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

As 2016 comes to a tumultuous end, we look back on the year in drugs and drug policy. It's definitely a mixed bag, with some major victories for drug reform, especially marijuana legalization, but also some major challenges, especially around heroin and prescription opioids, and the threat of things taking a turn for the worse next year. Here are the ten biggest domestic drug policy stories of the year. (Check back for a top ten international drug policy stories soon.)

1. Marijuana Legalization Wins Big

Legalization initiatives won in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, losing only in Arizona. These weren't the first states to do so -- Colorado and Washington led the way in 2012, with Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, following in 2014 -- but in one fell swoop, states with a combined population of nearly 50 million people just freed the weed. Add in the earlier states, and we're now talking about around 67 million people, or more than one-fifth of the national population.

The question is where does marijuana win next? We won't see state legalization initiatives until 2018, (and conventional wisdom may suggest waiting for the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election year), and most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of initiative states has been harvested, but activists in Michigan came this close to qualifying for the ballot this year and are raring to go again. In the meantime, there are the state legislatures. When AlterNet looked into the crystal ball a few weeks ago, the best bets looked like Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

2. Medical Marijuana Wins Big

Medical marijuana is even more popular than legal marijuana, and it went four-for-four at the ballot box in November, adding Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota to the list of full-blown medical marijuana states. That makes 28 states -- more than half the country -- that allow for medical marijuana, along with another dozen or so red states that have passed limited CBD-only medical marijuana laws as a sop to public opinion.

It's worth noting that Montana is a special case. Voters there approved medical marijuana in 2004, only to see a Republican-dominated state legislature gut the program in 2011. The initiative approved by voters this year reinstates that program, and shuttered dispensaries are now set to reopen.

The increasing acceptance of medical marijuana is going to make it that much harder for the DEA or the Trump administration to balk at reclassifying marijuana away from Schedule I, which is supposedly reserved for dangerous substances with no medical uses. It may also, along with the growing number of legal pot states, provide the necessary impetus to changing federal banking laws to allow pot businesses to behave like normal businesses.

Drug reformers are nervous about the future. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
3. The Republicans Take Control in Washington

The Trump victory and Republican control of both houses of Congress has profound drug policy implications, for everything from legal marijuana to funding for needle exchange programs to sentencing policy to the border and foreign policy and beyond. Early Trump cabinet picks, such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) to lead the Justice Department, are ominous for progressive drug reform, but as with many other policy spheres, what Trump will actually do is a big unknown. It's probably safe to say that any harm reduction programs requiring federal funding or approval are in danger, that any further sentencing reforms are going to be in for a tough slog, and that any federal spending for mental health and substance abuse treatment will face an uphill battle. But the cops will probably get more money.

The really big question mark is around marijuana policy. Trump has signaled he's okay with letting the states experiment, but Sen. Sessions is one of the most retrograde of drug warriors in Washington. Time will tell, but in the meantime, the marijuana industry is on tenterhooks and respect for the will of voters in pot legal states and even medical marijuana states is an open question.

4. The Opioid Epidemic Continues

Just as this year comes to an end, the CDC announced that opioid overdose deaths last year had topped 33,000, and with 12,000 heroin overdoses, junk had overtaken gunplay as a cause of death. There's little sign that things have gotten any better this year.

The crisis has provoked numerous responses, at both the state and the federal levels, some good, but some not. Just this month, Congress approved a billion dollars in opioid treatment and prevention programs, and the overdose epidemic has prompted the loosening of access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and prodded ongoing efforts to embrace more harm reduction approaches, such as supervised injection sites.

On the other hand, prosecutors in states across the country have taken to charging the people who sell opioids (prescription or otherwise) to people who overdose and die with murder, more intrusive and privacy-invading prescription monitoring programs have been established, and the tightening of the screws on opioid prescriptions is leaving some chronic pain sufferers in the lurch and leading others to seek out opioids on the black market.

5. Obama Commutes More Than a Thousand Drug War Sentences

In a bid to undo some of the most egregious excesses of the drug war, President Obama has now cut the sentences of and freed more than a thousand people sentenced under the harsh laws of the 1980s, particularly the racially-biased crack cocaine laws, who have already served more time than they would have if sentenced under current laws passed during the Obama administration. He has commuted more sentences in a single year than any president in history, and he has commuted more sentences than the last 11 presidents combined.

The commutations come under a program announced by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, who encouraged drug war prisoners to apply for them. The bad news is that the clock is likely to run out before Obama has a chance to deal with thousands of pending applications backlogged in the Office of the Pardons Attorney. The good news is that he still has six weeks to issue more commutations and free more drug war prisoners.

