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What To Do About the Drug Trade in West Africa? [FEATURE]

Over the past decade, West Africa has emerged as an increasingly important player in the global illicit drug trade. Although the region has historically not been a drug producing one -- with the important exception of marijuana -- it has become a platform for predominantly Latin American drug traffickers moving their illicit commodities toward lucrative European and Middle Eastern markets. The cocaine traffic alone is worth more than a billion dollars a year, according to a 2013 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

children walking from home to school in Bamako, Mali (JoeyTranchinaPhotography©2014 Sète, France)
And the trade is becoming more complex. Now, it's not only cocaine flowing through the region, but heroin destined mainly for Western Europe and methamphetamines being manufactured there and exported to Asia and South Africa, that same UNODC report found.

The region -- stretching along the African coast from Nigeria to the east to Senegal on the west, and extending deep into the Sahara Desert in countries such as Mali and Niger -- is plagued by weak states and corrupt governments, making it attractive to criminals of all sorts, who thrive in lawless lands. And it's not just criminals. The region is also home to various bands of Islamist militants, some of whom are involved in the drug trade.

Now, a commission of prominent West Africans is calling for fundamental changes in drug policies in the region. Last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.

The commission is impressive. It was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria and headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary.

And so is its very existence. It marks the entrance of West African civil society into the international debate on drug policy in which calls for fundamental drug reform have gained increasing momentum in recent years. In 2008, former Latin American heads of state and other luminaries formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and in 2011, Annan and other world luminaries and former heads of state came together to form the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Now, West Africa adds its voice to the chorus calling for change.

"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offenses," said Obasanjo upon the report's release last week. "West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production. The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks."

"Most governments' reaction to simply criminalize drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems," added Kofi Annan.

West Africa
"We need the active support and involvement of civil society and of the international community," said commission member Edem Kodjo. "South America, where most of the drugs smuggled to West Africa come from, and Europe, which is the main consumer market, must take the lead to deal with both production and consumption at home. We cannot solve this problem alone; governments and civil society have to come together in West Africa to help prevent the drug problem from getting completely out of hand."

The report won kudos from American drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"First Europe, then the Americas, now Africa," he said. "Drug policy reform is truly becoming a global movement, with Kofi Annan and Olusegun Obasango providing the sort of bold leadership that we've also seen in Latin America. Maybe, just maybe, West Africa will be spared the fate of other parts of the world where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption spiraled out of control."

But some analysts, while welcoming the report, suggested that it did not get at the heart of the problem in West Africa.

"The report focuses on public health, and that's great, but I'm not sure that's the issue," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution who has published extensively on West Africa. "Nor are there generally large prison populations due to the arrests of low-level drug offenders. There is increasing drug use, and many addicts don't have access to public health. That, however is not because they were arrested, but because Africa in general doesn't have access to public health," she pointed out.

"In some senses, the commission report is preventative -- it warns of policies that would be counterproductive -- but it is not going to solve West Africa's problems," Felbab-Brown continued. "And the harm reduction approaches that dominate the discourse in Europe and the US are not really apropos for West African public health issues. The increasing focus of the international community is interdiction, but that accounts for only a small fraction of the total traffic, and the report doesn't deal with what kind of alternate law enforcement there should be, or who should be targeted."

But others thought the criminal justice and public health emphasis in the report were a step down the right path.

"The report's message about alternatives to criminalization for use and minor offenses is important in criminal justice terms -- to discourage the horrible over-representation of minor drug offenders in prisons in the region -- but also as a reminder that there are no such alternatives unless the health and social sectors develop those alternatives," said Joan Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Foundation's Global Drug Policy Program.

"Health ministries need to be as important around the drug policymaking table as the police, which is far from the case in most of Africa today," she added. "Services for treatment of drug dependence in the region are absent or of appalling quality. Improving health and social support for people with drug dependence is a key to drug policy reform in West Africa."

And Felbab-Brown agreed that while measures like drug prevention and treatment wouldn't solve the region's problems, they would still be helpful.

"We're already seeing quite a bit of heroin in the region, and we are seeing increasing use," she said. "These are cheap and prevalent commodities, the traffickers partake in kind, and user communities are being established. In a sense, developing strategies to prevent use, get treatment, and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C is useful because there are more and more users."

drug, security, and insurgency analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown (brookings.edu)
But for Felbab-Brown, the key problem for West Africa is its weak and corrupt states.

"The big trafficking issues are around the intersection of very poor, very weak, very corrupt, and often very fragile states with state participation in various forms of criminality," she said. "Drugs are just another commodity to be exploited by elites for personal enrichment. Elites are already stealing money from oil, timber, and diamonds, and now there is another resource to exploit for personal enrichment and advancement," she argued.

"One narrative has it that drug trafficking has caused fragility and instability, but I think trafficking compounded the problems; it didn't create them," Felbab-Brown continued. "There is a systematic deficiency of good governance. Many of these states have functioned for decades like mafia bazaars, and the trafficking just augments other rents. There are rotten governments, miserable institutions, and poor leadership around all commodities, not just drugs."

"The states are not monolithic," Csete noted. "Some have high-level corruption, some are aggressive in trying to fight money-laundering and other elements of organized criminal networks, some rely heavily on traditional interdiction methods. Some of these countries have relatively strong democratic systems and relatively strong economic growth; some have governance institutions that are less strong."

The state of the states in West Africa influenced the commission and its recommendations, Csete said.

"Legalization of drugs -- production, sale, consumption -- was not judged to be politically feasible or necessarily desirable by the commission," she explained. "I think the commissioners generally perceive that generally these countries do not yet have a political climate favorable to debate on progressive changes in drug policy. The whole idea of the commission and its report is to open those debates -- high-profile people from the region saying things that sitting officials do not find it politically easy to say."

"These are newer post-colonial states," Felbab-Brown noted. "Are we having unreasonable expectations? Is this like Europe in the 13th Century, or is that some of these countries are doomed to exist in perpetual misgovernance?"

While there may be concern in Western capitals about the specter of West African drug trafficking, many West Africans have other, more pressing, drug policy concerns.

In its 2013 report, the UNODC noted that the importation of fake pharmaceutical drugs from South and Southeast Asia into the region was a problem. Joey Tranchina, a longtime drug policy observer who has recently spent time in Mali, agrees.

"Having traversed Mali from Bamako to Mopti, except for the usual oblique indigenous references to smoking weed, the only personal experience I have with drug crime is counterfeit pharmaceuticals from India, China, and Russia," he said. "They're sold cheap in the streets to people who can't afford regular meds and they take the place of real pharmaceuticals, especially malaria and HIV drugs. These drug scams are killing people in Mali," he said.

