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The Big Global Drug Policy Stories of 2014 [FEATURE]

2014 was a big year for drug reform, and for a change, the US is pulling things in the right direction. But it some places, it's been business as usual, and in others, things have gone in the wrong direction. Here are our big international stories of the year.

Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield dropped a bombshell in October. (state.gov)
Marijuana Legalization Expands in the US

Two more states and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana at the ballot box this year. That makes four states and DC that have legalized it. The US has historically been the leading enforcer of global drug prohibition, but the actions of voters in American states have seriously undercut the (now former, see below) US position, as well as providing an example to the rest of the world.

The US Signals a New Openness to Drug Reform at the International Level

In a little-heralded, but groundbreaking move, US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), made it clear that the US is willing to embrace flexibility, up to and including drug legalization in other countries, in the face of rising calls for international drug reform.

Brownfield succinctly laid out the US approach in an October speech: "First, respect the integrity of the existing UN Drug Control Conventions. Second, accept flexible interpretation of those conventions… Third, to tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches; other countries will legalize entire categories of drugs. All these countries must work together in the international community. We must have some tolerance for those differing policies. And our fourth pillar is agreement and consensus that whatever our approach and policy may be on legalization, decriminalization, de-penalization, we all agree to combat and resist the criminal organizations -- not those who buy, consume, but those who market and traffic the product for economic gain. Respect the conventions; flexible interpretation; tolerance for national policeis; criminal organizations -- that is our mantra."

Calls for an End to Drug Prohibition Increase as the 2016 UNGASS on Drugs Looms

This year saw the pressure for reform of the international drug control regime grow even more intense, and fractures in a now crumbling prohibitionist consensus grew even deeper. The UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna in March revealed schisms among countries about future steps on global drug control even as the global drug bureaucrats gave signs of softening in some policy areas, especially around emphasizing public health as opposed to criminalization. The meeting ended with a formal joint ministerial statement agreed to at the last minute after months of contentious wrangling, but one where countries failed to agree on a common approach and where certain fractious issues -- such as the use of the death penalty for drug offenses or even the mention of the term "harm reduction" -- were omitted entirely.

Former UN head Kofi Annan made his drug reform presence felt this year. (un.org)
Countries critical of the global drug policy status quo, particularly from Europe and Latin America, were joined by an ever-stronger civil society presence at the CND. The message of reform grows ever louder and presages an especially contentious next step, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, set for 2016.

During the rest of the year, the call for reform from civil society only grew louder. In May, the London School of Economics (LSE) published a Ending the Drug Wars: Report of the LSE Expert Group on the Economics of Drug Policy, signed onto by five Nobel Prize-winning economists, as well as political figures including British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Luis Fernando Carrera Castro, former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, former US Secretary of State George Schultz, and former European Union High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Dr. Javier Solana, among other luminaries.

"It is time to end the 'war on drugs' and massively redirect resources towards effective evidence-based policies underpinned by rigorous economic analysis," the report says forthrightly. "The pursuit of a militarized and enforcement-led global 'war on drugs' strategy has produced enormous negative outcomes and collateral damage. These include mass incarceration in the US, highly repressive policies in Asia, vast corruption and political destabilization in Afghanistan and West Africa, immense violence in Latin America, an HIV epidemic in Russia, an acute global shortage of pain medication and the propagation of systematic human rights abuses around the world."

That was followed in June by the West Africa Commission on Drugs, which was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria, is headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary. The commission issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.

And then, in September, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which includes Annan, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) and Ruth Dreifuss (Switzerland), and others, issued a new report, Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. It boldy called on "governments to decriminalize a variety of illegal drugs and set up regulated drug markets within their own countries."

Uruguay Forges Ahead With Marijuana Legalization

President Jose "Pepe" Mujica may be gone -- his term expired -- but his legacy of legalizing the marijuana trade lives on. There was some doubt as Uruguayans voted on his replacement -- the opposition candidate vowed to roll it back -- but they chose a successor from his same party who will uphold and implement the legal marijuana commerce plan. Uruguay never criminalized pot possession, and now it is the first country to legalize the trade. Implementation should continue apace next year.

Afghanistan Pumps Out More Opium

As the US and NATO declare an end to their Afghan war, Afghanistan is growing and producing as much opium as ever. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2014, land under poppy cultivation increased 7% this year. UNODC estimated opium production this year at 6,400 tons, up 17% over last year. But while annual production has been at 6,000 tons or more for the past few years, it is not as high as the record year of 2007, when production totaled over 8,000 tons. And this as the US spent $7.6 billion to fight the opium trade since invading in 2001.

And the Golden Triangle Is Back, Too

Opium production increased again in Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle this year, continuing a pattern of growth that has now gone on for at least the past eight years. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Southeast Asia Opium Survey 2014, the region produced 762 tons of opium this year, with the vast majority coming from the Burmese Shan State. While Golden Triangle production accounts for only about 10% of global opium production, Burma is now the world's second largest opium producer, behind Afghanistan.

