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Marijuana Group Not High on Patriot Act

Troy Hooper - Aspen Daily News, 3rd June 2006

America's war on terror is leaving some criminal defense attorneys dazed and confused.

In an age when 11 states allow marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes -- a 12th state, New Jersey, is currently considering it -- and communities across the nation are softening penalties for possessing small amounts of the pungent green plant, conservative legislators are using the Patriot Act to crack down on drugs.

At a National Organization of the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) legal seminar at The Gant in Aspen this week, Denver attorney Jeralyn Merritt warned defense lawyers from across the country that the Patriot Act is infringing on civil liberties and how its overly broad definitions could impact their clients.

"Once you give the government power, it's very hard to get it back," she said.

In North Carolina, a district attorney has used the state's "weapons of mass destruction" statute to charge a suspected crystal methamphetamine lab owner. The creative application of the statute allowed the prosecutor to threaten the alleged meth producer with a prison sentence of 12 years to life, as opposed to the substantially smaller sentences already on the books for drug dealing.

In neighboring Georgia, dozens of Indian convenience-store clerks and managers have been prosecuted for selling cold medicine and other legal products that are commonly used to make meth, even though many of the defendants spoke limited English and apparently did not understand the medicine can produce drugs.

Up in Washington, federal officials enacted a Patriot Act provision to investigate a marijuana-smuggling operation that allegedly used a secret tunnel to transport pot into the United States from marijuana-friendly British Columbia. Authorities obtained a "sneak and peak" warrant that allows them to enter and bug locations without informing suspects a search warrant has been issued. Civil libertarians decry "sneak and peak" warrants, which Merritt said have increased by about 75 percent in this new century, as an affront to the Fourth Amendment.

"We have to protect people from a government that in its effort to do right, quite often does wrong," said Cal Williams, a criminal defense lawyer who traveled to Aspen from Colby, Kansas, to attend the NORML seminar.

U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wisconsin), who Merritt calls "the most dangerous man in Congress," has introduced a bill called "Defending America's Most Vulnerable: Drug Treatment and Child Protection Act" that, if passed, could put offenders behind bars for five years if they pass a marijuana joint to a person who has previously been in treatment, lock up parents for at least three years if they witness or learn about drug-trafficking activities targeting children, and put persons away for two years if they don't report drug sales at universities and colleges, according to Merritt.

"Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! That's terrible," a lawyer in attendance remarked.

R. Keith Stroup, a Washington, D.C., attorney who founded NORML in 1970, said his organization first began coming to Aspen after he smelled a curious smell emanating from the bleachers at the Democratic National Assembly in Miami in 1971. The aroma came from the late scribe Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, who was puffing a marijuana joint during a break of his coverage of the political convention. Stroup joined Thompson and the two became friends. Soon, Thompson became a senior advisor to NORML, helping lift the group's profile. "Doc was an enormous draw," said Stroup.

Aspen attorney Gerry Goldstein, who lectured on important new cases affecting marijuana users at the opening of NORML's seminar in Aspen this week, was among the first lawyers to get involved with the movement in 1971 and also helped bring the legal seminars to the area. NORML visits here every four or five years.

There are about 40 attendees to the seminar this year, Stroup said, adding that attendance is down because of the increased competition for continued-legal-education credits that lawyers receive for attending conferences like NORML's.

NORML holds seminars in Key West, Fla., every December, where about 155 to 160 attorneys show up every year. "If we were going to start doing this in Aspen every year, we'd bring our core group and the numbers would be bigger," he said.

Stroup said he is contemplating a larger presence in Aspen but no decisions have been made. This week's seminar started Thursday and ends today, with a "High Tea at Hunter Thompson's Owl Farm in Woody Creek." Other lectures included this week have focused on defending driving-under-the-influence-of-drugs cases, ethics and professionalism, child welfare and custody issues when parents smoke marijuana and cutting edge issues for medical marijuana patients.

NORML Executive Director Allen St. Pierre added that the organization decided to hold the seminar in Aspen in part to help focus attention on the effort currently under way to adopt a statewide voter initiative to legalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults. The initiative, called Safer Alternatives for Enjoying Recreation, is expected to make the November ballot. It is modeled after a successful measure passed in the city of Denver last year.

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