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Chronicle AM: Philippines Prez in Hot Seat Over Bloody Drug War, WV Sees Pot Legalization Bill, More... (3/16/17)

The Philippines' bloody-handed president is facing harsh criticism as the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meets in Vienna, West Virginia gets a marijuana legalization bill, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rolls out a plan to fight opioid addiction and overdoses, and more.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte is under attack at home and abroad over drug war abuses. (The Fix)
Marijuana Policy

West Virginia Legalization Bill Filed. Delegate Sean Hornbuckle (D-Cabell County) introduced House Bill 3035 Tuesday. The bill would tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol. It has been sent to the House Health and Human Resource Committee. If it gets through there, it must then go to the House Judiciary Committee before heading for a House floor vote.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Bill to Ban Edibles, Public Smoking Wins Committee Vote. A bill that would bar medical marijuana patients from consuming edibles or from smoking their medicine in public was approved Wednesday by the House Rules Committee. But the measure, House Bill 1400, faces an uphill battle to win final approval because any changes to the voter-approved medical marijuana law require a two-thirds vote to pass.

Massachusetts Bills Would Protect Patients' Employment Rights. Even as the state Supreme Court Thursday heard a case on employment rights for medical marijuana patients, two bills alive in the state legislature would do just that. Rep. Frank Smizik (D-Brookline) has introduced House Bill 2385, which would explicitlyprotect the rights of a medical marijuana patient to use the drug without facing discrimination in hiring, firing or terms of employment. The bill would also protect medical marijuana patients from discrimination in education, housing and child welfare and custody cases. That bill is currently before the Committee on Marijuana Policy. A similar bill was filed last sessions, but didn't pass. A second bill, House Bill 113, is aimed mostly at updating state law to bring it in line with the Americans With Disabilities Act, but one provision clarifies that employers cannot take adverse employment action against someone for using medical marijuana. That bill is before the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities.

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Bill Gets Charged Hearing. At a hearing in the Judiciary Committee Wednesday, law enforcement, the state attorney general's office, and the state's top doctor all came out in opposition to a medical marijuana bill, Legislative Bill 622, but legislators also heard emotional testimony in favor of the bill from Army veterans and others who said they would benefit from access to medical marijuana. Five of the bill's sponsors sit on the eight-member Judiciary Committee, so the bill is likely to make it to a House floor vote, where opposition has killed similar measures in past years.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

New York City Mayor Reveals Plans to Fight Opioid Addiction. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that the city planned to spend as much as $38 million a year on a broad array of measures aimed at reducing opioid addiction and overdoses. Among the measures mentioned were expanded methadone and buprenorphine treatment, the distribution of the overdose reversal drug naloxone to all 23,000 city patrol officers, a focus on city hospitals on dealing with addiction and overdoses, and increased prosecution of opioid dealers. De Blasio mentioned outreach, treatment, and law enforcement, but not harm reduction.

International

Bolivia Says It Does Not Need US or European Help to Fight Drug Trafficking. Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Lima said Wednesday that his country doesn't need help or advice from the US or Europe on its coca policies or its fight with drug traffickers. "We fight against drug trafficking with Bolivian money, we do not depend on the European Union (EU) to fight against drug trafficking. Before when we depended on the United States, Bolivia received about USD $100 million. We have set aside that aid," he said. Garcia Lima's remarks came in response to European Union criticism of a new Bolivian law nearly doubling legal coca cultivation. The EU suggested that perhaps its aid to Bolivia should be "refocused." Garcia Lima retorted that Bolivia is "not begging money" from the EU.

Philippines Vice-President Condemns Duterte's Drug War. In an interview with Time magazine ahead of a speech set for Thursday at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo condemned President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody drug war and said she was "inspired" by growing opposition to it. She also said she was "encouraged" that the international community is speaking out. "We hope that in the next few months we, together with the international community, can convince the current administration to focus its efforts in ending human-rights violations and extrajudicial killings," she said.  "In addition, let us work together to strengthen the existing accountability mechanisms in the Philippines in order for us to have those responsible brought to justice. We hope that we can persuade the administration to concentrate more on the bigger war we are facing — the war on poverty."