6. The DEA Gets a Wake-Up Call When It Tries to Ban Kratom

Derived from a Southeast Asian tree, kratom has become popular as an unregulated alternative to opioids for relaxation and pain relief, not to mention withdrawing from opioids. It has very low overdose potential compared to other opioids and has become a go-to drug for hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people.

Perturbed by its rising popularity, the DEA moved in late summer to use its emergency scheduling powers to ban kratom, but was hit with an unprecedented buzz saw of opposition from kratom users, scientists, researchers, and even Republican senators like Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who authored and encouraged his colleagues to sign a letter to the DEA asking the agency to postpone its planned scheduling.

The DEA backed off -- but didn't back down -- in October, announcing that it was shelving its ban plan for now and instead opening a period of public comment. That period ended on December 1, but before it did, the agency was inundated with submissions from people opposing the ban. Now, the DEA will factor in that input, as well as formal input from the Food and Drug Administration before making its decision.

The battle around kratom isn't over, and the DEA could still ban it in the end, but the whole episode demonstrates how much the ground has shifted under the agency. DEA doesn't just get its way anymore.

7. Federal Funds for Needle Exchanges Flow Again

It actually happened late in 2015, but the impact was felt this year. In December 2015, Congress approved an omnibus budget bill that removed the ban on federal funding of needle exchanges. The ban had been in place for 20 years, except for a two-year stretch between 2009 and 2011, when Democrats controlled the House.

Federal funding for needle exchanges is another drug policy response that could be endangered by Republican control of both the Congress and the presidency.

Vancouver's safe injection site. Is one coming to a city near you? (vch.ca)
8. The Slow Turn Towards Safe Injection Sites Accelerates

When will the US join the ranks of nations that embrace the harm reduction tactic of supervised drug consumption sites? Maybe sooner than you think. Moves are underway in at least three major US cities to get such facilities open, a need made all the more urgent by the nation's ongoing opioid crisis, as the Drug Policy Alliance noted in a December report calling for a number of interventions, including safe injection sites, to address it.

In New York City, the city council has approved a $100,000 study into the feasibility of safe injection sites, while in San Francisco, city public health officials have endorsed a call for them there and have even suggested they need as many as a half dozen. But San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee opposes them, so battle lines are being drawn.

The best bet may be Seattle, where city and surrounding King County officials are on board with a plan to open safe injection sites to fight heroin and prescription opioid abuse. That plan, conceived by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, was released in September.

9. Asset Forfeiture Reform Advances

Nearly 20 years after Congress passed limited federal civil asset forfeiture reform, the practice is now under sustained assault in the states. More than a half-dozen states had passed civil asset forfeiture reforms before the year began, and this year the following states came on board (although some of the new laws did not end, but only modified or restricted civil asset forfeiture): California, Florida, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

And next year looks to be more of the same. Bills have already been filed in Missouri and Texas, and renewed efforts are likely in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where they were thwarted this year.

10. The DEA is Busting Fewer People

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) reported in December that convictions for drug cases referred by the DEA continued a 10-year decline. During Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors won 9,553 criminal convictions on cases referred by the DEA. That's down 7.1% from the previous year, down 25% from five years ago, and down 35% from 10 years ago. TRAC notes that the decline in convictions is the result of fewer referrals by the DEA, not a lowered conviction rate, which has held steady.

Chronicle AM: DEA Brass Move to Pharma, Indonesia Top Narc Wants to Kill Users, More... (12/22/16)

Top DEA officials have left the agency for positions with opioid-producing pharmaceutical companies, Pennsylvania's roll-out of medical marijuana starts rolling, Oregon's largest city will allow pot delivery services, and more.

Dozens of DEA officials have put down the badge to pick up big bucks from Big Pharma.
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Legislators Will Try Again to Legalize It Next Year. After years of frustration, state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton) says next year is the best chance yet for legalization. Woodburn says he is drafting a two-part bill, with the first part essentially legalizing possession, cultivation, and sales by removing all criminal penalties and the second part setting up a study committee to put together a regulatory system for an adult use market by 2019 or 2020. A new governor, John Sununu, Jr., may ease the way. Unlike his Democratic predecessor, Maggie Hassan, Sununu has shown an openness to considering reforms.

