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Chronicle AM--May 30, 2014

Yesterday was a bad day for the DEA as the House thrice voted to slap its hands, an anti-marijuana initiative in Montana gets okayed for signature-gathering, the New York Senate releases a report on heroin and opiate addiction and calls for more drug war, marijuana legalization supporters rally in Tel Aviv, and more. Let's get to it:

The DEA had a bad day on Capitol Hill yesterday.
Marijuana Policy

Montana Anti-Marijuana Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. An initiative that would repeal Montana's already severely scaled-back medical marijuana law and ban anything listed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana, has been approved for signature-gathering. But Billings car dealer and initiative sponsor Steve Zabawa has only three weeks to get the 24,175 signatures necessary to get the measure on the November ballot.

Medical Marijuana

In Historic Vote, House Bars Justice Department, DEA from Using Taxpayer Funds to Interfere with Medical Marijuana in States Where It Is Legal. The US House of Representatives voted 219-189 last night to approve an amendment to 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill to cut off funds for the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, to interfere in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs. If the Senate doesn't come up with similar language, the provision will have to be fought for in conference committee.

Hemp

In Historic Vote, House Bars Justice Department, DEA from Using Taxpayer Funds to Interfere with Hemp Production in States Where It Is Legal. The US House of Representatives voted last night to bar the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, from using taxpayer dollars to interfere with industrial hemp production in states where it is legal. Hemp production for research purposes in states that have laws allowing it was approved by the Congress as part of the omnibus farm bill earlier this year. A dozen states have such laws.

Law Enforcement

In Historic Vote, House Takes Funds from DEA, Shifts Them to Addressing Rape Kit Backlog. In addition to barring the DEA from going after hemp and medical marijuana in states where they are legal, the House also approved an amendment from Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) to take $5 million from the DEA's appropriation and shift the money into grants for state and local law enforcement to address backlogs of untested rape kits. The House voted down another Cohen amendment that would have taken $15 million from the DEA and allocated it instead to the Legal Services Corporation. The House also approved an amendment that would block additional staffing for the Pardon Attorney's Office in a bid to thwart President Obama's call for drug war prisoners to seek clemency.

Heroin and Opiates

New York Senate Task Force Proposes Massive Package of Prevention, Treatment, Law Enforcement Bills to Fight Increased Heroin, Prescription Pill Use. The state Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction issued its final report Wednesday. The report, Solutions to New York's Heroin Epidemic, calls for prevention, treatment, and harm reduction measures, but the 25-bill package it includes is heavy on law enforcement. Thirteen of the 25 proposed bills would ratchet up the drug war. There is a complete list of the bills in the package in the report.

International

Colombian Government Releases Outline of Drug Accords With FARC. The Colombian government has released a document laying out the points agreed to with the FARC guerrillas on dealing with drug cultivation and the illicit drug trade. The two sides, meeting at peace talks in Havana a couple of weeks ago, reached the agreement a couple of weeks ago. Colombia Reports has the details at the title link.

Despite Drug Decriminalization, Colombia Continues to Arrest, Hassle Drug Users, Researcher Finds. In a report from the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law, researcher Diane Guzman found that Colombia continues to rely excessively on punishing drug users, even though drug use is decriminalized there. Guzman blames police enforcement strategies and their focus on arrest, and reports that drug users detained by police are often let go after they pay bribes. She also found that Colombia's goal of reducing drug addiction suffers because the country doesn't devote sufficient resources to improving health care and rehabilitation for drug users. The report, En Busca De Los Derechos: Usuarios De Drogas Y Las Respuestas Estatales En América Latina, also examines drug policies in seven other Latin American countries. Guzman wrote the Colombia chapter.

Thousands March for Marijuana in Tel Aviv. An estimated 2,000 people marched and rallied for marijuana legalization in Tel Aviv Thursday night. The march comes as the Knesset prepares to debate a bill easing restrictions on medical marijuana next week and a bill from MK Tamar Zandberg to legalize marijuana a few weeks from now.

Chronicle AM -- May 29, 2014

Minnesota becomes the 22nd medical marijuana state, the California Senate passes a medical marijuana regulation bill and a bill equalizing crack and powder cocaine offenses, a new study reports on who current heroin users are, there are a series of votes set for today to rein in the DEA, a Canadian court allows heroin-assisted treatment trials to move forward, and more. Let's get to it:

Cocaine is cocaine, whether rock or powder, and the California Senate has voted to treat it like that. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Poll Has Support for Legalization at 42%. A Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll released today has support for marijuana legalization at 42%, with 52% opposed. The poll conducted by the Glengariff Group of Chicago surveyed 600 voters. It has a margin of error of +/ -4%. "There is a sharp difference in attitudes on marijuana legalization among voters under and over the age of 40," said pollster Richard Czuba. "And while Democratic voters support legalization of marijuana, independents and Republican voters strongly oppose legalization." Click the link for more demographic details.

Washington, DC, Initiative is Sweating the Signature-Gathering. Organizers of the DC initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana -- but not the legalization and regulation of marijuana sales -- are "a little nervous" about the progress of their signature-gathering campaign. They have until July 7 to collect 22,373 valid voter signatures. They had collected some 19,000 raw signatures by Monday, but of the 16,734 that have been processed, only 5,360 have been found to be valid.

