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Double Standard? Marijuana or Hemp? DEA Indian Tribe Raid Raises Questions [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and will appear at http://www.alternet.org/drugs/.

Taking advantage of a 2014 Justice Department memo giving Indian tribes a green light to participate in marijuana commerce, as well as a 2014 congressional vote allowing for industrial hemp pilot programs, Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe earlier this year planted some 30,000 cannabis plants as part of a pilot project with the College of the Menominee Nation.

Last Friday, the DEA came and cut them all down.

The DEA says the plants were marijuana plants; the tribe says they were hemp plants. In either case, tribal officials and marijuana reform advocates don't understand why the grow was raided. Even if it were marijuana, it appears to be an operation well within Justice Department guidelines. And that's leading to some pointed questions about whether the feds have one standard for pot-legal states and another for the tribe-legal jurisdictions.

The memo that allows for marijuana commerce on the reservation includes eight potential enforcement triggers first formulated in a 2013 Justice Department memo (the Cole memo) advising federal prosecutors to lay off of recreational and medical marijuana operations in states where they are legal. Those triggers include diversion to other localities, money going to organized crime, and violence associated with the trade, among others.

The raid came after the tribe allowed a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee and local police to inspect the operation and take plant samples. And that visit came after a meeting between the BIA agent, the local cops, and an assistant US attorney.

According to the DEA affidavit for a search warrant, the samples tested positive for "marijuana," although there was no measurement of THC levels in the plants.

Industrial hemp is high in fiber, but low in THC, with levels at 0.3% or less. Pot produced for the recreational market, by contrast, typically has THC levels of 15% to 20% and beyond. There is a possibility some of the plants could exceed the 0.3% limit, but not by much.

The DEA affidavit also attempted to make a case that the hemp grow was violating those Justice Department triggers. The tribe had hired Colorado cannabis consultant Brian Goldstein to consult on its grow, and Goldstein, along with Tribal Chairwoman Ruth Wapoose, had in fact guided the feds and the local cops on their tour of the operation.

But Goldstein was "white," the affidavit noted, and several other people present appeared "non-native," and some vehicles had Colorado plates. This, the affidavit somewhat tortuously argued, violated the memo's provision about diversion from states where marijuana is legal to those where it is not. It seems to claim that hiring a cannabis consultant from a legal state is equivalent to importing pot from that state.

A field of hemp at sunrise. (votehemp.org)
The affidavit also stretched to assert the operation was setting off other enforcement triggers. The lack of ventilation in a drying room "is a health and safety concern for the community and the individuals associated with the operation, which is a violation of the enumerated priorities listed in the Cole memorandum regarding adverse public health concerns of marijuana cultivation," it argued.

But drying hemp stalks in closed barns is standard practice and is used by farmers around the country, including those who produced legal hemp crops this year in Colorado and Kentucky.

And security personnel guarding the property had guns, leading the BIA agent to question "the ability for the security team to have weapons for protection because it would violate the Cole memorandum."

Now, the grow has been destroyed, any decision on criminal prosecution is in the hands of federal prosecutors, and the tribe and other observers are wondering just what is going on. After all, the Menominee aren't the only tribe to take the Justice Department at its word, only to be raided down the road.

This past summer, the DEA hit two California tribes, the Pit River Tribe and the Alturas Indian Rancheria, seizing 12,000 plants. The feds alleged Cole memorandum violations including financing from a foreign entrepreneur and fears the marijuana would be distributed outside the reservations in ways that violated the state's medical marijuana law. And the US attorney in South Dakota a month earlier refused to agree to lift an injunction barring Oglala Sioux tribal member Alex White Plume from growing hemp, which the Oglala Sioux Nation has legalized.

Are the tribes being held to a different standard than states where it is legal? Has there been a policy shift at Justice? Are individual federal prosecutors going off the reservation?

Menominee Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw doesn't know, but he isn't happy about it.

"I am deeply disappointed that the Obama administration has made the decision to utilize the full force of the DEA to raid our Tribe," he said in a statement after the raid. "We offered to take any differences in the interpretation of the farm bill to federal court. Instead, the Obama administration sent agents to destroy our crop while allowing recreational marijuana in Colorado. I just wish the President would explain to tribes why we can't grow industrial hemp like the states, and even more importantly, why we don't deserve an opportunity to make our argument to a federal judge rather than having our community raided by the DEA?"

Neither was Eric Steenstra, head of the hemp industry advocacy organization Vote Hemp.

"The DEA action in this case is egregious, excessive and presents an unjust prejudice against Indian Country and the rights of sovereign tribal nations," he said. "The Menominee Indian Tribe cultivated their industrial hemp in accordance with Federal Law, per the legislation put forth in the Farm Bill. This is a step backward, at a time when great progress has otherwise been made toward legalizing and regulating industrial hemp cultivation."