Portland, Oregon, Okays Delivery Services. The city council voted Wednesday to approve "marijuana couriers" and other marijuana-related "micro-businesses" as a means of removing financial barriers for would-be entrepreneurs. Portland is the only city in the state to have approved pot delivery services.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Prosecutor Will Appeal Ruling Telling Him Not to Obstruct Medical Marijuana Businesses. Maricopa County (Phoenix) Attorney Bill Montgomery said Wednesday he will ask the state Supreme Court to review a ruling a day earlier from the Court of Appeals that rejected his argument that federal law preempts the state's medical marijuana and approve zoning for a medical marijuana dispensary in Sun City. He said the ruling against him undermines federalism and the "fundamental principle of the rule of law."

Pennsylvania Will Issue 27 Dispensary Permits in First Phase of Program Roll-Out. The state will authorize up to 27 dispensary permits during a process that begins with applications opening in mid-January and able to be submitted between February 20 and March 20. Each dispensary is allowed two secondary locations, meaning up to 81 medical marijuana shops could open in this first phase. The state medical marijuana law allows for up to 50 dispensary permits to be issued. State officials said they expected dispensaries to be open for business by mid-2018.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Dozens of Top DEA Officials Leave to Go to Work for Opioid Pharmaceutical Companies. It's the revolving door at work: Dozens of DEA officials have been hired by pharmaceutical companies that manufacture or distribute opioid pain medications, most of them directly from the DEA's diversion division, which is responsible for regulating the industry. The hires come in the midst of a DEA crackdown to curb rising opioid use. "The number of employees recruited from that division points to a deliberate strategy by the pharmaceutical industry to hire people who are the biggest headaches for them," said John Carnevale, former director of planning for the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, who now runs a consulting firm. "These people understand how DEA operates, the culture around diversion and DEA;s goals, and they can advise their clients how to stay within the guidelines."

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Governor Doesn't Want to Drug Test Students, Just Poor People. Gov. Scott Walker (R) said that while he wants to fight opioid use, he doesn't think drug testing high school students is a high priority. "There are plenty of ideas that have come up, but this isn't one of them," he said in reference to a bill filed by Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc). He is down with forcing people on food stamps to undergo drug tests, though.

International

Indonesia Anti-Drug Chief Says Drug Dealers and Users Should Be Shot. Taking a page from Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Budi Waseso, head of the National Narcotics Agency, has called for the killing of drug dealers and users. "Don't hesitate to shoot drug traffickers, drug dealers and drug users. Anyone involved in drug trafficking should be punished harshly, including traitors in the BNN [National Narcotics Agency] body. "Drug dealers have been all out in their efforts to market drugs. We have to be all out as well to fight them," said Budi, adding that the agency is already cooperating with the military to tackle drug-related crimes. "For the military, I think the word war can already be interpreted. Let's together clear these drugs for the sake of future generations," added Budi.

Medical Marijuana Update

The DEA has clarified that it still considers CBD to be illegal, Arkansas moves forward on implementation of its new program, Michigan gets legal dispensaries and a favorable court ruling, and more.

National

Last Wednesday, DEA clarified that, yes, it still considers CBD to be illegal. The DEA added a new code for marijuana extracts, including low-THC CBD cannabis oils, in the Federal Register. The code defines marijuana extracts as "an extract containing one or more cannabinoids that has been derived from any plant of the genus Cannabis, other than the separated resin (whether crude or purified) obtained from the plant." That means that marijuana extracts, even those derived from low-THC industrial hemp, are considered marijuana and are placed under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

On Monday, imprisoned California dispensary operators were seeking a presidential commutation. Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Montes operated a medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto, California, until their arrest by federal drug agents 10 years ago. They were prosecuted and convicted of federal drug crimes for their efforts and sentenced to 21 years 10 months and 20 years, respectively. Now, they are formally seeking sentence commutations from President Obama, who has cut the sentences of more than a thousand other federal drug prisoners so far this year. The pair point out that they would not have been prosecuted under current federal policies largely turning a blind eye to marijuana in states where it is legal, whether recreationally or merely for medical purposes.

Arizona

On Tuesday, a state appeals court ruled that local officials can't use federal law to harass dispensaries. In a unanimous decision, the state Court of Appeals ruled that local officials can't use the federal ban on marijuana to refuse to provide zoning for dispensaries. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (R) had no legal basis to claim that federal law trumps the state's voter-approved medical marijuana, the court held.

Arkansas

On Tuesday, state regulators set the number of commercial grows at five. The state Medical Marijuana Commission voted Tuesday to allow up to five commercial cultivation centers in the state. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, approved by voters last month, specified that there could be between four and eight centers; the commission opted to start on the low end. Grows won't start, however, until rules about growing, processing, and distribution are finalized.