In Afghan fields, the poppies grow... and grow... and grow. (unodc.org)
Mexican Drug War

It's been the best of times and the worst of times for Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and his government's prosecution of its war against the drug cartels. While media attention to the Mexican drug war has declined dramatically since 2012 -- an election year in both the US and Mexico -- the drug war hasn't gone away, and the death toll has plateaued, but not declined. The year started off great for Pena Nieto with the arrest of the heretofore seemingly invincible Chapo Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Other major cartel figures have been killed or arrested throughout the year. But things turned sour again this fall when drug gang-connected elected officials in Iguala, Guerrero, sicced local police and the local Guerreros Unidos gang, on busloads of protesting radical teachers' college students, leaving 43 missing and presumed dead. That led to mass protests against lawlessness, official corruption, and impunity across the country.

Now Part of Russia, Crimea Rolls Back Harm Reduction Measures

Whatever one thinks of the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, it's been bad news for Crimean drug users. While Ukraine has embraced a harm reduction approach to hard drug use, Russia rejects such an approach and has some of the most repressive drug laws in the world. And it moved quickly in Crimea, banning the use of methadone almost immediately, which the International HIV/AIDS Alliance called "a disaster for health, human rights and the HIV epidemic in the region." By June, with more than 800 people cut off from access to opiate maintenance, activists were reporting 20 deaths among drug users and that many others had fled to Kiev, while those that remained were turning to street drugs. Things have only gotten worse, and Ukraine shares somes of the responsibility for using the opiate maintenance programs as a political weapon against Crimea. Now, only does the ban on opiate maintenance remain, but drug users face assaults in the streets, as well as stays in jail. And the only "treatment" offered is Russian-style "psychiatric treatment."

Chronicle AM: NE Felony Pot Brownies, OK Pot Lawsuit Protest, Mexico Cop-Zeta Ties, More (12/26/14)

Some Nebraska counties are charging possession of marijuana brownies as a felony, Oklahoma activists will rally against the state's lawsuit against Colorado's marijuana law, San Diego closes more dispensaries, a new document reveals links between cartel gangsters and cops in Northern Mexico, and more. Let's get to it:

Kratom -- for adults only in Illinois starting next week. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Western Nebraska Counties Are Charging Possession of Some Marijuana Edibles as a Felony. Even though pot possession has been decriminalized in the state for decades, some counties near Colorado are now treating foods containing marijuana extracts as a Schedule I drug, possession of which is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Prosecutors in some Western counties say that pastries that contain actual marijuana will be treated like marijuana, but those containing concentrates will be treated as a Schedule I drug.

Nevada NAACP Leader Urges Legislators to Legalize It This Coming Session. Jeffrey Blanck, president of the Reno-Sparks chapter of the NAACP, has sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to legalize marijuana during the 2015 legislature. The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Nevada already has a legalization initiative approved for the 2016 ballot. The legislature has the first 40 days of the session to approve the initiative; if it doesn't, it goes directly to the voters in 2016.

Oklahoma Activists to Protest Pot Lawsuit Against Colorado. Oklahoma marijuana legalization supporters have organized a protest against state Attorney General Scott Pruitt's decision to join Nebraska in suing Colorado to try to undo legalization there. Led by OK NORML and the Oklahoma Libertarian Party, activists have set up a Facebook invite to the January 8 rally. "Attorney General Scott Pruitt is suing Colorado for their marijuana laws," the page says. "This is a waste of taxpayer money and a clear violation of states' rights." Click on either link for more details.

Medical Marijuana

San Diego Officials Shut Down Five More Dispensaries. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has shuttered five more unpermitted dispensaries ahead of the opening of the first permitted dispensaries early next year. Four are set to open then. More than 200 dispensaries have been shut down in the past four years under threat of legal action, but as many as 50 unpermitted dispensaries remain.

Kratom

Kratom Will Be for Adults Only in Illinois Beginning Next Week. As of January 1, a new state law will limit the use and possession of the Southeast Asian herb kratom to adults. Kratom is said to have a high similar to opiates, but is not a controlled substance under federal law. It is, however, on the DEA's list of "drugs of concern." It has been banned in neighboring Indiana.

Law Enforcement

Lawsuit in Deadly Massachusetts SWAT Drug Raid Can Continue, Judge Rules. A police officer who shot and killed unarmed black Framingham resident Eurie Stamps, 68, in a January 2011 drug raid may have used excessive force, violating his constitutional rights, a US District Court judge ruled as he allowed a lawsuit against the officer to move forward. Officer Paul Duncan shot and killed Stamps as the elderly man lay prone on the floor of his apartment during the raid. Duncan claims the shooting was accidental, but Stamps is still dead, and his family is suing.

International

Mexican Cops Worked Closely With Zetas, Declassified Document Shows. A document declassified by Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam shows how police and traffic police in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, worked closely with the Zetas cartel in a series of killings of immigrants en route to the US known as the "San Fernando massacre," in which at least 72 immigrants were tortured and murdered.

Indonesian Ulama Supports President's Plan to Execute Drug Offenders. The Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, said Wednesday it supported President Joko Widodo's tough stance on drug traffickers. Widodo has refused to stop the execution of convicted drug offenders and is seeking support for his stance. He found it with the Ulama. "We support the death penalty for the drug dealers and the producers, but not the consumers," said Said Aqil Siradji, chairman of the Ulama's central board.

