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North Americans Are Spending Nearly as Much on Weed as They Do on Wine

Move over, Napa Valley, there's a new kid on the block. When it comes to spending on mind-altering substances, Americans and Canadians are shelling out just about as much for marijuana as they do for wine.

The bud of the herb is catching up with the fruit of the vine. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)
In its executive summary of a yet-to-be-released report, Arcview Marijuana Research pegs the size of the North American marijuana market -- legal and illegal -- at $53.3 billion, which puts it roughly even with the market in wine. According to Statista, US retail wines sales sit at $55.8 billion, and Canadian government figures put sales there at $3.2 billion.

Weed has not yet overtaken wine, but it's damned close. And this is happening in a marijuana market that is still mostly illegal. Yes, Canada will legalize marijuana, but it hasn't done so yet. And yes, more than half the states allow medical marijuana and eight of them have legalized it for adults, but illegal sales still account for 87% of the market, according to Arcview.

For Arcview CEO Troy Dayton, the huge illegal market is not a bane, but a boon.

"The enormous amount of existing, if illicit, consumer spending sets cannabis apart from most other major consumer-market investment opportunities throughout history," he explained. "In contrast to comparable markets with fast growth from zero to tens of billions in recent decades such as organic foods, home video, mobile, or the internet, the cannabis industry doesn’t need to create demand for a new product or innovation -- it just needs to move demand for an already widely-popular product into legal channels."

As the adult use markets in the newest legal US states (California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada) and Canada are established, Arcview predicts the illegal market's share of total sales to decline. The legal market should grow from $6.9 billion last year to $21.6 billion by 2021. But even then, Arcview says, the black market will still account for two-thirds of all sales.

That's because black market operators in states that have not legalized even medical marijuana, not to mention recreational weed, will continue to thrive on an "illegality premium" or "prohibition tax" built into black market prices with no competition from legal operators.

Conversely, state-legalized sales also include an illegality premium due to federal law, and businesses are unable to reap the efficiencies of scale that fully legal businesses are able to. The marijuana prices of tomorrow may be markedly lower than the marijuana prices of today, which could mean a smaller market eventually if measured by dollars spent, even if it is larger in terms of number of customers.

Stil the marijuana market is huge by any meausre, and it's not going away -- despite what happens in Washington, DC. That's something to ponder as you sip your Chablis.

Warning Signs: Trump and Human Rights

The following statement was distributed this morning by Human Rights Watch. One of the issues it touches on is the Philippines drug war killings and the president-elect's troubling conversation with the mass murderer president of the Philippines. (We are doing work related to the Philippines situation that will be announced in the near future. Human Rights Watch was a key partner in our global drug policy sign-on statement prepared for the 2016 UNGASS.)

(Washington, January 20, 2017) -- Donald Trump takes office today having vowed to enact policies that would threaten rights at home and abroad if actually implemented, Human Rights Watch said today. Human rights advocates, elected officials, and members of the public should press the new United States president to abandon those proposals and should call out government actions that violate rights. Congress, the courts, and the people of the United States should demand transparency and hold the administration accountable for policies and actions that threaten rights.

"This inauguration opens up a dangerous and uncertain new era for the United States," said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. "Even if President Trump acts only on ten percent of the most problematic of his campaign proposals, it will cause a momentous setback for human rights at home and abroad. The onus is now on elected officials and the public to demand respect for rights that the President-elect seems to have put in his crosshairs."

Both during his presidential campaign and since his election, Trump has embraced policies that would harm the rights of millions of people -- from the immigrants he has vowed to deport in vast numbers, to the women whose reproductive rights he has promised to restrict through his judicial appointments. He has at times publicly embraced torture and the illegal targeted killing of civilians abroad. He said he would halt the release of men from Guantanamo Bay detention facility and "load it up with some bad dudes." Trump's pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has a long track record of hostility and disdain towards the very civil rights enforcement tools the US Justice Department is called on to deploy in defense of rights.

Trump's approach to foreign policy appears to embrace close collaboration with repressive governments on a range of issues, without regard for their troubling human rights records. During his confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, refused to acknowledge human rights violations by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the Philippines, despite extensive documentation of the violations by numerous sources, including the US government.

Greatly compounding all of these concerns, there is every reason to worry that the Trump administration will seek to minimize scrutiny of its actions. Trump and his advisers have regularly and very publicly insulted or smeared his critics. Reports indicate his team is considering restricting media access to the White House. And Trump has famously said that he would like to weaken libel laws to facilitate lawsuits against journalists.

"By trampling on the rights of millions of people in the US and abroad, Trump's proposals if enacted would weaken everybody's rights," Roth said. "Elected officials and the public should call out proposals and policies that would weaken rights, and demand a government that protects them."

Chronicle AM: N. Am. Illegal MJ Market $50+ Billion, AR/ND/ MedMJ Delay Bills, More... (1/18/17)

A new report finds illegal weed is a $50 billion business in North America, Denver begins working on its "social use" ordinance, state legislators move to slow the implementation of medical marijuana, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Estimate Puts Size of North American Pot Market at More Than $50 Billion. A new report from the Arcview Market Research group puts the size of the North American legal marijuana market at $6.9 billion, which is overwhelmed by the $46.4 billion dollar illicit market. Black market marijuana is bigger than wine, which comes in at $38 billion.

