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Chronicle Interview: A Conversation With New DPA Head Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno [FEATURE]

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

Led by Ethan Nadelmann since its formation 17 years ago, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has been the most influential drug reform organization in the country, with a hand in advancing the causes not only of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but of drug law reform more broadly, in all its manifestations and intersectionality.

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno (Drug Policy Alliance)
Thanks in good part to Nadelmann's vision and the efforts of DPA -- and its campaign and lobbying arm, the Drug Policy Action Network -- in state houses and court houses, in Congress and the executive branch, in media outreach and educational campaigns, the drug laws in America have changed for the better. Pot has gone mainstream, the mass incarceration mania of the Reaganite drug war (abetted by too many Democrats) has broken, sensible and life-saving harm reduction measures are spreading.

But now Nadelmann is gone -- at least as director or staff -- and DPA and the drug reform community face a Trump administration apparently intent on reviving and revitalizing the worst of drug war practices from the last century. Nadelmann's successor not only has big shoes to fill, but also faces reactionary impulses in Washington.

That successor is Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, holder of a law degree from New York University School of Law and for the past 13 years Co-Director of the US Program for Human Rights Watch (HRW), where she picked up plenty of domestic drug policy experience. There, she managed a team that fights against racial discrimination in law enforcement, punitive sentencing, and deportation policies that tear families apart -- all issues inextricably intertwined with the war on drugs.

The bilingual McFarland Sánchez-Moreno grew up in Peru and spent her early years at HRW researching Colombia, where drug profits helped fuel a decades-long civil war and corroded governmental legitimacy through corruption. That sharpened her awareness of the need for social justice and drug policy reform. She also pushed for the group to more directly take on the war on drugs as a human rights issue, and as a result, HRW became the first major international human rights organization to call for drug decriminalization and global drug reform. [Ed: McFarland's help and advice made it possible for Human Rights Watch to endorse our UNGASS sign-on statement.]

She is regularly quoted and published in national and international media, has testified before Congress on multiple occasions and has extensive experience advocating with US congressional offices, the White House, and the Departments of State, Justice and Defense. She recently authored a non-fiction book, There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia, which will be published by Nation Books in February 2018.

Now, McFarland Sánchez-Moreno turns to drug reform as her primary remit, at the head of an organization with a $15 million budget; offices in California, Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, DC; a considerable cadre of experienced and talented professionals; and a well-earned reputation for being able to make drug reform actually happen. Drug War Chronicle spoke with McFarland Sánchez-Moreno on Friday about what lies ahead.

Drug War Chronicle: You're about to head the most powerful drug reform group on the planet. What is it about you and your experience that makes you the person for this job?

Mass incarceration is a drug policy issue. (nadcp.org)
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: I don't know that I'm the right person to ask about that, but I will say I have been passionate about drug policy for a long time; it cuts across many of the social justice issues that I've been involved with throughout my career, starting in Colombia documenting atrocities committed by armed groups who were overwhelmingly financed by illicit drugs and for whom trafficking was their reason for existing. I came to realize that if you got rid of the illicit market, you could do serious damage to those groups.

And that continued in my work at HRW's US Program, covering issues like criminal justice and immigration, where you see so many vast problems in this country that are strongly linked to the war on drugs. From mass incarceration to large-scale deportations, a lot of it is people getting convicted of low-level drug offenses. And this also connects to a fundamental matter of justice: People shouldn't face prison time for choices about what they put in their bodies, absent harm to others.

Drug War Chronicle: Does your selection suggest that DPA is going to be even more internationally focused than it is now?

McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It's too early to say whether we will invest more internationally, but our main focus has to be domestic. We're a national organization with offices in many states, and we want to build on that strength. There's plenty of work to do right here, so we will remain focused on the US. While there is an argument to be made for the importance of international work, you don't need to worry about us shifting away from the home front.

Drug War Chronicle: What are some of the key global drug policy challenges? And where do you see opportunities for positive change?

McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: Both domestically and internationally, there's real momentum around drug reform. After Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala called for an international discussion of drug policy, which led to last year's UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, the nature of the debate around drugs began to change, and we're seeing real openness to reform in many countries. At the same time, in places like the Philippines or Indonesia, you see serious backsliding, with large scale killings in the name of fighting the war on drugs in the former and use of the death penalty in the latter. And in places like Mexico and Central America, we're seeing very serious violence related to drug prohibition.