"Most people in West Africa don't see drug trafficking as that much of a problem," said Felbab-Brown. "If it's mostly going to Westerners, they say so what? For them it is a mechanism to make money, and those drug traffickers frequently become politicians. They are able to create and reconstitute patronage networks around drug trafficking, just as they were once able to get elected with money from blood diamonds."

It seems that, to the degree that drug use and drug trafficking are West African problems, they are problems inextricably interwoven with the broader issues of weak, fragile, and corrupt states that are unable or unwilling to deliver the goods for their citizens. The West Africa Commission on Drugs has pointed a way toward some solutions and avoiding some failed policies already discredited elsewhere, but it seems clear that that is just the beginning.

Chronicle AM -- June 16, 2014

It's looking like at least one Oregon marijuana legalization initiative will make the fall ballot, a legalization initiative gets underway in Oklahoma, proposed medical marijuana rule changes in New Mexico run into stiff opposition, Georgia gives up on drug testing food stamp recipients, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon gets a coca birthday cake in Bolivia, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

New Approach Oregon Legalization Initiative Closes in on Signature Goals. The New Approach Oregon legalization initiative had gathered some 83,000 raw signatures by the end of last week, according to the secretary of state's office. It needs 87,213 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. With 25% to 30% of raw signatures typically thrown out, something north of 100,000 raw signatures is going to be needed for campaigners to rest easy. They have until July 3 to gather more signatures.

CRRH Oregon Legalization Initiative Facing Signature-Gathering Problems. The Campaign for the Restoration and Regulation of Hemp (CRRH) legalization initiatives -- there are two; one is a constitutional amendment -- is facing labor issues with its signature-gatherers and needs to come up with a whole bunch of signatures in a hurry if either CRRH initiative is to make the November ballot. The campaign reports it still lacks 50,000 signatures for its initiative and 75,000 for its constitutional amendment, which has a higher signature threshold.

Oklahoma Legalization Initiative Campaign Gets Underway. State Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City) last Friday unveiled a marijuana legalization initiative in the Sooner State. The initiative, which takes the form of a constitutional amendment, requires 155,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Proponents have three months to gather them. A medical marijuana initiative is already in the signature-gathering phase in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Contentious Hearing Today Over Proposed New Mexico Medical Marijuana Rules. The state Department of Health is holding a hearing today on proposed new rules for the medical marijuana program, and it is getting an earful from patients, growers, health care professionals, and even some state legislators. Proposals to reduce the number of plants patients can grow, impose stricter testing requirements, and increase fees are all proving unpopular. So is the department's insistence on holding the hearing today instead of postponing it to allow more time for people to respond to the proposed rules.

Kentucky VFW Passes Resolution Supporting Medical Marijuana for Veterans. The Kentucky state convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) last Friday passed a resolution calling on the national VFW to support medical marijuana access for veterans through the Veterans Administration. The VA should begin "post haste" to provide medical marijuana to vets through VA Hospital System pharmacies, the resolution said. The resolution will be brought up at the VFW national convention in St. Louis next month.

Oregon HIDTA Issues Report Noting "Threat" of Medical Marijuana. The Oregon High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), a federal agency that coordinates law enforcement efforts against drug trafficking, has issued its annual threat assessment and finds marijuana use, cultivation, and distribution "pervasive." It blames the state's medical marijuana program for the "threat," complains about driving under the influence of marijuana (although its own graphs show a decline in such charges in recent years), and bemoans the fact that it can no longer sic child protective services on medical marijuana users and producers. It also highlighted the dangers of accidental ingestion of marijuana by children, even though the Oregon Poison Center reports only two to 15 cases a year, and even though there is no fatal overdose potential.

Drug Testing

Georgia Heeds USDA Warning; Will Not Drug Test Food Stamp Recipients. The office of Gov. Nathan Deal (R) announced last Friday that it will not drug test food stamp recipients under a newly passed law after both state and federal officials concluded it was illegal. The US Department of Agriculture informed the state several weeks ago that such a law violated federal food stamp program rules, and state Attorney General Sam Olens delivered an opinion to the governor agreeing with that assessment.

Law Enforcement

Drug War Dominates the Police Blotter in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Just another weekend in Jacksonville, and the police blotter shows that drug arrests account for the bulk of the activity. Of 25 arrests, 11 were for drug charges. There were also four people arrested for breaking and entering, three for larceny, two for eluding arrest, and a handful of other charges. Most of the drug arrests appear aimed at users and low-level dealers.

Illinois Man Challenges State's Heroin Overdose Homicide Law. Under state law, a person who provides heroin to someone who then overdoses and dies can be charged with murder. John Chappell, 22, of Aurora, has been charged under that statute with the death of a relative after delivering heroin to a third man who then delivered it to her. He has filed a motion to have the law declared unconstitutional on several grounds, including that crime is essentially involuntary manslaughter, but is punished more severely.

International

UN Chief Ban Ki-Moon Gets Coca Birthday Cake in Bolivia. Ban Ki-moon's birthday was last Saturday, and Bolivian President Evo Morales helped him celebrate it by presenting him with a birthday cake containing coca. Ki-moon is in Bolivia for a meeting of the G77 group of countries. Ki-moon didn't actually publicly take a bite of the coca cake, but he thanked Bolivians for their "big, broad heart... and great wisdom."

Albanian Marijuana Growing Crackdown Sparks Clashes with Police. Hundreds of Albanian police have stormed and occupied the village of Lazarat after marijuana growers fired RPGS, mortars, and machine guns at them as they attempted to raid the village a day earlier, the Associated Press reported. The village is home to growers who produce an estimated 900 metric tons of weed each year. No injuries were reported, and the gunmen are said to have fled to the hills, although the sound of gunfire was still being reported hours later. A TV crew covering the raid was robbed at gunpoint by masked men who burned their vehicle, Albania's A1 channel reported.

Chronicle AM -- June 12, 2014

Marijuana reform is exciting some third-party activity, New York's medical marijuana bill is still alive amidst ongoing last-minute negotiations, the New York Senate has passed a package of anti-opiate bills that will bring on more drug war, a high-level commission calls for radical drug policy changes in West Africa, and more. Let's get to it:

coca plant (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Minnesota Independence Party Runs on Legalization Platform. The Independence Party of Minnesota, a fiscally conservative and socially liberal state party, is making marijuana legalization a key part of its 2014 platform. The party, which is fielding candidates in a number of statewide and legislative races, is descended from the Jesse Ventura-era Reform Party. Its gubernatorial candidate got 12% of the vote in the 2010 election.

New Jersey Democrats Try to Kick NJ Weedman Off Ballot. Ed Forchion, better known as the NJ Weedman, is running for a congressional seat on the Legalize Marijuana Party ticket, but the state Democratic Party issued a last-minute (or past the last minute) challenge to his candidacy Monday afternoon. The Democrats claim he is one signature short of qualifying and that he registered to vote last month in California, where he sometimes resides. NJ Weedman says he will fight the challenge.