Delaware Decriminalization Bill Filed. Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington) today introduced a decriminalization bill, House Bill 371. It would make possession of up to an ounce a civil offense with a maximum $100 fine for people 21 and over. Currently, possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) today signed into law the medical marijuana bill approved earlier this month by the legislature. It allows for eight distribution centers across the state to by supplied by two medical marijuana manufacturers. The bill does not allow for the smoking of medical marijuana; but it can be vaped or eaten. Some medical marijuana groups are calling the law "overly restrictive."

California Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill. The state Senate yesterday approved Senate Bill 1262, sponsored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Anaheim). It is supported by cities and law enforcement, and would impose tighter controls on dispensaries, cultivation, and recommending. A competing bill, Assembly Bill 1894, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) was expected to be voted on today. If both pass their respective houses, look for a compromise.

Drug Policy

Congress Set to Vote Today on Four Amendments to Reign in DEA. Congress is set to vote today on at least four amendments aimed at reigning in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). One would prohibit DEA from interfering in states that allow medical marijuana; another would prohibit it from blocking hemp seed imports in states that have approved hemp research; a third would prohibit it from undermining state laws that allow for hemp cultivation; and a fourth would reject a proposed $35 million increase in the DEA's FY 2015 budget.

Heroin

Today's Heroin Users Are Mainly Young, White and Not in the Big City, New Study Finds. A new research article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that, unlike the heroin boom of the 1960s, most heroin users today are young white men whose opiate habits overwhelmingly started with prescription pain pills. "Our data show that the demographic composition of heroin users entering treatment has shifted over the last 50 years such that heroin use has changed from an inner-city, minority-centered problem to one that has a more widespread geographical distribution, involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside of large urban areas," the authors concluded.

Law Enforcement

Minnesota Prosecutor "Sending a Message" Charges Five Teens With Murder in Teen Girl's Overdose Death. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput has charged five local teenagers with murder in the January death of a 17-year-old girl who died after taking a new synthetic hallucinogen. "We think there's a moral obligation to keep kids free of drugs," said Orput. "We're sending a message that suppliers will be held fully to account." Those charged include a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old, and three 17-year-olds. Orput said the three minors will be charged as adults. The 19-year-old is accused of being the dealer; the others bought some of the drug and shared it among themselves and the dead girl.

Customs to Curtail Searches of General Aviation Aircraft Not Crossing Borders. After loud complaints from private pilots that their domestic flights were being searched for drugs by Customs agents, the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) has announced it will curtail the searches. An official told National Public Radio yesterday that "his agency has heard pilots' grievances and the program is being altered so as not to needlessly affront law-abiding pilots." The Airline Operators and Pilots Association has been raising a stink about the issue for the past year, saying it has received more than 50 reports from members who recounted their encounters with law enforcement at airports.

Georgia SWAT Team Throws Flash-Bang Grenade, Burns Toddler in Drug Raid. A 2-year-old child was burned when members of the Habersham County Special Response Team deployed a "distraction device" as they executed a drug search warrant early yesterday morning. The raid came a day after a snitch made a drug buy at the home and reported no children present. The raiders got themselves a no-knock warrant and breached the door of the home. "What had happened was there was a playpen -- a Pack N Play -- that was pushed up against the door, and when they breached the door it wouldn't open up because of the Pack N Play," Sheriff Joey Terrell said. "It was just wide enough to toss the flash bang in, then they had to physically push it [Pack N Play] on out of the way to get in. That's when the team medics saw the child, stopped at the child, took the child out and began first aid. "The door that we entered was the door that we bought dope out of -- that's why entered at that door," Terrell said. "Our team went by the book. Given the same scenario, we'll do the same thing again. I stand behind what our team did," he maintained. He blames the target of the warrant. Read the whole story at the link.

Sentencing

California Senate Approves Bill to Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. The state Senate Wednesday approved a bill that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine sales and make it easier to get probation for either. The measure is Senate Bill 1010, introduced by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). It now goes to the Assembly.

International

Peru Names Former Defense Minister as New Drug Czar. President Ollanta Humala has named former Defense Minister Luis Otorala as the new head of the Peruvian anti-drug agency, DEVIDA. He replaces Carman Masias. Otarola said that while eradication of coca crops will continue, greater emphasis will be placed on economic alternatives for farmers. Hardline critics said the move and the new emphasis "showed a weakening in the resolve of the government" to confront the drug trade. Peru is once again the world's leading coca and cocaine producer.

Medical Marijuana Bill Introduced in Philippines. Rep. Rodolfo Albano III has filed a medical marijuana bill in the Philippine legislature. House Bill 4477, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Bill, is intended "to provide accessible, affordable, safe medical cannabis to qualifying patients."

British Columbia Supreme Court Grants Injunction for Heroin Treatment Study to Continue. Canada's BC Supreme Court today granted an injunction for an exemption from federal drug laws for participants in the SALOME study (The Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Maintenance Effectiveness). The injunction will allow doctors in the study to continue prescribing heroin to patients for whom other treatment options have been ineffective.

There's More to Colorado Than Marijuana [FEATURE]

Colorado has certainly garnered a lot of attention since voters there decided to legalize marijuana in the 2012 election, but when it comes to drug reform, there's a lot more going on in the Rocky Mountain State than just buds, blunts, and bongs. In the past few years, Colorado has taken significant steps toward more enlightened drug policies, and with the powerful coalitions that have emerged to push the agenda, more is likely to come.

Passed last year while all the attention was on the legislature's race to get marijuana commerce regulations passed, the single most significant piece of broader drug reform legislation was Senate Bill 250, which aims to rein in and redirect corrections spending by reducing the number of drug offenders in prison.