In an interview with US News and World Report, tribal law expert Lance Morgan, a member of Nebraska's Winnebago tribe who has worked with tribal governments pondering marijuana operations, said the Cole memorandum guidelines are not being applied consistently and warned the Menominee raid would be remembered as a historic betrayal.

"How can you allow people to buy marijuana in a retail environment in some states and then raid an industrial hemp operation of a tribe? The only difference is that there is a tribe involved," he said. "This odd federal policy of encouraging investment and then raiding the new business sets us back a few decades in federal tribal trust and economic policy."

The raids against tribal pot operations will kill investment in such ventures, Morgan said.

"The new federal policy of 'sort of' allowing tribes to get into the marijuana business is especially cruel and unusual because it encourages investment, but after the investment is made the federal government comes and shuts it down and the investors lose all their money."

Tribal law expert and former head of New York's Seneca Nation Robert Odawi Porter agreed that there is at least the appearance of a double standard.

"This certainly suggests a real divergence in policy approach for Indian country," compared to the pot-legal states, which have been allowed to develop enormous marijuana industries, he said. "It increasingly looks like the Justice Department guidelines are not being interpreted in the same way as they were intended."

It seems like the Justice Department has some explaining and clarifying to do. Can the tribes participate in the new marijuana economy like that states, or not? And does the DEA accept the legal definition and status of hemp? If not, why?

Chronicle AM: One Week to OH Vote, DEA Raids Menominee Hemp Grow, Iranians for Legalization???, More (10/27/15)

Menominee tribal officials are scratching their heads after the DEA cut down their hemp crop, Ohio votes on legalization in one week, some new federal sentencing statistics are out, the Iranians may be thinking about legalizing marijuana and/or opium, and more.

Marijuana Policy

A hemp field. Someone needs to sit down and have a talk with the DEA. (votehemp.org)
DEA Raids Menominee Reservation in Wisconsin, Cuts Down Hemp Plants. DEA agents swarmed the reservation last Friday and cut down 30,000 cannabis plants. The tribe says they were hemp plants; the DEA claims they were marijuana plants. Hemp has very low levels of THC, but it is not clear that the DEA actually tested THC levels. In any case, under a Justice Department policy announced last fall, tribes are supposed to be able to grow marijuana on tribal lands, provided they don't fall afoul of Justice Department concerns about out-of-jurisdiction trafficking, dealing to children, organized crime activities and the like.

Both Michigan Legalization Campaigns Have Money in the Bank. According to quarterly financial reports filed Monday, the state's two different marijuana legalization efforts are both pulling in cash, but still have a long way to go on signature gathering. MI Legalize has raised $308,000 and spent $249,000 so far as it seeks to gather some 252,523 valid voter signatures by December. The Michigan Cannabis Coalition has raised $351,000 and spent $284,000. The coalition has temporarily halted signature-gathering, even though it says it is roughly 50,000 signatures short, saying the move is a "strategic decision" and petitioning will soon resume. The coalition effort has until January to turn in signatures. MI Legalize would allow taxed and regulated marijuana sales with a 10% retail sales tax; the coalition effort also legalize, but would rely on the state legislature to set taxes and set licensing requirements.

Ohio Votes on Marijuana Legalization in One Week. The ResponsibleOhio legalization initiative is too close to call a week out from election day. The initiative would legalize marijuana, but only allow 10 commercial marijuana grows allotted to campaign backers. Polls in the past week have shown the race in a dead heat. Stay tuned.

Medical Marijuana

Change.org Petition for the Kettle Falls Five. Prosecuted as marijuana traffickers for growing medical marijuana for their own use in a state where marijuana is legal, three of the Kettle Falls Five were sentenced earlier this month to federal prison. The petition here seeks "immediate orders of commutation and remission of jail time and fines for Rolland Gregg, his wife Michelle Gregg, and his mother Rhonda Firestack-Harvey. We seek complete pardons of their convictions so that they are no longer considered felons. Allow them to return to being the productive members of society they were, before this ordeal began." Click on the link to add your signature.

Sentencing

More Than Half of Federal Drug Prisoners Are Doing Time for Cocaine. A new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics reveals that, as of 2012, 54% of federal drug war prisoners were sentenced for cocaine offenses. Then came meth at 24%, marijuana at 12%, and heroin at 6%. The vast majority (88%) of crack offenders were black, while more than half (54%) of powder cocaine offenders were Hispanic. More than half (59%) of marijuana offenders were Hispanic. Among meth offenders, it was 48% white and 45% Hispanic. One-quarter (24%) of all drug offenders were not US citizens. Click on the link to read the report.

International

Could Iran Be the Next Country to Legalize Marijuana or Opium? A prominent Iranian official has suggested as much. Saeed Sefatian, who made the remarks, is head of the working group for drug demand reduction in the country's Expediency Council, which is largely influential in the country's drug policies. Click on the link for more.