States' Effort to Undo Colorado Pot Law Revived. A panel of judges from the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver heard arguments Tuesday in a case brought by the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma against Colorado's marijuana law. The hearing suggested judges were open to considering RICO charges against dispensary operators and marijuana cultivation operations. Any decision on the case could take months.

Nevada Governor Announces 10% Excise Tax on Recreational Marijuana. In his final budget speech, Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) announced a 10% excise tax on pot to help support his new budget, which is up 10% from last year's. There's already a 15% is already in place for wholesale purchases, and dispensary operators worry that additional taxes could make the black market stronger.

Denver Begins Work on Allowing Pot Use in Clubs, Other Businesses. A working group of Denver business owners, city regulators, and marijuana foes met together Wednesday to begin crafting regulations to implement the city's voter-approved "social use" ordinance, which will allow clubs, coffee shops, yoga studios, and other businesses to allow marijuana consumption on premises. There is no deadline for finalizing the rules, but advocates hope the city will start accepting applications by the summer.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas House Approves Medical Marijuana Delay. The House voted Tuesday to approve a proposal that would delay implementation of the state's new medical marijuana law. The measure is House Bill 1026. The bill bumps back a 120-deadline from Election Day for the state to issue dispensary and cultivation licenses to 180 days.

Florida Regulators Issue Draft Medical Marijuana Rules; Initiative Backers Cry Foul. State health officials released draft rules Tuesday for the state's voter-approved medical marijuana program, but that draft largely leaves current vendors with a stranglehold on the state's industry by applying current laws to the constitutional amendment approved in November, and that isn't sitting well with the people who sponsored the Amendment 2 initiative. "The rule is basically ignoring the text of the constitutional amendment at almost every point of the way," said Ben Pollara, campaign manager of the political committee backing the amendment. The health department will hold public hearings to take input on the rule during the second week of February, with meetings in Jacksonville, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando and Tallahassee.

North Dakota Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Delay Bill. The state Senate voted 45-0 Tuesday to approve Senate Bill 2154, which would delay some provisions of the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. Senate leaders said the delay is necessary to develop rules and regulations for the program. The bill now goes to the House.

Law Enforcement

LEAP Changes Its Name, But Not Its Acronym. The drug reform police group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) has now changed its name to the Law Enforcement Action Partnership. "For more than a year, our board and staff have been hard at work to expand into the broader field of criminal justice reform while maintaining a keen focus on our drug policy work. Not only will this expanded scope be a natural fit for our speakers' criminal justice expertise, but it will also help us to become even more effective at moving the drug policy reform conversation forward. And, when you care about something, you want it to be the best it can be. With the right criminal justice reforms, we can do better, for ourselves and for our communities. Our new name reflects the core of our organization," the group said.

New Mexico Bill Would Expand DUI to Include Drugs. Rep. William Rehm (R-Albuquerque) has filed a bill that would target "drugged driving" by setting blood concentration levels similar to those for alcohol for five drugs: marijuana, cocaine, heroin, amphetamine, and methamphetamine. The measure is House Bill 22. But the Drug Policy Alliance, which has opposed similar bills in the past, is raising concerns about this one as well, saying it puts tens of thousands of medical marijuana patients at risk of arrest by setting THC limits unsupported by scientific research.

Book Review: "Marijuana: A Short History" by John Hudak

Marijuana: A Short History by John Hudak (2016, Brookings Institution Press, 217 pp., $14.95 PB)

Marijuana is going mainstream, as evidenced by the spread of medical marijuana and now outright legalization, not to mention its pervasive and increasingly favorable position in popular culture. In the past 20 years, support for legalization has grown from a distinct minority position to a majority one, and now, after November's elections, more than half the states have approved medical marijuana and nearly one out of six Americans lives in a state where it is legal.

Marijuana is now also big business, with industry watchers estimating the size of the legal market at around $20 billion by 2020. There's one problem with such rosy scenarios, though: Pot remains illegal under federal law.

That's a big problem for John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution with a keen professional interest in public policy implementation, legislative-executive relations, and marijuana policy. In Marijuana: A Short History, Hudak takes marijuana legalization as pretty much a given -- provided it isn't screwed up too badly in implementation -- and sees federal marijuana prohibition largely as an obstacle to getting pot policy right.

He sketches out the strange place we now find ourselves, with a booming industry enriching state tax coffers at the same time it remains federally illegal, and a federal government largely turning a blind eye to the violations of federal law -- at least for now -- while at the same time refusing to allow that industry the banking privileges and tax breaks provided to legal businesses. Meanwhile, marijuana sellers become Chamber of Commerce members in some states and prison inmates in others.