The Year's Top 10 Domestic Drug Policy Stories [FEATURE]

Whew, what a year! Two more states legalize it -- and DC, too -- decriminalization spreads, and more. But it wasn't all good news. Here's our Top 10:

1. Marijuana Legalization Wins at the Polls in Alaska, Oregon, and DC. In an Election Day clean sweep, voters in Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, delivered a marijuana legalization trifecta. Legalization won with 53% of the vote in Alaska, 55% in Oregon, and a whopping 69% in Washington, DC, the highest percentage vote for legalization ever recorded. With victory in Oregon this year, every state that has had the chance to vote for legalization since 2012 has now done so.

2. The Sky Hasn't Fallen in Colorado and Washington. It's now been two years since the first two states to legalize marijuana did so, and the predicted horrible consequences have not materialized. While possession became legal almost immediately, legal sales commenced in January in Colorado and in July in Washington. Teen pot smoking declined this year, according to the annual Monitoring the Future survey, and Colorado teens in particular were consuming less weed, according to the state Department of Public Health and Environment. Neither have traffic fatalities increased, according to The Washington Post. Nor has crime increased. What has increased is state revenues from the taxation of marijuana, from zero before legalization to tens of millions of dollars annually now.

3. Big Eastern Cities Decriminalize Pot Possession. The city councils in Philadelphia and Washington, DC, this year approved the decriminalization of small-time pot possession. Although New York state decriminalized in 1978, New York City had been the marijuana arrest capital of the world, thanks to NYPD's habit of stopping people, telling them to empty their pockets, and then charging them with the misdemeanor office of public possession instead of the civil infraction. Now, thanks to Mayor Bill de Blasio, New York cops can't do that anymore. And let's not forget Baltimore; the state of Maryland decriminalized this year, too.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman's death by heroin overdose crystallized concerns over abuse of opiates. (wikimedia.org)
4. The Death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman Crystallizes Rising Concerns About Heroin and Prescription Opiates. The February overdose death of the acclaimed actor turned a glaring spotlight on the issues of heroin and prescription pain pill addiction and overdoses. Ever since, government at the federal, state, and local level has been moved by the urge to "Do something!" And it has -- with responses covering the gamut from harm reduction measures like 911 Good Samaritan laws and increased access to overdose reversal drugs to calls for more drug treatment to more-of-the-same drug war approaches and calls for more money for law enforcement.

5. California Defelonizes Drug Possession. With one fell swoop, California voters struck a big blow against mass incarceration when they approved Proposition 47 in November. The initiative makes drug possession and five other low-level, nonviolent offenses misdemeanors instead of felonies. It becomes the 14th state to do so, and by far the largest.

6. Congress Tells the Justice Department to Butt Out of Medical Marijuana States. In passing the omnibus spending bill last week, Congress approved an historic amendment barring the Justice Department from spending taxpayer funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal. Passage does not promise an end to all federal interference -- it doesn't address taxing issues, for instance -- and it is only for this fiscal year, but this is still a landmark vote.

Attorney General Holder has striven to reduce overincarceration of drug offenders. (usdoj.gov)
7. Floridians Vote for Medical Marijuana, But It Still Loses. Florida should have been the first Southern state to approve medical marijuana, and 57% of Florida voters agreed in November. But because the Florida initiative was a constitutional amendment, it needed 60% of the vote to pass. Even with that high bar, the initiative still could have passed, if not for some campaign gaffes. Some $5 million worth of contributions to the "no" side by conservative casino magnate Sheldon Adelson didn't help, either.

8. Medical Marijuana Lite. Maryland passed a medical marijuana law and Minnesota and New York passed limited medical marijuana laws, but this was the year of low-THC, high-CBD medical marijuana laws. Such measures passed in a number of states where full-blown medical marijuana hasn't, including Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Utah. They typically provide access to high-CBD cannabis oils to a limited number of patients.

9. The Obama Administration Moves to Reduce the Federal Drug War Prison Population. It didn't do it all by itself -- the US Sentencing Commission deserves recognition for proposing sentencing reforms -- but the president and Attorney General Eric Holder spoke our vigorously and repeatedly against mandatory minimums and over-incarceration. It wasn't just talk; the Justice Department instructed US Attorneys to find ways to reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentencing, and exhorted federal drug prisoners to seek clemency.

10. But The Drug War Juggernaut Continues to Roll. Despite all the good news this year, the reality is that we are still nibbling around the edges. While marijuana arrests the previous year were down to just under 700,000 (the historic high was 872,000 in 2008) and overall drug arrests declined by about 50,000, there were still 1.5 million people arrested on drug charges. And the number of people arrested for drugs other than marijuana actually increased.

Chronicle AM: Lebanon Ag Min Says Legalize Hash, NY MedMJ Regs, "Baby Bou Bou" Medical Bill, More (12/19/14)

New York officials have released draft medical marijuana regs, and advocates aren't too impressed, Lebanon's agriculture minister says it's time to legalize it, Bolivia's president criticizes Mexico's drug war, "Baby Bou Bou" has a million-dollar medical bill, and more. Let's get to it:

Bolivian President Evo Morales has some choice words about Mexico's "failed" drug policies. (www.wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Missouri KC NORML Legalization Petition Needs Editing to Get Official Approval. The KC NORML legalization initiative petition is in for a tune-up after the secretary of state's office rejected it for minor stylistic issues, including incorrect underlining and brackets. Organizers say they will rework and resubmit shortly. There's also another Missouri legalization initiative in the works, courtesy of Show Me Cannabis, but the KC NORML initiative is less restrictive, and less restrictive than the legalization schemes in any of the states that have legalized it so far.