Chronicle AM: Australia Okays Medical Marijuana, NJ Legalization Rally Tomorrow, More (10/16/15)

There's a legalization rally in Trenton tomorrow, ASA has a new report on the impact of dispensaries, Mexico cartel violence flares at a Pacific port, Australia okays medical marijuana, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Legalization Rally in New Jersey Tomorrow. Hundreds of legalization supporters will gather in Trenton Saturday to call for an end to marijuana prohibition in the Garden State. The rally begins at city hall at 2:00pm, then marches to the state capitol for a 3:00pm rally. The rally is sponsored by the East Coast Cannabis Coalition and a variety of local reform groups.

Medical Marijuana

ASA Releases Report on Impact on Dispensaries on Communities. Americans for Safe Access has released a report, Where Will Patients Obtain Their Medicine?, that shows dispensaries do not bring elevated crime rates or other social ills, but do bring economic opportunity and provide access to medicine for patients. "The research shows that well-regulated dispensaries are responsible neighbors and valued members of the community," said Steph Sherer, ASA's executive director. "They bring jobs and increased economic activity while providing patients suffering from serious illnesses with an essential physician-recommended medicine. Creating equitable rules for medical cannabis access is a win-win scenario for everyone in a community."

New Psychoactive Substances

Federal Crackdown on New Synthetic Drugs Winds Down. A year-long operation by the DEA and other federal agencies aimed at cracking down on makers and sellers of new psychoactive substances ended yesterday. The feds bragged of arresting 151 people in 16 states, as well as seizing more than $15 million in cash and other assets in the operation, code-named Project Synergy.

Asset Forfeiture

Pennsylvania Poll Finds Strong Backing for Asset Forfeiture Reforms. A new poll sponsored by the asset forfeiture reform group Fix Forfeiture found that only one out of four Pennsylvanians had ever heard of asset forfeiture, but once they found out what it was, they didn't like it. Nearly four out of five (79%) said they supported reforms once they understood what asset forfeiture was. "It was really stunning to see how broad the support for reform is," said Jim Hobart, pollster for Public Opinion Strategies. "We don't get this type of bipartisan support on any issue these days." The poll comes as the legislature ponders a reform bill, Senate Bill 869, and its House companion bill, HB 508. The bill will have a hearing next week.

International

Australia to Legalize Medical Marijuana. The federal government has announced it will legalize the cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes, but state governments will be able to opt out. Health Minister Susan Ley said the government wants to provide access to medical marijuana for people suffering from debilitating illnesses. "I have heard stories of patients who have resorted to illegal methods of obtaining cannabis and I have felt for them, because with a terminal condition, the most important thing is quality of life and relief of pain," she said. "And we know that many people are calling out for medicinal cannabis. It is important therefore that we recognize those calls for help, that we put in place what we know will support a safe, legal and sustainable supply of a product."

Mexican Cartels Fight It Out Over Control of Pacific Port. The death toll is rising in Colima state as the Sinaloa Cartel, the Knights Templar, and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel wage a three-sided war for control of the port of Manzanillo. At least 30 people are believed to have been killed in gangland slayings in the state since June, many of them showing signs of torture or, in some cases, dismemberment.

Chronicle AM: Midwest Asset Forfeiture Moves, Puerto Rico Decriminalizes, More (9/30/15)

Puerto Rico decriminalizes, polls in Texas and Canada show strong majorities for marijuana law reform, Ohio and Michigan are moving on asset forfeiture reform, DEA agents flunk drug tests with few consequences, and more.

The Dutch Supreme Court says foreigners can be banned from cannabis cafes, but the cafes don't seem to be paying attention.
Marijuana Policy

Puerto Rico Decriminalizes Possession of Up to Six Grams. Gov. Alejandro Padilla Garcia Monday signed an executive order decriminalizing the possession of up to six grams of marijuana. Instead of criminal proceedings, people caught with small amounts of pot will be subject to a fine, or possibly drug treatment. The governor cited the high cost of prosecuting small-time offenders.

Texas Poll Has Three-Quarter Support for Marijuana Reform. Nearly three out of four Texans are ready to liberalize the state's marijuana laws, according to a new Texas Lyceum Poll. The poll had support for legalization at 46%, with another 28.5% supporting decriminalization. That's 74.5% for liberalization. Only 19.5% opposed both legalization and decriminalization. Clink on the link for more poll details and methodology.

Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Attorney General Backs Asset Forfeiture Reforms. Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) is supporting a package of civil asset forfeiture reform bills. The bills, which have already passed the House, wouldn't entirely eliminate civil asset forfeiture, but would increase the burden of proof on law enforcement to keep seized property and would require more transparency. "On this issue of forfeiture and transparency, as a lawyer and as attorney general, I'm in support of these seven bills," Schuette said Tuesday during a press call organized by Fix Forfeiture, a national and bipartisan group advocating for reform. "This is a good effort. A good team effort."