Maine

Last Thursday,Mthe governor said the state should "get rid of" medical marijuana after legalization. Tea Party Republican Gov. Paul LePage called for an end to the state's medical marijuana program: "If you've got recreational marijuana, it's over the counter," he said. "Why do we need medical marijuana?" But initiative backers said the intent of the legalization initiative was to respect medical marijuana and have "dual programs running side by side."

Michigan

On Tuesday, the state's new medical marijuana laws went into effect. New state laws that will explicitly allow for dispensaries, regulate growing and processing facilities, and allow patients to use non-smokable forms of the drug are in effect as of Tuesday. "This new law will help Michiganders of all ages and with varying medical conditions access safe products to relieve their suffering," Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said after signing the bills back in September. "We can finally implement a solid framework that gives patients a safe source from which to purchase and utilize medical marijuana."

Also on Tuesday, the state appeals court ruled that the medical marijuana law protects people transporting it. The state Court of Appeals ruled that the state's medical marijuana law extends to people accused of illegally transporting it. A state law written after voters approved medical marijuana, requires that it be stored in the trunk or other inaccessible part of the vehicle, but the court held that law is invalid because it imposes additional requirements on medical marijuana users.

Ohio

Last Thursday, the state Pharmacy Board issued draft rules for dispensaries. The board has issued proposed rules governing medical marijuana distribution in the state. The rules envision up to 40 dispensaries operating, with applicants having to show they have at least $250,000 in liquid assets. Applicants would have to pay a $5,000 non-refundable application fee, and if approved, would have to pay an $80,000 annual fee. Dispensaries would also have to pay a $100 fee for each advertisement, which would have to be approved by the board. The rules are open for comment until January 13. The Board of Pharmacy is one of three state agencies tasked with regulating the nascent industry. The State Medical Board has already released rules for doctors, and the Commerce Department is charged with regulating growers and processors.

Tennessee

Last Wednesday, Republicans rolled out a medical marijuana bill. State Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) and state Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) held a press conference Wednesday to introduce their "conservative proposal" to allow for the use of medical marijuana. Their draft bill would set a limit of 50 grow houses statewide, with each allowed to operate one on-site and two storefront dispensaries. It appears to make no provision for patient or caregiver grows. And it limits medical marijuana eligibility to a small list of specified conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, ALS, PTSD, and Alzheimer's.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM: Joe Manchin Wants New Drug War, AZ&MI Appeals Courts Rule for MedMJ, More... (12/21/16)

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D) calls for a new war on drugs and gets roundly ridiculed for it, appeals courts in Arizona and Michigan issue favorable medical marijuana rulings, a Missouri bill would end the asset forfeiture loophole that lets state police circumvent tough state laws by going to the feds, and more.

Medical marijuana saw court victories in Arizona and Michigan this week. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

California Bill Would Ban Bud Billboards. Over the past year, billboards advertising marijuana products and businesses have popped up all over the state, but now, some lawmakers want to impose strict limits on marijuana advertising. Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) is one of the sponsors of Assembly Bill 64, which would bar ads that could be seen by minors "We have legal adult use and medical use, and we want to make sure that advertising hits the target audience as much as possible and doesn't slip beyond that," Bonta said. "We want to target adults and patients and not the broader audience that includes kids and carpools and school buses and families." The bill would require a two-thirds majority to pass because it would amend Proposition 64.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Appeals Court Rules Local Officials Can't Use Fed Law to Hassle Dispensaries. In a unanimous decision, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that local officials can't use the federal ban on marijuana to refuse to provide zoning for dispensaries. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (R) had no legal basis to claim that federal law trumps the state's voter-approved medical marijuana, the court held.

Arkansas Regulators Set Number of Commercial Grows at Five. The state Medical Marijuana Commission voted Tuesday to allow up to five commercial cultivation centers in the state. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, approved by voters last month, specified that there could be between four and eight centers; the commission opted to start on the low end. Grows won't start, however, until rules about growing, processing, and distribution are finalized.

Michigan Appeals Court Rules Medical Marijuana Law Protects People Transporting It. The state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the state's medical marijuana law extends to people accused of illegally transporting it. A state law written after voters approved medical marijuana, requires that it be stored in the trunk or other inaccessible part of the vehicle, but the court held that law is invalid because it imposes additional requirements on medical marijuana users.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

West Virginia Democratic Senator Calls for "War on Drugs" to Fight Opioid Crisis. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said Tuesday a new "war on drugs" in necessary to combat rampant opioid use, sparking immediate ridicule on Twitter and other social media. "We need to declare a war on drugs," Manchin said on CNN when asked what President-elect Donald Trump should do about the opioid situation. Manchin added that he has met addicts who started out smoking marijuana but ended up taking prescription drugs and then moving on to heroin. "It's just been unbelievable," he said. But it was Manchin's resort to last-century tropes that the Internet found unbelievable. Taking on his call for a new drug war, one Twitter user responded, "If only someone would have thought to do that, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Genius!!"