The bill creates a separate sentencing system for drug offenders and allows people convicted of some felony drug charges to be sentenced to probation and community-based sentencing and see that felony charge changed to a misdemeanor conviction upon completion of probation. It allow provides that savings from the sentencing changes be plowed back into drug treatment.

The bill didn't come out of nowhere. It was the outgrowth of a 2008 law that created the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice. That panel brought together in one effort the heads of all the relevant state agencies as they grappled with how to reduce recidivism and put a brake on prison spending. It also provided an opportunity for groups like the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC) to start confronting the commission with research-based evidence about what does and doesn't work.

"There is a lot of good evidence-based practice that shows what we did in the past didn't work, and a lot of it had to do with national attention," said Pam Clifton, communications coordinator for the CCJRC. "People were asking 'How come half your people are going back to prison?' Well, we didn't have funding for treatment in Colorado. If you didn't have any money, there wasn't any place for you to go. Another problem was helping people on the front end. How can we be more proactive with people on probation? The recession gave us a little bit of leverage."

But to get sentencing and drug reforms passed required not just a commission to come up with best policies and practices, but a political leadership that was willing to act. That came in 2008, when Colorado turned from red to blue, with a new Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, and Democrats in control of the legislature.

"When Bill Owens (R) was governor, he wasn't going to let anything happen," said Clifton. "But with the commission, a lot of conversations got started and we were able to educate about why change was needed, so when we had a change in leadership, there was a mandate from the commission to get good legislation passed. A lot of the recommendations the commission made went directly to the legislature, and when a bill showed up from the commission, it had a better opportunity to survive the process."

And while, as noted above, the legislature has passed other reforms, Senate Bill 250 was the biggie.

"That was the landmark legislation that really changes things," said Clifton. "This was the whole state -- prosecutors, defense counsel, the commission, us -- coming together and agreeing it was the right approach."

The bill only went into effect last October, so its results remain to be seen. But advocates are confident it has not only changed the conversation about drugs and sentencing, but that it will pay off in terms of fewer prisoners doing less time at less cost to the state -- and with less harm to the futures of drug offenders in the state.

Even the prisons are scenic in Colorado, although it is hoped that fewer prisoners will be forced to enjoy the view soon. (CDOC)
"It's too early to tell what impact Senate Bill 250 will have," said Art Way, Colorado manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It was definitely a step in the right direction, though. It shrank the number of felony degrees for drug charges from six to four, and now, many low-level drug felonies can wobble down to misdemeanors thanks to that bill. It's not true defelonization of use and possession, but it still gives defendants some opportunities to avoid the label of felons."

And the CCJRC deserves some major credit, he said.

"The CCJRC has been doing great work in the past decade revealing that we are on an unsustainable path," said Way. "The Department of Corrections budget was only increasing year after year, and they were able to make this a fiscal argument as well as a human argument. They've been at the forefront here."

Another front where Colorado is forging ahead is harm reduction. Needle exchange programs were legalized in 2010 and there are now six across the state, the state passed a 911 Good Samaritan law in 2012, and a law allowing friends and family members of injection drug users to carry and administer the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) passed last year.

Activists have also managed to push through laws exempting needle exchange participants from the state's drug paraphernalia laws, and in Denver, an ordinance last year allowed the first mobile needle exchange in the state.

"We've been really excited, not only about all these programs, but also about getting these policy wins," said Lisa Raville of the Denver-based Harm Reduction Action Center. "Every time we go to the capitol, we've been winning. The legislature is very excited about harm reduction."

After passing Senate Bill 250, this year was relatively quiet on the sentencing and drug reform front. There are a number of reasons for that, some of them having to do with gauging public (and legislative) attitudes in the wake of a well-publicized violent crime, the killing of state prison chief Tom Clements by a parolee.

"Our corrections director was murdered last spring, and that caused a lot of ripples and made people at the capitol freak out a bit, so we wanted to tread lightly," said Clifton. "And things are really tricky in Colorado now," she added. "Elections are coming up, and everyone's concerned about what color we're going to be come November. Our elected officials are all being very cautious right now."

Like the CCJC, the harm reductionists were quiet in the legislature this year. It was a time for solidifying gains and getting previous victories implemented, Raville said.

Harm reduction measures in place in Colorado include needle exchanges and overdose reversal drug access. (wikimedia.org)
"This is an election year, and we knew they would be playing defense at the capitol," she said. "We decided this year would be all about promoting harm reduction policies and procedures. When we got those laws passed, we assumed that the legislature and the courts would implement them, but they didn't, so we spent the first six months promoting implementation, working with the legislature, as well as working with doctors and pharmacies so they know about these new laws."

But that doesn't mean the Harm Reduction Action Center is giving up on the legislature.

"Depending on how the election goes, our goal next year is total syringe decriminalization," said Raville. "We have the exemption for needle exchange participants, but there are still folks who won't ever access a needle exchange program, and we want them exempt as well. Now, you can get eight to 15 days in jail for every syringe, clean or used."

Raville pointed to the success of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition in getting a similar measure passed last year in the last year in getting a similar measure passed in the Tar Heel State. That partial decriminalization bill allows people carrying needles to avoid arrest if they inform officers they are carrying them.

"Robert Childs and the NCHRC got that passed with the support of law enforcement, who didn't want to get pricked," she said. "That's inspired us to work closely with the Denver Police Department. We have two officers on our advisory board."