Ohio GOP Legislators File Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. Nineteen House Republicans cosponsored a bill Tuesday that would eliminate civil forfeiture under state law and only allow criminal forfeiture after a defendant is convicted of a crime. The lead sponsor is Rep. Robert McColley (R-Napoleon). The bill is not yet on the legislative website.

Law Enforcement

DEA Agents Fail Drug Tests, But Face No Serious Consequences. At least 16 DEA employees have failed drug tests, but only got short suspensions or other minor punishments, according to newly released documents. None was punished with being fired, and most were suspended for a day or two. Click on the title link for much, much more.

International

Canada Poll Has Strong Majority Supporting Marijuana Reform. A new Vote Compass poll has support for marijuana legalization at 56%, with another 30% saying they supported decriminalization. That's 86% in favor of liberalizing the country's marijuana laws. Only 14% said possession should remain a criminal offense, the position of the Conservatives in next month's elections. The Liberals are calling for legalization, while the New Democrats are calling for decrim. Click on the link for more polling details, methodology, and discussion.

Dutch Supreme Court Upholds Ban on Tourists in Cannabis Cafes. The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the country can ban foreign nationals from cannabis cafes because such a move does not conflict with European anti-discrimination legislation. The Supreme Court cited a 2010 European Court of Justice ruling that said restricting sales to foreigners is "justified by the objective of combating drug tourism." But the ban appears to operate mainly in the breach. A 2013 survey showed two-thirds of cannabis cafes were selling to foreigners.

Chronicle AM: Midwest Marijuana, Clinton Looks Abroad to Fight Heroin, Dan Rush Indicted, More (9/21/15)

Michigan has two legalization initiative campaigns and now it has a legalization bill, Ohio's legalization initiative ballot language is set, a key UFCW organizer gets indicted, Chuck Schumer calls on the DEA to do something about Chinese drug sales websites, and more.

Hilary Clinton hints at eradication and interdiction to fight heroin. (state.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Rep Files Five Nanogram Drugged Driving Bill. Rep. David Kerner (D-Lake Worth) has filed House Bill 161, which would make driving with more than five nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood a drugged driving offense. The bill is named after teenager Naomi Pomerance, who died in a traffic accident last year in which the driver of the scooter on which she was riding was high on marijuana and ran a red light.

Michigan Legalization Bill Filed. Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and six cosponsors have filed House Bill 4877 to bring full-fledged marijuana legalization to the state. The move comes as two groups are working to put legalization initiatives on the 2016 ballot.

Ohio Ballot Board Revises Legalization Initiative Ballot Language to Remove "Misleading" Characterizations. On orders from the state Supreme Court to fix "misleading" ballot language after ResponsibleOhio challenged the original version, the state Ballot Board has revised its ballot wording to describe the initiative. The ballot title, which ResponsibleOhio had also challenged, will, however, stand. It reads: "Grants a monopoly for the commercial production and sale of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes." The campaign had challenged the use of "monopoly" and would have preferred "personal" instead of "recreational" use.

Ohio ACLU Endorses ResponsibleOhio Initiative. The ACLU of Ohio is getting behind the controversial legalization initiative because it would "begin to move our state away from senseless, wasteful drug prohibition toward a system that is supervised, safe, efficient, legal, and operating under regulatory oversight," the group said.

Washington State Teens Do Not Face Felonies for Marijuana Possession. After reports last week that an eastern Washington prosecutor had charged three teens with felonies for marijuana possession, saying that a new law designed to regulate medical marijuana demanded the charges, the air has cleared. The new law, Senate Bill 5052, does not require that teens be charged with felonies for possessing less than 40 grams, and the prosecutor has now dropped the felony charges. Interesting take on all this at the title link.

Medical Marijuana

Feds Indict Union Organizer on Corruption Charges. Dan Rush, marijuana industry organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), was indicted on federal corruption, attempted extortion, and money laundering charges in Oakland last Thursday. Rush is accused of using his position "to obtain money and other things" over a five-year period. He is accused of taking kickbacks from an attorney for referring medical marijuana business clients to him and of accepting $550,000 in debt forgiveness from a dispensary operator (who was also acting as an FBI informant at the time). Rush and his attorneys have denied the charges.

Connecticut Dispensaries Move a Step Nearer. The state Department of Consumer Protection announced last Friday that it has received 19 new applications for dispensaries in response to its June request. Three dispensaries will be selected to operate in New Haven or Fairfield counties.

Florida Initiative Organizers Say They Have Half a Million Signatures. The United for Care campaign to put medical marijuana on the ballot last year reports that it has already gathered 500,000 signatures. They need 683,149 valid voter signatures by February 1 to qualify. This is the same group that was behind the 2014 medical marijuana initiative, which garnered 58% of the vote, but came up short because constitutional amendments require 60% to pass.