The international situation is complex: There are some openings, some room for progress -- and when you have countries like Portugal and Uruguay moving toward reform and potentially setting good examples, that's something to point to here at home -- but we still have very, very serious problems associated with the war on drugs that we need to monitor and speak up about.

Drug War Chronicle: Here in the U.S., it's sort of a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, we have medical marijuana in 29 states, pot decriminalization in 13 or 14, and legalization in eight, with more likely to come in the next year or so. We have state legislatures enacting sentencing reforms and asset forfeiture reforms. At the same time, we have the Trump administration apparently leading federal drug policy down a retrograde prohibitionist path. How do you assess the overall situation?

The fight for legal marijuana will continue. (Creative Commons)
McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It's similar to the international situation in that there are enormous opportunities for progress around marijuana law reform and harm reduction measures in some places, but we have a federal Justice Department that seems to be intent on doubling down on the war on drugs and using the most draconian measures possible.

All the horrors we're seeing with overdoses is leading many people to do some serious soul-searching about what's the best way to address this problem, so we're seeing some progress on harm reduction measures like access to naloxone, for example. Now, there's room to have some conversations where there wasn't before, such as decriminalizing the possession of all drugs. A few years ago, that would have been a hard conversation to have, but HRW released a report last year calling for it and DPA has just released its own report echoing that call, and there is a real receptiveness in the public to talking about that. We're in a different place now and can make progress at the state and local level.

But that fairly heated rhetoric coming from the attorney general, appealing to people's worst fears and often distorting reality, is a real problem. It's not just about what Sessions says and what policies he adopts at Justice; it's also about that dark narrative starting to take hold, people in other parts of the government thinking its more acceptable to return to those failed policies. It's disturbing to see bills filed that are headed in the wrong direction, like Sen. John Cornyn's (R-TX) Back the Blue Act (Senate Bill 1134). A year ago, he was part of bipartisan sentencing reform. Why is he going the other way now?

And then there's Sen. Dianne Feinstein's Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act (Senate Bill 1237), which would give Sessions the power to schedule new synthetic drugs without any scientific basis. I think having someone who is so extreme in his views at the Department of Justice is a green light for people in other parts of the government to take us in the wrong direction. This is a major challenge for DPA and the drug reform movement in general, and we will be focusing on that right off the bat.

Drug War Chronicle: Let's talk about racial equity. How do we advance that? Whether it's participation in the legal marijuana industry or sentencing policy or consent decrees to rein in police departments, race is implicated.

McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It's all bound up with what's coming out of Washington and the broader policies we're talking about. It's hard to disentangle racial justice issues from some of these other issues. We've been working on drug reforms in New Jersey and New York, and one of our biggest concerns has been to ensure that new reforms have a strong focus on empowering the very communities most damaged by the war on drugs. Making sure drug reforms takes that perspective into account and creates new opportunities for those communities is a critical part of our work.

Sessions backing away from consent decrees, the demonization of Black Lives Matter, and all that is very clearly tied to rhetoric coming from the White House and the Justice Department that is designed to stigmatize groups and lump people who use drugs in with drug dealers, with communities of color, with immigrants. They use that demonizing combination to justify very harsh policies that will be devastating to some of the most vulnerable communities in the country. We have to fight back against that; it's a big part of the story here.

And then there's the impact of the drug war on immigration policy. My colleagues at Human Rights Watch documented how a very large number of immigrants -- and not just undocumented ones -- ended up deported because they had a drug conviction, in many cases from many years back. They are torn apart from their families and often sent to places with which they have little connection, countries where they don't even speak the language. It's not just the deported -- their kids, parents, spouses, sibling, all of them suffer serious consequences. It's cruel and senseless.

It's very clear this administration has made immigration enforcement a top priority. Some very extreme portion of its base really views this as a priority. It's hard to talk to them, but most of the country favors immigration reform, and a very large and increasing number of people understand that using the criminal law when talking about drug use is harmful and makes no sense. If we can make progress on drug reform, we also make progress on immigration by reducing the number of people convicted and exposed to deportation. We have to talk about these issues together and work with immigration reform groups and take them on board in our joint fight.

Chronicle AM: US Lawmakers Rip Duterte, Harris/Paul Senate Bail Reform Bill, More... (7/21/17):

A congressional panel ripped into Philippines President Duterte and his bloody drug war Thursday, Kamala Harris and Rand Paul file a bail reform bill, a South Carolina Republican congressman files a bill to allow drug testing of unemployment applicants, and more.

US Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) at hearing of congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Thursday. (TLHRC)
Marijuana Policy

Maine House Approves Bill Requiring Marijuana Be Tested for Safety. The House on Thursday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would require the state Agriculture Department to set up testing facilities for marijuana before it could be sold. This is the first bill from a special select committee of legislators charged with creating a regulatory regime for legal pot. It goes against the wishes of Gov. Paul LePage (R), who wants the Bureau of Alcoholic Beverages and Lottery Operations to be in charge of all legal marijuana regulations.

Criminal Justice

US Sens. Kamala Harris, Rand Paul File Federal Bail Reform Bill. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act of 2017 on Thursday. The purpose of the bill is "to encourage states to reform or replace the practice of money bail, the requirement that individuals awaiting trial remain in jail unless they pay for their release." Without being able to make bail, people charged -- but not convicted -- with a crime can spend weeks or months behind bars, with devastating consequences for employment, finances, and families. The bill is not yet available on the congressional web site.

Drug Testing

South Carolina Rep Files Federal Unemployment Drug Testing Bill. US Rep. Buddy Carter (R-SC) filed a bill on Thursday that would let states screen unemployment applications for drug use and force them to undergo drug testing in some circumstances. The bill would deny unemployment benefits for 30 days to anyone testing positive for drug use, and a second positive drug test would result in a year-long ban. The bill is not yet available on the congressional website.

International

US Lawmakers Rip Philippines Drug War Abuses. At a hearing of the Congress's Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Thursday, American lawmakers ripped into Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte over drug war abuses, including the killing of thousands of drug suspects, and called on President Trump to condemn Duterte -- and to rescind an invitation to visit the White House. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) said she was "troubled" by the invite, while Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) said he would "lead the protest" if Duterte shows up. "President Duterte, by all accounts, seems to not have a high regard for human rights," McGovern said. "The United States government cannot afford any degree of complicity with the kinds of human rights violations that are occurring," he said. "No other country -- I repeat that, 'no other country' -- comes to mind where people are assassinated on the streets in the name of fighting drugs, and leaders brag about it as a good thing," he added.

UN Says Bolivia Coca Cultivation on the Rise. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has expressed concern about what it says is a 14% increase in land under coca cultivation. "This increase is a concern for us," said UN Drugs and Crime Representative of Bolivia, Antonio De Leo. Bolivian President Evo Morales expressed regret at the report, but noted that much more illicit coca is being grown in Colombia and Peru.

Medical Marijuana Update

A measure that would allow VA docs to issue medical marijuana recommendations advanced in the Senate, Massachusetts' highest court rules in favor of a worker fired for using medical marijuana, and more.

National

Last Thursday, a Senate panel approved medical marijuana for veterans. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to adopt an amendment that would allow military veterans to get medical marijuana recommendations through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bipartisan measure picked up four more votes than last year, when it was approved by the full House, but killed in conference committee.

Massachusetts

On Monday, the state's high court ruled for a woman fired for using medical marijuana. The state Supreme Judicial Court ruled that a woman fired after testing positively for legally recommended medical marijuana can sue her former employer for handicap discrimination. The employer had argued that the use shouldn't be allowed because marijuana remains illegal under federal law, but the high court disagreed. If a doctor concludes medical marijuana is the most effective treatment for a debilitating condition, "an exception to an employer's drug policy to permit its use is a facially reasonable accommodation" and "the fact that the employee's possession of medical marijuana is in violation of federal law does not make it per se unreasonable as an accommodation."

Nevada

On Sunday, medical marijuana patients complained of higher prices after recreational sales began. Medical marijuana patients are complaining of "price gouging" in the wake of the advent of legal recreational marijuana sales in the state. "Our prices have almost doubled in some places," patient Emily Wilson said. Some patients are reportedly resorting to the black market because of high legal prices.

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

Chronicle AM: Vets MedMJ Vets Advances in Senate, Drug War Bill Advances in House, More... (7/13/15)

Congress is dealing with medical marijuana and drug policy issues, legalization advocates call on New Hampshire's governor to kill a marijuana study commission bill, Rhode Island's governor issues an executive order dealing with the state's opioid crisis, and more.

VA docs could recommend medical marijuana for veterans under legislation moving in the Senate (Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska's Largest City Wants Social Consumption at Pot Shops. The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday urged the state Marijuana Control Board to allow tourists and locals to smoke or otherwise consume marijuana at retail stores. The move comes as the board is set to meet in Fairbank later this week. The board is expected to examine several proposals related to consumption in pot shops at that meeting.