"We have an overdose issue here in Colorado," Raville noted. "ODs have tripled in the past 10 years, and we have a fatal overdose every day and a half in the state. Not many doctors are prescribing naloxone, but we've had 92 overdose reversals so far. And a couple of hospitals in Denver are discharging overdose patients with a prescription for naloxone. We're trying to make that the standard for hospitals across the state."

While it was relatively quiet this year in the legislature, activists had to play defense on one set of bills and managed to kill them. That was a pair of bills to amend the civil code for child neglect to explicitly include marijuana use as an indicator, even though the state has legalized both medical and recreational marijuana use and possession.

"Stopping that bill was our top concern this year," said Way. "We worried that amending the civil code the way those bills tried to do would simply help law enforcement during drug investigations by leveraging parental rights. This wasn't a public health approach; it was a law enforcement bill couched as a public health and child protection bill," he said.

"The bill's fiscal notes only involving increasing bed space for what they expected to an influx of people put in jail," he noted. "There was nothing about access to treatment or reunification with kids. It was a standard, punitive drug war approach to a public health issue, and we were able to kill it for the second year in a row."

The CCJRC, for its part, is continuing to push for reform. While it wasn't ready to share its strategic planning for the near future, Clifton did say that the group is working around implementation of the Affordable Care Act's provisions requiring insurance companies to cover drug treatment.

"We've convened a stakeholder group from around the state -- health care and criminal justice people -- to make sure they knew each other as a step toward successfully implementing the ACA, getting more people in treatment, and reducing the prison population. We're teaching people how to navigate the system and teaching the system how to help people navigate it," she said.

And while sentencing reform and harm reduction efforts in Colorado haven't, for the most part, been about marijuana, the whole opening on marijuana has given political and social space to drug reform efforts that go beyond pot.

"The conversation about marijuana has absolutely helped," said Raville. "We legalized it and the sky didn't fall. This has helped normalize pot and normalize drug use more broadly. And it's been a good opportunity to talk to people about how voting matters."

"Marijuana reform has helped legislators understand what we mean by a public health approach," said Way. "We hope to now be able to address drug policy on a broader level with the legislature."

But much of that will depend on what the makeup of the legislature looks like after November. Still, Colorado has shown what some persistence, some coalition-building, and some science, evidence, and compassion can accomplish.

CO
United States

Chronicle AM -- May 22, 2014

A new poll suggests Vermont is ready to legalize it, and so is the mayor of Rome, a San Francisco crack pipe exchange is set to expand, a West Virginia county's latest grand jury indictments shine a light on drug war in the Appalachians, Bermuda marijuana growers want an emergency exemption for medical marijuana, and more. Let's get to it:

Bermuda-grown cannabis indica await patients there. (Alan Gordon)
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Poll Has 57% Support for Legalization, Taxation, and Regulation. A new poll from the Castleton Polling Institute has 57% of respondents saying they would support legalizing marijuana for adults, taxing it, and regulating it like alcohol. Only 34% were opposed. The poll has +/- 4% margin of error. The Vermont legislature approved a bill in April that includes an amendment initiating a study to evaluate the potential impact of making marijuana legal for adults and regulating it similarly to alcohol. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) is expected to sign it into law.

Medical Marijuana

North Carolina Legislator Files Bill for Medical Marijuana Referendum. Rep. Kelly Alexander (D-Mecklenburg) has filed a measure, House Bill 1161, that, if approved, would put a referendum on the November ballot asking voters to legalize the use and cultivation of marijuana to treat specified medical conditions. Alexander had filed a medical marijuana bill last year, but it went nowhere in the legislature. The new bill would have to get super-majorities in both chambers of the legislature before it could go to the voters.

Harm Reduction

San Francisco's Crack Pipe Exchange Program to Expand. A crack pipe exchange program operated by volunteers from the Urban Survivors Union, a drug users' rights group, is set to expand even though the city won't condone or fund the program. Volunteers have been distributing about 50 clean crack pipes a week in the Tenderloin, SOMA, and Polk Gulch neighborhoods, even though city officials say there is no evidence it is an effective harm reduction measure. Seattle is the only other city in the country with a similar program.

Sentencing

Federal Smarter Sentencing Act Picks Up Another Sponsor. Rep. David Price (D-NC) has become the latest representative to endorse the Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 (House Resolution 3382). The bill would reduce some drug mandatory minimums, allow judges greater leeway to sentence beneath the mandatory minimum, and allow for reduced sentences for crack offenders whose offense took place before passage of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010. Price is the 32nd cosponsor and the second this week.

Law Enforcement

In One West Virginia County, Drugs Dominate Grand Jury Indictments. Holy hydrocodone, Batman! The Fayette County grand jury in West Virginia has just released its May batch of bills of indictment, and 71 out 101 of them were for drugs and related charges. There are a whole lot of "conspiracy" and "possession with intent to distribute" charges, too. The indictments don't specify which drugs were at play, but there are a bunch of "obtaining a controlled substance by misrepresentation, fraud, or forgery" charges as well, and a handful of meth lab charges. Click on the link for the whole list.