Hudak describes the growing tension between legalization in the states and federal prohibition as challenging federal authority while also hampering the efficient functioning of the marijuana industry. In his view, we're now in a sort of "worst of both worlds" status quo:

"The resulting situation in the United States may be worse than either national legalization or national prohibition. Legal realities are loosely defined by executive branch guidance and suggestions from the administration. This guidance fails to answer important questions and oftentimes creates new ones. States are constantly asking the federal government how to deal with many of the problems they face; the answers are almost always insufficient. Members of Congress have proposed solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing states, industry actors, and consumers, but that legislation is not acted on."

"The reality is that the state of American law at the start of 2016 is absolutely untenable and is inconsistent with American principles of fairness and equal treatment. Federal officials must commit themselves to coherent, comprehensive, and sensible marijuana policy. Until they do, the system will be arbitrary and unjust, and policy will be ineffective."

Now, at the start of 2017, the tensions Hudak highlights are even more acute, and the November elections brought them to the fore. At the same time the legal recreational market quintupled in size with victories in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, the nation elected Donald Trump, whose attorney general pick, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, is an avowed foe of legalization and drug law reform in general.

Trump himself has said he favors letting the states experiment, but the billion-dollar question is whether Trump is going to set pot policy or leave it to his minions. If it's the latter, legal marijuana may be in for a bumpy ride, but even if it's the latter, that's just the political status quo.

That isn't enough for Hudak. He wants things settled at the federal level through congressional action, not left to the administrative whim of some officeholder. Whether the next few years is going to bring us any closer to Hudak's prescription for pot policy perfection is an open question, and it's sure to be contested political terrain.

Hudak raises the right questions about marijuana's future, but make no mistake, Marijuana: A Short History is by no mean all wonkery. After all, Hudak is writing a history, and he does just that in a concise and lively manner, concentrating on the 20th Century in the US, a period that saw the long arc of marijuana prohibition peak before the decline it now faces in the early years of the 21st Century. Of special interest is his section on the rise of a successfully reform movement, as he zeroes in on the people and strategies that made it happen.

Okay, Marijuana: A Short History is pretty wonky. It's serious stuff with a serious purpose: getting us down the path to a sane and effective marijuana policy nationwide. People with an interest in marijuana and marijuana legalization need to be thinking about these things, and Hudak is going to reward a serious reader. And he isn't going to make you slog through 400 pages of academic prose along the way. Read it; it'll make you think.

Stingray: Privacy, Surveillance, the War on Drugs, and Your Phone [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by independent investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Raymond Lambis is a free man -- at least for now.

He was looking at 10 years to life on federal drug charges, but the case was built on a controversial technology -- "Stingray" -- and in a precedent-setting 2016 decision widely celebrated by legal experts and privacy advocates, a federal judge ruled that use of the device without a search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable search and seizure.

The decision -- and the technology -- has implications that go far beyond the shadowy world of drug dealers and DEA agents. Stingray is a generic term for a cell-site simulator, a device that can mimic cell towers as a means of tracking down cell phones. Law enforcement can use Stingray to pick up phone calls, voicemail messages, and text messages, and to pinpoint the physical location of a targeted phone to within a few feet.

In the Lambis case, federal prosecutors argued that they didn't need a warrant to use the wide-ranging Stingray, but federal district court Judge William H. Pauley shot them down.

"Absent a search warrant," Judge Pauley held in his 14-page opinion, "the government may not turn a citizen's cell phone into a tracking device."

But that's exactly what DEA agents did to build their case against Lambis. They used Stingray to locate his cell phone inside his family residence, then conducted a warrantless search of his bedroom and uncovered a large amount of cocaine.

Federal prosecutors had a fallback argument -- that even if a warrant were necessary to track Lambis' phone, once his father gave agents at his door permission to enter and Lambis then "consented" to a search, the search should be allowed -- but Pauley wasn't having that, either.

"The procurement of a 'voluntary' consent to search based upon a prior illegal search taints that consent," he held.

US District Court Judge William H. Pauley
But if federal prosecutors have their way, the DEA and other federal agents will be able to do it again. In September, prosecutors from the US Attorneys Office for the Southern District of New York filed an appeal of Pauley's decision with the US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We're obviously disappointed about that," Lambis' attorney Alan Seidler told Drug War Chronicle.

So is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Rebecca Jeschke, a digital rights analyst for the group, told the Chronicle that if the government wins on appeal, everyone's privacy will be eroded.

"As we use cell phones more and more, a successful appeal will touch nearly every American," she said.

A successful appeal would be salt in the wounds of legal scholars and privacy advocates who hailed Pauley's forceful decision in Lambis as a major victory against warrantless surveillance by the government.

"This is the first federal ruling I know of where a judge squarely ruled that the Fourth Amendment required police to get a warrant to use a Stingray, and further, suppressed evidence derived from warrantless use of the technology," ACLU Attorney Nathan Wessler told the New York Times at the time. "After decades of secret and warrantless use of Stingray technology by law enforcement to track phones, a federal judge has finally held authorities to account."

According to an ACLU report, at least 60 state, local, and federal law enforcement agencies in 23 states have used Stingray to suck up citizens' cell phone data.