Montana Man Challenges State's Standard for Marijuana DUIs. A Billings man facing a vehicular manslaughter charge for an accident while he was allegedly under the influence of marijuana is challenging the state's de jure standard of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood. Kent Roderick Jensen and his attorney argue that the standard is arbitrary and the charge should be dismissed. "There is no science to back up the 5 ng/mL level as a level that indicates impairment in a sizable enough portion of users to make it a standard for everyone," his attorney wrote in a motion seeking dismissal. The judge in the case has heard oral arguments and received written briefs, but has yet to make a decision.

New Hampshire Governor Should Veto Marijuana Study Commission, Reform Advocates Say. Advocates sent a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu (R) asking him to veto House Bill 215, a bill that would create a study commission to consider marijuana legalization and regulation. The letter, which was signed by leading advocates including the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Renny Cushing (D-Hampton), notes that, "The commission envisioned by the final bill includes numerous vocal opponents, such as the Association of Chiefs of Police and New Futures, but it does not include any known supporters." The House version of the bill included a representative of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and a representative from the Marijuana Policy Project, which would have added some balance to the commission, but the Senate removed those prospective members from the bill.

Wisconsin Lawmaker Files Legalization Bill. Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) on Thursday announced she would file a marijuana legalization bill. There are no details on it yet. This would be the fourth time she has filed a similar bill.

Medical Marijuana

US Senate Panel Approves Medical Marijuana for Veterans. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted on Thursday to adopt an amendment that would allow military veterans to get medical marijuana recommendations through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The bipartisan measure picked up four more votes than last year in the committee. Then, it was approved by the full House, but killed in conference committee.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Rhode Island Governor Signs Executive Order Dealing With Opioid Crisis. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) was joined by White House acting drug czar Richard Baum on Thursday as she signed an executive order aimed at curbing the "alarming rate of deaths" due to opioid overdoses. The 18-point order includes directives calling for a family task force on impacts of opioid use, expanded access to "sober" homes for people in recovery, and the creation of diversion programs to keep people out of the criminal justice system, among others.

Drug Policy

House Judiciary Committee Approves Bill that Gives Attorney General Sessions Unchecked Power to Ban New Drugs and Set Criminal Penalties. The committee on Wednesday advanced legislation that greatly expands the penalties for new drugs and gives Attorney General Sessions unilateral new powers to schedule drugs. Opponents warned that the legislation is a counterproductive approach to the opioid crisis that will exacerbate mass incarceration and enable Attorney General Sessions to ban hundreds of substances and prosecute people with long federal prison terms in violation of the new drug laws. The measure is House Resolution 2851, the "Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017," or "SITSA."

International

Colombia's Coca Crop Substitution Program Faces Same Old Obstacles, Report Finds. A new report from the Colombian Ideas for Peace Foundation casts doubt on the government's ability to eradicate 250,000 acres of coca plantings, saying a vacuum left by the demobilization of leftist FARC guerrillas has not been filled by the state, but is instead being filled by illegal armed drug trafficking groups and paramilitary formations. That means the state is not providing adequate security measures and sustainable alternatives in areas historically hit hardest by decades of armed conflict.

Chronicle AM: Groups Oppose New Fed Bill, Still no DEA Research Grow Licenses, More... (7/5/17)

Drug reformers and others are trying to stop a bill that would give Attorney General Sessions new powers to criminalize new drugs and craft new penalties, after a year the DEA still hasn't issued any new marijuana research grow licenses, and more.

Civil rights, human rights, criminal justice, and drug policy reform groups are mobilizing to stop a new drug war bill.
Marijuana Policy

DEA Still Hasn't Issued Any New Marijuana Grower Licenses. Almost a year after the DEA announced it would allow more organizations to produce marijuana for research purposes, it has yet to do so. Although DEA has received 25 applications for research grows, it says it is still processing them and has no estimate for when any applications may be granted. There is increasing demand for research marijuana, as well as for more potent, more diverse, and higher quality marijuana than is being produced by the University of Mississippi under a NIDA monopoly it has enjoyed since 1968.

Massachusetts Lawmakers Get Back to Work on Crafting Legalization Implementation. The legislature missed a self-imposed Friday deadline for reaching agreement on competing legalization implementation bills in the House and Senate and the marijuana conference committee was set to meet today to try to seek agreement. Two big issues of dispute are tax rates and whether localities can ban pot businesses without a popular vote.