Medical Marijuana

New York Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive; Talks Underway. Last minute negotiations to pass the Compassionate Care Act continued in Albany today. The measure was transferred out of the Senate Finance Committee, where the committee chair said yesterday he would not allow a vote, to the Senate Rules Committee. Bill sponsor Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said she is in talks with legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) office to keep the bill alive. Cuomo said earlier today that he still has "serious questions" about the bill. Stay tuned.

South Carolina Democrats Overwhelmingly Favor Medical Marijuana in Non-Binding Primary Question. South Carolina Democrats voting in the party primary Tuesday supported a non-binding question about allowing for medical marijuana use by a margin of three-to-one. The state passed a limited CBD medical marijuana bill this year, but that will only help a small number of patients.

Opiates

New York Senate Passes Package of Heroin Bills; Would Intensify Drug War. The state Senate earlier this week passed a massive package of bills aimed at dealing with increased levels of heroin and other opiate use. While the package includes prevention and harm reduction measures, such as increasing access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, other bills in the package seek to limit access to prescription opiates for acute pain, and the majority of the 23-bill package are law enforcement measures that aim to take the state back in the direction of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s. Read the complete list of bills passed here. Whether any of these will become law remains to be seen; the session ends next week.

International

West Africa Needs to Consider Drug Decriminalization, Report Says. The West Africa Commission on Drugs, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a report today calling for radical policy changes, including drug decriminalization, to reduce regional instability in West Africa exacerbated by the illicit trade in drugs. Otherwise, the region faces becoming "a new front line in the failed 'war on drugs,'" the report says. It also calls for drugs to be treated primarily as a public health issue. The report is Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State, and Society in West Africa.

Spain to Start Including Illicit Drug Trade in GDP. Spanish officials said today they will begin including estimated revenues from the drug trade, as well as prostitution, in calculating the country's Gross Domestic Product. Other European countries are doing the same as part of new European Union requirements that they must state percentages of GDP derived from illicit activities.

Peru Coca Output Declined Last Year, Prices Soared Amidst Eradication Efforts. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday that, under the pressure of eradication campaigns, coca leaf production declined 18% last year, but that prices jumped nearly 50%, to more than $1300 a kilogram. The UNODC noted the changes in its annual Peruvian coca survey. Cultivation fell last year after expanding for the seven previous years. Peru is either the world's number one or number two coca producer; we'll have to see what UNODC says about Colombian production later this year. Bolivia is number three.

Mexico Awaiting DNA Test Results to Confirm Death of Sinaloa Cartel Leader "El Azul" Esparragoza. Mexican officials are waiting for DNA test results that would confirm the death by natural causes of Sinaloa cartel leader Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, which was first reported by the Sinaloa news weekly RioDoce on Sunday. Family members have reportedly confirmed his death, but the government is still waiting to make it official.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM -- June 11, 2014

There's money in marijuana, as Colorado keeps finding out, MPP is eyeing Massachusetts in 2016, opponents of Florida's medical marijuana initiative got a big bucks contribution from a major Republican funder, Customs and Border Patrol fires its internal affairs head, the US Embassy in Kabul can't explain what impact $7 billion in anti-drug aid there has had, and more. Let's get to it:

In Afghan fields, the poppies grow... (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Marijuana Revenues Keep Climbing. Recreational marijuana sales hit $22 million in April, with the state taking in more than $3.5 million in sales and excise taxes. With medical marijuana sales factored in, people bought more than $53 million worth of weed in Colorado in April.

MPP Opens Ballot Committee in Massachusetts, Eyes 2016. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) opened a ballot referendum committee in Massachusetts Tuesday, a preliminary step for a marijuana legalization campaign in 2016. The formation of the committee, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts, allows MPP to begin raising and spending money in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Polls Have Strong Support for Medical Marijuana Among Likely Voters. With medical marijuana on the ballot in November, a new poll shows 70% of likely voters support the constitutional amendment. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it needs 60% to pass. Another poll released this week has support at 66%. "Florida's medical marijuana amendment that will be on the ballot this fall continues to appear headed for easy passage," Public Policy Polling, which did the second poll, wrote in an analysis.

Conservative Billionaire Sheldon Adelson Kicks In $2.5 Million to Defeat Florida Medical Marijuana Initiative. Billionaire casino magnate and major Republican political donor Sheldon Adelson has donated $2.5 million to the campaign to defeat the Florida medical marijuana initiative. A newly-formed group backed by Adelson, the Drug Free Florida Committee, was started by longtime GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler and his wife Betty. It has raised $2.7 million so far and its top donors have been primarily Republicans.

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive. Following a Tuesday hearing on Senate Bill 1182 Tuesday, committee members said they had been assured the bill would get a vote in the Senate Law and Justice Committee, but it will be then up to Senate leaders to decide if they will allow a floor vote. If it gets and wins a floor vote, the House would still have to pass it, or pass its own version.

Methamphetamine

Michigan Bill to Restrict Meth Precursor Purchases Passes House. A bill that would require people with prior methamphetamine convictions to obtain a prescription to buy cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine has passed the House. The bill also creates a statewide database for pseudoephedrine purchases and would require buyers to show the drivers' licenses.

Opiates

New York Governor Announces Doubling of State Police Drug Team to Fight Heroin, Prescription Pill Use. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced this morning that he will add 100 investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team, nearly doubling the unit's size. He also announced that the state would make the overdose reversal drug naloxone to all first responders. And he announced an education and prevention campaign involving SUNY campuses.

New England Governors to Meet Next Week on Confronting Rising Opiate Use. The six New England governors are set to meet next week at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, to forge a regional strategy in response to growing alarm over increased use of prescription opiates and heroin. Massachusetts has declared a public health emergency over opiates, and other states in the region are experiencing similar issues. [Ed: Whether any of the New England governors, or New York's governor and narcotics police, will bear in mind the needs of chronic pain patients, remains to be seen.]

Law Enforcement

Myles Ambrose, Nixon's First Drug Czar, Dies. Myles Ambrose has died at age 87. He was President Richard Nixon's first "drug czar," serving as head of the White House Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE), the precursor to the DEA, which was formed in 1973. He had come to Nixon's attention when, as head of Customs, he initiated Operation Intercept, which shut down the US-Mexico border in 1969. Ambrose appeared set to take over DEA, but was pushed aside, in part due to bureaucratic infighting and in part because of hints of scandal related to his visits to the home of a Texas banker investigated in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Customs and Border Protection Fires Its Own Head of Internal Affairs. The US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has let go James Tomsheck, head of internal affairs for the agency, after claims he failed to investigate hundreds of allegations of abuse. More than 800 complaints of abuse by agents had been made during his tenure since 2006, but only 13 resulted in disciplinary actions. Tomsheck's firing by CBP head Gil Kerlikowske is part of an attempt by Kerlikowske to address widespread allegations of abuse by American border agencies. Last week, Kerlikowske set out new rules for the use of deadly force, only to be followed hours later by a Border Patrol agent shooting and killing a fleeing drug trafficker. At least 22 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents since January 2010 and many more injured.