Stingray in the Lambis Case

According to court documents, the trail to Raymond Lambis' front door began with a DEA investigation into an alleged drug pipeline importing large amounts of cocaine from South America beginning in early 2015. DEA agents obtained a wiretap warrant to glean information about the numbers dialed from a specific cell phone.

After agents obtained the warrant, they monitored messages off a Blackberry between two suspected drug traffickers. During one particular conversation agents overheard a voice referring to someone named "Patilla," whose phone had a 646 area code.

Messages between Patilla and the other, unnamed party indicated that Patilla could supply hydrochloric acid, which is used by traffickers in the heroin-refining process. DEA agents then got a warrant to order the phone company to provide "approximate location," or "cell-site location information" (CSLI).

A frequent complaint of defense attorneys and privacy advocates has been that law enforcement, and DEA agents in particular, will mislead judges into thinking the warrant they sign off on is to get specific cell-site information from a carrier when what agents are really doing is using Stingray to locate a person's phone or actual address. As the Chronicle reported in 2013, "The Stingray technology not only raises Fourth Amendment concerns, it also raise questions about whether police withhold information from judges to monitorcitizens without probable cause.That's what happened in Lambis.

In the Lambis case, DEA Special Agent Kathryn Glover obtained a warrant seeking cell-site data and location information for that 646 phone, but did not tell the judge DEA would be using Stingray to conduct a search to pin down Lambis' exact location.

"So they went to the effort to get a warrant, but then didn't tell the judge they intended to use that same warrant to use a Stingray," ACLU technology specialist Christopher Soghoian told Ars Technica. "It is so important for federal courts to recognize that use of a Stingray is a search of a Fourth Amendment-protected place, and not only is a warrant required, but the court authorizing the surveillance must be told they are authorizing the use of a Stingray."

But the phone carrier's CSLI data, which Agent Glover said in her warrant application would be used to track down the 646 phone, only guided DEA agents to the "general area" of Broadway and 177th Street in Manhattan. To pinpoint the 'house or building where the phone most likely resided with its owner the DEA unleashed Stingray to first zero in on the exact building and then on the exact apartment.

A DEA technician using a hand-held Stingray walked through the building until he picked up the strongest signal -- coming from inside the Lambis apartment. Then, DEA agents knocked on the door, and Lambis' father allowed the gun-toting agents inside. When agents asked if anyone else lived there, the elderly man knocked on his son's door, and Lambis opened it up only to be confronted by the DEA.

Faced by the agents in his home, he then consented to a search of his bedroom, where agents discovered a kilo of cocaine, empty ziplock bags, a scale, and eight cell phones. He was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute and other drug-related charges. It was Lambis' defense motion to throw out that evidence as a result of an unlawful search that led to Pauley's ruling.

The States Aren't Waiting for the Federal Courts

The courts aren't the only place Stingray is running into headwinds. Thanks to decisions like that in the Lambis case, some states have begun passing privacy legislation aiming at protecting citizens' cell phone data from warrantless searches by Stingray or similar cell-site simulators used by police. Among them are California, Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Virginia, and Washington.

"Citizens have the right to expect that they will not have their personal information investigated by police without a warrant," said Rep. Edith H Ajello (D-Providence) after passage of a 2016 Rhode Island bill that prohibits obtaining cell phone data by cell-site technology.

"Requiring a warrant won't make it difficult for police to do their job," concurred Sen. Donna Nesselbush (D-North Providence). "It's essentially updating search warrant law for the information age."

"As advances in technology enable police to more efficiently investigate and solve crimes, it's important that we help them to know they are following state laws and the Constitution," said Illinois Sen. Daniel Bliss (D-Evanston) upon passage of similar legislation there in 2016. That law, the Citizen Privacy Protection Act, went into effect January 1.

While the states aren't waiting for the federal courts to provide protections, the Lambis decision and related controversies over Stingray technology have created such a firestorm that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security are now requiring agents to obtain a warrant before using Stingray in investigations. But that could change if the appeals court rules in the government's favor. Stay tuned.

Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com.

Chronicle AM: Federal OD & MedMJ Bills Filed, State MedMJ Bills, More... (1/9/17)

Both Congress and state legislatures are getting back to work, and the bills are starting to pile up; South Dakota activists eye a 2018 legalization initiative, and more.

Medical marijuana bills are being filed in the states that have yet to embrace it. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Some California Dispensaries Are Already Selling Marijuana to All Adult Comers. Legal recreational marijuana sales won't begin in the state until at least 2018, but some medical marijuana dispensaries are already selling pot to anyone over 21. "Dozens" of dispensaries are advertising that they no longer require a doctor's recommendation to make purchases. Many, if not all, of these "Prop 64 friendly" dispensaries are unlicensed.

South Dakota Activists Eye 2018 Legalization Initiative. The state has twice rejected medical marijuana at the polls, but that isn't stopping a new group, New Approach South Dakota, from planning a 2018 legalization initiative. The group says it will submit a proposal to the attorney general's office next week.

