 2017 14:16:48 +0000

Jeff Sessions says fed marijuana approach “more complicated than one RICO case”

Jeff Sessions says fed marijuana approach “more complicated than one RICO case”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said this week that he wants to enforce federal marijuana laws in an “appropriate way” nationwide and is weighing options such as initiating Supremacy Clause and RICO prosecutions.

Sessions’ latest remarks on marijuana legalization and enforcement came during a radio interview Thursday with conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

Hewitt broached the topic of marijuana by asking Sessions whether he would apply the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to “end this facade and the flaunting of the Supremacy Clause.”

Sessions responded in the affirmative and reiterated previous remarks about his beliefs about marijuana legalization as well as potential restraints to enforcement, according to a transcript of the interview posted on Hewitt’s website:

“We will, marijuana is against federal law, and that applies in states where they may have repealed their own anti-marijuana laws,” Sessions said. “So yes, we will enforce law in an appropriate way nationwide. It’s not possible for the federal government, of course, to take over everything the local police used to do in a state that’s legalized it.

“And I’m not in favor of legalization of marijuana. I think it’s a more dangerous drug than a lot of people realize. I don’t think we’re going to be a better community if marijuana is sold in every corner grocery store.”

Asked about whether he could send a message by bringing a RICO case against one retailer, Sessions said the Justice Department is analyzing its options.

“Well, we’ll be evaluating how we want to handle that,” he said. “I think it’s a little more complicated than one RICO case, I’ve got to tell you. This, places like Colorado, it’s just sprung up a lot of different independent entities that are moving marijuana. And it’s also being moved interstate, not just in the home state. … And neighbors (Oklahoma and Nebraska) are complaining, and filed lawsuits against them. So it’s a serious matter, in my opinion.”

To read Sessions’ full interview with Hewitt, visit HughHewitt.com.


Marijuana in the age of Trump: A Cannabist special report

Click here for a deep dive into topics including potential federal enforcement actions, the implementation of the Supremacy Clause and how the cannabis industry is changing its approach with the Trump administration.

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Published at Sat, 11 Mar 2017 01:49:46 +0000