Medical Marijuana

New York State Issues Medical Marijuana Regulations; Advocates Not Too Impressed. The Department of Health released draft medical marijuana regulations today, but advocates say they are too tight. "New York will be one of the more restrictive programs in the country, which could inhibit patients from getting the relief they need," the Drug Policy Alliance complained. Click on the title link for details on the draft regs.

Asset Forfeiture

Public Hearing Set for Orange County, NY, Misdemeanor Asset Forfeiture Ordinance. The public will have one last chance to voice objections to a local asset forfeiture already approved on a party-line vote by the county legislature. The ordinance would allow the county to confiscate assets from those convicted of even misdemeanor drug crimes. The ordinance has been criticized by defense attorneys and others not only for the misdemeanor provision, but also because it would allow for civil asset forfeiture without a criminal conviction. A public hearing is set for December 29. Click on the link for meeting details.

Law Enforcement

Family of Infant Burned by Flash-Bang Grenade in Botched Drug Raid Faces A Million Dollar Medical Bill. It has cost a million dollars so far to undo the damage done to toddler Bounkham Phonesavanh when a Georgia SWAT team member tossed a flash-bang grenade into his crib during a drug raid in which the party sought wasn't even there. Habersham County officials have refused to pay the medical bills, and the family has no means of paying them.

International

Lebanese Agriculture Minister Calls for Legalization of Hash Farming. Agriculture Minister Akram Chehayeb called today for the legalization of marijuana so the state can benefit from hash export revenues. "We are conducting studies on [how to] organize this type of agriculture so that it becomes monitored by the state, and thus the state can buy the harvest and export it to the countries that need it," Chehayeb said in a morning interview with a local radio station. "Instead of prosecuting the farmers, let's find other solutions for them," he said. "The planting of cannabis must be organized to benefit the state and the industrial sector, and it is one way of helping the farmers." Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt made a similar call earlier this week.

Peru Eradicates Record Amount of Coca. Peruvian officials announced today that they eradicated 77,000 acres of coca crops this year, the highest total since eradication programs began in 1983. But they didn't touch the country's largest coca producing area, the valleys of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro rivers (VRAEM) in south-central Peru. The UNODC says Peru is the world's largest coca producer, and the DEA says it is the world's largest cocaine producer.

Bolivian President Criticizes Mexico's "Failed" Drug War Policies. President Evo Morales said Mexico's failed model for fighting the drug war, citing the recent incident where 43 teachers' college students were disappeared and are presumed dead at the hands of corrupt police working with drug gangs. "The market for cocaine is generally in industrialized and developing countries. But… look at what is happening in Colombia, and especially how it is in Mexico," said Morales. "The recent events [in Ayotzinapa-Mexico], I still think that [the forced disappearance of the students] is a failed model, a model of free market that is unfortunately subject to the US. empire. And now there are deep problems. "We do not want to have this kind of problem in Bolivia, of organized crime. It seems that crime groups are above the state. In some regions, not even with the presence of military bases can one fight drug trafficking," he said at a graduation ceremony for National Police cadets.

Check Those Pills! Harm Reduction and Club Drugs [FEATURE]

[This article was written in partnership with Alternet, and was originally published here.]

With the holiday break coming up soon, millions of young Americans will be looking to party. And tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of them will be looking to stimulant drugs, especially Ecstasy (MDMA), to help them dance to the throbbing beats far into the night. MDMA is a synthetic stimulant with a chemical structure related to both methamphetamine and mescaline. It's great at providing the energy for partying the night away with a psychedelic tinge. The new scene drug, Molly, is simply Ecstasy in powdered form.

According to the 2013 National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health, some 17 million Americans have taken Ecstasy at least once, more than a half million reported taking it within the past month, and about three-quarters of a million reported taking it for the first time that year. Those monthly-use and first-use figures have been roughly stable for the past few years.

Some of those fun-seekers are going to take too much. And some of them are going to end up ingesting something they thought was Ecstasy, but wasn't. And one or two or three of them might die. Despite breathless media reports, people dying from Ecstasy or from what they thought was Ecstasy or what they thought was a drug like Ecstasy, is not that big a problem, especially compared with the 16,000 or so people who died last year from opiate overdoses. The number of Ecstasy-related deaths each year ranges from the single digits to the low dozens.

Still it is a problem. Any avoidable death is a problem, and those deaths are largely avoidable. They occur because of varying combinations of ignorance, greed and bad public policy. Some people are working to prevent those deaths, and the work extends from the club or rave or festival door to the halls of power in Washington.

The harm reduction group Dance Safe is among those doing that work. The small non-profit offers educational services, encourages people to submit their pills for testing ("drug checking"), and has informational booths at venues that will let them.

Where 20 years ago, the Ecstasy and party drug scene was largely limited to word-of-mouth raves, things have changed, said Dance Safe executive director Missi Wooldridge.

"We've seen a real explosion in the scene that has been transformed from an underground rave culture to a real mainstream electronic dance music culture," she said. "People are likely to experiment with drugs at raves and dances, as well as with friends at parties or night clubs."

They are also likely to be ingesting either adulterated Ecstasy or other new synthetic drugs misleadingly marketed as Ecstasy. That is reflected in reports on drug checking websites such as Pill Reports and Ecstasy Data, as well as drug discussion forums like Bluelight.