Industrial Hemp

West Virginia Joins the Ranks of Legal Hemp States. As of Tuesday, state residents can apply to the agriculture commissioner for a license to grow hemp for commercial purposes. Some growers grew hemp crops last year, but those were licensed research grows. Now, those growers can be licensed as commercial growers, too.

Drug Policy

Dozens of Reform Groups Send Letter to Congress Opposing New Drug War Bill. More than 60 civil rights, human rights, faith, criminal justice, and drug policy reform organization have sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee opposing House Resolution 2851, the Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017. The measure is part of Attorney General Sessions' effort to reenergize the war on drugs and would give him sweeping new powers to schedule new drugs and set corresponding penalties, including new mandatory minimums. Similar legislation by Sens. Grassley and Feinstein has been filed in the Senate.

Chronicle AM: WHO Calls for Drug Decrim, NV Legal MJ Sales Start Saturday, More... (6/29/17)

Massachusetts pols continue to work on a legalization implementation compromise, Nevada legal marijuana sales begin Saturday, a pair of federal sentencing reform bills get introduced, the World Health Organization calls for global drug decriminalization, and more.

Legal marijuana sales begin a minute after midnight Saturday -- but don't light up on the Strip! (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Possible Tax Compromise in Massachusetts. House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) has said he may be willing to move away from the House's position that retail marijuana sales be taxed at 28%, more than twice the 12% envisioned in the legalization initiative and the competing Senate bill. "I suppose there could be some negotiation," he said, referring to a legislative conference committee trying to reach agreement. "I found they are having fruitful conversations, so to speak, so I am hopeful," DeLeo said.

Nevada Legal Sales Begin at 12:01 a.m,Saturday. Nevadans and visitors will be able to legally purchase marijuana as of a minute after midnight Saturday. A few dozen medical marijuana dispensaries have been licensed to sell their products to anyone 21 and over with a proper ID as a stopgap measure before the recreational marijuana sales system goes online next year, and at least some of them will be open Saturday night to take advantage of the commencement of early legal sales. But tourists in particular will have to figure out where to smoke it -- there's no smoking on the strip, in casinos, or hotel rooms.

Medical Marijuana

Nevada Dispensaries Get Tougher Regulations on Edibles as Legal Sales Loom. Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) Monday signed a Taxation Department emergency regulation that will impose tougher regulations beginning Saturday, the same day legal recreational pot sales through dispensaries begins. Under the new regulations, edibles can't contain more than 10 milligrams of THC per dose or 100 per package, they can't resemble lollipops or other products marketed to children, they can't look like real or fictional characters or cartoons, and they can't have images of cartoon characters, action figures, toys, balloons or mascots on the packaging.

Sentencing

Cory Booker Files Bill to Encourage States to Reduce Prison Populations. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has filed Senate Bill 1458, "to establish a grant program to incentivize states to reduce prison populations, and for other purposes." The bill is not yet available on the congressional web site.

Keith Ellison Files Bill to Defelonize Drug Possession, End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) has filed House Resolution 3074, "to reclassify certain low-level felonies as misdemeanors, to eliminate the increased penalties for cocaine offenses where the cocaine involved is cocaine base, to reinvest in our communities, and for other purposes. The bill is not yet available on the congressional website.

International

UN World Health Organization Calls for Global Drug Decriminalization. The call came in a joint United Nations statement on ending discrimination in health care. One way that nations can do that, WHO said, is by: "Reviewing and repealing punitive laws that have been proven to have negative health outcomes and that counter established public health evidence. These include laws that criminalize or otherwise prohibit gender expression, same sex conduct, adultery and other sexual behaviors between consenting adults; adult consensual sex work; drug use or possession of drugs for personal use; sexual and reproductive health care services, including information; and overly broad criminalization of HIV non-disclosure, exposure or transmission."

Human Rights Watch Calls Duterte's First Year a Human Rights Calamity. The New York-based human rights watchdog said Wednesday Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's first year in office was "a human rights calamity" with thousands of people killed in Duterter's war on drugs. "President Duterte took office promising to protect human rights, but has instead spent his first year in office as a boisterous instigator for an unlawful killing campaign," Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "Duterte has supported and incited 'drug war' killings while retaliating against those fearless enough to challenge his assault on human rights," he added. Human Rights Watch also slammed Duterte for subjecting critics of his anti-drug campaign to harassment, intimidation, and even arrest. "A UN-led international investigation is desperately needed to help stop the slaughter and press for accountability for Duterte's human rights catastrophe," the group said.

