All posts by Heather Fazio

Editorial: Texas must move ahead on medical marijuana

Longview News-Journal

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Longview News-Journal

As of last week, 25 states have enacted laws allowing the use of medical marijuana — Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards was the latest to sign a bill passed by his state’s Legislature.

Many more states soon will be following the trend that began 20 years ago (in California, not surprisingly), allowing treatment for debilitating seizures and chronic seizures by using medical forms of marijuana. In some cases it is the only prescription that works.

That’s true for a number of people in the Longview area. We don’t know how many but over the past few years several have stepped forward asking for help in getting medical marijuana approved in Texas.

Alexis Bortell, 10, once lived in Texas but left the state for Colorado after her daily problems with seizures became resistant to any drug her doctors could prescribe here.

Now, in 430 days of medical marijuana treatment, Alexis has been seizure free.

Jacy Poole of Lakeport met with Alexis and her family last weekend. Jacy has similar problems but without the ability to move to another state. She needs help now, in Texas. So do many others.

And it is well nigh past time Texas lawmakers step up to the plate and provide meaningful legislation to help them live with confidence rather than constant pain or the fear that any moment they will suffer a seizure.

Every seizure causes some amount of brain damage, too. This is not merely a matter of convenience.

We find it odd there is so much resistance to medical marijuana from law-and-order types when the medical profession already uses painkillers that are far more potent and addictive. Morphine has been used decades and is both powerful and addictive. New painkillers are introduced with regularity and officials are always fearful of how they will be abused.

This is not a problem with medical marijuana because, frankly, it has been used illegally for years. Allowing its medical use is not going to increase the illegal use at this point.

Yet such measures are always called controversial, and we do not understand why. Such moves are supported by both liberal and conservative members of the Texas Legislature. Medical marijuana has no ideological bent, it just helps people and last we knew that was supposedly the aim of everyone in the Legislature.

Many understandingly oppose the outright legalization of marijuana, as we have in the past. But anyone who takes a few minutes to understand the facts realizes this isn’t about making the party more lively but making lives more liveable.

For Alexis, Jacy and untold other Texans who would be helped, the Legislature should pass, and Gov. Greg Abbott must approve, meaningful medical marijuana legislation in the coming session.

Study: States are losing out on billions of dollars by keeping pot illegal

May 16, 2016
Washington Post

The federal government and most states are throwing away $28 billion in yearly tax revenue by not legalizing marijuana, according to a new analysis from the Tax Foundation, an independent think tank.

The bulk of that revenue — $20.5 billion of it — would accrue to states through the collection of excise taxes on marijuana sales, general sales taxes, and income and payroll taxes levied on workers and businesses in a mature legal marijuana industry.

The federal government would take in another $7.5 billion, primarily from income and payroll taxes, and $500 million in excise taxes if marijuana were to be taxed the same way tobacco is.

Read more here.

AAA Finds No Basis for Equating THC Blood Levels With Driver Impairment

Traffic safety trends in Washington after marijuana legalization are ambiguous.

 

In 2014, the first year that marijuana was legally sold for recreational use in Washington, 17 percent of drivers in fatal crashes tested positive for THC, up from 8.3 percent in 2013, when recreational marijuana was legal to possess but not to grow or sell. “The proportion of drivers positive for THC was generally flat before and immediately after Initiative 502 [Washington’s legalization measure] took effect,” the AAA report says, “but began increasing significantly…approximately 9 months after Initiative 502 took effect. It was not clear whether this increasing trend was attributable to Initiative 502 or to other factors that were beyond the scope of the study.”

The report also notes that “results of this study do not indicate that drivers with detectable THC in their blood at the time of the crash were necessarily impaired by THC or that they were at fault for the crash,” since “the data available cannot be used to assess whether a given driver was actually impaired, and examination of fault in individual crashes was beyond the scope of this study.” The increase in drivers testing positive for THC may reflect an increase in marijuana use, but it does not necessarily indicate an increase in the number of dangerously stoned drivers on the road.

Another AAA study further muddies the picture. It found that the share of drivers involved in accidents (both fatal and nonfatal) or arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI) who tested positive for THC rose from 20 percent in 2005 to 30 percent in 2014. But this upward trend, which may be related to an increase in the number of Washington State Patrol troopers trained to recognize drug-impaired drivers, slowed after passage of I-502, contrary to what you would expect if legalization led to more stoned driving. In both this study and the one focusing on fatal accidents, drivers who tested positive for THC typically also tested positive for alcohol or other drugs. That was true for 66 percent of the THC-positive drivers in fatal crashes and 73 percent of the THC-positive drivers who were arrested or involved in any sort of collision.

The report notes that it took an average of about two hours for police to obtain blood samples after an accident or a DUI arrest. That lag, which in some cases might have been long enough for THC to fall below detectable levels, suggests that the prevalence of “THC-involved driving” may be underestimated. The researchers say “evaluating the impact of protracted time until blood testing is complicated by the lack of available standardized law enforcement data on the time of testing.”

A third AAA study focuses on the distinction between “THC-involved driving” and THC-impaired driving, finding no clear relationship between THC blood levels in DUI arrestees and performance on roadside sobriety tests (the walk-and-turn test, one-leg-stand test, and finger-to-nose test). THC-positive drivers were much more likely to fail the tests than a group of drug-free controls (although even the latter group had substantial failure rates, ranging from 33 percent to 51 percent, which makes you wonder how accurate these tests are as measures of impairment). But the amount of THC in drivers’ blood was not correlated with their test performance. “There was no correlation between blood THC concentration and scores on the individual indicators,” the report says, “and performance on the indicators could not reliably assign a subject to the high or low blood THC categories.” In short, “there is no evidence from the data collected…that any objective threshold exists that established impairment.”