Asset Forfeiture

Missouri Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Filed. State Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-St. Louis) has pre-filed House Bill 231, which would close a loophole that allowed state and local police to circumvent tough state asset forfeiture laws by turning cases over to the feds. The bill would prohibit such behavior unless the amount involved was more than $100,000 cash.

Chronicle AM: New MI MedMJ Laws Now in Effect, GOP Welfare Drug Testing Push, More... (12/20/16)

The legislative season is getting underway in the states and good and bad bills are starting to pop up, Michigan finally gets explicitly allowed dispensaries, Wisconsin's GOP governor wants Trump to rid him of pesky federal regulations that block him from drug testing food stamp recipients, and more.

GOP governors and legislators continue to demand welfare drug testing, despite lack of results. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Legalization Bill Filed. Just weeks after a legalization initiative was narrowly defeated by voters, a state representative is ready to give it a shot in the legislature. Rep. Mark Cardenas (D-Louisville) has pre-filed House Bill 2003, which would allow people 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana, grow up to five plants and keep the fruits of the harvest, and establish a recreational marijuana industry.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan's New Medical Marijuana Laws Now in Effect. New state laws that will explicitly allow for dispensaries, regulate growing and processing facilities, and allow patients to use non-smokable forms of the drug are in effect as of today. "This new law will help Michiganders of all ages and with varying medical conditions access safe products to relieve their suffering," Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said after signing the bills back in September. "We can finally implement a solid framework that gives patients a safe source from which to purchase and utilize medical marijuana."

Drug Testing

Texas Solons Introduce Welfare Drug Testing Bills. State Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound) has filed Senate Bill 268, which would mandate drug screening for applicants in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and drug testing for those deemed at risk during the screening, have a felony record, or have previously tested positive for drug use. A companion bill has been filed in the House. Similar bills have been a regular feature of deliberations in Austin for the past several years, but have not gotten through the legislature.

Wisconsin Governor Wants Trump to Let Him Drug Test Food Stamp Recipients. Gov. Scott Walker (R) has written a letter to incoming President Donald Trump asking him to give the state more authority to require the drug testing of adults on food stamps, among other policy preferences. Federal law does not allow states to impose drug tests on recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, better known as food stamps.

International

Copenhagen Tries Yet Again to Legalize Weed. For the fourth time, Denmark's largest city has formally requested permission to carry out a pilot marijuana legalization program where sales are handled exclusively by public authorities. The Danish government has so far been immune to the city's entreaties, but it could finally be softening. Just last month, it approved a medical marijuana trial program.

Chronicle AM: US Cuts Philippines Aid Over Killings, Montreal Pot Shops Open, More... (12/16/16)

The US moves -- again -- to signal its displeasure with Philippines drug war killings, a marijuana descheduling petition could use your help, easy-access naloxone comes to Georgia, and more.

Standing in line to buy weed at Cannabis Culture in Montreal. Marc and Jodie Emery aren't waiting for the government. (Twitter)
Marijuana Policy

Petition to Deschedule Marijuana Needs Your Signature. The medical marijuana group Patients Out of Time has organized a Change.org petition urging President Obama to direct Attorney General Loretta Lynch to immediately deschedule marijuana. If the petition garners 100,000 signatures by January 9, the White House will respond. The petition currently has slightly more than 6,000 signatures.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Pharmacy Board Issues Draft Rules for Dispensaries. The board has issued proposed rules governing medical marijuana distribution in the state. The rules envision up to 40 dispensaries operating, with applicants having to show they have at least $250,000 in liquid assets. Applicants would have to pay a $5,000 non-refundable application fee, and if approved, would have to pay an $80,000 annual fee. Dispensaries would also have to pay a $100 fee for each advertisement, which would have to be approved by the board. The rules are open for comment until January 13. The Board of Pharmacy is one of three state agencies tasked with regulating the nascent industry. The State Medical Board has already released rules for doctors, and the Commerce Department is charged with regulating growers and processors.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Georgia Governor Clears Path for Over-the-Counter Naloxone. Gov. Nathan Deal (R) Wednesday asked the state Department of Public Health to deregulate the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan), which would allow pharmacies to distribute the life-saving medication without a prescription. The state Board of Pharmacy has already removed naloxone from its dangerous drugs list. "Naloxone is a powerful weapon in the fight against the increasing epidemic of opioid abuse that poses a threat to public health in Georgia," DPH Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald, M.D., said in a statement. "The governor's decisive action to make this drug accessible to anyone in a position to assist persons at risk of overdose will save countless lives."