Heroin and Prescription Opiates

Hillary Clinton Would Take War on Heroin Beyond US Borders. In an interview with WMUR radio in New Hampshire, the Democratic presidential contender said she would take the fight against heroin beyond the US border if necessary. "I think you have to," responded Clinton. "This has to be a comprehensive strategy. And we know that this cheap heroin that is killing so many people is coming across our border." Interdiction and eradication have long been favorite drug war strategies, but have not proven very effective.

Drug Testing

South Dakota Tribal Chairman Gets Job Back After Drug Testing Brouhaha. Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Tribal Chairman Bruce Renville was reinstated last Friday after being suspended for imposing drug testing on all tribal employees. In his zeal to get a grip on alcohol and drug abuse on the reservation, Renville went beyond the letter of the law. Employees who tested positive will not be punished.

Law Enforcement

Chuck Schumer Calls on DEA to Crack Down on China Drug Websites. Responding to concerns over synthetic cannabinoids, the New York Democrat is calling on the DEA to form a special unit to identify Chinese websites doing bulk sales of new psychoactive substances and ban credit card companies from doing business with them. "By simply telling the credit card companies not to deal with these sites, we can shut them down," Schumer said. "When you buy a synthetic drug, you give a credit card number. You can go on your iPhone right now and pull up some of these websites. They say 'We take Visa.' Visa would no longer take them. None of the credit card companies would take them. We could strangle them."

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays 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: CO Pot Tax Holiday, Toledo Decriminalizes, So Does South Palm Beach (Sort Of), More (9/16/15)

Marijuana, marijuana, marijuana. It's almost all pot news today, from Colorado taxes to decrim in Toledo and South Palm Beach, to a new federal bill aimed at ending DEA funding of marijuana eradication, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Congressmen Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Eliminate DEA Marijuana Eradication Program. US Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Justin Amash (R-MI) today filed a bill that would end the DEA's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. That program funds state and local law enforcement efforts to find and destroy marijuana grow sites. The bill would bar the use of such funds for that purpose. It's not yet available on the congressional website.

Colorado Becomes First State to See Marijuana Tax Revenues Exceed Alcohol Tax Revenues. In the past fiscal year, the state took in $70 million in marijuana taxes, far above the $42 million it got from taxes on alcohol.

Colorado Pot Tax Holiday Today. Because of a quirk in state law, the state must suspend collecting marijuana taxes today. The state underestimated total state tax collections in 2014, which results in the automatic suspension of "new" taxes, such as those imposed on marijuana under legalization there. Pot shops expect big crowds. The taxes return tomorrow.

Toledo Decriminalization Measure Passes Overwhelmingly. Voters approved the Sensible Toledo decriminalization ordinance by a margin of more than two to one. The ordinance would eliminate jail time and fines for possession of up to 200 grams of marijuana. Current municipal ordinances make possession of up to 100 grams a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and possession of up to 200 grams a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail. Under Ohio state law, possession of up to 100 grams is decriminalized.

West Palm Beach Approves Ordinance Giving Police Possession Ticket Option.The city council Tuesday night approved an ordinance giving police the option of issuing $100 fines instead of misdemeanor charges against people caught with 20 grams or less of weed. The move is part of a South Florida trend toward de facto decriminalization.

Medical Marijuana

Iowa Activists Use Primary Attention to Pressure Candidates. The advocacy group Iowans 4 Medical Cannabis is taking advantage of the state's early presidential primary and the attention it generates to pressure presidential candidates to stand up for medical marijuana. The group has developed a questionnaire it plans to deliver to all the candidates. "Moms and dads across America want to know what presidential candidates are proposing to help the sick and suffering obtain medical cannabis, a proven plant that is made by God," said Maria La France, a Des Moines mother whose 14-year-old son Quincy has epilepsy.

International

In India's Punjab, Half of All Prisoners Are Drug Offenders. Of the 26,000 inmates behind bars in Punjab, 47% have either been convicted or are awaiting trial under the country's Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. The crush of drug inmates is overwhelming jails in the state, which have an official capacity of 19,000. Many of the drug inmates are considered "addicts," and many of the state prisons have become "de-addiction centers."

How to Deal With New Psychoactive Substances? [FEATURE]

This story was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

In recent years, we've been inundated with wave after wave of media panics over strange new drugs. First came "fake weed" (or as NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton called it last week, "weaponized marijuana"); then came "bath salts," with the infamous face-eating episode that wasn't; and most recently, "flakka," labeled as "$5 insanity" by one media outlet.

mephedrone (wikimedia.org)
These new (to the recreational drug market) substances mimic the effects of currently illegal drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines, or ecstasy. The states and Congress have rushed to address the drugs by prohibiting them, but that has proven to be a game of cat and mouse, with innovative chemists and manufacturers replacing banned drugs with new variants faster than politicians can act.

