Reefer Roundup: 3/3/11

Your drug war news for the week

This week it's all about government action – A movie tracing the South Florida pot wars coming to SXSW, extending funding for needle exchange, limiting public assistance to people with substance abuse issues, and lowering criminal penalties for pot possession – in this edition of the Reefer Madness Roundup.

SXSW Brings the Square Grouper to Town

That's right: Florida's square grouper is headed to the SXSW Film Festival. The film Square Grouper: The Godfathers of Ganja, a documentary look at Miami's "pot smuggling culture in the 1970s and 1980s through three of the city's most colorful stories," according to the teaser on the SXSW site, promises to be a romp for anyone interested in the effects of the Drug War and in drug-law reform.

Here are the basic ingredients: commercial fishing is being shut down in the Everglades, rumblings in Washington, D.C. suggest that pot might soon be legalized; there's a lot of moolah to be made in the pot trade – enter the Black Tuna Gang – and in 1979 the Florida Supreme Court rules that the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church is a protected religion and in that context, their "use of cannabis is an essential portion of the religious practice." Blend it all together, throw in a few narcs and – bingo! – you've got yourself prime material for a documentary.

Reefer fans: Don't miss this one. Square Grouper – referring to bales of pot tossed overboard or from planes in South Florida – premiers Saturday, March 12, at 9:30pm at the Vimeo Theater in the Austin Convention Center, 501 E. Fourth.

Check out the trailer above.

Funding for Needles

The U.S. Surgeon General has finally given the OK to begin federal funding for needle exchange programs. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin last week posted notice that needle exchange programs are a form of drug treatment, meaning that these programs can qualify for funding via the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grant program, reports the Drug Reform Coordination Network.

Needle exchange programs "are widely considered to be an effective way of reducing HIV transmission among individuals who inject illicit drugs and there is ample evidence that [needle exchange] also promote[s] entry and retention into treatment," Benjamin said.

Indeed, anonymous needle exchange programs are effective at reducing the transmission of diseases – which can also mean millions in savings in health care costs.

Texas lawmakers have tried for several sessions now to legalize needle-exchange, only to be stymied by colleagues who say they are worried that legalizing needle exchange somehow sends a message that they support drug use. Nonetheless, San Antonio Dem Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon has again file her needle exchange bill – House Bill 117 – and here's hoping that this time (the fifth time it's been introduced) it'll pass.

No Public Assistance for Addicts

Texas is among nearly a dozen states now proposing to drug test adults who apply for or receive certain types of public assistance. Reports Join Together, proponents of the measures claim that they will save money and encourage individuals to enter into treatment programs, while opponents argue that the programs would actually cost much in the long run and might actually discourage people from accessing treatment programs.

In Texas, bills related to drug testing for public assistance have been filed by Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, and Rep. Ken Legler, R-Pasadena. Laubenberg's House Bill 139 would require all adults applying for "financial assistance benefits" (except those applying solely on behalf of a child) to submit to a drug test in order to "establish" their eligibility for assistance. Failing the test would exclude the person from benefits for at least 12 months; before benefits can be denied, however, the test has to be reconfirmed, at a cost to the state, and the individual must be afforded a "public hearing" on the matter. A similarly restrictive bill by Legler, HB 126, would tie access to unemployment funds to successfully passing a drug test. Failing the test would knock a person from receiving benefits until after the individual has returned to work for at least six weeks or earned wages "equal to six times the individual's benefit amount." Legler's bill does offer an out: If a person fails the test but can prove participation in a drug treatment program or that the test fail was related to ingestion of a "medically necessary" drug, then unemployment benefits cannot be withheld. Still, the bill does not contain any provision for appeal.

Both bills have been assigned to committee, but to date neither has been scheduled for a hearing.

Part of the objection to such bills is that individuals who test positive will be punished by being cut off from assistance, but won't actually be helped to find or enter treatment. "The rub in all of this for us is we're still not providing treatment, Colleen Coble of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence told Missouri lawmakers during testimony on a similar bill before being proposed there. "So what you're going to have are … incredibly poor kids, with an addicted parent, with even fewer dollars in the household."

Decrim Pot in Texas?

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, was back in front of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee this week, pushing for his (now perennial) pot-law reform measure, this time filed as HB548.

The bill, similar to what he filed last session, would decrease criminal penalties associated with possession of small amounts of pot. As such, possession of up to one ounce of pot would be a fine-only offense (a class C misdemeanor) punishable by a fine of up to $500. That fine would increase to a class B misdemeanor (up to six months in jail) if it is shown at trial that the defendant had previously been convicted of minor, fine-only, possession three times before within a two-year period (and if convicted that fourth time, probation would not be a possibility).

The measure brought plenty of folks to the committee to testify in favor of the measure, but the bill was – as has happened before – left pending in committee. Dutton, however, remains passionate about the measure. At least 14 other states have already enacted similar decrim measures and two are currently considering similar bills, he said. "I think it is time for Texas to join these 16 other states," he said in his closing remarks, "and [to] make sure that we have the kind of laws that [do good and that make Texas] one of the best states in the whole union." Especially given the dismal state of fiscal affairs here, he noted, it makes absolutely no sense to lock up nonviolent pot smokers. "The solution is not to put more people in Texas prisons," he said.

Indeed, Texas is one of more than a dozen states considering a host of marijuana-related bills – some to restrict access (as in the case of a Montana lawmaker's bid to undue the popularly elected medi-pot bill there) and others that seek to legalize pot use in various forms (such as Washington's bid to tax-and-regulate pot). Read more about each of these measures here.

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Reefer Madness, Square Grouper, SXSW, Drug War, Marijuana, 82nd Legislature, Harold Dutton, Jodie Laubenberg, Needle Exchange

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