DC Mayor Announces Plan to End Driver's License Suspensions for Drug Offenses. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said Monday that her administration plans to change a law that suspends the driver's license of people arrested for drug offenses. "In Washington, DC, we value and support rehabilitation and promote employment as a critical component of successful reentry," Mayor Bowser said in a statement. "This change will ensure that the DC criminal code is tailored to public safety, not maintaining antiquated and ineffective policies that place unnecessary burdens on District residents."

Medical Marijuana

Federal Bill to Protect Medical Marijuana Businesses From Asset Forfeiture Filed. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) last Thursday filed House Resolution 331, which would shield medical marijuana-related conduct authorized by state law from federal asset forfeiture attempts. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees.

Mississippi Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. Rep. Joel Bomgar (R-Madison) has filed House Bill 179, which would ensure that any "qualifying patient who possesses a valid registry identification card is not subject to arrest, prosecution, or penalty in any manner." The bill specifies a list of qualifying conditions, allow for caregivers for patients who can't grow their own, and allow for dispensaries. Patients could possess up to 2. 5 ounces of marijuana.

Indiana Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Indianapolis) has filed Senate Bill 255, which would allow patients with a specified list of conditions or "any persistent or chronic illness or condition" to use medical marijuana with a physician's recommendation. The measure would also create a statewide medical marijuana program. Tallian has introduced similar bills in past years that have gone nowhere.

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Bill Coming Soon. State Sen. Anna Wishart (D-Lincoln) says she will introduce a comprehensive medical marijuana bill this session. A similar measure came within three votes of advancing last year, but the measure would still face an uphill battle in the legislature and a probable veto from Gov. Pete Ricketts (R).

New Mexico Medical Marijuana Fix Bill Filed. State Sen. Cisco McSorly (D-Albuquerque) has filed Senate Bill 8, which would more than double the amount of medical marijuana licensed producers can grow in the state and expand the amount of marijuana that patients could possess. "This bill will guarantee there is an adequate supply of marijuana for our patients," McSorley said.

Kratom

Florida Bill to Make Kratom a Controlled Substance Filed. State Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D-Coconut Grove) last Friday filed House Bill 183, which would add mitragynine and hydroxymitragynine, the psychoactive components of kratom, to the state's controlled substances act. Under the bill, selling, manufacturing, or importing kratom would be a misdemeanor.

Collateral Consequences

Nebraska Bill Would (Mostly) End Lifetime Ban on Food Stamps for Drug Felons. State Sen. Mike Groene (R-North Platte) last Friday filed Legislative Bill 128, which would end the lifetime ban on food stamps for drug felons, but only if they got drug abuse treatment after their most recent conviction. Alternately, drug felons could take and pass voluntary drug tests every six months to qualify. People with more than two drug felonies would continue to be banned from receiving food stamps. A measure to completely end the ban failed last year.

Harm Reduction

Federal Bill Filed to Ease Access to Overdose Reversal Drug. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and a bipartisan group of 18 cosponsors have filed House Resolution 304, which would ease bureaucratic obstacles to emergency medical care providers wishing to administer the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce committees.

The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2016 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2016 feature story too.)

The year that just ended has seen a serious outbreak of bloody violence against drug users and sellers in one country, it has seen drug offenders hung by the hundreds in another, it has seen efforts to fight the spread of drug-related HIV/AIDS falter for lack of funding, and it has seen the tenacity of the prohibitionist apparatus in the halls of the United Nations.

But there was also good news emanating from various corners of the world, including advances in marijuana legalization in Canada, the US, and Europe and the flouting of the proscription against the coca trade in the UN anti-drug treaties. And speaking of treaties, alhough we didn't include it this year because the drug policy implications remain unclear, the fruition of years'-long peace negotiations between Colombia and the leftist rebels of the FARC, which brings an end to the Western hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla war, is certainly worth noting.

Here are the ten most notable international drug policy events of 2016, the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs saw progress, but achingly little. (Wikimedia.org)
1. The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs

The global prohibitionist consenus was under growing strain at the UNGASS on Drugs, as civil society pressed the UN bureaucracy and member states for reforms as never before. But changes come at a glacial pace at the level of global diplomacy, and the vision of the UNGASS as a platform for discussing fundamental issues and plotting a new course ran up against the resistance of drug war hard-liners like Russia and China, and the studied indifference of European governments, who preferred that the UN drug policy center of gravity remain at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. And while the US delegation advocated for some good stances, it, too, opposed any meddling with the trio of UN conventions that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition.

Still, there were some incremental victories. UN agencies submitted their own position papers, many highly progressive, as were the submissions from some countries and international organizations. EU states and others fought hard for language opposing the death penalty for drug offenses, though unsuccessfully. And while the UNGASS Outcome Document avoids most big issues, it puts strong emphasis on treatment and alternatives to incarceration. It acknowledges the importance of human rights and proportionate sentencing. It has support for naloxone (the overdose antidote), medication-assisted treatment (e.g. methadone and buprenorphine), and safe injecting equipment, though avoiding the term "harm reduction" itself. And it calls for addressing obstacles to opioid availability. (Read a detailed report on UNGASS by some of our colleagues here, and read about some of our own work for the UNGASS here.)