Philippines Lawmaker Files Impeachment Complaint Against Duterte, Cites Drug War Killings. Philippines Rep. Gary Alejano has filed an impeachment complaint against President Rodrigo Duterte, calling for his removal for high crimes, abuses of power, and betrayal of public trust. The complaint lists drug-related murders, the operation of death squads while Duterte was mayor of Davao City, and conflicts of interest among the impeachable offenses. Pro-Duterte lawmakers said the complaint "will not fly," but Alejano was undaunted. ""Our goal with this complaint is to be a vehicle for Filipinos to have a voice to oppose and fight against the abuses and crimes of President Duterte," Alejano told a televised news conference."We know it's an uphill battle ... but we believe that many will support this."

Chronicle AM: PA Auditor General Calls for Legal MJ, NV Public Consumption Bill, More... (3/7/17)

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale comes out for marijuana legalization, citing the tax revenue boost; a bill to limit home cultivation in Colorado advances, the Arizona Senate approves a hemp bill, the Arkansas Senate kills a no-smoking medical marijuana bill, and more.

Pennsylvania's auditor general has reefer dollar signs in his eyes as he calls for legalization. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Bill to Limit Home Cultivation Advances. The House Finance Committee voted Monday to approve House Bill 1220, which would limit home grows to 12 plants. Bill sponsors paint it as an effort to prevent diversion to the illegal market, but medical marijuana patients and advocates testified that it could make it difficult for them to grow enough medicine for their needs.

Nevada Bill to Allow Licenses for Public Events With Pot Consumption Filed. The state's leading pro-marijuana reform politician, Sen. Tick Segerblom (D-Las Vegas) filed Senate Bill 236 Monday. The bill, which is not yet available on the legislative website, would allow local governments to issue licenses for one-off events with public pot consumption, as well as licensing pot shops, bars, or other businesses to allow consumption on-premises. The bill has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Pennsylvania Auditor Endorses Marijuana Legalization, Says State Could Earn Millions. Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (D) said Monday he supported marijuana legalization and that the state could generate $200 million a year in tax revenues from it. "The regulation-and-taxation-of-marijuana train has rumbled out of the station across the United States," DePasquale said at a press conference in the state capitol. "The question is whether Pennsylvania is going to miss its stop."

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Senate Kills Bill to Ban Smoking of Medical Marijuana. The Senate voted 15-10 Monday to reject Senate Bill 357, which would have banned smoking medical marijuana. Bill sponsor Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway) argued smoking is a public health hazard and that smoking marijuana is a recreational use, not a medicinal one, but his colleagues were not buying his argument.

Hemp

Arizona Senate Passes Hemp Legalization Bill. The Senate has approved Senate Bill 1337, which would authorize industrial hemp production, processing, manufacture, distribution, and sales. It also includes language saying the state cannot prevent hemp commerce merely on the grounds that it is federally illegal.

Drug Policy

West Virginia Bill Would Create Drug Policy Office, Track Overdoses. A bill that would create an office to track fatal drug overdoses passed the House last week and heads to the Senate. House Bill 2620 would provide a central data collection point to track overdoses and arrests in the state. That information could be compiled and used as supporting data in research and as the state applies for federal grant money to combat the state's drug abuse epidemic. The bill is only one of many filed to deal with the opioid problem in the state. Click on the link for more.

Chronicle AM: NM Senate on MedMJ & Harm Reduction; Iowa Students Win Speech Case, More... (2/14/17)

Medical marijuana and harm reduction measures advance in New Mexico, a police drug field test kit maker is being sued by a Florida man busted for the glaze on his Krispy Kreme donuts, Idaho considers ending mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and more.

The New Mexico Senate has approved a pair of measures aimed at reducing overdose deaths. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Lieutenant Governor Calls for Decriminalization. Lt. Gov. Ralph Northum (D) called Monday for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, saying enforcement is costly and aimed disproportionately at African-Americans. The move comes weeks after Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City) requested that the Virginia Crime Commission study the issue. That move froze pending decriminalization legislation sponsored by Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria).