Chronicle AM: IL Passes Forfeiture Reform, House Heroin Task Force Proposals, More... (6/28/17)

Utah's new medical marijuana initiative is exposing fissures between the LDS leadership and membership, an asset forfeiture reform bill sits on the desk of Illinois' governor, a bipartisan House heroin task force releases its proposals, and more.

Utahns are ready for medical marijuana. (Harborside)
Medical Marijuana

Utah Poll Has Strong Support for Medical Marijuana. Just days after the Utah Patient Coalition took initial steps to put an initiative on the November 2018 ballot, a poll it sponsored showed that 73% of Utah voters support the initiative, with only 20% opposed. Support came from all demographic groups, including active Mormons, 63% of whom said they were in favor.

Mormon Church Opposes Utah Medical Marijuana Initiative. The powerful Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) has come out in opposition to a medical marijuana initiative filed this week by the Utah Patients Coalition. The church acknowledged ongoing interest in medical marijuana and said it supported further research but argued that approval of medical marijuana should come after "the FDA approval process that all other drugs must go through before they are prescribed to patients."

Asset Forfeiture

Illinois Legislature Passes Asset Forfeiture Reform. The legislature last Friday gave final approval to an asset forfeiture reform measure, House Bill 303, that raises the standard of evidence for seizures from probable cause to a preponderance of the evidence and bars seizures of under $500 in most drug cases. The bill does not, however, require a criminal conviction before a seizure can occur -- a sop to prosecutors and law enforcement groups who lobbied for that provision to be dropped. The bill now awaits action from Gov. Bruce Rauner (R).

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

House Bipartisan Heroin Task Force Releases Proposals. A bipartisan group of House members released a raft of proposals Tuesday aimed at fighting the nation's drug problems as "an American issue," not a partisan one. The package of bills from the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force includes increased funding for drug-screening gear at the border, studies on the effects of synthetic drug use, greater flexibility for use of health savings accounts, and creation of treatment centers for infants exposed to opioids during their mothers pregnancy.

International

Georgia Parliament Takes Up Drug Decriminalization. The Parliamentary Health Committee has introduced a bill to decriminalize the possession of all drugs that was developed by the National Drug Policy Platform, a grouping of more than 40 NGOs. The bill would annul the country's much-criticized strict 2007 drug law, as well as making changes to at least 10 criminal and administrative laws. The core principle behind the bill is to shift the country's drug policy away from a criminal justice approach, treating drug use instead as a public health issue. Earlier this month, parliament gave initial approval to marijuana decriminalization. Both pot decrim and broader drug decrim should be addressed during parliament's looming autumn session.

Medical Marijuana Update

Congress sees a pair of medical marijuana bills filed, the New York legislature has voted to approve medical marijuana for PTSD, Kentucky residents sue the state over the medical marijuana ban, and more.

National

Last Thursday, the CARERS Act was reintroduced in the Senate. US Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Corey Booker (D-NJ), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) reintroduced a bill that would end the federal prohibition of medical marijuana. Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also signed on to the legislation as original cosponsors. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (or CARERS) Act of 2017 would allow individuals and entities to possess, produce, and distribute medical marijuana if they are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. It would also open up avenues to medical marijuana research and allow physicians employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states where it is legal. The bill also proposes excluding cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in marijuana, from the federal government's definition of "marijuana."

Last Thursday, Corey Booker and Steve Cohen filed identical medical marijuana protection bills. Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen has filed House Resolution 2920, "to extend the principle of federalism to drug policy, provide access to medical marijuana, and enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana." New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has filed a companion bill, Senate Bill 1374, in the upper chamber.

Arkansas

Last Friday, medical marijuana regulations took another key step. The Legislative Council, which serves as the legislature's governing body between sessions, approved draft rules from the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, the Department of Health, and the Medical Marijuana Commission aimed at regulating the state's nascent medical marijuana system. The state will begin accepting applications for licenses to operate marijuana cultivation centers and dispensaries June 30.

Kentucky

Last Wednesday, a lawsuit challenging the state's medical marijuana ban was filed. Three Kentuckians who say they have used marijuana to ease health problems have filed a lawsuit in state court charging that banning medical marijuana violates their constitutional privacy rights. The suit names as defendants Gov. Matt Bevin (R) and Attorney General Steve Beshear (D).

Michigan

Last Thursday, lawmakers filed bills to ban medical marijuana billboard ads. State Sen. Rick Jones (R) and Rep. Andy Schor (D) have filed identical bills that would effectively ban billboard for medical marijuana businesses. The bills are Senate Bill 463 and House Bill 4767. They are not yet available on the state legislative web site.