Pill Reports warns that Yellow Pacman tablets found earlier this month in Kansas and Texas contain not MDMA but the synthetic methylone, a methcathinone stimulant that is a chemical analog to MDMA, but is not MDMA. And at least two different pills currently being peddled in Canada as Ecstasy are actually methamphetamine.

"A lot of what we're seeing is the new psychoactive substances infiltrating the market and the scene," said Wooldridge. "People can purchase these substances online. I see a lot of positive results for methcathinone, MDPV, methylone, and the like. Similarly, people think they're taking LSD, but it's actual N-Bomb, or maybe ketamine. People operate under misconceptions about what they're taking, and that can be serious because there are lots of differences in things like onset, duration and potency."

Educated, sophisticated drug consumers may take advantage of drug checking services, as well as have advanced understandings of drug potency, duration and the like, but they are a minority. Most people just want to party, and they want to do it with Ecstasy.

"In contrast with some places in Europe, the market for people seeking out new synthetics is very small in the US," said Stefanie Jones, nightlife community engagement manager at the Drug Policy Alliance "But that doesn't mean they're not here. Many of the people buying them are after MDMA, but here in the US, the market is young people, and many are not that well-informed or familiar with notions like drug checking to see what's in that powder. It's largely an uninformed market, so there's a lot of adulteration."

Dance Safe's Wooldridge concurred.

Web sites like Pillreports.com will tell you whether your pills are bunk. Don't eat the Yellow Pacman! It's methylone.
"People are taking these substances unknowingly for the most part, rather than checking them out," the Denver-based activist said. "There is a relatively small segment that is into the experimentation and the understanding, but most users are not that sophisticated and are taking these drugs without really knowing what they are."

When people die, as two people did at New York's massive Electric Zoo festival last year, the pressure is on promoters and club owners to crack down on drugs, to increase security, even to decrease or do away with harm reduction measures out of fear of appearing to encourage drug use. In large part, that's because of the RAVE Act, a 2003 law sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) that threatens owners and promoters with possible criminal sanctions for encouraging drug use.

"The RAVE Act is the elephant in the room," said Wooldridge. "Its intent wasn't to harm or prosecute legitimate event producers, but to expand the crack house laws and go after people solely having events for drug use or sales. But there has been an unintended consequence. People in the industry fear that if they attempt to address drug use they'll be help legally liable for overdoses or other emergencies. Their legal teams and insurance companies say to stay clear, turn a blind eye, but that increases the risks. We need to educate the lawyers and insurers on this. Show me a case where an event producer has been prosecuted for doing harm reduction."

"If the law is making owners scared, we should change the law so they are explicitly protected," said Jones. "Put the focus on the health and safety of the patrons. Including harm reduction shouldn't be seen as encouraging drug activity, but as prioritizing health and safety. Changing the law at the federal level would send a message to the industry that harm reduction is valuable and you won't get in trouble, and that could change the landscape of festivals."

One woman is working to do just that. Dede Goldsmith didn't mean to become a reformer, but when her daughter, Shelley, a University of Virginia student, died after taking Ecstasy at Washington, DC electronic music show the same weekend at the Electonic Zoo last year, that's what happened.

She told Vox in an October interview that when one of Shelley's friends told her Shelley had taken Molly, her first response was, "Who is Molly?" In her search for answers, she came to the realization that Molly didn't kill her daughter; federal drug prohibition and policies that discourage education about safe drug use did.

On the anniversary of her daughter's death in August, Goldsmith launched the Amend the RAVE Act campaign. Its goal, Goldsmith says, is "to make EDM festivals and concerts safer for our young people. Specifically, I am asking for language to be added to the law to make it clear that event organizers and venue owners can implement safety measures to reduce the risk of medical emergencies, including those associated with drug use, without fear of prosecution by federal authorities. As the law currently stands, many owners believe that they will be accused of 'maintaining a drug involved premises' under the act if they institute such measures, opening themselves to criminal or civil prosecution."

Irony alert: Shelley Goldsmith meets RAVE Act author Joe Biden a year before she died on Ecstasy. (amendtheraveact.org)
"It's not that producers don't care, it's that they're terrified," said Wooldridge. "Amending the RAVE Act can be a way to organize the community so people don't fear law enforcement if they're addressing drug use. What's more detrimental -- a fatal overdose or having harm reduction teams and medical teams on site?"

"The campaign is just getting underway," said Jones. "They're collecting signatures, and Dede is just having first meetings with legislators to try to get them on board, to try to get some bipartisan support."

In the meantime, other steps can be taken.

"One of the biggest things we can do is to educate with a true public health approach," Wooldridge said. "We need to have honest conversations and we need to implement drug testing; we have to have that opportunity to create an early warning system when these substances begin to appear."

"Education is really, really critical," said Jones. "We need to be able to get real drug education out to young people and meet them where they are. We need to be explicit about what the drugs are, what they look like, what the common dose it. Integrating harm reduction practices into the culture is also really important, and Dance Safe is great at that."

An effective means of tracking new and available drugs, such as a publicly funded, more comprehensive version of the drug checking websites would also be useful. But that requires someone willing to spend the money.

"We don't really have a surveillance system set up to track these new psychoactive substances," Wooldridge complained. "We don't have the public health monitoring. As a nonprofit, we do some of that on a small scale, but we don't have the capacity or the resources to really do the job. What are the priorities and where is the funding to collect the data?"