2. Global Harm Reduction for AIDS Remains Tragically Underfunded, and Facing Worse. Despite the repeatedly-proven positive impact of harm reduction measures in reducing the spread and prevalence of HIV/AIDS, donors continue to refuse to pony up to pay for such measures. The UNAIDS program estimates that $2.3 billion was needed to fund AIDS-related harm reduction programs last year, but only $160 million was actually invested by donors as most member states cut their aid levels. That's only 7% of the requested funding level. That's after 2015 saw the first drop in support in five years (see pages 21-22) in funding for AIDS efforts in low- and middle-income countries. The world spends an estimated $100 billion a year on fighting drugs, but it can't come up with 2.3% of that figure to fight drug-related AIDS harms. Harm Reduction International has proposed a "10x20" shift of 10% of law enforcement funding toward harm reduction services by 2020 to address the gap.

Harm reduction's global funding challenges are further impacted by the global AIDS-fighting budget, which has taken a hit as the rise in the dollar has reduced the spending power of contributions from donor countries that use other currencies. Even worse, many of the countries currently benefiting from UN harm reduction funding have progressed economically to a point at which they are supposed to begin funding their own programs according to the UN development framework. But that may not be a realistic expectation, especially for the sometimes politically fraught programs needed to address disease transmission related to drug use.

3. America's Most Populous State Legalizes Marijuana, and So Do Several More. You know the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling when the rot sets in at home, and that's what happened in November's US elections. California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts all voted to legalize marijuana, joining Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington, which had led the way in 2012 and 2014. Now, some 50 million Americans live in pot-legal states, and that's going to mean increasing pressure on the government in Washington to end federal pot prohibition. It's also an example to the rest of the world.

4. Europe's Prohibitionist Consensus Begins Crumbling Around the Edges. No European nation has legalized marijuana, but signs are increasing that somebody is going to do it soon. If 2016 was any indication, the best candidates may be Italy, where a broadly supported legalization bill got a parliamentary hearing this year before surprise election results upset the country's political apple cart; Germany, where "legalization is in the air" as Berlin moves toward allowing cannabis coffee shops and Dusseldorf moves toward total marijuana legalization; and Denmark, where Copenhagen is trying yet again to legalize weed. In both Denmark and Germany, legalization isn't currently favored by the central governments, while in Italy, everything is in limbo after Europe's populist uprising swept the prime minister out of office. Still, the pressure is mounting in Europe.

Amsterdam's famed cannabis coffee houses look set to final get a legal source of supply. (Wikimedia.org)
5. The Dutch Are Finally Going to Do Something About the "Back Door Problem." The Dutch have allowed for the sale of marijuana at "coffee shops" since the 1980s, but never made any provision for a legal pot supply for retailers. Now, after 20 years of blocking any effort to decriminalize marijuana production, Prime Minister Mark Rutte's VVD party has had a change of heart. At a party conference in November, the VVD voted to support "smart regulation" of marijuana and "to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs." The full text of the resolution, supported by 81% of party members, reads: "While the sale of cannabis is tolerated at the front door, stock acquisition is now illegal. The VVD wants to end this strange situation and regulate the policy on soft drugs in a smarter way. It's time to redesign the entire domain surrounding soft drugs. This redevelopment can only take place on a national level. Municipalities should stop experiments with cannabis cultivation as soon as possible." The opposition political parties are already in support of solving the long-lived "back door problem."

6. Canada's Move Toward Marijuana Legalization Continues Apace. Justin Trudeau and the Liberals swept the Tories out of power in October 2015 with a platform that included a clear-cut call for marijuana legalization. Movement toward that goal has been slow but steady, with the task force charged with clearing the way calling for wide-ranging legalization in a report report issued in December. The Liberals say they expect to file legalization bills in the parliament this spring, and Canada remains on track to free the weed.

7. Bolivia Ignores UN Drug Treaty, Agrees to Export Coca to Ecuador. Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader himself, opened the year campaigning to decriminalize the coca trade and closed it without waiting for the UN to act by inking an agreement with Ecuador to export coca there. The agreement would appear to violate the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which bans the export of coca leaf because it contains the cocaine alkaloid, but neither Bolivia nor Ecuador seem to care.

Mexico's latest drug war marked its 10th anniversary last month. (Wikimedia.org)
8. Mexico Marks a Decade of Brutal Drug Wars. In December, 2006, then-President Felipe Calderon sent the Mexican army into the state of Michoacan in what he said was a bid to get serious about fighting the drug trade. It didn't work, and in fact, led to the worst prohibition-related violence in the country's history, with an estimated 100,000 + killed and tens of thousands more gone missing. Attention to the cartel wars peaked in 2012, which was a presidential election year in both the US and Mexico, and the level of killing declined after that, but has now risen back to those levels. Calderon's replacement, Enrique Pena Nieto, has publicly deemphasized the drug war, but has not substantially shifted the policy. The arrest of Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman has weakened his cartel, but that has only led to more violence as new competitors vie for supremacy.

There are signs of hope on the policy front though, if early ones, with medical marijuana being implemented, attitudes toward legalization softening, and the government playing a role in forwarding the international debate on drug policy reform.