"In recent years, lawmakers have moved to ban wave after wave of NPSs, only to see more emerge," said Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "All 50 states have passed laws against synthetic cannabinoids and cathinones, and federally, there are 26 unique compounds under Schedule I. And the DEA, which has legal authority to criminalize drugs administratively, has banned more than two dozen. These laws take time, which allows manufacturers to create new compounds."

Not only is the prohibitionist reflex ineffective, it arguably increases the harms associated with the use of these drugs. But to ignore them or ban them aren't the only policy choices, and some advocates are calling for these novel substances to instead be controlled and regulated. One model they point to is New Zealand, which instead of banning "legal highs," moved to regulate them in 2013.

New Psychoactive Substances

Before turning to policy options, though, it's worth a moment to figure out just exactly what we're talking about when we talk about "new synthetic drugs," and why maybe that isn't the best term to use to describe these substances.

In a conference call organized by the Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates for regulation over prohibition, Earth and Fire Erowid, the administrators of the Erowid drug information web site -- "Documenting the complex relationship between humans and psychoactives" -- tried to bring some rigor to a domain where science too often gets lost in the distortions of moral panic.

"Synthetic drugs is a term used to imply scary new street drugs," said Earth Erowid. "But nearly all pharmaceutical drugs are synthetic, whether they're cannabinoids, opioids, stimulants, or sedatives. You don't want to use the phrase 'synthetic drugs' unless you're talking about every pharmaceutical developed over the past 50 years."

"A more accurate and appropriate term is "new psychoactive substances," he said. "That's the standard term in Europe."

NPSs can be grouped into some general categories, based on the effects they seek to replicate, the Erowids said:

synthetic cannabinoids (wikimedia.org)
Replacement Cannabinoids. Sometimes sold as powders, sometimes sprinkled on herbal blends. These are not cannabis, but new synthetic cannabinoid receptor agonists. The specific compounds include JWH 018 and AB-PINACA, among many others. Several of these have been associated with death and serious medical complications.

Replacement Euphoric Stimulants. These include cathinones like methedrone, MDPV ("bath salts"), and Alpha PDP ("flakka"), as well as compounds related to Ritalin.

Replacement Psychedelics. The best known are the NBOMe series ("N-Bomb"). They are often distributed on blotters, and many people who think they're buying LSD are getting this. The NBOMe class has been linked to about 20 deaths.

Replacement Dissociatives. These are PCP-like chemicals, including various ketamine variants and methoxetamine.

Replacement Opioids. These include chemicals such as AH 7921 and U4770.

The Drug Policy Alliance has a similar, if not quite identical, taxonomy here.

The deaths and other adverse reactions that have been linked to NPSs have occurred under regimes of either prohibition or its opposite -- no regulation. "Legal highs" were just that, NPSs yet to be banned but lacking any sort of reliable labeling or quality control. Many formerly "legal highs" are now illegal, but the harm continues, and new NPSs continue to come on the market, legal until the politicians get to work.

"There's a reason for that, said Earth Erowid. "People are looking for legal replacements for illegal drug effects," he explained. "Most people simply want a stimulant or a psychedelic, and they're willing to try anything if it's legal."

"That may hold true for "fake marijuana" users than other NPS users," said Joseph Palamar, an assistant professor in the Department of Population Health at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

"Synthetic marijuana users have different profiles from other NPS users," he said "They are resorting to using it as a legal replacement for marijuana as a means of avoiding arrest, especially minorities. Other NPS users, especially clubbers and ravers, may be taking them unwittingly, Palamar added, pointing a finger especially at "Molly," which is supposed to be pure MDMA in powder form, but often isn't.

"Molly is the biggest system of unintentional NPS use that ever came around," said Palamar. "A lot of the drug users, especially Molly users, are unknowingly taking NPSs.

(The Erowids helpfully pointed out that there are a number of web sites where users can submit their Molly for testing, including one they run at EcstasyData.org.)

What's in your ecstasy tablet? (pillreporter.org)
There are other options for dealing with NPSs beyond the extremes of prohibition on the one hand and laissez-faire on the other. In some cases, it may be politically feasible to simply legalize the currently prohibited drug they are imitating.

Roger Goodman, chairman of the Washington state House Public Safety Committee and senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said that legalizing weed is a start.

"By legalizing marijuana, we have no problem with synthetic marijuana," said Goodman. "No one wants to use that. We have a rational regulatory approach. Prohibition is in the past for us. Marijuana is a good first step for us. We know better than to impose prohibition and outlaw any particular substance."