Washington State Bill Would Repeal Legalization. Rep. Brad Klippert (R-Kenniwick) has filed House Bill 2096, which would repeal "all laws legalizing the use, possession, sale, or production of marijuana and marijuana-related products." The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Commerce and Gaming.

Wyoming Senate Committee Scales Back Marijuana Sentencing Reforms. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to amend House Bill 197, weakening proposed sentencing reforms by doubling the period during which previous convictions would result in a longer sentence from five years to 10 years. More importantly, the amendment removes the plant form of marijuana from the bill completely, meaning the new tiered sentencing system would apply only to edibles.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Senate Passes Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The Senate voted 29-11 Monday to approve Senate Bill 177, which would expand the state's program by increasing the amount of marijuana patients may possess to five ounces and increasing the number of plants commercial providers can grow. The bill now goes to the House.

Drug Policy

Idaho Bills Would Alter State's Drug Laws. The House Judiciary and Rules Committee voted Monday to introduce a package of three bills that would reform the state's harsh drug laws. One bill would end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and another would bar the seizure of vehicles for simple drug possession and require that property found near drugs be seized only if it is meaningfully connected to the crime. The third bill, however, is a step in the opposite direction -- it would allow heroin sellers to be charged with murder in the event of fatal overdoses.

Drug Testing

Florida Field Drug Test Kit Company Sued By Man Jailed for Possessing Donut Glaze. A Florida man is suing the police field drug test kit manufacturer Safariland LLC after an Orlando police officer using one of its field kits charged him with possessing methamphetamine although the substance being tested was actually the glaze from a Krispy Kreme donut. The drug test is either ineffective or unreliable, Daniel Rushing charges in his lawsuit, twice registering a positive result for meth and resulting in his false arrest and imprisonment before felony charges were dropped.

First Amendment

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Student Drug Legalization Group's Free Speech Rights. The 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday that Iowa State University cannot bar a student group from using the university's logo and mascot on t-shirts calling for the legalization of marijuana. Iowa State NORML had sued in 2014 after the university first gave its okay, but then refused permission after pressure from high-ranking state officials, including the governor's office. Instead, the university suddenly changed its guidelines, with new rules prohibiting designs "that suggest promotion of dangerous, illegal, or unhealthy products." Last year a federal district court filed an injunction prohibiting the school from using its new policy to block NORML from printing new t-shirts, and now the appeals court has upheld that permanent injunction.

Harm Reduction

New Mexico Senate Approves Pair of Harm Reduction Bills. The state Senate Monday overwhelmingly approved two bills aimed at reducing the number of fatal drug overdoses in the state. Senate Bill 47 would improve the state's 911 Good Samaritan law to include alcohol overdoses and eliminate the prospect of criminal liability for violating drug laws while seeking medical assistance for an overdose. Senate Bill 16 would require health care providers to counsel patients on the risk of overdose and to offer prescriptions for the overdose reversal drug naloxone. The bills now go to the House.

International

Trump Administration Accuses Venezuela VP of Drug Smuggling. The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami, accusing him of being an international drug kingpin. Treasury said that El Aissimi facilitated drug trafficking in his previous post of Aragua state. The Treasury Department placed him on a list reserved for "specially designated narcotics traffickers," part of what's known as the Kingpin Act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Medical Marijuana

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

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

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

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

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

Kratom

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

Collateral Consequences

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

Harm Reduction

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

Chronicle AM: Asset Forfeiture Actions in Three States, Trump Kratom Petition Needs Signatures, More... (1/5/17)

It's going to cost big bucks to get into the Arkansas medical marijuana growing business, a petition urging Donald Trump not to let the DEA ban kratom seeks signatures, there is asset forfeiture action in three states, and more.