Sentencing

New Jersey Bail Reform Bill Gets Committee Vote Today. The Assembly Judiciary is set to consider Assembly Bill 1910, which would implement widely supported reforms to the state's bail system. Under the proposed legislation, arrestees would be assessed for risk and pretrial release decisions would be based on their measured risk, not their ability to pay money bail. Companion legislation in the state Senate, Senate Bill 946, was approved by the Budget and Appropriations Committee last week.

International

Rising Afghan Opium Production Threatens Reconstruction, US Official Says. Afghanistan's record-level opium production is stoking corruption, spilling into the financial sector, and aiding the Taliban and criminal networks, all of which threaten national reconstruction, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, told a House subcommittee Tuesday. The US has spent $7 billion on anti-opium efforts since it invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, but "On my trips to Afghanistan in 2013 and earlier this year, no one at the Embassy could convincingly explain to me how the US government counter-narcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact on the narcotics trade or how they will have a significant impact after" the US-led combat mission ends in December," Sopko said.

Finland Greens Call for Marijuana Legalization, Drug Policy Shift From Punishment to Harm Reduction. The Finnish Green League has adopted a new manifesto on drugs that says "the focus of drug policy should be shifted from punishments to reducing adverse effects" and that "the criminal sanctions for the use of cannabis as well as the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use should be abolished." The Greens hold 10 seats in Finland's 198-seat parliament and are part of the ruling six-party "rainbow coalition" government.

Chronicle AM -- June 9, 2014

In California, all eyes now turn toward 2016 for marijuana legalization, Washington state's first retail marijuana store will open soon, Mexico's president is willing to debate marijuana legalization, British activists are planting the seeds of change, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Last California 2014 Legalization Initiative is Dead. The last remaining campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the 2014 ballot is dead. The secretary of state's office announced last Friday that the Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act of 2014, sponsored by San Jose interests had failed to gather enough signatures by its cutoff date. That means all eyes turn to 2016. See the next item.

California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform Launches Grassroots Campaign for Marijuana Legalization. The Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR) announced today it was launching a grassroots campaign to legalize marijuana in the Golden State. CCPR already has the backing of most national drug reform organizations, as well as the ACLU, the California NAACP, and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). A new Reform CA web site and Facebook page are now up, and CCPR says they have 120,000 people on their list so far.

Texas GOP Spurns Marijuana Reform. Meeting at its state convention in Fort Worth over the weekend, the Texas Republican Party quickly rejected adding support for medical marijuana to its platform and even more quickly rejected a legalization plank.

Colorado Governor Signs Marijuana Banking Bill. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) last Friday signed into law legislation designed to allow marijuana businesses to use a series of cooperatives a means of accessing basic banking services. The move is aimed at allowing those businesses to move away from cash-only operations, but still needs approval from the Federal Reserve.

Washington State's First Marijuana Retail Store Will Open July 1. The first legal non-medical marijuana retail shop will open in Spokane on July 1. Kouchlock Productions says it will be open, but will set quantity limits until more supply is available. Koucklock is also a licensed producer, but has only been growing its first crop for two months. More retail outlets should open in coming weeks; the state says 334 will be allowed.

Drug Policy

DPA, MAPS Release Report on DEA Obstructionism and Rejection of Science. The Drug Policy Alliance and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies today released a new report highlighting DEA obstructionism and the rejection of science, primarily around medical marijuana, but also including examinations of how the DEA can move with lightning speed when it comes to prohibiting drugs, as opposed to its lethargy regarding a series of medical marijuana rescheduling petitions. The report calls for responsibility for drug scheduling to be removed from the DEA and for an end to the government's monopoly on research-grade marijuana. DPA and MAPS will also hold a teleconference Wednesday with Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Steven Cohen (D-TN) and Dr. Carl Hart.

Law Enforcement

$10 Million Federal Grant for Vermont Anti-Heroin Drug Task Forces Wins Senate Committee Vote. A proposal from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to fund a $10 million competitive grant for state law enforcement drug task forces was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last Thursday. The grant is an innovative way for Vermont to get around restrictions in the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program, which are based on formulas that assess size and need. Instead, this competitive grant would prioritize locales that have high per capita treatment admissions for opiates. But it is still a 100% law enforcement approach.

International

Mexico's President Says Marijuana Legalization Should Be Debated. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said Sunday that while he doesn't personally support marijuana legalization, he favors debating the issue, and that Mexico could follow the lead of US states that have legalized it. Marijuana prohibition is "a failed policy," he said. "It needs to be reviewed. I repeat, I'm not in favor of legalization, this is a personal conviction. But we can't continue on this road of inconsistency between the legalization we've had in some places, particularly in the most important consumer market, the United States, and in Mexico where we continue to criminalize production of marijuana," he added.

Guatemala President Calls Costa Rica President "Strategic Partner" in Drug Reform Debate. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said last Friday that Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis is "a strategic partner" in the search for alternatives to the militarized prohibitionist drug policies currently in effect. "We feel that Costa Rica is a partner that brings an important vision in this battle to change the drug policy that is today based on prohibition," Perez Molina said. Solis does not support drug legalization, but he has expressed interest in further decriminalizing drug use in Costa Rica.

British Activists Planting Marijuana Seeds at Well-Known Landmarks. Marijuana seeds aren't illegal in Britain, and the Feed the Birds campaign sponsored by the London Cannabis Club is taking advantage of that to plant them at well-known landmarks around the country, including London's Tower Bridge and Big Ben. The project is aimed at decriminalizing marijuana and supporting medical marijuana users, and the seeds they are planting are from a strain with good medicinal properties, organizers said. "We've been doing this for years under a media blackout and we've grown everywhere you can imagine," said founder Finn Hemingway. "This isn't original, it's a return to the days before prohibition and we don't take much notice of whether it's legal or not. By helping medical users, we can get them away from low quality cannabis and dealers and make them self-sufficient." Police said it would be difficult to prosecute the seed-planters.