Legalizing marijuana more widely could put a real dent in the synthetic cannabinoids market, but there is no immediate prospect for legalizing drugs such as meth, cocaine, and the psychedelics and putting a dent in the market for other NPSs that way. That means if we're not going to prohibit them and we're not going to ignore them, we're going to have to regulate them.

That's what New Zealand did with its 2013 law, which transformed unregulated "legal highs" into regulated "legal highs" sold with labels at established stores. Drug makers were required to submit their products for testing and labeling before they could be approved for legal sale.

"I really look to the New Zealand law," said Goodman. "It provided for licensing and testing, and it got rid of the criminal actors. It seemed like a very rational way to go."

"That model would encourage manufacturers to make safer products," DPA's Smith concurred.

But, alas, the New Zealand law is no more. It was overturned and replaced with a more prohibitionist retrenchment a year later amidst complaints that drug users were getting high and hanging around the dope shops like winos in front of liquor stores. That is a lesson for legalizers (or regulators) here. Not only are progressive drug reforms difficult to enact, they also sometimes require a strong defense.

Chronicle AM: Study Supports Prescription Heroin, States Want Feds Out of MJ Policies, More (8/06/15)

The DEA admits the screamingly obvious, the National Council of State Legislatures tells the feds to let states set their own pot policies, another South Florida community decriminalizes, and more.

Prescription heroin. A new study says it is a useful treatment for some addicts. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Finally, DEA Head Admits Heroin More Dangerous Than Marijuana. Former DEA chief Michele Leonhart just couldn't wrap her head around that notion, and her successor, Chuck Rosenberg, was struggling last week, when he conceded that marijuana is "probably not" as bad as heroin. But Wednesday, Rosenberg came clean, admitting that "heroin is clearly more dangerous than marijuana."

National Council of State Legislatures Passes Motion Calling for Feds to Butt Out of State Marijuana Laws. The resolution passed today declares that states should have the right to set their own marijuana and hemp policies. "States are increasingly serving as laboratories for democracy by adopting a variety of policies regarding marijuana and hemp," the preamble says, adding that "the federal government cannot force a state to criminalize cultivating, possessing, or distributing marijuana or hemp -- whether for medical, recreational, industrial, or other uses -- because doing so would constitute unconstitutional commandeering." Click on the link to read the resolution.

Arizona Legalization Initiative Has Already Gathered 50,000 Signatures. The Marijuana Policy Project-backed Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol announced Wednesday that it had already gathered 50,000 signatures to get its legalization initiative on the November 2016 ballot. The group needs 150,000 valid voter signatures by July 2016 to qualify. If gatherers keep up their current pace, they could have 300,000 or so signatures by then. They need a cushion to account for gathered signatures that are invalidated, and that would provide one.

Another South Florida Community Decriminalizes. Hallandale Beach has become the first Broward County city to decriminalize pot possession after commissioners Wednesday night approved the measure. People caught with 20 grams or less will be ticketed and fined $100 instead of being arrested. Miami-Dade County passed a similar measure in July. West Palm Beach and Palm Beach counties are also expected to vote on a similar measure.

Addiction Treatment

Important Study Finds Heroin-Assisted Treatment Benefits Users and Society. A research review published in the British Journal of Psychiatry has found that heroin-assisted treatment (or heroin maintenance) is effective for patients who have not responded to other treatment options, such as residential treatment or methadone. "Heroin-prescribing, as a part of highly regulated regimen, is a feasible and effective treatment for a particularly difficult-to-treat group of heroin-dependent patients," the study concluded.

Chronicle AM: MA Inits Filed, Pill Crackdown Hurts Patients, Yemen War Snarls Drug Trade, More (8/05/15)

Competing legalization initiatives get filed in Massachusetts, pain patients face obstacles amidst the pill mill crackdown, the Yemen war is messing up the peninsular drug trade, and more.

Bags of the popular Middle Eastern amphetamine Captagon seized by Saudi officials. (moj.gov.sa)
Marijuana Policy

Two Competing Groups Filed Massachusetts Legalization Initiatives. Both the Marijuana Policy Project-backed Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts and the local group Bay State Repeal today filed initiatives to legalize marijuana in the state. Bay State Repeal actually filed three versions of its initiative. Click on the organization link to get details on the various proposals.

Medical Marijuana

Leaked Document Shows DOJ Misled Congress on Impact of Medical Marijuana Amendment. In the days before Congress voted to approve an amendment limiting the Justice Department's ability to interfere in medical marijuana states, an internal memo obtained by Tom Angell at Marijuana.com shows that the department tried to mislead Congress by falsely claiming that the amendment could "in effect, limit or possibly eliminate the Department's ability to enforce federal law in recreational marijuana cases as well," according to the document. [Emphasis added.] The memo admits that the DOJ talking points were "intended to discourage passage of the rider," but "do not reflect our current thinking." Click on the link for more.