New Mexico

Last Friday, the state nixed medical marijuana for opioid addiction and Alzheimer's. Rejecting the recommendation of the state Medical Marijuana Advisory Board, Secretary of Health Lynn Gallagher declined to add opioid use disorder and Alzheimer's as qualifying conditions for medical marijuana.

New York

On Tuesday, the Senate approved medical marijuana for PTSD. The state Senate voted to approve Senate Bill 6092, which allows medical marijuana to be used to treat PTSD. The Assembly passed an identical measure earlier this year, so the bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).

Pennsylvania

Last Thursday, the governor warned Attorney General Sessions not to interfere with medical marijuana. In a sharply worded letter, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) warned Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to interfere with medical marijuana in the state. "For a lot of patients, this is the only medicine that works. So for him to go after medical cannabis is kind of flying in the face of science and the facts," said a spokesman for the governor.

On Tuesday, the state issued the first medical marijuana permits. The Department of Health on Tuesday announced 12 medical marijuana grower permits, with the permits going to two companies in each of the six permitting regions the department established as part of the implementation of the state's medical marijuana law. The department will announce the allocation of 27 dispensary permits before the month ends, it said.

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

Chronicle AM: MJ Policy Keeps Northeast Busy, Major Louisiana Sentencing Reforms, More.... (6/16/17)

Marijuana policy continues to roil statehouses across the Northeast, a US senator and a congressman file identical medical marijuana protection bills, Louisiana -- the lock 'em up state -- enacts comprehensive sentencing reforms, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts to Get New Legalization Rewrite Bill on Monday. After criticism and errors in the text force the House leadership to pull its marijuana legalization rewrite bill this week, House committee chair Rep. Mark Cusack (D-Braintree) said a redrafted version of the bill would be released on Monday, with debate expected in the House on Wednesday. At issue are tax rates and a governance model for the industry.

New Jersey Arresting More People Than Ever for Marijuana, ACLU Report Finds. Marijuana arrests have climbed steadily in the state in recent years, with black residents three times more likely than whites to be targeted. The report, which analyzed FBI Uniform Crime Report and U.S. Census data from 2000 to 2013, comes as lawmakers are making a push to legalize marijuana in the state. The report found a steady increase in marijuana arrests over that period, from 19,607 in 2001 to 24,067 in 2013.

Rhode Island Legalization Advocates Offer Compromise Bill. Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence) and Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Cranston), along with Regulate Rhode Island, have outlined a compromise bill that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana starting July 1, 2018, with an advisory board to study the effects of legalization and report to the General Assembly next year on setting up a taxed and regulated system of marijuana commerce. Assembly leaders are pushing a bill that would defer legalization until a legislative commission studies the issue.

Vermont Governor Says Legalization Deal Still Possible. Gov. Phil Scott said Thursday an agreement with legislators on marijuana legalization is still possible this year. Scott vetoed the legalization bill last month, citing concerns about drugged driving and children. "We are still negotiating," Scott said. "They understand... what my reservations are in terms of what they're planning, but I still think it's workable." If an agreement is reached, House Republicans would have to agree to suspend the rules of the veto session to allow a vote on the pot bill. They do not sound very interested in that, but Scott has said that if he can reach agreement on a bill, he will try to persuade his GOP colleagues to allow a vote.

Medical Marijuana

Corey Booker, Steve Cohen File Identical Medical Marijuana Protection Bills. Tennessee Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen has filed House Resolution 2920, "to extend the principle of federalism to drug policy, provide access to medical marijuana, and enable research into the medicinal properties of marijuana." New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has filed a companion bill, Senate Bill 1374, in the upper chamber.

Michigan Lawmakers File Medical Marijuana Billboard Ad Ban Bills. State Sen. Rick Jones (R) and Rep. Andy Schor (D) have filed identical bills that would effectively ban billboard for medical marijuana businesses. The bills are Senate Bill 463 and House Bill 4767. They are not yet available on the state legislative web site.

Pennsylvania Governor Warns Session Against Interfering with Medical Marijuana. In a sharply worded letter, Gov. Tom Wolf (D) warned Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to interfere with medical marijuana in the state. "For a lot of patients, this is the only medicine that works. So for him to go after medical cannabis is kind of flying in the face of science and the facts," said a spokesman for the governor.