Chronicle AM -- June 5, 2014

An Arkansas marijuana legalization initiative can start signature-gathering, DC's medical marijuana program now includes more eligible conditions, Tennessee's governor unveils his prescription drug plan, Canada's mandatory minimum sentencing law is being challenged, and more. Let's get to it:

DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz gets scolded by the medical marijuana movement.
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel yesterday approved the popular name and ballot title for a constitutional amendment initiative that would legalize marijuana. Supporters of the Arkansas Hemp and Cannabis Amendment now have just over one month -- until July 7 -- to submit more than 78,000 valid voter signatures in order to qualify for the November ballot. A medical marijuana initiative sponsored by Arkansans for Compassionate Care is already in the signature-gathering phase.

Medical Marijuana

Group Targets DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz for Not Voting to End DEA Interference in Medical Marijuana States. The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access is now running TV ads criticizing Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee as "out of touch" for voting against a measure to bar the DEA from interfering in medical marijuana states. Wasserman Schultz was one of only 18 Democrats who voted against it while 170 Democrats voted for it. The ads are running on MSNBC in South Florida, where her district is.

DC Medical Marijuana Program Adds New Qualifying Conditions. The DC Department of Health has approved new conditions for which patients will be able to use marijuana. They are seizure disorders, Lou Gehrig's Disease, decompensated cirrhosis, cachexia or wasting syndrome, and Alzheimer's. Hospice patients will also be allowed to use marijuana. Previously, the DC program had been restricted to people suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and muscle spasticity.

Heroin

Ohio Democratic Candidates Call for Tougher Action Against Heroin. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald and Democratic attorney general candidate David Pepper are calling for tougher action against heroin. FitzGerald said he wants tougher enforcement on dealers and that rising heroin use should be treated as a public health emergency. And Pepper called for heroin overdose deaths to be treated like murder. FitzGerald added that not enough dealers are going to prison, especially after a sentencing reform bill passed. The Ohio Republican Party responded calling the Democrats "tone deaf" and "ghoulish," saying that Gov. John Kasich (R) has been a strong advocate on the issue, and besides, Attorney General Mike DeWine's (R) office had just indicted two heroin dealers last week.

Prescription Drugs

Tennessee Governor Rolls Out Prescription Drug Plan. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) Tuesday unveiled his seven-point program to battle problems associated with prescription drug use. "Prescription for Success: Statewide Strategies to Prevent and Treat the Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic in Tennessee" calls for reducing the prescribing of prescription opiates, reducing overdose deaths (including through enactment of a 911 Good Samaritan law), increasing prevention, early intervention, and treatment, and increased cooperation among state agencies and between the state and other entities. While it has a law enforcement component, that doesn't seem to be emphasized. [Ed: There are some good provisions in this document, but reducing the prescribing of pain medications needs to be handled with great care. Although more people are getting opiates now, not all of the people who need them are, and it could easily get even worse for pain patients.]

Drug Testing

California Initiative to Drug Test Doctors Qualifies for Ballot. An initiative that requires random, suspicionless drug and alcohol testing of doctors has qualified for the November 2014 ballot, according to the Secretary of State's office. It also requires doctors to report any other doctor they suspect of being impaired by drugs or alcohol. It also increases the cap on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, which may the initiative's main goal. Legislative analysts estimate it could cost the state "at least in the low tens of millions of dollars annually" in higher malpractice costs and up to "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" because of changes in the amount and type of health care services provided.

Law Enforcement

In Massive Heroin Sweep, New Jersey Police Arrest Seven Users for Every Dealer. New Jersey cops arrested 325 people during an eight-week heroin sting, but only 40 of them are accused of selling heroin. The rest are alleged heroin users. Authorities said all were arrested on relatively low-level charges and all would have a chance to go through treatment programs, but the head of the state's drug court program said she wasn't sure the system could accommodate all of them.

International

New Zealand Workers Win Drug Testing Case. Workers at a mill who were subjected to mandatory drug tests after two marijuana plants were found growing on the site were treated unfairly and must be compensated, the Employment Relations Authority has ruled. The mill owner had argued that the discovery of pot plants was "reasonable cause" to drug test everybody, but the authority disagreed. "This is a victory for our members, and a victory for common decency and respect," says Ron Angel, a union organizer for timber workers. "Drug testing has to be about proving actual impairment at work - not treating workers as guilty until proven innocent."

Canada Battle over Mandatory Minimum Sentences Heads to BC Appeals Court. A case that could eventually overturn the Conservative government's mandatory minimum sentence scheme for drug offenses is being heard in the BC Court of Appeals today. Earlier this year, a BC provincial court judge ruled unconstitutional an automatic one-year prison term for a person repeatedly convicted of drugs. Lawyers for the government appealed; thus today's hearing. The case is that of Vancouver Downtown Eastside resident Joseph Lloyd, a long-time drug user with 21 previous convictions who was convicted last fall of trafficking small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and meth. The provincial court judge held that mandatory minimum sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Bolivian Village to Bake Coca Birthday Cake for UN Head Ban Ki-Moon. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will be in Bolivia when his birthday rolls around on June 15, and the mayor of Cobija, Ana Lucia Reis, says they are going to bake him a coca birthday cake. "The idea is that Ban tries the coca and realizes that coca is part of our culture and is not cocaine," she said.

Chronicle AM--May 30, 2014

Yesterday was a bad day for the DEA as the House thrice voted to slap its hands, an anti-marijuana initiative in Montana gets okayed for signature-gathering, the New York Senate releases a report on heroin and opiate addiction and calls for more drug war, marijuana legalization supporters rally in Tel Aviv, and more. Let's get to it:

The DEA had a bad day on Capitol Hill yesterday.
Marijuana Policy

Montana Anti-Marijuana Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. An initiative that would repeal Montana's already severely scaled-back medical marijuana law and ban anything listed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana, has been approved for signature-gathering. But Billings car dealer and initiative sponsor Steve Zabawa has only three weeks to get the 24,175 signatures necessary to get the measure on the November ballot.

Medical Marijuana

In Historic Vote, House Bars Justice Department, DEA from Using Taxpayer Funds to Interfere with Medical Marijuana in States Where It Is Legal. The US House of Representatives voted 219-189 last night to approve an amendment to 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill to cut off funds for the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, to interfere in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs. If the Senate doesn't come up with similar language, the provision will have to be fought for in conference committee.

Hemp

In Historic Vote, House Bars Justice Department, DEA from Using Taxpayer Funds to Interfere with Hemp Production in States Where It Is Legal. The US House of Representatives voted last night to bar the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, from using taxpayer dollars to interfere with industrial hemp production in states where it is legal. Hemp production for research purposes in states that have laws allowing it was approved by the Congress as part of the omnibus farm bill earlier this year. A dozen states have such laws.