International

Mayor of Rome Says Legalize It. Rome Mayor Ignazio Marino said Wednesday he supports legalizing marijuana in Italy. "I am in favor of the possibility of deregulating cannabis for medical or personal use," he told the 8th Annual Conference of the International Society for the Study of Drug Policy. "In 2011, more than one million plants were confiscated in our country compared to 73,000 in France," Marino continued. "Organized crime still manages large portions of international traffic and there are enough reasons to reopen the debate today in Italy. We live in a time in which reform for drug laws is necessary on an international and national level. For Italy I personally have a very clear idea of what needs to be done: the decriminalization of marijuana should be considered a starting point because the years of prohibition have not brought any results to prevent the dramatic increase in the use of drugs. In addition, new forms of legalization could be experimented with in medicine for people's health but also to target organized crime." Marino's comments come just weeks after the Italian parliament approved a new law amending the country's drug laws and treating marijuana as a "soft drug" with reduced penalties.

Portugal Soon to Get First Safe Injection Site. The Lisbon city council has approved the location for what would be Portugal's first "assisted consumption room" for drug users. Portugal approved safe injection sites several years ago, but left implementation up to local councils. None had moved to do so until now.

Bermuda Marijuana Growers Seek Emergency Amnesty for Medical Grows, Offer Up Over 50 Locally Available Varieties. Bermuda attorney and marijuana reform activist Alan Gordon, speaking on behalf of a collective of nearly two dozen Bermuda marijuana growers, called today for the government to act immediately to allow for the use of medical marijuana, as called for in last month's Cannabis Reform Collaboration report. "There is only one way to allow the immediate medical cannabis called for by the CRC Report," Gordon said. "We need to just do it instead of just shuffling paperwork. Eighty small medical grade cannabis trees are available to start, and over 50 medical cannabis strains currently on-island." Click on the title link to read more.

NORML Canada Conference This Weekend in Toronto. NORML Canada is holding its annual conference this weekend in Toronto. Click on the link for the details.

Indonesia's New Drug Treatment Over Prison Scheme Faces Challenges. In another excellent analysis from Asiancorrespondent.com, Patrick Tibke looks at Indonesia's progressive new guidelines for the "Processing of Drug Addicts and Drug Abusers into Rehabilitation Centers" and warns of the obstacles ahead in actually implementing such reforms. As he notes, the move was not new legislation, but simply gives a push to the country's 2009 Narcotics Law, which first allowed for the rehabilitation of drug users instead of their incarceration. Whether and how this will actually be implemented remains to be seen. It's a good, thorough read; click on the link for the whole thing.

California's Latinos Are Ready for Sentencing Reform, Poll Finds [FEATURE]

A bill that would significantly reform California's drug sentencing laws is poised for approval in the state Senate, and a new poll showing strong support for sentencing reform among Latino voters could help push it over the top.

California's prisons are still overcrowded. (supremecourt.gov)
Senate Bill 1010, the Fair Sentencing Act, would equalize the penalties for sale of crack and powder cocaine. Under current California law, crack offenses are treated more harshly than powder cocaine offenses. The bill would also equalize probation requirements and asset forfeiture rules for offenses involving the two forms of the same drug.

Sponsored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), the bill passed the Senate Public Safety Committee last month and the Senate Appropriations Committee last week. It now heads for the Senate floor. It needs to pass in its chamber of origin this month or it dies.

The bill is supported by dozens of community, religious, civil liberty, civil rights, drug reform, and other groups. It is opposed by the California Narcotics Officers Association and the California Police Chiefs Association.

Among Latino groups supporting the bill are the National Council of La Raza, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, Homies Unidos, the Latino Voters League, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Presente.

The poll results released today by Latino Decisions help explain why these groups are supporting sentencing reform efforts and may even encourage them to redouble their efforts. They show strong support for sentencing reform among California's Latino electorate. The poll only sampled registered voters.

When asked if the state should minimize penalties for drug possession, but continue to hold drug sellers accountable, a whopping 69% said yes. The lowest level of support among any Hispanic demographic was 59% among 40-to-59-year-olds.

When asked if racial disparities in law enforcement were a serious or very serious problem, an even more overwhelming 82% said yes. Even among Latino Republicans, the demographic least likely to be concerned, the figure was at 57%.

A third question asked whether respondents favored penalties for personal drug possession of drug treatment, case by case referrals, or zero tolerance. Again Latino voters overwhelmingly supported treatment or case by case (79% combined) over zero tolerance (16%).

"We're very excited to see the results of this poll," said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente, during a teleconference announcing and analyzing the results. "It's very clear that the poll findings reaffirm that Latinos want drug sentencing reform and a fix to our broken justice system. If politicians want to mobilize the Latino vote, they need to support these issues. Over the coming weeks and months, Latinos and allied groups will be working to support common sense reforms like this bill."

That only makes sense, Carmona said.

another drug arrest in California. (wikimedia.org)
"These issues are having a significant impact on our society, our state, and increasingly, the Latino community," he argued. "The US imprisons more people than any nation in the world, mostly due to the war on drugs, and blacks and Latinos are far more likely to be criminalized than whites. When you add in the federal detention center population, Latinos now make up the largest federal prison population in the country."

Dr. Adrian Pantoja, a senior analyst with Latino Decisions, emphasized that the poll was of registered Latino voters.

"These are folks who are part of the political process," he said. "These are the Latinos who will be voting and helping to shape our politics. And among them, we have a rejection of war on drugs strategies and incarceration, with large majorities across the board supporting sentencing reform for drug possession and use."

"It's evident that the Latino community is in a state of crisis," said Armando Gudino, a policy associate with the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the community most disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs and unprecedented levels of incarceration. Latinos are fully aware of this, and we've begun to shift toward more responsible policies seeking to remove or reduce criminal penalties."