The American Kratom Association is petitioning Donald Trump to block any ban on the herb. (Project CBD)
Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Sets Grower License Fee at $100,000. People who want one of the five commercial medical marijuana cultivation licenses the state is preparing to issue better have deep pockets. The Medical Marijuana Commission has set an annual fee of $100,000 for those licenses. But wait, there's more: That's in addition to a $15,000 application fee, only half of which will be refunded if the application is rejected. And applicants must show proof they have a million dollars in assets or surety bond and $500,000 in cash. One commission member argued for a lower, $15,000 license fee, saying he didn't want some residents to be shut out of the opportunity, but that move didn't fly.

Kratom

Less Than Three Weeks Remain to Sign Trump Kratom Petition. The American Kratom Association has organized a petition urging President-elect Donald Trump to halt the DEA's effort to criminalize kratom or to reverse any last-minute ban that might occur under the Obama administration. The group has set a target of 25,000 signatures before January 22, but only has 8,000 so far.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Ohio Governor Signs Naloxone Expansion Bill. Gov. John Kasich (R) has signed into law Senate Bill 319, which expands access to the anti-overdose drug naloxone to entities such as homeless shelters, halfway houses, schools, and treatment centers that deal with populations at higher risk of overdose. It also offers civil immunity to law enforcement officers who carry and use naloxone.

Asset Forfeiture

Kansas Bill Would Undo Police Asset Forfeiture Reporting Requirements. The first bill introduced in the 2017 legislative session, Senate Bill 1, would repeal a state law requiring law enforcement agencies to file annual reports on the money and other assets they seize. The bill is the creation of the Legislative Committee on Post Audit, which filed a report last summer noting that few police agencies comply with the reporting requirements, so the committee's solution was to kill the requirement. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website. The session starts next week.

Michigan Bill Would Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture. State Rep. Peter Lucido (R-Macomb County) has introduced House Bill 4629, which would reform the state's forfeiture laws by killing a provision that requires property owners whose property is seized to pay 10% of what police feel it is worth within 20 days to get the property back. Lucido said that the next step is getting rid of civil asset forfeiture. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website.

Ohio Governor Signs Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. John Kasich (R) has signed into House Bill 347, which limits civil asset forfeiture proceedings to cases involving at least $15,000 in cash and requires a criminal conviction or at least a criminal charge be filed in most cases before forfeiture proceedings can begin.

Chronicle AM: Maine Init Losers Still Fighting, New Cartel Gains Strength in MX, More... (12/29/16)

Maine election losers seek to block the implementation of marijuana legalization, Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel is being overtaken by an upstart, and more.

With El Chapo behind bars, the Sinaloa Cartel is being overtaken by rivals.
Marijuana Policy

Sore Losers Department: Maine Marijuana Foes Now Seek Moratorium on Implementing Legalization. The anti-legalization group Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, whose effort to defeat the marijuana initiative failed and whose effort to overturn the results via a recount also failed, is now calling for a moratorium on implementing the law. The law calls for a nine-month period for regulators to make rules for retailers and social clubs, but the group says that isn't enough.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Michigan Overdose Reversal Drugs Will Be Easier to Obtain Next Week. Thanks to bills signed into law Wednesday, Michiganders will have easier access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) beginning January 1. One bill allows pharmacists to dispense the drug without a prescription under a standing order from the state's chief medical officer. Another bill gives school boards the ability to get a prescription for naloxone to be administered by a school nurse or other trained employee in case a student overdoses.

International

DEA Says There's a New Biggest Cartel in Mexico. The days of Sinaloa Cartel dominance of the Mexican drug trade and criminal underworld are over, and "El Chapo" Guzman's men have been ousted by a relatively new player on the scene: the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG in its Spanish initials), the DEA says. The group operates in at least half of Mexico's states, as well as along the entire Pacific Coast of North and South America, as well as having distribution operations in Asia, Oceania, and Europe.

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.