Law Enforcement

In Historic Vote, House Takes Funds from DEA, Shifts Them to Addressing Rape Kit Backlog. In addition to barring the DEA from going after hemp and medical marijuana in states where they are legal, the House also approved an amendment from Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) to take $5 million from the DEA's appropriation and shift the money into grants for state and local law enforcement to address backlogs of untested rape kits. The House voted down another Cohen amendment that would have taken $15 million from the DEA and allocated it instead to the Legal Services Corporation. The House also approved an amendment that would block additional staffing for the Pardon Attorney's Office in a bid to thwart President Obama's call for drug war prisoners to seek clemency.

Heroin and Opiates

New York Senate Task Force Proposes Massive Package of Prevention, Treatment, Law Enforcement Bills to Fight Increased Heroin, Prescription Pill Use. The state Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction issued its final report Wednesday. The report, Solutions to New York's Heroin Epidemic, calls for prevention, treatment, and harm reduction measures, but the 25-bill package it includes is heavy on law enforcement. Thirteen of the 25 proposed bills would ratchet up the drug war. There is a complete list of the bills in the package in the report.

International

Colombian Government Releases Outline of Drug Accords With FARC. The Colombian government has released a document laying out the points agreed to with the FARC guerrillas on dealing with drug cultivation and the illicit drug trade. The two sides, meeting at peace talks in Havana a couple of weeks ago, reached the agreement a couple of weeks ago. Colombia Reports has the details at the title link.

Despite Drug Decriminalization, Colombia Continues to Arrest, Hassle Drug Users, Researcher Finds. In a report from the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law, researcher Diane Guzman found that Colombia continues to rely excessively on punishing drug users, even though drug use is decriminalized there. Guzman blames police enforcement strategies and their focus on arrest, and reports that drug users detained by police are often let go after they pay bribes. She also found that Colombia's goal of reducing drug addiction suffers because the country doesn't devote sufficient resources to improving health care and rehabilitation for drug users. The report, En Busca De Los Derechos: Usuarios De Drogas Y Las Respuestas Estatales En América Latina, also examines drug policies in seven other Latin American countries. Guzman wrote the Colombia chapter.

Thousands March for Marijuana in Tel Aviv. An estimated 2,000 people marched and rallied for marijuana legalization in Tel Aviv Thursday night. The march comes as the Knesset prepares to debate a bill easing restrictions on medical marijuana next week and a bill from MK Tamar Zandberg to legalize marijuana a few weeks from now.

Chronicle AM -- May 27, 2014

Chuck Schumer wants $100 million to fight heroin in New York, a congressional vote to stop the DEA from attacking medical marijuana in states where it is legal is coming soon, the New York Assembly is voting today on a medical marijuana bill, an Oklahoma prescription drug bill dies, and more. Let's get to it:

Will another $100 million stop heroin in New YorK? (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Decriminalization Initiatives Planned for Albuquerque and Santa Fe. ProgressNow New Mexico and Drug Policy Action, a 501(c)4 that's affiliated with Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, are planning municipal decriminalization initiatives for the November election in New Mexico's two largest cities, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The initiatives envision decriminalizing up to an ounce, with a maximum $25 fine. Backers filed a petition with the Santa Fe city clerk this week; Albuquerque efforts should be coming soon.

Medical Marijuana

Congress to Vote Soon on Banning DEA, Justice Department From Interfering in Medical Marijuana States. The House could vote as early as this week on the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which would ban the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, from using federal taxpayer funds to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. The time to contact your representatives is now. Click on the link for more information.

New York Assembly to Vote Today on Compassionate Care Act. The Assembly is set to vote today on the Compassionate Care Act (Assembly Bill 6357), a comprehensive medical marijuana bill for the Empire State. Patients and supporters from all over the state are heading to Albany for a day of last-minute lobbying and to watch the Assembly debate and vote on the bill. The Senate version of the bill, Senate Bill 4406, has already passed the Senate Health Committee and now awaits consideration in the Senate Finance Committee.

North Carolina Lawmaker to File CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. State Rep. Pat McElraft (R-Carteret County) has announced that she will file a bill allowing for the use of high-CBD cannabis oil to reduce seizures in epileptic children. It's not a medical marijuana bill, she said, rather "this is only a medicine for these children so they can develop motor skills."

Drug Policy

Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act Gets Marked Up Thursday. The House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will be marking up House Resolution 4640, "to establish the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission" Thursday. "Mark up" means subcommittee members will debate, amend, and rewrite the bill.

Prescription Drugs

Oklahoma Prescription Drug Crackdown Bill Dies. A bill that was the centerpiece of Gov. Mary Fallin's (R) effort to crack down on prescription drug abuse is dead after being defeated in committee last Friday. The bill, Senate Bill 1820, would have required doctors to check the state's existing Prescription Monitoring Program registry every time they wrote or refilled a prescription for a Schedule II or III controlled substance. Those schedules include opiate pain relievers such as oxycodone and hydrodocone, as well as many non-opiates, including hormone supplements. The bill was opposed by doctors.

Law Enforcement

Chuck Schumer Wants $100 Million to Fight Heroin in New York. US Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) is seeking $100 million in taxpayer dollars "to fight the scourge of heroin." He wants the money to go to the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. He said he would seek the funding in a pending appropriations bill.

In Licking County, West Virginia, the Drug War Dominates the Court Docket. The most recent felony indictments in Licking County Common Pleas Court show that more than half (60%) are for drug offenses. Seven of the 12 indictments were for drug offenses, and six of those were for either "aggravated drug possession" or "abusing harmful intoxicants."

In Mendocino County, California, Marijuana Dominates the Court Docket. Busy, busy. Mendocino County jail bookings for May 11-15 show 22 people taken to the slammer. Fifteen of them were marijuana sales and/or transport and one was for "possessing proceeds from drug transactions." Marijuana offenses accounted for more than two-thirds of all bookings. There were also two arrests each for assault with a deadly weapon and DUI, and one each for indecent exposure, battery, and embezzlement.

Sentencing

California Bill to End Mandatory Jail Sentences for Drug Use Killed. California law requires a mandatory 90-day jail sentence for anyone convicted of using or being under the influence of drugs (not including marijuana). A bill that would have ended the mandatory sentences, Assembly Bill 2515, has now died in the Assembly. It needed 41 votes for passage, but only got 34 because many members didn't vote. There were only 16 votes against it.

International

Jamaica Marijuana Conference Calls for Road Map to Decriminalization within Four Months. The first Jamaica Cannabis Conference took place over the weekend and ended with a call from participants for the government to create a pathway to decriminalization within four months. The conference also called for recognition of Rastafarians' sacramental rights to use ganja, a sustained drug education program in the schools, and a properly regulated medical marijuana industry.

Barcelona Now a Stop on the Marijuana Tourism Trail. Spain has decriminalized marijuana possession, people can grow their own in small amounts, and cannabis clubs are offering the chance to join by phone or email and purchase marijuana. As a result, marijuana tourism is up in Barcelona, and local authorities are beginning to think about ways to regulate it all. Click on the link to read more.