The poll demonstrates that attitudes are changing in the Hispanic community, Gudino said.

"Latinos have traditionally been deemed a conservative group, but we see shifting attitudes, and we could well see support we haven't seen in the past," he noted. "The older generation is more conservative, but the community isn't homogenous, and the same can't be said about other groups within the community, who have already shifted toward favoring issues like decriminalization, medical marijuana, and the efforts around taxing and regulating marijuana. This poll demonstrates that the Latino community is increasingly involved, informed, and willing to make changes."

"Latinos are now a majority in California, we have a seat at the table, and it's critical we're part of this conversation," said Mike De La Rocha, director of strategic partnerships for Californians for Safety and Justice. "Latinos are poised to have a voice in how we address crime and public safety. We understand our approach to crime isn't working, and we're finding our voice in these criminal justice debates."

Colombia, FARC Reach Accord on Drug Issues

The Colombian government and the Marxist guerrillas of the FARC have reportedly reached an agreement on how to deal with drug issues, the third item in a five-part agenda for peace talks that have ongoing in Havana since 2012.

Both Reuters and Business Week reported Friday afternoon that an agreement had been reached. Both cited Colombian government officials who spoke anonymously because the agreement hasn't been made public yet. And neither have the details.

[Update: The FARC and the Colombian government have now released a joint communique outlining the areas of agreement. They include programs for crop substitution, the end of aerial eradication--although the government maintains the ability to undertake it in extreme circumstances--a national drug use prevention education program, a national drug rehabilitation program, and Colombia challenging current drug control policies in international forums like the United Nations.]

The FARC has been at war with the Colombian state for half a century. Flush with profits from the coca and cocaine trade, it surged in the 1990s, but was beaten back by a vicious counterinsurgency led by the government of former President Alvaro Uribe and backed by billions of dollars in US anti-drug, and later, anti-terrorism assistance. Also aligned with the Colombian state were rightist paramilitary organizations involved in the drug traffic.

The government of President Juan Santos has attempted to end the seemingly perpetual conflict by engaging in the peace talks. Santos is up for reelection later this month against a hard-line Uribe ally, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, whose position is that the FARC must agree to lay down its weapons before engaging in peace talks. This apparent progress in the slow-moving talks could help Santos when voters go to the polls on May 25.

While the FARC has refused a cease-fire while talks are ongoing, on Friday it also announced that it would temporarily cease operations in the days just before and after the election.

The FARC had entered this phase of the negotiations with a 10-point program on the drug issue, including special protections for coca producers, alternative development programs, development of licit uses for coca, poppy, and marijuana crops, an end to aerial fumigation of drug crops, and an to militarized drug law enforcement, decriminalization of drug producers, workers, and consumers, and recognition of problematic drug use as a public health, not a criminal justice problem.

Havana
Cuba

Chronicle AM -- May 15, 2014

An evangelical pollster has support for marijuana legalization at 58% (but not among Christians), the Senate Minority Leader takes on the DEA over hemp, a California defelonization sentencing initiative hands in signatures, we have a fascinating look at meth culture in Tehran, and more. Let's get to it:

When Mitch McConnell is criticizing the DEA, you know you're living in a different century. (senate.gov)
Evangelical Pollster Finds Majority for Legalization, But Not Among Practicing Christians. A new poll conducted by the evangelical Christian polling firm the Barna Group finds that marijuana legalization is supported by 58% of respondents nationwide. But when it comes to "practicing Christians" (people who attended church in the past month), only 32% of evangelicals, 39% of Catholics, and 45% of mainstream Protestants favored legalization. Still, those numbers are trending up. "There is a clear trend toward greater cultural acceptance of recreational marijuana, even among many practicing Christians. National surveys are a great way to find out what people think and how their perspectives have changed over time. But why those changes are happening is more difficult to pin down through conventional polling," said a Barna spokesman. "What we can conclude is that America continues to shift from a culture that values abstinence to one that focuses on experience. Marijuana use fits within a larger trend of liberalizing views and behaviors when it comes to activities like gambling, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, and drinking. As attitudes toward temptations shift, Americans increasingly define the 'pursuit of happiness' to include personally invigorating or even escapist experiences." There's a lot more demographic information at the link, too.

Missouri "Decriminalizes" Marijuana Possession. A new sentencing reform law that has now gone into effect without the signature of Gov. Jay Nixon (R) eliminates the possibility of jail time for the possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less. Senate Bill 491 also reduces sentences for the sale and cultivation of marijuana, including changing current law to allow probation or parole for third offenders. But it doesn't go into effect until January 2017, the "no jail" provision only applies to first offenders, and it's still a criminal misdemeanor, with all the related consequences. Still, the Marijuana Policy Project is calling Missouri the 19th decrim state.

Medical Marijuana

Massachusetts Lawmaker Wants Sales Tax on Medical Marijuana, and Now. State Sen. Brian Joyce (D-Milton) has added an amendment to the Senate budget released last week that would impose a 6.25% sales tax on medical marijuana. He said he wanted it done quickly before there is any organized opposition. Health care goods and services and prescription drugs are generally exempted from the sales tax under state law. But Joyce said at least 10 other medical marijuana states impose sales taxes on it, including neighboring Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine.

Rhode Island Health Department Falling Way Behind on Patient Applications. The state Health Department is eight weeks backlogged in handling patient medical marijuana applications. Patients aren't happy. They're supposed to be automatically approved after 15 days, but the department says it is understaffed and overwhelmed, and it didn't anticipate the volume of applications.