Powerful Coalition is Building Pressure on Feds to Think Again on Kratom Ban [FEATURE]

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

In a last ditch bid to stop the DEA from criminalizing an herb widely hailed for its ability to treat pain, depression, and anxiety, and help people wean themselves from more dangerous opioid pain relievers, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to the agency Monday asking it to reconsider its decision to place kratom on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

Kratom is headed for Schedule I (Creative Commons/Wikipedia)
Kratom is a southeast Asian herb made from the leaves of Mitragyna speciose, a tree related to the coffee plant. In small doses, it has a mild stimulant effect, but in larger doses, it acts like a mild opioid. To be precise, the DEA has moved to criminalize not the herb itself, but two alkaloids, mitragynine and 7-hydroxmitragynine, which activate opioid receptors in the brain.

Last month, the DEA exercised its emergency scheduling powers in announcing that it was moving kratom to Schedule I, effective at the end of this week. The drug agency said kratom poses "an imminent hazard to public safety," citing only press reports of some 15 deaths linked to kratom use. But in at least 14 of those cases, the victims were also using other drugs or had pre-existing life-threatening conditions. (Meanwhile, some 25,000 people died of prescription drug overdoses last year.)

Kratom users, who could number in the millions, immediately raised the alarm, organizing campaigns to undo the decision and lobbying Congress for help. That's what sparked Monday's letter from 51 lawmakers, including 22 Republicans.

"This significant regulatory action was done without any opportunity for public comment from researchers, consumers, and other stakeholders," reads the letter, drafted by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Matt Salmon (R-AZ). "This hasty decision could have serious effects on consumer access and choice of an internationally recognized herbal supplement."

Given the ongoing high level of heroin and prescription opioid use and the associated overdose deaths, he DEA was hypocritical in mounting a campaign against kratom, the lawmakers said.

"The DEA's decision to place kratom as a Schedule I substance will put a halt on federally funded research and innovation surrounding the treatment of individuals suffering from opioid and other addictions -- a significant public health threat," they wrote.

The lawmakers called on DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg to delay the emergency scheduling and instead "engage consumers, researchers, and other stakeholders, in keeping with well-established protocol for such matters."

Since first emerging in the US a few years ago, kratom has been unregulated at the federal level, although the Food & Drug Administration began seizing shipments of it in 2014. At the state level, a half dozen states have entertained moves to ban it, but such efforts failed in all except Alabama. In other states, kratom advocates have managed to turn bans into regulation, with age restrictions and similar limits.

Kratom capsules (Creative Commons/Wikipedia)
A ban on kratom would be disastrous, said Susan Ash, founder of the American Kratom Association. Ash said she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2006 and ended up essentially disabled under the weight of 13 different prescriptions, including opioids, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines (to counter the opioids and the benzos). She became addicted to the opioids and finally tried kratom as a last resort.

"I didn't really want to have anything to do with a plant, but I decided to try it, and it worked day and night," she said Tuesday. "Within two weeks, I went from home bound to starting this organization."

With the kratom ban looming, her members are facing "our darkest hour," Ash said. "Our average member is a middle-aged woman, about 40% of whom have experienced addition, and tens of thousands of them are using it as an alternative to pharmaceutical medications because they believe it is safer and more natural. Now, people are saying they are going to lose their quality of life, that they will be re-disabled. People are terrified. What we need is regulation, not prohibition."

"Despite the moral, political, and scientific consensus that drug use and addiction are best treated as public health issues, the DEA wants to subject people with kratom to prison sentences," said Jag Davies, director of communications strategy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which is also fighting the ban. "The DEA's move would also effectively halt promising scientific investigations into the plant's uses and medicinal benefits, including helping many people struggling with opioid addiction."

The scientific studies are promising indeed. Researchers at Columbia University just published a study on kratom alkaloids and found that they activate opioid receptors in a way that doesn't trigger respiratory depression, the lethal side effect of most opioids. Such research could lead to the "holy grail" of narcotic analgesics, a painkiller that doesn't kill users and doesn't get them addicted.

"Our research shows that mitragynine and its analogs activate the opioid receptors in a unique way compared to morphine or oxycodone," said Dr. Andrew Kruegel, one of the Columbia researchers. "They activate a certain protein pathway while avoiding other pathways, and that gives you a better safety profile, mostly for respiratory depression. The scientific data is consistent with an improved safety profile from the alkaloids and suggestive of the same with the raw plant," he explained.