International

US Defers Economic Aid to Philippines Over Drug War Killings. The US Embassy in Manila announced Thursday that it is holding up foreign economic assistance to the country because of "significant concerns around the rule of law and civil liberties in the Philippines" related to President Duterte's ongoing murderous campaign against alleged drug users and sellers. So far, some 6,000 have reportedly been killed in the purge since Duterte took office six months ago. The US had previously halted anti-drug training assistance and blocked the planned sale of some 26,000 assault rifles to the country.

Saudis Order Foreigners Wanting to Marry Saudi Women to Undergo Drug Tests. Under a newly announced law, foreigners wanting to marry Saudi women will have to pass a drug test before being married. "A drug test has been added to the compulsory marital medical test for foreigners seeking marriage with Saudi women," Mishaal Al-Rabian, head of communications and PR at the Ministry of Health explained. "The drug test is only for foreigners and, the test has been applied since the issuance of the circular a few months back." The move is being taken to discourage marriage with foreigners, to repress drug use, and to reduce divorce rates, officials said.

Marc and Jodie Emery Aren't Waiting to Open Montreal Pot Shops. Even though marijuana is still illegal in Canada, activists Marc "Prince of Pot" Emery and wife Jodie opened six retail marijuana outlets in Montreal Thursday. The stores carry the Emerys' Cannabis Culture brand. Local officials are vowing to shut them down, but in the meantime, business is brisk.

Medical Marijuana Update

Montana's dispensaries are coming back to life, Michigan's medical marijuana fees have been funding aggressive anti-marijuana law enforcement, and more.

Arkansas

On Monday, members of the state's new medical marijuana commission were sworn in. In the first meeting of a commission established to create a state medical marijuana system after voters approved a constitutional amendment last month, five commissioners were sworn in. The members of the state Medical Marijuana Commission are Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman of Little Rock, lobbyist James Miller of Bryant, Dr. Carlos Roman of Little Rock, pharmacy executive Stephen Carroll of Benton and attorney Travis Story of Fayetteville. Henry-Tillman was unanimously elected Monday afternoon as the commission's chairman.

Kentucky

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana bill was filed. State Sen. Perry Clark (D-Louisville) has filed the Cannabis Compassion Act of 2017 (BR 409), which would allow patients with a specified list of diseases and medical conditions access to their medicine. The bill would allow patients to possess up to three ounces and grow up to 12 plants and envisions a system of regulated cultivators and "compassion centers.

Michigan

On Tuesday, news came that medical marijuana fees are funding the state's war on drugs.Medical marijuana fees have fattened the Michigan Medical Marijuana Fund, and state law enforcement has been tapping into that fund to aggressively go after marijuana. Local sheriffs in the Detroit area have spent more than $600,000 raiding dispensaries in the past year, and there's more where that came from since the fund has raised $30 million. "I really don't think it's appropriate to fund law enforcement on the backs of medical marijuana patients," medical marijuana attorney Matt Abel told the Detroit News. "… It's really a hidden tax on patients."

Montana

Last Wednesday, a state judge cleared dispensaries to reopen. A district court judge in Helena has ruled that a wording error in last month's successful medical marijuana initiative should not keep sick patients from having access to the plant now. The initiative undid a 2011 law that largely undid the original 2004 initiative allowing medical marijuana, but late changes to the initiative resulted in new sections being added, which in turn resulted in a change in section numbering that unintentionally pushed back the date dispensaries could open. "The folks that are maybe the most in need are the least able to provide, to grow their own," the judge said in making his ruling. "I think speed is more important than niceties."

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM: Marijuana Legal in MA, DEA Says Even Low-THC CBD Still Illegal, More... (12/15/16)

New England marijuana policy is in flux, as Massachusetts legalizes it, Connecticut's governor disses it, and a key New Hampshire politician says "let's do it," the DEA clarifies that CBD cannabis oils are still illegal under federal law, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Governor Doesn't Want to Legalize It. Stopping just short of saying he would veto a legalization bill, Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) said Thursday the legislature shouldn't waste its time on considering the issue. "First of all, I think it's a mistake what Massachusetts has done and other states have done,'' Malloy told reporters in Hartford. "I think we should hit the pause button and watch how it works in the region... I think it's a mistake.''