9. Iran Has Second Thoughts About the Death Penalty for Drugs. The Islamic Republic is perhaps the world's leading drug executioner, with drug offenders accounting for the vast majority of the more than a thousand people it executed in 2015 (2016 numbers aren't in yet), but there are increasing signs the regime could change course. In November, the parliament agreed to expedite deliberations on a measure that would dramatically limit the number of people facing execution for drugs. Now, the proposal will get top priority in the Legal and Social Affairs Committee before heading before the full parliament. The measure would limit the death penalty to "organized drug lords," "armed trafficking," "repeat offenders," and "bulk drug distributors."

10. The Philippines Wages a Bloody War on Drug Users and Sellers. With the election of former Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as president, the country descended into a veritable blood-bath, as police and "vigilantes" seemingly competed to see who could kill more people faster. Duterte has brushed off criticism from the US, the UN, and human rights groups, and even insulted his critics, although he did have kind words to say about Donald Trump, who had kind words to say about him. As of year's end, the death toll was around 6,000, with the vigilantes claiming a slight lead over the cops.

California's Six Largest Cash Crops: Marijuana is a Monster [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

California's agricultural bounty is fabled, from the endless olive and almond groves of the Central Valley to the world-class grapes of the Napa Valley to the winter vegetables of the Imperial Valley to the garlic fields of Gilroy, and beyond. But the biggest item in California's agricultural cornucopia is cannabis.

According to report last week from the Orange County Register, California's marijuana crop is not only the most valuable agricultural product in the nation's number one agricultural producer state, it totally blows away the competition.

Using cash farm receipt data from the state Department of Food and Agriculture for ag crops and its own estimate of in-state pot production (see discussion below), the Register pegs the value of California's marijuana crop at more than the top five leading agricultural commodities combined.

Here's how it breaks down, in billions of dollars:

  1. Marijuana -- $23.3
  2. Milk -- $6.28
  3. Almonds -- $5.33
  4. Grapes -- $4.95
  5. Cattle, calves -- $3.39
  6. Lettuce -- $2.25

That estimate of $23.3 billion for the pot crop is humongous, and it's nearly three times what the industry investors the Arcview Group estimated the size of the state's legal market would be in the near post-legalization era. So, how did the Register come up with it, and what could explain it?

The newspaper extrapolated from seizures of pot plants, which have averaged more than two million a year in the state for the past five years, and, citing the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, used the common heuristic that seizures account for only 10% to 20% of drugs produced. That led it to an estimate of 13.2 million plants grown in the state in 2015 (with 2.6 million destroyed), based on the high-end 20% figure.

It then assumed that each plant would produce one pound of pot at a market price of $1,765 a pound. Outdoor plans can produce much more than a pound, but indoor plants may only produce a few ounces, so the one-pound average figure is safely conservative.

The $1,765 per pound farm gate price is probably optimistic, though, especially for outdoor grown marijuana, which fetches a lower price than indoor, and especially for large producers moving multi-dozen or hundred pound loads.

They grow pot plants by the millions in the Golden State. (Twitter)
And maybe law enforcement in California is damned good at sniffing out pot crops and seizes a higher proportion of the crop than the rule of thumb would suggest. Still, even if the cops seized 40% of the crop and farmers only got $1,000 a pound, the crop would still be valued at $8 billion and still be at the top of the farm revenue heap.

And it would still exceed the estimate of what the state's legal marijuana market would look like -- in 2020. Arcview estimated revenues of $6.5 billion by then under legalization. For 2015, the year the Register is looking at, Arcview pegged the state's legal (medical) market at $2.8 billion.

Even making conservative assumptions about the value of the pot crop, it's clear that California pot producers are growing billions of dollars' worth of marijuana that is not accounted for by the state's legal market. Where does it all go? Ask any of those state troopers perched like vultures along the interstate highways heading back east.

That's a phenomenon that's not going to stop when California's legal marijuana market goes into full effect. It's not going to stop until people in states like Illinois and Florida and New York can grow their own. In the meantime, California pot growers are willing to take the risk if it brings the green.

Chronicle AM: VT MJ Possession Pardons, No Jail for MJ in Houston, UK CBD, More... (1/4/17)

Vermont's governor pardons nearly 200 for pot, Houston's incoming DA says no jail for pot possession, a British medical regulatory agency recognizes CBD as medicine, and more.

British medical authorities have officially recognized CBD cannabis oil as a medicinal product. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Gets First Legal Marijuana Tax Revenues. The state is starting to reap the fiscal benefits of marijuana legalization, as the Department of Revenue announced it had taken in $81,000 in taxes from seven growers in the month of November. The revenues came from taxes on 98 pounds of pot and 10 pounds of trim, which are taxed at $50 an ounce and $15 an ounce, respectively.

Vermont Governor Pardons 192 for Pot Possession. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has pardoned 192 people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana. Some 450 people applied for pardons after Shumlin announced the program last month, but he only pardoned 192 after looking at subsequent criminal histories. "While attitudes and laws about marijuana use are rapidly changing, there is still a harmful stigma associated with it," Shumlin said. "My hope was to help as many individuals as I could overcome that stigma and the very real struggles that too often go along with it."