"Changing policy to allow for drug checking is also an important avenue to pursue," said Jones. "If we're going to be in a world where drugs remain illegal, we will continue to have problems with imitations and new synthetics, with people not knowing what they're getting. That would be the least we can do."

There is one other obvious response.

"It's unrealistic to think we can keep drugs out of clubs and bars and festivals. Trying to do that causes more harm than good," Wooldridge said. "We need to be realistic and recognize drug use first and foremost as a health concern, not a criminal justice issue. These drugs are often being sold as something they're not, and that's because of prohibition and the black market," said Wooldridge. "One obvious option is legalization and regulation. Then you'd have quality control and you wouldn't need all this drug-checking."

But we're not there yet. Until we are, people are going to have to watch out for themselves and for each other. Check those drugs, kids!

Chronicle AM: NE, OK Seek to Undo CO Marijuana Legalization, Philly Backs Off on Home Seizures, More (12/18/14)

Colorado's conservative neighbors try to undo its marijuana legalization, Philadelphia drops a pair of high-profile asset forfeiture cases, Obama commutes sentences for eight drug offenders, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Nebraska, Oklahoma Ask Supreme Court to Undo Colorado Legalization. The attorneys general of Nebraska and Oklahoma filed a lawsuit today with the US Supreme Court asking it to declare that Colorado's marijuana legalization violates the Constitution. "Federal law undisputedly prohibits the production and sale of marijuana," Nebraska Attorney General Bruning said. "Colorado has undermined the United States Constitution, and I hope the US Supreme Court will uphold our constitutional principles." But Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who got a courtesy call from Bruning, scoffed. "We believe this suit is without merit, and we will vigorously defend against it in the US Supreme Court," he said.

New York Lawmakers Hold Hearing on Legalization. State Sens. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) and Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) held a hearing Wednesday on a bill that would legalize marijuana in the Empire State. Krueger conceded the legislation was unlikely to pass during the coming legislative session, but said it was important to keep the conversation going.

Medical Marijuana

Colorado Awards $8 Million for Marijuana Research. The Colorado Board of Health awarded more than $8 million for medical marijuana research Wednesday. The awards will allow researchers to investigate marijuana's medical potential, not its downsides, as is required for most federally-approved research on marijuana. Three of the eight studies will still require federal approval and marijuana from the US government. In the other five "observational" studies, subjects will be providing their own marijuana. Researchers will study marijuana's impact on PTSD, irritable bowel syndrome, pain relief for children with brain tumors, pediatric epileptic seizures, and compare it with oxycodone for pain relief.

American Academy of Neurology Calls for Rescheduling Marijuana. In a just-released position statement on the use of medical marijuana for neurological disorders, the academy said it could not yet recommend medical marijuana for those disorders "because further research is needed to determine the benefits and safety of such products." To that end, the academy "requests the reclassification of marijuana-based products from their current Schedule I status so as to improve access for study of marijuana or cannabinoids under IRB-approved research protocols." Click on the link to read the entire position statement.

Asset Forfeiture

Philadelphia Drops Two High Profile Asset Forfeiture Cases. Faced with an ongoing federal class-action lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice over its brazen asset forfeiture practices, the city of Philadelphia announced today that it is dropping efforts to seize the homes of two families. In one case, the city moved to seize a home after an adult son of the owners was busted for selling heroin; in the other, the city moved to seize a home after the owner's estranged husband was caught selling small amounts of marijuana. Meanwhile, the federal lawsuit continues.

Pardons and Commutations

Obama Issues Commutations for Eight Drug Offenders. President Barack Obama Wednesday commuted the prison sentences of eight drug offenders and issued pardons for 12 other people who had already finished their sentences. The commutations were for people imprisoned for crack cocaine and methamphetamine offenses. No one is walking out of prison today, but all eight had their sentences reduced to lengths that will allow them to walk out at some point in the next year. Among those who got commutations is Sidney Earl Johnson of Mobile, Alabama, who has been serving a life sentence for crack cocaine offenses since 1994. Another is Larry Naylor of Memphis, who has been serving a life sentence for 50 grams of crack since 1997.

Opiates

Senators Send Letter to Officials, Health Groups Urging Stronger Response to Drug Overdoses. Members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee this week urged government officials and health groups to come up with stronger responses to drug overdoses. The call came in a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Governors' Association, the American Medical Association, and associations of state and local health officials. Click on the link to read the letter.

International

Eleven Dead in Mexico Vigilante Clashes. Mexican "self-defense" vigilante groups in the Western state of Michoacan turned their guns on each other Tuesday, leaving 11 dead. The vigilante groups emerged last year in rural communities to fight the Knights Templar cartel, and in May they accepted an offer to be folded into government security forces. And now they are fighting among themselves.

Bangkok Police Hassling Tourists With Searches, Drug Tests, On-the-Spot Fines. Since the military coup in May, foreign visitors to Thailand are increasingly complaining that police Bangkok are stopping and questioning them, searching their persons and belongings, demanding they submit to drug tests, and handing out on-the-spot fines that must be paid immediately in cash. Most of the harassment is taking place on the city's main thoroughfare, Sukhumvit Road. The British ambassador said last week he had raised the issue with local tourism authorities.