"This new prohibition will really restrict our ability to purse new opioid painkillers based on alkaloids and new safer drugs for pain," Kruegel said.

And then some, DPA's Davies added.

"Placing kratom in Schedule I would place regulatory and funding barriers in front of research, drive users into the black market, and leave them facing lengthy prison terms," he said. "It's troubling that the DEA is moving hastily to criminalize kratom at the same time Congress and the president have been made sentencing reform a priority this year and when communities are grappling with unprecedented rates of heroin and opioid overdoses, the DEA is threatening to punish people for using it instead of potent pharmaceutical preparations. Kratom has a role to play in mitigating the opioid crisis."

But not if the DEA refuses to budge from its ban plan. If the DEA cannot be moved, kratom is illegal as of this coming Friday.

Chronicle AM: OR Top Cops Want Defelonization, SC County Wants to Jail Overdosers, More... (9/27/16)

NORML updates its congressional scorecard, Bay State legalizers cry foul over a misleading voter guide, the number of babies suffering from opioid withdrawals has jumped dramatically, Oregon top cops want to defelonize simple drug possession, and more.

Oregon sheriffs and police chiefs jointly call for defelonizing simple drug possession. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

NORML Releases Updated and Revised 2016 Congressional Scorecard. To mark national Voter Registration Day, NORML has released its updated and revised guide to members of Congress. The guide gives letter grades to our representatives based on the comments and voting records. Only 22 of the 535 senators and congressmen got "A" grades, while 32 members got an "F" grade.

Massachusetts Legalizers Cry Foul Over State-Issued Voter Guide. Campaigners behind the Question 4 legalization initiative say a state-issued guide sent to voters across the state inaccurately describes the fiscal consequences of the measure. The guide says they are "difficult to project due to lack of reliable data" and cites a report from a committee headed by a top opponent of legalization to the effect that taxes and fee revenues from legal marijuana sales "may fall short of even covering the full public and social costs. The Yes on 4 campaign points out that there is "reliable data" from legal marijuana states and that those states have easily covered administrative and other expenses.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Study: Number of Babies Born Suffering Withdrawal Symptoms More Than Doubles in Four Years. Researchers studying neonatal abstinence syndrome, which results from withdrawal from opioids to which fetuses were exposed in utero, report that the incidence of the syndrome has jumped from 2.8 cases per thousand live births in 2009 to 7.3 cases in 2013. At least some of the surge may be a result of drug policies aimed at cracking down on prescription drug use. "The drug policies of the early 2000s were effective in reducing supply -- we have seen a decrease in methamphetamine abuse and there have been reductions in some aspects of prescription drug abuse," said lead study author Dr. Joshua Brown. "However, the indirect results, mainly the increase in heroin abuse, were likely not anticipated and we are just starting to see these." The researchers also noted wide variations by state, from 0.7 cases per thousand in Hawaii to 33.4 cases in West Virginia.

New Psychoactive Substances

Bill to Criminalize More New Synthetics Passes House. A bill sponsored by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-TX) to add several new synthetic cannabinoids and opioids to the Controlled Substances Act passed the House Monday. The measure, HR 3537, now goes to the Senate.

Law Enforcement

Oregon Law Enforcement Calls for Defelonizing Drug Possession. The Oregon Association of Police Chiefs and the Oregon State Sheriff's Association have jointly called for people caught with "user amounts" of illegal drugs to face misdemeanor charges -- not felonies -- and be sent to treatment. Elected officials and prosecutors should "craft a more thoughtful approach to drug possession when it is the only crime committed," the top cops said, because felony charges "include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities."

South Carolina County Ponders Mandatory Jail Time for People Who Overdose. The chairman of the county council in Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, has inquired during a council meeting about whether to make people who suffer opioid overdoses spend three days in jail. Chairman Mark Lazarus would also like to see mandatory drug treatment required. He added that jailing people who overdose wouldn't discourage them from getting medical help because they're usually unconscious and someone else calls for emergency assistance.