South Carolina Limited CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Moving Toward Passage. A bill that would allow the use of high-CBD marijuana extracts for patients suffering severe epilepsy appears headed for passage. House Bill 4803 has already passed the House and was approved by the Senate Medical Affairs Committee today. It should get a final floor vote next week.

Hemp

Mitch McConnell Rips DEA over Kentucky Hemp Seed Fiasco. The state of Kentucky has already filed a lawsuit against the DEA over its cat and mouse games surrounding the state's effort to import 250 pounds of Italian hemp seeds for use in research projects okayed by an amendment to this year's omnibus farm bill. Now, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader who just happens to be from Kentucky, has weighed in. "It is an outrage that DEA is using finite taxpayer dollars to impound legal industrial hemp seeds," McConnell told Politico last night.

Prescription Drugs

New Oklahoma Law Requires That Names of Overdose Victims Be Reported to Narcs. Under a bill signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Mary Fallin (R), the state medical examiner is required to report the names of overdose victims to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. The stated purpose is to use the information to more closely monitor the state's prescription drug issue and to identify "problem" prescribers. Senate Bill 1183 is part of a broader legislative effort supported by Fallin to tackle non-medical prescription drug use. But the heart of that plan, language that would create a statewide prescription monitoring system and require doctors to check patients' drug histories before writing new prescriptions for opioids and other dangerous drugs, remains stalled as legislators argue over details.

Synthetic Drugs

Minnesota Synthetic Drug Bill Heading for Passage. A bill that bans new synthetic drugs not approved by the FDA and that have effects similar to Schedule I or II controlled substances passed the House Wednesday and now heads to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass. House File 2446 also gives the state Board of Pharmacy emergency regulatory power to stop shops from selling any newer new synthetics.

Asset Forfeiture

Wyoming Lawmakers Want to Reform Asset Forfeiture Laws. The state legislature's Joint Judiciary Interim Committee Tuesday voted to order staff to draft two bills to reform the state's asset forfeiture laws. One bill would eliminate civil asset forfeiture and would allow police to seize property only when someone has been convicted of a crime. The second bill would keep civil forfeiture, but would create a higher standard of proof before allowing assets to be seized. That bill would also require that most proceeds of seizures go into a general account at the state attorney general's office instead of being returned to the seizing agency.

Harm Reduction

Delaware Overdose Reversal Drug Bill Wins Senate Committee Vote. A bill that would make the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) available without a prescription to anyone who completes a training program passed the Senate Health and Social Services Committee Wednesday. Senate Bill 219 now heads for the Senate floor.

Sentencing Reform

California Defelonization Sentencing Initiative Hands in Signatures. Campaigners for an initiative that would make certain felony drug and other crimes misdemeanors has handed in signatures. The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act initiative handed in more than 638,000 signatures earlier this month; it needs 504,000 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. Of signatures checked so far, the validity rate is 78%. The measure's proponents are San Francisco DA George Gascon and San Diego Police Chief William Landsdowne.

International

Tunisia's Prime Minister Says Marijuana Laws Are Too Harsh. Tunisian Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa said at a press conference Wednesday that his country's tough penalties for marijuana possession are "out of sync" with changing times. Possession can currently earn you up to five years in prison, but Jomaa vowed to "amend the law to adapt it to the new reality" in Tunisia, which overthrew its old regime in the most successful of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

Iran Breaks Bad as Crystal Meth Arrives. The Guardian has a lengthy analysis of the rise of methamphetamine in Iran, and particularly in its capital city, Tehran. Meth is exploding there, according to the piece's author, Ramita Navai, author of the newly released "City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran." It's a very interesting read. Click on the link for the whole thing.

Chronicle AM -- May 14, 2014

The NFL is about to adopt a more sensible marijuana policy, the DEA will unblock imported hemp seeds so Kentucky can do some research, Minnesota legislators try to reach a compromise on medical marijuana, the rate of prescription overdose deaths is up, and more. Let's get to it:

People are dying of prescription drug overdoses at a rate three times that of a decade ago, says the CDC. (wikimedia.org
Marijuana Policy

NORML PAC Endorses a Florida Congressional Candidate. NORML PAC, the campaign and lobbying arm of NORML, has endorsed Democrat Wes Neuman for Congress in Florida's 7th District. NORML says it believes "Wes will be a great champion for marijuana law reform in Washington, DC." Neumann says he will advocate for marijuana legalization.

NFL Reportedly Will Cut Marijuana Punishments. ESPN.com is reporting that when the NFL's new player drug policy is announced, punishments handed out for marijuana use will be reduced. ESPN also reported that the new drug policy will have a higher threshold for the amount of marijuana needed to trigger a positive test result. At least one current NFL player, Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon, is facing a season-long suspension for running afoul of the league's marijuana policy. The NFL Players Association had suggested the league review its policy on marijuana and drug testing in general.

Medical Marijuana

Competing Minnesota Medical Marijuana Bills Head for Conference Committee. The state Senate voted Tuesday not to concur with the medical marijuana bill passed by the House, Senate File 2470, which is more narrowly tailored than the bill that has passed the Senate, Senate File 1641. That means a conference committee will have to try to hammer out an acceptable compromise.