Zambia's Green Party to Continue Campaigning for Marijuana Legalization. Zambia's Green Party will continue to campaign for marijuana legalization, its leader, Peter Sinkamba said last Friday. "As the Green Party, we have a task to sell the Green agenda by not joining any politics on the constitution-making process, but ensure that marijuana is legalized," he said. "This is the only way we can create employment for the people and make medicine available for every citizen. You know marijuana is used for many things including the provision of medicines, hence the need for it to be legalized and get the benefits that will help the country make its own medicines." The Greens are not represented in the Zambian parliament.

Tennessee's Scary New Law Criminalizing Drug-Using Pregnant Women [FEATURE]

When -- despite the objections of medical groups, reproductive health advocates, and even the drug czar's office -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed into law Senate Bill 1391 late last month, the Volunteer State became the first in the nation to pass a law criminalizing pregnancy outcomes. Other states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, have used fetal harm laws to charge drug-using pregnant women, but Tennessee is the first to explicitly criminalize drug use during pregnancy.

Passed in the midst of rising concern over prescription drug and heroin abuse and aimed, its proponents said, at protecting babies, the law allows women to be criminally charged with an "assaultive offense for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug or for criminal homicide if her child dies as a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant."

Felony assault can earn you up to 15 years in prison in Tennessee. And while some prosecutors have said they will only file misdemeanor charges, that's not written into the law.

Proponents cited recent reports that the number of babies being born addicted to drugs is on the rise. Such infants are diagnosed as having Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or withdrawal symptoms after being exposed to opiates in the womb.

"Over the past decade, we have seen a nearly ten-fold rise in the incidence of babies born with NAS in Tennessee," the state Department of Health reported. Infants with NAS stay in the hospital longer than other babies and they may have serious medical and social problems."

But the state Health Department notwithstanding, experts in the field say that NAS doesn't actually have long-term effects, it's not accurate to call newborn infants "addicted," and that misrepresenting matters by vilifying pregnant women isn't helpful. In fact, more than 40 of them said so in an open letter last month.

More generally, leading medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association reject the prosecution and punishment of pregnant women who use drugs. The groups mentioned above and many others said so in this 2011 document.

A coalition of medical, public health, women's rights, and social justice groups worked to oppose the bill as it made its way through the legislature, and then to convince Gov. Haslam to kill it. A petition with over 11,000 signatures urging him to veto the bill went to his office late last month. More than two dozen organizations devoted to ensuring families have access to health care likewise urged a veto, as did the American Association of Pediatrics, the National Perinatal Association, and International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policy.

Even acting drug czar Michael Botticelli raised a warning flag.

"Under the Obama administration, we've really tried to reframe drug policy not as a crime but as a public health-related issue, and that our response on the national level is that we not criminalize addiction," he said during a visit to Nashville as the governor pondered. "We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease. What's important is that we create environments where we're really diminishing the stigma and the barriers, particularly for pregnant women, who often have a lot of shame and guilt about their substance abuse disorders."

But none of that mattered. On April 29, Haslam signed the bill into law.

"In reviewing this bill, I have had extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials," Haslam said in a statement. "The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs."

"Today, the Tennessee governor has made it a crime to carry a pregnancy to term if you struggle with addiction or substance abuse," Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement in response to the signing. "This deeply misguided law will force those women who need health care the most into the shadows. Pregnant women with addictions need better access to health care, not jail time."

The statewide coalition Healthy and Free Tennessee also lambasted the new law.

"We are very sorry to see that Governor Haslam let an opportunity to do the right thing slip through his fingers," said Rebecca Terrell, the group's chairwoman."The experts could not have been clearer: this law is bad for babies and bad for Tennessee."

"This law says that women are to be held criminally accountable for the outcomes of their pregnancies," said Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which was part of the coalition fighting the new law. "It essentially creates a system of separate and unequal rights. Drug ingestion is not a crime in Tennessee, just possession, and now, only pregnant women are criminalized for ingesting. They can be surveilled and punished by the state in ways different from other people. The law also treats fertilized eggs or fetuses as if they were people independent of the pregnant woman," she told the Chronicle.

Gov. Bill Haslam (tn.gov)
"It's the wrong response to the problem of addiction," said Diaz-Tello. "It's a health problem that is not responsive to threats and punishment. What kind of society do we want to be? Do we want to punish the people most in need of help and support? These are women largely living in poverty, women of color, who are already made vulnerable by our social policies, and now we hold them solely responsible without looking at society and what else is going on leading to pregnancy among addicted people and this horrible punitive response."

Even framing the issue as "pregnant women taking drugs" is somewhat misleading, said Diaz-Tello.

"We often make the mistake of thinking of people using drugs during pregnancy as pregnant women who became addicted to drugs when it should be the other way around," she said. "The reasons for addiction are complex and often gender-based. Women who have experienced violence and trauma are often self-medicating, and there is a lot of unresolved pain and trauma out there. And half the pregnancies in our country are unintended, which disproportionately affects women on the margins. It's not like someone wakes up pregnant one day and decides they want to do drugs."

The law will not operate in a vacuum. Tennessee is one of those states that has refused to expand Medicaid and has rejected the Affordable Care Act. It is more difficult for poor women there to get access to health care services, including drug treatment, but now it will be easier to prosecute them.

"This is definitely for the most part going to affect poor, marginalized, predominantly rural women," said Cherisse Scott, founder of SisterReach, a Memphis-based group working for reproductive justice for women and girls in the city and the Mid-South area. "That's because of the many barriers they face. Many rural areas just don't have the facilities to offer help to these women."

Scott also bemoaned the criminalization of pregnant women who use drugs under the law, a process of stigmatization and punishment only made more severe for women lacking resources.

"Low income women, women of color, already have issues navigating the court system, and many don't have any kind of support system," she said. "When their children are taken, they don't have the resources to get them back. And the other piece of this is that jails aren't hospitals or treatment centers. They don't offer women an opportunity to be properly rehabilitated from drug use."

And then there's the aftermath of a criminal conviction.

"If you look at this through the lens of racial and reproductive justice, how does a woman with this on her record bounce back, how does she get a job? With a criminal background, she will be further locked out," said Scott. "These are the kinds of barriers and issues that will ultimately hurt the mothers of Tennessee. We can't support legislation that uses criminalization as a means of rehabilitating people," she told the Chronicle.

"Our lawmakers had good intentions, but they didn't think it through," said Scott. "They seem to be very ready to separate mothers and children as a way of helping, and we don't see it like that, especially when there are rehab programs that keep mother and children together."