Medical Marijuana Update

Big news out of Washington and, for a change, most of our medical marijuana news is out of the Midwest this week. Let's get to it:

National

Last Saturday, the Senate passed the omnibus spending bill with an amendment blocking federal medical marijuana enforcement. The amendment that will effectively end for now Justice Department interference in states where medical marijuana is legal by barring the department from using its funds to go after patients and providers there.

Indiana

On Wednesday, a lawmaker said she would introduce a medical marijuana bill. Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Portage) said she plans to introduce a medical marijuana bill in the upcoming legislative session. She cited Congress's vote to bar the use of Justice Department funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal. In previous sessions, Tallian has introduced pot decriminalization bills, but those have gone nowhere.

Iowa

On Tuesday,a group of Iowans orgnized to push for a more effective medical marijuana law. The legislature this year passed a bill allowing for the use of low-THC cannabis oil to treat people with epilepsy, but that's not good enough for a new group, Iowans 4 Medical Cannabis. The group today announced it had formed to push legislators to make it possible to produce and dispense medical marijuana.

Oklahoma

Last Friday, a cannabis oil medical marijuana bill was filed. Rep. John Echols (R-Oklahoma City) has said he planned to file a low-THC cannabis oil bill. The bill would only allow for use my children suffering from epilepsy. The news comes as the director of the state's drug agency says he now backs a study that would make the medicine available to sick children.

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

Obama Commutes Sentences for Eight Drug Offenders

President Barack Obama today commuted the prison sentences of eight drug offenders and issued pardons for 12 other people who had already finished their sentences. The commutations were for people imprisoned for crack cocaine and methamphetamine offenses.

President Obama exercises his clemency powers. (whitehouse.gov)
No one is walking out of prison today, but all eight had their sentences reduced to lengths that will allow them to walk out at some point in the next year.

Among those who got commutations is Sidney Earl Johnson of Mobile, Alabama, who has been serving a life sentence for crack cocaine offenses since 1994. Another is Larry Naylor of Memphis, who has been serving a life sentence for 50 grams of crack since 1997.

Obama pardoned another 12 people who had already served their time for offenses -- sometimes decades in the past. Four of those pardoned were also drug offenders.

Obama had not been particularly prolific with his exercise of the commutation power -- he had only commuted 10 sentences in his first six years in office -- but earlier this year, the administration announced new, more expansive clemency guidelinesb in a bid to decrease the number of people imprisoned under draconian drug war statutes.

At the time, the White House said the new rules could result in "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of people being granted clemency. This is a start.

See the complete list of pardons and commutations here.

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM: A Century of Drug War, Yet Another Drug War Bill, Iran Drug Executions Slammed, More (12/17/14)

It's the 100th anniversary of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, a GOP senator chides Obama for "pro-marijuana" messages, human rights groups urge the UNODC to quit funding Iranian drug enforcement because of its resort to the death penalty, and more. Let's get to it:

An execution in Iran. The Islamic Republic has executed more than 300 drug offenders this year. (iranhr.net)
Marijuana Policy

Republican Senator Says Obama Administration's "Pro-Marijuana" Messages Promote Teen Drug Use. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) suggested Tuesday that the Obama administration's failure to block marijuana legalization had sent kids the message that drug use is okay. "When kids receive the message that marijuana use is acceptable and even welcome, it's no wonder that the perception of harm from marijuana goes down," Grassley said in a statement. "By offering pro-marijuana messages, the president and his top appointees are working at cross purposes with the federal government experts who are trying to stop drug use among teenagers." Grassley was complaining that the annual Monitoring the Future survey of teen drug use showed that kids didn't think pot was as dangerous as they used to. But he seems to have missed the part that showed that teen marijuana is not increasing.

Anchorage City Council Kills Move to Ban Pot Sales. A proposal from Anchorage Assembly member and mayoral candidate Amy Demboski to ban recreational marijuana sales in Alaska's largest city went down in ignominious defeat Tuesday night. After four hours of public testimony -- almost unanimously against the measure -- and debate, the measure was killed on a vote of 9-2.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana Lawmaker Will Introduce Medical Marijuana Bill. Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Portage) said today she plans to introduce a medical marijuana bill in the upcoming legislative session. She cited Congress's vote to bar the use of Justice Department funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal. In previous sessions, Tallian has introduced pot decriminalization bills, but those have gone nowhere.

Drug Policy

A Hundred Years of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. Today is the 100th anniversary of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, generally considered to mark the beginning of America's 20th Century war on drugs. While the act was not directly prohibitionist -- it was a regulatory and taxation measure -- it led almost immediately to the criminalization of both drug-addicted people and the doctors who sought to treat them with maintenance doses of opiates. A hundred years later, we're still mired in the drug war.

Senate Approves Yet Another Drug War Bill. The Senate Monday approved Senate Bill 706, the Transnational Drug Trafficking Act, which would give the Justice Department the authority to prosecute people in other countries who manufacture drugs or precursors that they have "reasonable cause to believe… will be unlawfully imported into the United States." It also increases penalties for trafficking in counterfeit drugs. The bill was cosponsored by Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA). An identical bill, HR 2214, is in the House, but has not moved since May.