No Jail for Marijuana Possession in Houston. Incoming Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has said the practice of jailing people for pot possession is over. "All misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases will be diverted around jail," Ogg said. "I've never felt good about putting marijuana users in the same jail cells as murderers. It's just not fair, it doesn't make any sense, and our country is resoundingly against that."

Medical Marijuana

Florida is Now a Medical Marijuana State. The constitutional amendment approved by voters in November to legalize medical marijuana went into effect Tuesday. But the state doesn't have a distribution system up and running yet. Lawmakers and the state Department of Health will have to craft rules, with an implementation target date of September 9.

Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Hearing Aims to Ease Patient Access. At a public hearing in Boston Tuesday, advocates called for changes in the state's medical marijuana law to allow hospices and nursing homes to provide the medicine for patients. "Hospice patients are literally out of time," said Elizabeth Dost, clinical director for the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which represents medical marijuana patients. "The patient's average length of stay (in hospice) in Massachusetts is 35 to 45 days. By the time they access cannabis, they are often deceased." Another public hearing is set for Thursday morning in Holyoke.

Law Enforcement

NAACP Activists Arrested in Protest at Attorney General Nominee's Office. Six NAACP demonstrators were arrested after occupying the Mobile, Alabama, offices of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Donald Trump's choice to head the Justice Department. The NAACP is demanding the Sessions turn down the nomination to be attorney general, citing his record of ignoring voter suppression but prosecuting black voting rights activists. Sessions is also opposed by broad swathes of the drug reform community for his stances against marijuana legalization and sentencing reform and in favor of asset forfeiture.

International

Britain Recognizes CBD as a Medicine. The Medicines and Health Care Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) Tuesday classified CBD as a medicine in the United Kingdom. The agency said it made the move after reviewing claims from several companies that their CBD products offered health benefits.

Georgia Marijuana Activists Face 12 Years in Prison for Planting Pot Seeds. In a New Year's Eve act of civil disobedience, dozens of activists and the Girchi Party planted pot seeds at party offices, publicly breaching the country's criminal code and exposing themselves to up to 12 years in prison under the country's drug laws. The Girchi Party is demanding drug decriminalization and marijuana legalization.

Chronicle AM: US Legal MJ Sales Near $6 Billion, ME Goes Legal at Month's End, More... (1/3/17)

Happy New Year! Legal marijuana sales hit a new record, Maine's legalization law will go into effect on January 30 (but not pot shops), Puerto Rico sees its first dispensaries, and more.

Somebody modified the iconic Hollywood sign on New Year's Eve. (Twitter)
Marijuana Policy

US Marijuana Sales Hit Nearly $6 Billion in 2016. A new report from Arcview Market Research put US legal and medical marijuana sales at $5.86 billion last year, with nearly another $900 million being sold in Canada. Assuming a compound annual growth rate of 25%, Arcview estimates that North American sales will reach $20.2 billion by 2021.

California Bill Would Specifically Outlaw Pot Smoking Behind the Wheel. State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) and Assemblymember Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley) have filed Senate Bill 65, which would make it a misdemeanor to drive while smoking or otherwise ingesting marijuana. Hill said he filed the bill because the state's legal marijuana law does not explicitly bar such activity.

Idaho Moms for Marijuana Founder Busted for CBD at Statehouse Rally. Serra Frank, the founder of Moms for Marijuana International, was arrested on the capitol steps in Boise Sunday for possession of marijuana after she displayed a pill bottle containing what she said were capsules containing CBD oil. She was also charged with possession of paraphernalia. The rally was held to protest Gov. "Butch" Otter's (R) veto of a CBD bill last year.

Maine Legalization Goes Into Effect January 30, But Governor Wants a Moratorium on Sales. Tea Party Republican Gov. Paul LePage has officially certified the results of the November vote on marijuana legalization, meaning it will go into effect at month's end. But he also called for a moratorium on sales until lawmakers can work out regulatory details. The state's new pot law already gives the legislature nine months to come up with regulations, leading legalization activists to describe LePage's moratorium call as "defeatist" and premature.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Lawmaker Files Medical Marijuana Implementation Bills. State Rep. Douglas House (R-North Little Rock) has filed a pair of bills aimed at the state's new medical marijuana law. House Bill 1057 would add national and state criminal background check requirements, while House Bill 1058 would amend the definition of written certification to clarify that it is not a medical record. The bills are not yet available on the legislative website.

New Hampshire Bill Would Let Patients Grow Their Own. A bill currently in draft form would allow patients living at least 30 miles from a dispensary to grow their medicine. New Hampshire and Connecticut are the only New England states that don't allow patients to grow, and state Rep. Renny Cushing (D-Hampton) wants to change that. He said he is open to altering the bill's language, including the 30-mile provision.

Puerto Rico Gets First Dispensaries. Medical marijuana dispensaries have begun operating in the US territory, Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla said Friday. He said two dispensaries are now open. The move comes nearly two years after his administration adopted a regulation to allow for medical marijuana.

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