Criminal Justice

Louisiana Enacts Comprehensive Criminal Justice Reforms. Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) on Thursday signed a package of 10 bills that shrink sentences, mostly for nonviolent offenders, and expand parole and probation and reentry opportunities for offenders. The state has the highest proportion of its population behind bars of any state, but Edwards predicts that the new laws will see the state's prison population falling by as much as 10% in the next decade. The bills are House Bills 116, 249, 489, 519, 680 681 and Senate Bills 16, 139, 220, 221. They can be viewed at the state legislative website.

International

British Columbia Court Throws Out Mandatory Minimums for Marijuana Producers. The BC Court of Appeals last week threw out the mandatory minimum sentence for people caught producing more than six marijuana plants, saying the law mandating it was unconstitutional. "I note that a six-month sentence is typical for a first-time trafficker involved in a relatively sophisticated commercial dial-a-dope operation. Imposing that sentence on a 19-year-old student or a migraine sufferer who is growing six plants intending to share them with friends would, in my view, be abhorrent to most Canadians," the trial court judge held, instead giving the man a suspended sentence. The government appealed, and lost last week.

Chronicle AM: Federal CARERS Act Refiled, RI Legalization Commission Bill Advances, More... (6/15/17)

A bipartisan group of senators reintroduce the CARERS Act to protect medical marijuana in the states, marijuana legalization is keeping legislators busy in the Northeast, New York GOP senators want more drug war to fight opioids, and more.

Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is among a bipartisan group of senators who reintroduced the CARERS Act today. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Legal MJ Rewrite Bill Delayed By Errors, Concern at High Tax Rates. House Speaker Robert DeLeo (D-Winthrop) has postponed a vote on the legislature's rewrite of the marijuana legalization law approved by voters last fall after errors in the drafting of the bill and the high tax rate proposed -- 28% -- drew protests from Democratic lawmakers. "I think there are certain things that we have to clear up, so because of that, I think it's important that with a bill of this mag that we try to get it right or close to right this first time, so I'd rather do that than try to rush it through," DeLeo said, adding that there was a consensus among Democrats on the basics of the bill.

New Jersey Legalization Bill Gets Hearing Monday. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Monday morning on Senate Bill 3195, which legalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana and sets up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce. The Drug Policy Alliance has expressed "concern" that the bill "does not include essential components to create a fair and equitable marijuana market in New Jersey." Such legislation must include polices to repair past harms to minority communities, DPA said.

Rhode Island Legalization Study Commission Bill Passes House. A bill that creates a legislative commission to study marijuana legalization -- instead of just legalizing it -- passed the House Wednesday night. House Bill 551A now heads to the Senate. Regulate Rhode Island, the main advocacy group for legalization, has said it will not participate in the commission, which it describes as a delaying tactic.

Medical Marijuana

Bipartisan Bill to End Federal Prohibition of Medical Marijuana Reintroduced in US Senate. US Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY), Corey Booker (D-NJ), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) reintroduced a bill Thursday that would end the federal prohibition of medical marijuana. Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) also signed on to the legislation as original cosponsors. The Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (or CARERS) Act of 2017 would allow individuals and entities to possess, produce, and distribute medical marijuana if they are in compliance with state medical marijuana laws. It would also open up avenues to medical marijuana research and allow physicians employed by the Department of Veterans Affairs to recommend medical marijuana to veterans in states where it is legal. The bill also proposes excluding cannabidiol, a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in marijuana, from the federal government's definition of "marijuana."

Kentucky Lawsuit Challenges State's Medical Marijuana Ban. Three Kentuckians who say they have used marijuana to ease health problems have filed a lawsuit in state court charging that banning medical marijuana violates their constitutional privacy rights. The suit names as defendants Gov. Matt Bevin (R) and Attorney General Steve Beshear (D).

Rhode Island Governor Proposes Medical Marijuana Expansion. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has proposed a budget amendment that calls for "no less than six licensed compassion centers" and increased licensing fees that would generate $1.5 in revenues for the state's general fund. There are three existing dispensaries, which would each be allowed to open one more store front, plus the three additional ones proposed.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

New York Republicans Want More Drug War to Fight Opioids. A Republican Senate task force says that adding funding for addiction treatment is good, but that it's time to increase heroin penalties "to get dealers off the street." The senators are proposing charging dealers with murder if one of their customers dies and increasing penalties based on the weight of the drugs sold. Assembly Democrats rejected the idea, calling the approach one that's been "tried and failed." The Assembly killed a similar approach last year.

Drug War Issues

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