The implications for states contemplating a per se DUI standard similar to Washington’s (which equates a THC blood concentration of five nanograms per milliliter with impairment) are clear: “Based on this analysis, a quantitative threshold for per se laws for THC following cannabis use cannot be scientifically supported.” That conclusion is similar to the position taken by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “Whereas the impairment effects for various concentration levels of alcohol in the blood or breath are well understood,” NHTSA says, “there is little evidence available to link concentrations of other drugs to driver performance.”

The lack of a scientific foundation for defining impairment based on THC blood levels has not stopped legislators fromadopting or considering such standards as a way to create the impression that they are doing something about the threat posed by stoned driving (which is real but pales beside the threat posed by drunk driving). Such rules are both underinclusive, since some people may be dangerously impaired at THC levels below the cutoff, and overinclusive, since some regular cannabis consumers are perfectly capable of driving safely at THC levels above the cutoff.

DA Susan Hawk Tells Prosecutors to Get More Serious About Pot Possession

by Eric Nicholson | Dallas Observer

As drug reforms go, the cite-and-release marijuana policy Dallas recently considered was pretty tepid stuff. Getting caught with weed would have still been a class B misdemeanor, still carried a potential penalty of a $2,000 fine and six months in jail and still left a permanent mark on a convicted person’s record. All of that is cemented in state law, untouchable by local government.

What cite-and-release would have done is save everyone a lot of grief on the front end of the drug enforcement process. By allowing police to write a ticket for marijuana possession instead of hauling a suspect to jail, the policy would mean that officers wouldn’t have to fritter away half their workday booking a nonviolent offender into jail, the suspect wouldn’t suffer the collateral damage to job and family that can come from an unannounced trip to jail and the city and county would save on jail cost.

Last month the City Council unceremoniously torpedoed the policy, ostensibly out of concern that the policy was unfair because it wouldn’t apply to the small sliver of Dallas that’s in Collin County but really because the council is populated by moralizing Puritans.

But while Dallas decided not to budge on the front-end and the state Legislature appears unlikely to pass more substantive reform this decade, local officials still have considerable sway on what happens on the back-end. The district attorney’s office in particular can decide how zealously to prosecute drug possession cases, how willingly to negotiate reduced charges, how arduous the conditions need to be.

On the whole, defense attorneys say that the Dallas County prosecutors are reasonable when it comes to marijuana offenses. The prosecutors still treat it as a crime, because, after all, that’s what it is, but they don’t throw the book at defendants and they leave first-time offenders a path to wiping the charges from their records.

Recently, however, the DA’s office has made an effort to rein in prosecutors who too willingly cut deals on low-level, nonviolent offenses.

Since 2007, the DA’s office has offered first-time offenders charged with certain misdemeanors like marijuana possession and shoplifting the option to address the charges through a “memo agreement.” Upon meeting certain conditions outlined in the agreement (e.g. taking substance abuse or theft classes, passing drug tests, etc.) and paying a $620 fine, the case is dismissed. Cases dismissed in this way are eligible for expungement, leaving the defendant once again with a clean criminal record.

Many prosecutors, however, strike deals with defendants without using the memo agreement. For marijuana possession cases, defendants are often allowed to quickly dispose of the case by pleading guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia, a class C (traffic-ticket level) misdemeanor. They pay a fine, avoid the classes and drug tests, and can also have their records wiped clean.

There are no readily available statistics, but, anecdotally, the number of prosecutors striking deals independently, rather than using the standardized memo agreement, has grown in recent years. Craig Glickman, a defense attorney, speculates that it’s the product of a generational shift; the young assistant district attorneys who populate the office’s misdemeanor division just don’t think weed is that big a deal.

The DA’s office recently began to push back, directing prosecutors to stick to the memo agreement. Brittany Dunn, the office’s spokeswoman, described the change as more of a suggestion than a mandate and said its intent is so that the criminal justice system can “address the underlying issue that caused the arrest.”

“We are encouraging prosecutors to address changing criminalistics behaviors in plea bargains and push for rehabilitative conditions outlined in the memo agreement,” Dunn wrote in an email. “Your stated ‘lesser-included, easy plea'” — e.g. drug paraphernalia — “will stay off the offender’s record, not address the issue, and detrimentally affect them for years to come. We are committed to ending revolving door punishment. Mass incarceration costs us all and begins when we refuse to address the criminalistics behavior and perpetuate the ‘slap on the wrist’ mentality.”

For offenders, the change is a mixed bag. In addition to giving folks caught with weed a shot at rehabilitation (woo hoo!), the memo agreements allow them to clear their records more quickly than they can with a class C conviction.

But the conditions are much more onerous; if they’re not met it can lead to a conviction for a class B misdemeanor that  can’t be expunged. And the fine is higher — a maximum $500 for a class C misdemeanor versus $620 under the memo agreement.

On balance, it’s probably slightly worse for defendants but hardly draconian. Which raises a question that Dunn’s talk of rehabilitation doesn’t quite satisfy: Why bother?

The answer, as always, is money.

Too many class C deals “would hurt the financial bottom line of the DA’s office — $500.00 goes to them in the Memo Program, where in a Class C reduction, fines and court costs go to the State,” defense attorney Pete Schulte wrote in an email. “Amazing how money can influence justice, huh?”

Sigh. Can Texas just legalize this stuff already?