Massachusetts Legalization Now in Effect. State officials have certified the results of the November 8 election, and that means Bay State residents can now legally possess up to an ounce of pot in public and 10 ounces at home, and they can start growing up to six pot plants per person, with a limit of 12 per house. Marijuana retail and related businesses will not be licensed, though, until January 2018 -- if there are no delays.

New Hampshire Democratic Leader Says It's Time to Create a Path to Legalization. State Sen. Jeff Woodburn (D-Dalton), the Senate Minority Leader, said Wednesday he plans to file a marijuana legalization bill. "I think it's important New Hampshire recognize what's going on around us, but also listen to what the people are asking for. It's important -- I'm a civics teacher by background -- that we have a legitimate government. That means the people have been asking in overwhelming surveys that they support marijuana being legalized and it's important that our elected officials listen to and respond to their desires," he said. New Hampshire is the only New England state that has not even decriminalized possession.

Medical Marijuana

DEA Clarifies That, Yes, It Still Considers CBD to Be Illegal. The DEA Wednesday added a new code for marijuana extracts, including low-THC CBD cannabis oils, in the Federal Register. The code defines marijuana extracts as "an extract containing one or more cannabinoids that has been derived from any plant of the genus Cannabis, other than the separated resin (whether crude or purified) obtained from the plant." That means that marijuana extracts, even those derived from low-THC industrial hemp, are considered marijuana and are placed under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

Maine Governor Says State Should "Get Rid Of" Medical Marijuana After Legalization. Tea Party Republican Gov. Paul LePage called for an end to the state's medical marijuana program Thursday. "If you've got recreational marijuana, it's over the counter," he said. "Why do we need medical marijuana?" But initiative backers said the intent of the legalization initiative was to respect medical marijuana and have "dual programs running side by side."

Tennessee Republicans Roll Out Medical Marijuana Bill. State Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) and state Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) held a press conference Wednesday to introduce their "conservative proposal" to allow for the use of medical marijuana. Their draft bill would set a limit of 50 grow houses statewide, with each allowed to operate one on-site and two storefront dispensaries. It appears to make no provision for patient or caregiver grows. And it limits medical marijuana eligibility to a small list of specified conditions, including cancer, HIV/AIDS, ALS, PTSD, and Alzheimer's.

Chronicle AM: Mexico Senate Approves MedMJ, WI Lawmaker Wants HS Drug Testing, More... (12/14/16)

With the backing of the president, Mexico's Senate has approved medical marijuana; Kentucky's attorney general identifies the opioid epidemic as the state's biggest problem, Nevada drug dogs trained to sniff out marijuana face an uncertain future after legalization, and more.

Do you want to play high school sports in Wisconsin? A GOP lawmaker wants you to have to pee in a cup first. (Wikimedia)
Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Kentucky AG Says Opioid Epidemic Should Be Legislature's Top Priority. Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said Tuesday that the opioid epidemic -- not a failing pension program -- is the state's biggest problem and the Republican-controlled legislature should make that its top priority. "We have a very important pension problem that we have to tackle, but a pension hasn't killed anyone's father or mother or taken a child from a parent," Beshear said. "This drug epidemic is the single largest threat to the lives of our citizens and also to our economy itself."

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Lawmaker Wants to Impose Drug Testing on High School Students Statewide. Whether to drug test students is a question traditionally left to local school boards, but state Rep. Joel Kleefisch (R-Oconomowoc) is drafting a bill to impose drug testing on some students statewide. He said he will introduce a bill that will require private and public schools to have policies to randomly drug test students who participate in voluntary activities, such as sports or choir or the debate club. Only a handful of Wisconsin school districts currently have such policies.

Law Enforcement

After Pot Vote, Nevada Drug Dogs Face Uncertain Future. With legal marijuana looming in the state's near future, Nevada drug dogs trained to sniff marijuana could be out of a job. Drug dogs are trained to detect various substances and will alert on any of them, but after January 1, they could be alerting on a legal substance, and that means their usefulness to law enforcement is in question. They could be retrained (difficult and expensive) or replaced (expensive).

International

Mexico Senate Votes Overwhelmingly to Approve Medical Marijuana. The Mexican Senate voted 98-7 Tuesday to approve medical marijuana legislation. The move comes after President Enrique Pena Nieto earlier this year signaled his support. Some lawmakers said they were disappointed the bill didn't legalize marijuana outright.

