The California Office of AIDS has promised to revise its existing jail policy so that all HIV-positive inmates, regardless of what charges are pending against them, will have access to life saving HIV medications. This development, which will help prevent jail terms from becoming de facto death sentences for those with HIV, is credited to the tireless efforts of ACLU Staff Attorney Mary Sylla and was featured prominently in Special Council Merrick J. Bobb's semi-annual report on Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department (LASD).

The jail medication crisis surfaced in early 1998 when the LASD was denied reimbursement for HIV medications by the California office administering the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP), a combined state and federal effort to provide HIV medication to persons without health insurance.

Previously, ADAP had reimbursed the LASD approximately $1 million a year for the medication distributed in the jails, but in 1998, the California agency administering ADAP ceased reimbursing based upon an inaccurate factual information about the obligation of other governmental entities to reimburse the Sheriff's Department.

With the support of the LASD, ACLU Staff Attorney Mary Sylla asked the California Office of AIDS to reconsider its position, and on January 20, 1999, the agency revised its policy, noting in a letter that her efforts had "resulted in an extensive review of our policy . . ." The reimbursement will free up $1 million that the County would otherwise be obliged to spend on medication.

"The state office of AIDS has done the right thing ," said Sylla. "People in jail desperately need these HIV medications. Revising this policy proves that they truly care about those most in need.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Dept Commander Dennis Dahlman added, "We're thrilled. We're going to reapply for those funds and will anxiously await reimbursement from the State."

The ACLU, along with the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance, first sought the change in policy in a June 24, 1998 letter. More than six months later the Office of AIDS responded, paving the way for the Sheriffs Department to seek reimbursement again. The Sheriff's Department will begin receiving these reimbursements as soon as the mechanism for qualifying inmates for ADAP can be set up, likely within the next several months.

Date

Monday, February 22, 1999 (All day)

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ACLU of Southern California

The ACLU of Southern California urged the federal government today to allow New York Times best-selling author Peter McWilliams to use physician-recommended marijuana as part of his treatment for AIDS, which has worsened dramatically since the government prohibited his use of the drug. "This is precisely the reason that the people of California - like those in 5 other western states - enacted a law legalizing the medical use of marijuana," said ACLU attorney Taylor Flynn. "After Mr. McWilliams and his doctor had successfully kept the HIV virus in check for two and a half years with the use of medical marijuana, the federal government in August 1998 prohibited Mr. McWilliams from using this essential medication as a condition of his release on bail. Within a few months, the amount of the HIV virus in his blood had increased twenty-fold and his life is in danger."

Mr. McWilliams, author of such best-selling books as Life 101 and How to Heal Depression, became a strong proponent of medical marijuana upon using it successfully, under a doctor's supervision, when no other drugs would work to calm the extreme nausea caused by his drug regimen. His drug regimen consists of the only treatment known to be effective in combating the HIV virus, a combination therapy commonly referred to as a "combination cocktail." Approximately 20% of the AIDS patients who begin combination therapy, however, are forced to give up this regimen due to the severe nausea it causes. Failure to keep the medication down not only means that the patient is deprived of the benefit of the drugs, but it also creates the risk that the HIV virus may mutate into a form which is resistant to all known medication.

On July 23, 1998 --2 years after the passage of California's medical marijuana proposition known as the Compassionate Use Act of 1996 --the federal government indicted Mr. McWilliams on charges of alleged manufacture and distribution of marijuana.

A hearing to consider Mr. McWilliams' request to continue to use medical marijuana is scheduled to take place in federal court in Los Angeles on February 22, 1999, before the Honorable Judge George King. AThe federal government is forcing Mr. McWilliams to choose between saving his life or forfeiting his freedom and the homes of his brother and disabled mother,@ said Mr. McWilliams' attorney, Thomas Ballanco, referring to the conditions of Mr. McWilliams' parole. Under these conditions, if Mr. McWilliams uses medical marijuana, he will be returned to prison and the government will confiscate the homes of his brother and mother, which were used as collateral for Mr. McWilliams' bail bond.

Not only do the conditions of his release place Mr. McWilliams in a double bind, explained ACLU attorney Taylor Flynn, "the federal government is denying to Mr. McWilliams precisely what they are providing - free of charge - to 8 other seriously ill Americans: the use of medical marijuana." Under the Food and Drug Administration's Investigative New Drug Program - which has been in place for fifteen years - the federal government runs a marijuana farm at the University of Mississippi, where it grows marijuana for research purposes and supplies each of the program's 8 patients with 300 marijuana cigarettes per month. One of these patients, Elvy Musikka, has suffered from glaucoma for more than 20 years. "I lost most of my vision in one eye because I was afraid of trying marijuana, since it was an illegal drug," said Ms. Musikka. "As with Peter McWilliams, however, no other drug worked for me. Since using medical marijuana and becoming a patient in the government program, my vision has improved immeasurably. For me, it has meant the difference between sight and blindness."

As Mr. McWilliams' attorney explained, Mr. McWilliams is simply requesting the option of using marijuana under the supervision of a doctor - or the federal government: "All we are asking is that the court modify the order which prevents Mr. McWilliams' limited personal use of medical marijuana under his doctor's supervision, or that the court enroll Mr. McWilliams into the existing federal medical marijuana program," said Thomas Ballanco.

Date

Thursday, February 18, 1999 (All day)

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Today the California Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that the District Attorney's office and the Los Angeles Police Department wrongly withheld evidence which denied Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt the right to a fair trial.

Elmer 'Geronimo' Pratt spent nearly 27 years in prison for the 1968 robbery/murder of school teacher Caroline Olsen, in Santa Monica. During the original trial, prosecutors withheld evidence that their key witness, Julius Butler, was a confidential informant for the FBI and LA District Attorney's Office. While Butler served as an informant, he was allowed to go free for one felony and escaped prosecution for at least three others. Prosecutors also withheld information that another man was initially identified as the murderer. Since eyewitness accounts were shaky at best, the prosecution relied on Butler's testimony. The suppressed evidence could have devastated Butler's credibility and helped Pratt win an acquittal. Finally, in 1993, after the trial, an appeal, five habeas corpus petitions and intense pressure, the DA's office disclosed this crucial information.

In May 1997, Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey ruled that the prosecution suppressed evidence that could have led to a different verdict, vacated Pratt's sentence and ordered him released on bail. The Los Angeles County District Attorney appealed the ruling, attempting to send Pratt back to prison.

In today's unanimous decision, the Court wrote, "[T]he evidence clearly established the existence of a cooperative relationship [between Butler and] various law enforcement personnel that was much closer than Pratt was able to show or argue at trial.... This type of impeachment goes far beyond an attack on a witness's credibility in general....[W]e agree with Judge Dickey's conclusion that the information that was not available at trial would have permitted 'potentially devastating cross-examination or other impeachment evidence regarding Butler in important respects.' "

Mark Rosenbaum, Legal Director of the ACLU/SC said, "Today's unanimous decision by the California Court of Appeal is a resounding affirmation of the fundamental right to a fair trial. The improper withholding of evidence by the LA District Attorney's Office -- evidence that would likely have led to an acquittal of Mr. Pratt -- caused nearly 27 years of imprisonment of a man on an unconstitutional conviction. Today's ruling sends the message that three decades of injustice is more than enough. We call on District Attorney Gil Garcetti to accept today's ruling as the end to this case. Enough is enough."

Date

Tuesday, February 16, 1999 (All day)

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Education Equity

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