Seattle Aims to Open the First Safe Injection Sites in the US [FEATURE]

Seattle and surrounding King County are on a path to establish the country's first supervised drug consumption sites as part of a broader campaign to address heroin and prescription opioid misuse. A 99-page report released last week by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force calls for setting up at least two of the sites, one in the city and one in the suburbs, as part of a pilot project.

The facilities, modeled on the Canadian government-funded InSite supervised injection site in Vancouver, just 140 miles to the north, would be places where users could legally inject their drugs while under medical supervision and be put in contact with treatment and other social services. There have been no fatal overdoses in the 13-year history of InSite.

Although such facilities, which also operate in various European countries and Australia, have been proven to reduce overdose deaths and drug use-related disease, improve local quality of life, and improve the lives of drug users, they remain controversial, with foes accusing them of "enabling" drug use. Thus, the report refers to them not as "safe injection sites," or even "supervised consumption sites," but as the anodyne "Community Health Engagement Locations" (CHELs).

"If it's a strategy that saves lives then regardless of the political discomfort, I think it is something we have to move forward," said County Executive Dow Constantine, discussing the plan at a news conference last week.

The safe sites will address the region's high levels of opioid and heroin use, or what the task force called "the region's growing and increasingly lethal heroin and opioid epidemic." As the task force noted, the number of fatal overdoses in the county has tripled in recent years, with the rate of death rising from roughly one a week (49) in 2009 to one very other day (156) in 2014. The current wave of opioid use appears centered on young people, with the number of people under 30 seeking treatment doubling between 2006 and 2014, and now, more young people are entering detox for heroin than for alcohol.

Outside Vancouver's InSite (vch.ca)
Overdose deaths actually dropped last year to 132, thanks to Good Samaritan laws that shield people who aid overdose victims from prosecution and to the wider use of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. But that's still 132 King County residents who needn't have died. Task force members said the CHELs would help reduce that number even further.

"The heroin epidemic has had a profound effect not just on our region, but across our country as a whole," said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. "It is critical that we not only move forward with meaningful solutions that support prevention and treatment, but that we remove the stigma surrounding addiction that often creates barriers to those seeking help.

Not only are key local elected officials on board, so is King County Sheriff John Urquhart. He said the safe site plan was workable.

"As long as there was strong, very strong, emphasis on education, services, and recovery, I would say that yes, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks," he said. "We will never make any headway in the war on drugs until we turn the war into a health issue."

The region may willing to embrace this ground-breaking harm reduction measure, but it is going to require some sort of federal dispensation to get around the Controlled Substances Act and the DEA. How that is going to happen remains to be seen, but Seattle is ready.

The task force wasn't just about CHELs. In fact, the safe sites are just a small, if key, component of a broad-based, far-ranging strategy to attack the problem. The task force report's recommendations come in three categories:

Inside Vancouver's InSite (vch.ca)
Primary Prevention

  • Increase public awareness of effects of opioid use, including overdose and opioid-use disorder.
  • Promote safe storage and disposal of medications.
  • Work with schools and health-care providers to improve the screening practices and better identify opioid use.

Treatment Expansion and Enhancement

  • Make buprenorphine more accessible for people who have opiate-use disorders.
  • Develop treatment on demand for all types of substance-use disorders.Increase treatment capacity so that it’s accessible when and where someone is ready to receive help.

Health and Harm Reduction

  • Continue to distribute more naloxone kits and making training available to homeless service providers, emergency responders and law enforcement officers.
  • Create a three-year pilot project that will include at least two locations where adults with substance-use disorders will have access to on-site services while safely consuming opioids or other substances under the supervision of trained healthcare providers.

Will Seattle and King County be able to actual implement the CHELs? Will the federal government act as obstacle or facilitator? That remains to be seen, but harm reductionists, policymakers, and drug users in cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and New York will be watching closely. There have been murmurs about getting such sites up and running there, too.

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