Philippines President Admits Personally Killing People. Speaking Monday about his bloody war on drugs, which has left nearly 6,000 dead in six months, President Rodrigo Duterte admitted to personally killing people while mayor of Davao City, where he has long been accused of tolerating death squads. "In Davao I used to do it personally. Just to show to the guys [police officers] that if I can do it, why can't you. And I'd go around in Davao with a motorcycle, with a big bike around, and I would just patrol the streets, looking for trouble also. I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill," he said.

Chronicle AM: Marijuana Legal in MA Thursday, Canada Moving Forward, More... (12/13/16)

There's a lot of international news today, plus Colorado pot sales pass the $1 billion mark this year, Massachusetts politicians get out of the way of legalization, and more.

Philippines President Duterte isn't satisfied with mass killing of drug suspects. He wants the death penalty, too. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Marijuana Sales Hit $1 Billion Mark This Year. The state Department of Revenue reports that marijuana sales through October exceeded the billion dollar mark, coming in at $1.09 billion. That figure could hit $1.3 billion by year's end, according to marijuana industry attorney Christian Sederberg.

Massachusetts Officials Won't Delay Marijuana Legalization. Possession of small amounts of marijuana will become legal Thursday. There had been fears of a delay after loose talk in the legislature, but legislative leaders made it clear Monday they will not seek to delay the start of the new law.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commissioners Sworn In. In the first meeting of a commission established to create a state medical marijuana system after voters approved a constitutional amendment last month, five commissioners were sworn in. The members of the state Medical Marijuana Commission are Dr. Ronda Henry-Tillman of Little Rock, lobbyist James Miller of Bryant, Dr. Carlos Roman of Little Rock, pharmacy executive Stephen Carroll of Benton and attorney Travis Story of Fayetteville. Henry-Tillman was unanimously elected Monday afternoon as the commission's chairman.

Kentucky Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Sen. Perry Clark (D-Louisville) has filed the Cannabis Compassion Act of 2017 (BR 409), which would allow patients with a specified list of diseases and medical conditions access to their medicine. The bill would allow patients to possess up to three ounces and grow up to 12 plants and envisions a system of regulated cultivators and "compassion centers."

Michigan Medical Marijuana Fees Fund State's War on Drugs.Medical marijuana fees have fattened the Michigan Medical Marijuana Fund, and state law enforcement has been tapping into that fund to aggressively go after marijuana. Local sheriffs in the Detroit area have spent more than $600,000 raiding dispensaries in the past year, and there's more where that came from since the fund has raised $30 million. "I really don't think it's appropriate to fund law enforcement on the backs of medical marijuana patients," medical marijuana attorney Matt Abel told the Detroit News. "… It's really a hidden tax on patients."

International

Canada Marijuana Task Force Advises Wide-Ranging Legalization. The task force charged with shaping the country's looming marijuana legalization has recommended that pot be sold in retail stores and by mail order, that possession of 30 grams and cultivation of four plants be legalized, that the minimum age be set at 18, and that pot not be sold along with alcohol. The commission is also recommending that high-potency products be more heavily taxed to discourage their use. The Liberals are expected to file their legalization bill this coming spring.

Canada Releases New Comprehensive Drug Strategy. Health Minister Jane Philpott Monday unveiled the Canadian Drug and Substances Strategy, which will replace the existing National Anti-Drug Strategy of the Conservatives. The new strategy restores harm reduction as a core pillar of Canadian drug policy, along with prevention, treatment, and law enforcement, and insists on a "strong evidence base."

British Drug Advisers Call for Prescription Heroin, Safe Injection Sites. The official Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has recommending allowing hard-core heroin users to get the drug via prescription and called for the opening of supervised injection facilities. Both moves come as a response to a soaring number of drug overdose deaths. "The ACMD is of the view that death is the most serious harm related to drug use," commission head Les Iversen said in a letter to the Home Secretary. "The most important recommendation in this report is that government ensures that investment in OST [opioid substitution therapy] of optimal dosage and duration is, at least, maintained," he added.

Philippines Drug War Death Toll Nearing 6,000. According to statistics released Monday by the Philippines National Police, some 5,927 deaths have been linked to President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs since he took office at the beginning of July. Nearly 2,100 were killed in police operations, while more than 3,800 deaths were blamed on vigilantes or death squads.

Effort to Block Philippines Death Penalty Bill. In addition to widespread extra-judicial executions of drug suspects, President Duterte wants to reinstate the death penalty, including for drug offenses. ASEAN Parliamentarians on Human Rights is leading the campaign against the bill and wants people to contact Philippines lawmakers. Click on the link for more info.

Drug War Issues

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