The new law is also generating alarm with advocates for people who use opioid maintenance therapy to deal with opiate addictions. Methadone and buprenorphine maintenance are the gold standard for treating pregnant women addicted to narcotics. While state health officials have said they interpret the law to mean that a pregnant woman on methadone maintenance would not be in violation of it, there is no language in it that explicitly says that.

"I asked the governor to veto the bill because that exclusion wasn't made," said Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence. "The real question is whether some representative for the attorney general's office or a DA or child protection services interprets it that way. This is a potential problem. When you're talking about child protection, it's not unusual for a judge or child protection worker to say to a pregnant mom 'You can't be on methadone.' I hope this law will not be used as a method of forcing maintained patients out of care."

While babies born to opiate-addicted women can suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or withdrawals, they can be treated for that, mainly by slowly tapering the dose of opiates. But, Parrino said, not all pregnant mothers on methadone maintenance have babies with the syndrome, and consequences for fetuses can be serious if mothers are forced off opiates during their pregnancies.

"What happens to a fetus if you force mom to end her medication?" he asked. "In the first trimester, a sudden decrease can be harmful to the fetus. There could be spontaneous abortion. It's in the literature. That's why laws like this raise concerns in people who have some knowledge about how pregnant women are treated."

Parrino, too, saw race a playing a role, but in an unexpected way.

"What I am seeing for the first time in 30 years is a real interest by elected officials, many US senators and governors and legislators, who can't wrap their heads around why white teens and 20-somethings from middle class families in the suburbs and rural areas are shooting heroin," Parrino observed. "Those elected officials are right to be worried. This legislation in Tennessee is a result of those dynamics."

While the law may have been passed with the best motives, "the problem is the criminalization aspect," said Parrino. "Even if it can be explained as having a reasonably good intention of getting pregnant women not to use drugs and go to treatment, you are unwittingly subverting that goal by saying that being in methadone maintenance might be seen as not complete treatment. That uncertainty is creating anxiety."

The new law is set to go into effect on July 1, but efforts are already underway to block it and, barring that, to mitigate its effects.

"We're still trying to figure out the best plan of action," Scott said. "We want to figure out the best way to support women who are going to be victims of this policy. At the grass roots level, that means education, awareness, getting the word out through rehab centers to let the women know this is coming. Then we have to figure out what is the legal strategy to try to change this law. We're working on it."

"We're thinking about a legal challenge, especially on constitutional grounds," said Diaz-Tello. "We have worked with public defenders in Tennessee and other states on challenging similar laws on constitutional grounds. There's also the possibility of an affirmative suit to get the law enjoined. It would be ideal to stop this law before anyone gets arrested under it."

Barring the successful blocking of the law, drug-addicted pregnant women in Tennessee will face the tender mercies of the criminal justice system. But not all of them, of course.

"Race and class plays a role as always," said Scott. "Poor mothers go to jail; mothers with access to more resources may not be penalized at all. Women who have access to health care and can afford private prenatal care and treatment will get treatment; women who have no alternative but public aid or a public health clinic will be disproportionately impacted as always. Nothing's changed as far as race and class."

TN
United States

Chronicle AM -- April 16, 2014

President Obama commutes a marijuana offender's sentence, organized opposition to a legalization initiative emerges in Alaska, draconian heroin bills are moving in Louisiana, and more. Let's get to it:

Heroin would get you even more time under draconian bills moving in Louisiana. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Denver Crime Rate Drops in First Months of Legal Marijuana Sales. According to crime statistics from the Denver Police, crime is down over the previous year in the first three months of legal marijuana sales there. Violent crime (including homicide, sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault) fell by 6.9% in the first quarter of 2014, compared with the same period in 2013. Property crime (including burglary, larceny, auto theft, theft from motor vehicle and arson) dropped by 11.1%.

Alaska Legalization Initiative Gets Organized Opposition. An organized opposition group has emerged to campaign against the Alaska legalization initiative. A group calling itself "Big Marijuana, Big Mistake, Vote No on 2" officially filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission last week. The group includes only a handful of Alaskans and says it is not affiliated with Project SAM, the anti-legalization group that has been playing up the "Big Marijuana" theme across the country.

Legalization Bill Filed in New Jersey Assembly. Assemblywoman Linda Stender (D-Scotch Plains) and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Trenton) have filed Assembly Bill 3094 to legalize marijuana. The bill is companion legislation to Senate Bill 1986, which was filed by Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden) earlier this session.

Medical Marijuana

Tennessee Legislature Approves CBD Medical Marijuana Study Bill. The House voted 97-0 Monday to approve Senate Bill 2531, which would create a four-year study of the use of CBD cannabis oil in treating intractable seizures. The measure passed the Senate last week, and now goes to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam (R).

Methamphetamine

Tennessee Senate Passes Pseudoephedrine Restriction Bill. A bill that would restrict non-prescription purchases of OTC cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a precursor chemical in meth manufacture, passed the Senate Tuesday. The bill would cap purchases at 4.8 grams per month and 14.4 grams per year of allergy and cold medicines like Sudafed that could be bought without a prescription. The Senate version differs from the House version in the allowable amounts. The House version has already passed, too, so the two will have to be reconciled before final passage.

Heroin

Draconian Heroin Bill Passes Louisiana Senate Committee. A bill to increase maximum penalties for heroin offenses from 50 to 99 years received approved Tuesday from the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senate Bill 87, sponsored by Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge), now heads for the Senate floor. Another draconian heroin bill, House Bill 332, sponsored by state Rep. Joe Lopinto (R-Metairie) would double mandatory minimums for heroin use and distribution. The full House passed that bill 94-1, and it will now be heard in the Senate.

Sentencing

President Obama Commutes Sentence for Marijuana Offender. President Obama Tuesday granted clemency to a marijuana offender sentenced to too much time because of a typographical error. Ceasar Huerta Cantu had been sentenced to 180 months in federal prison for marijuana distribution conspiracy and money laundering. Obama commuted the sentence to 138 months, which is what it would have been had his initial sentence been calculated correctly. That means Huerta will get out more than three years early. Obama commuted only one sentence in his first term but has been using the power more in his second.

International

Mexico Anti-Cartel Militias Refuse to Lay Down Arms. The so-called autodefensa militias in the southwest Mexican state of Michoacán -- which took up arms against the Knights Templar cartel more than a year ago -- are now refusing the government's demand to put down their weapons. The government had allowed them to keep their arms and integrate into the security forces, but early this month, announced its intention to disarm all civilians in the state. But the militias say they will disband only once the leaders of the Knights Templar Cartel are killed or arrested. "We prefer to die at the hands of the government than at the hands of a goddamned son of a bitch who dismembers and butchers you -- without releasing even a fingernail to your family. Because, that's what the criminals do," one militia leader told VICE News.

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