International

Citing Death Penalty, Human Rights Groups Urge UN to Quit Funding Counter-Drug Operations in Iran. Six human rights organizations today called on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to quit funding anti-drug operations in Iran until the Islamic Republic ends the death penalty for drug offenses. The call came in a letter sent to UNODC head Yuri Fedotov. The groups said more than 300 drug traffickers had been executed in Iran so far this year. Signatories to the letter included Human Rights Watch, Reprieve, Iran Human Rights, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Harm Reduction International and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation.

French Health Minister Wants to Ban Pot Vaporizers. Health Minister Marisol Touraine said Tuesday she would seek to ban a new e-cigarette than contains marijuana. The move came on the same day a French-Czech company called Kanavape announced its vaporizers were going on sale in France. "I am opposed to such a product being commercialized in France," Touraine said. Such as product would "incite the consumption of cannabis," she added. Kanavape argues its product is legal because its oil contains no THC.

Most Dutch-Grown Pot is Exported, Government Report Says. A report from the Dutch government's Research and Documentation Center (WODC) estimates that between 78% and 91% of marijuana grown in the Netherlands is exported. The report is expected to support moves by the Dutch government to crack down on marijuana cultivation instead of moving to regulate it.

Chronicle AM: Teen Pot Use Not Up, Federal Police Killings Bill Filed, Mexico Mayhem, More (12/16/14)

The Monitoring the Future teen drug use survey is out, the "CRomnibus" bill also killed highway drug use surveys, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) wants better information on police killings, a damning report is released in Mexico, and more. Let's get to it:

If Walid Jumblatt has his way, this Lebanese hash field could be legal. (cannabisculture.com)
Marijuana Policy

Drug Use Survey Finds Teen Marijuana Use Declining Even as States Legalize. The annual Monitoring the Future survey of teen habits is out today, and it finds that legalization has not sparked an increase in teen pot smoking. The survey found that 24% of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders reported past use marijuana last, down from 26% the year before. And among 12th graders, the number who reported daily use also declined from 6.5% last year to 5.8% this year. There's much more to the survey; click the survey link to see it.

Medical Marijuana

Iowans Organize to Push for More Effective Medical Marijuana Law. The legislature this year passed a bill allowing for the use of low-THC cannabis oil to treat people with epilepsy, but that's not good enough for a new group, Iowans 4 Medical Cannabis. The group today announced it had formed to push legislators to make it possible to produce and dispense medical marijuana.

Driving

Omnibus Spending Bill Cut Funds for NHTSA Roadside Drug Use Surveys. The $1.1 trillion spending bill that has gotten so much attention over its marijuana provisions also bars the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from using funds to complete its "National Roadside Survey." It was a voluntary survey that only collected data from people willing to participate, but came under congressional criticism after a Texas TV station aired a program about a Fort Worth checkpoint where police ordered motorists off the road at random to collect samples.

Law Enforcement

Federal Bill Filed to Increase Reporting of Deadly Force by Police. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) has filed HR 5866, which would "require the Attorney General to issue rules pertaining to the collection and compilation of data on the use of deadly force by law enforcement officers." The bill next was not available at press time. The bill has five cosponsors -- all Democrats -- and has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Drug Testing

WorkForce West Virginia Drug Testing Doesn't Find Many Dopers. In its annual report to the legislature, WorkForce West Virginia, the state's employment services program, reported that it had subjected 1,205 people to drug testing upon their seeking tuition reimbursement for employment training programs. Only 1% of them failed. No word on the cost of drug testing all those people.

International

Mexican Federal Police Accused of Collaborating With Local Cops in Case of Missing Student Teachers. In an article published over the weekend, the respected Mexican political weekly Proceso reported that federal police worked together with Iguala police in the September attack on teachers' college students that left 43 missing and presumed dead and which has sparked protests across the country. Proceso also reported that federal police likely tortured key witnesses whose testimony was critical in the federal attorney general's investigation of the case. "We have information that proves the federal government knew what was happening in the moment it was happening, and participated in it," Anabel Hernández, the lead reporter for the Proceso piece, said in an interview. "The government has tried to hide this information." There's much more at the link.

Armed Civilians Block Western Mexico Highways Seeking Crackdown on Cartels, But… Hundreds of armed men blocked highways around nine cities in the Western state of Michoacan over the weekend as a means of pressuring the government to crack down on the Knights Templar cartel. They unfurled banners calling for the arrest of cartel leaders. But at least some of the armed men were identified as members of Los Viagras, a group of gunmen who had once served as the Knights Templar's armed wing and who are now trying to displace them from the drug trade in the state.

Canadian Federal Government Loses Again in Bid to Block Home Medical Marijuana Cultivation. Health Canada earlier this year issued new medical marijuana rules that prohibited home growing and shifted production to commercial operations, but it has so far been blocked by the courts from implementing them, and now it has been blocked again. Patients won an injunction earlier this year to allow them to continue growing their own. Health Canada appealed that decision, but the Federal Court of Appeal has now upheld the injunction.

Druze Leader Walid Jumblatt Calls Again for Legal Hash in Lebanon. Veteran Lebanese power-broker Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze community, has renewed his call for legal hash production. "It's time to allow hash to be grown and to overturn arrest warrants against people sought for doing so," wrote in Arabic on his Twitter feed. He expanded his comments in an interview with Al-Jadeed TV. "Never in my life have I smoked marijuana, but I support growing cannabis for medical use and to improve the living conditions of farmers in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley. Let's legalize cannabis and regulate its cultivation."

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