Under-treatment of Pain

Pill Mill Crackdown Hurting Pain Patients. New Hampshire Public Radio has done a lengthy report on the impact of the pain pill crackdown on pain patients. One patient who moved to Florida reports that his pharmacy runs out of pain medications, and the pharmacy owner reported that pharmaceutical wholesalers will no longer distribute the amount of drugs he needs to serve his clients. There's much more there, too; click the link to read the whole thing.

International

Yemen War Messing Up Arabian Peninsula Drug Traffic. Saudi Arabia's four-month bombing campaign against Houthi rebels is not only killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Yemenis, it's also choking off the supply of Middle Eastern amphetamines and hashish that have been being trafficked across the Yemen-Saudi border. Saudi border guards say the war has shut down trafficking, while Riyadh residents complain that supplies are drying up. The article also provides an overview of drug use in the region; click on the link to get it all.

Chronicle AM: DEA "Fake Heroin" Ban, Canada Salvia Ban, London Laughing Gas Protest, More (8/3/15)

Rand Paul benefits from MPP's largesse, California tax officials eye a pot bank, medical marijuana is okayed for autistic kids in Michigan, Canada moves to ban salvia, Brits hold a laughing protest over a proposed legal highs ban, and more.

Salvia divinorum -- still not a controlled substance in the US, but about to be banned in Canada.
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Policy Project PAC Gives $15,000 to Rand Paul. MPP's PAC has given three $5,000 donations to groups supporting the Kentucky senator and Republican presidential contender's political ambitions, according to midyear Federal Election Commission filings. That makes some sense, given that Paul received the highest grade of any candidate of either party on marijuana policy issues in a recent MPP report. They gave him an A-.

California Tax Officials Want State-Run Marijuana Bank. With an eye toward looming legalization in the Golden State, the state Board of Equalization is signaling its interest in a state-run bank to allow marijuana industry operators to move away from an all-cash business. "We're a big state, and we have very creative minds," said Democratic board member Fiona Ma said at a meeting on the topic she called Friday with fellow board member George Runner. "We lead in many first-in-the-nation initiatives, and I believe we could create some sort of state depository that could handle cash deposits and also be available for the industry to make electronic transfers to make their payments."

Medical Marijuana

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley Stalls Medical Marijuana Bill. A bill that would reschedule marijuana and let states set their own medical marijuana policies has some congressional support, but with only two Republican cosponsors, Rand Paul (KY) and Dean Heller (NV), Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) said the bill was not exactly a priority. "I'm going to wait until I talk to other Republican members," he told Politico.

Florida Poll Has Two-Thirds Supporting Medical Marijuana. A new survey from St. Pete Polls has more than 68% of respondents saying they would vote for a new medical marijuana initiative if it makes the ballot. An effort last year got 58% of the vote, but failed because, as a constitutional amendment, it needed 60% to pass. These poll results strongly suggest it will pass next time around. Click on the link for more poll results.

Veterans With PTSD Line Up for Free Medical Marijuana in Denver Protest. Hundreds of Colorado veterans lined up to receive free medical marijuana products Saturday as part of a protest against the state health board's refusal to include PTSD among conditions treatable by medical marijuana. The protest was organized by Grow4Vets. "We're tired of waiting around for the government to do something to help veterans," cofounder Richard Martin said. "We're losing over 50 American heroes every single day as a result of prescription drug overdose or suicide, and the VA's position up until this point has pretty much been let's just keep them in a drug stupor."

Michigan Panel Okays Medical Marijuana for Autistic Kids. In a 4-2 vote last Friday, the state Medical Marijuana Review Panel okayed medical marijuana for kids with severe forms of autism. Its use must be approved by two doctors, and the kids wouldn't smoke it, but would use it in edible or concentrate form.

Heroin and Prescription Opiates

In Emergency Move, DEA Makes "Fake Heroin" a Schedule I Controlled Substance. The DEA has responded to rising concern from both the medical and law enforcement communities over acetyl fentanyl by temporarily reassigning the substance as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. The compound is related to the prescription painkiller fentanyl and a small amount can produce a euphoric response in users that resembles a high from heroin or oxycodone, which led to it being dubbed "fake heroin."

International

Canada Moves to Ban Salvia Divinorum. The Ministry of Health last Saturday announced new regulatory amendments that would effectively ban salvia divinorum. Once the regulations are published on August 12, the sale or distribution -- but not the possession -- of salvia will be illegal. It will also be scheduled as a controlled substance.

London Laughing Gas Protest. Dozens of demonstrators against the British government's proposed ban on legal highs broke out in giggles last Saturday as they simultaneously inhaled nitrous oxide in laughing protest of the move. "The whole drug laws need looking at," said one demonstrator. "If we are going to have legal tobacco and alcohol with all their side effects, why can't we have legal highs?"

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays 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.)

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