Hemp

DEA Will Allow Hemp Seeds to Enter US for Kentucky Research Project. Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer said Tuesday that the DEA will quit trying to block the import of Italian hemp seeds to Kentucky for research purposes now permitted under the hemp amendment to the recently passed omnibus farm bill. The seeds are being held by US Customs at a warehouse in Louisville. Cromer was ready to go to federal court today, if the DEA had not yielded. The state Agriculture Department and several universities are planning hemp research projects this year, but they need to get the seeds in the ground. The clock is ticking.

Drug Treatment

Massachusetts Drug Treatment Bill Being Debated Today. A bill that would ease access to drug treatment, by forcing insurance companies to cover treatment that's provided without prior authorization from them, is being heard in the state Senate today. The measure is Senate Bill 2133, which was developed by a special legislative committee on drug addiction. There are 37 amendments to get through, too.

Prescription Drugs

Rate of Prescription Drug Overdoses Increased More Than Threefold in a Decade, CDC Report Says. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Health, United States, 2013, finds that the rate of prescription drug overdose deaths in the US increased from 1.9 per 100,000 residents 15 and over in 1999-2000 to 6.6 per 100,000 in 2009-2010.

International

No Safe Injection Rooms for Brighton after UK Government Warns Health Workers of Risk of Arrest. Last year, the Independent Drugs Commission for Brighton and Hove suggested that Brighton and Hove establish drug consumption rooms, saying they could take drug use off the streets and reduce overdose deaths. But those plans have now been shelved after the Home Office warned that health workers working in such facilities might be subject to arrest. The idea also got a mixed reception from the public.

In Face of New Zealand's Renewed Ban on Synthetic Weed, Auckland Deputy Mayor Says Decriminalize the Real Thing. Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse, who had previously opposed decriminalizing marijuana, has had a change of heart. She told an Auckland Council meeting Tuesday that it didn't make sense to regulate synthetic marijuana without considering safer alternatives -- like real marijuana.

Jamaica Marijuana Conference Coming Later This Month. The inaugural Jamaica Cannabis Conference is set for May 22-24 at the University of the West Indies campus in Mona. The theme is "Wake Up, Jamaica; Our Opportunities Are Slipping Away." Click on the link for more details.

Jamaican Musician and Poet Mutabaruka Tells Gambia to Legalize It. On a visit to Gambia to perform at the 11th annual International Roots Homecoming Festival, famed Jamaican poet and reggae singer Mutabaruka said Tuesday that Gambia should legalize marijuana and that "no youth should be in trouble over marijuana," citing the international movement toward marijuana legalization.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM -- May 12, 2014

Elderly senators grumble about new-fangled rules allowing legal marijuana businesses to use the financial system, there are more legalization polls, an Oklahoma US Senate candidate is talking marijuana reform, there is medical marijuana initiative news, Minnesota passes asset forfeiture reform and the governor signs it, and more. Let's get to it:

Oklahoma state Sen. Constance Johnson (D) is running for the US Senate and talking marijuana reform. (oksenate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Feinstein, Grassley Try to Thwart Normalized Marijuana Banking. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) aren't happy with the Obama administration's efforts to find a way to let marijuana businesses in states where it is legal have access to the financial system. They sent a letter to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) complaining about the guidance it was offering banks "on providing financial services for drug traffickers," in Grassley's words. FinCen responded here, but that wasn't good enough for the crusty drug warriors. Now, Grassley has responded to the response, maintaining that "unless federal law is changed, selling marijuana, laundering marijuana proceeds, and aiding and abetting those activities all remain illegal" and that "FinCEN's guidance to financial institutions is absolutely contrary to the mission of the agency." Click on the title link to read the rest.

Connecticut Poll Has 52% for Legalization. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday has support for marijuana legalization at 52% among Connecticut voters, who also said overwhelmingly that alcohol was a bigger health problem than pot. A whopping 80% of voters under 30 supported legalization. Voters also supported having medical marijuana dispensaries in their towns by a margin of more than two-to-one. The state legalized medical marijuana in 2012.

New Mexico Poll Has Only 40% for Legalization, But… an Albuquerque Journal flash poll had support for marijuana legalization at 40%, with 47% opposed. The poll only asked only if marijuana should be legalized, however, without specifying what legalization might look like. A poll done last year for the Drug Policy Alliance got 53% support for legalization when it asked whether marijuana should be legalized for adults so that it could be taxed and regulated, like alcohol, with restrictions on where it could be bought and consumed.

Colorado Marijuana Tax Revenues Top $20 Million So Far This Year. The state Department of Revenue released figures last Thursday showing that revenues from adult and medical marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees were at nearly $22 million for the first three months of the year. The state reported that March adult marijuana sales hit $19 million, up $5 million over February, while medical marijuana sales were about $34 million.

Push Underway to Decriminalize Toledo. A petition drive is underway for a municipal initiative to decriminalize small-time marijuana possession in the Northwest Ohio city. The initiative is sponsored by the Toledo NORML chapter, which says it has already collected 2,800 signatures. It needs 3,800 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Oklahoma's Leading Democratic US Senate Candidate Pushes Marijuana Law Reform. State Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma City), the leading candidate for the state's Democratic Party US Senate nomination, is the author of repeated failed medical marijuana bills in the state legislature and is currently working to get a legalization initiative on the November ballot. A Democrat winning a Senate seat in Oklahoma is a long shot, but Johnson says she hopes marijuana will drive voters to the polls. "This whole issue, to me, is not about smoking marijuana. It's about criminalizing it. That's where these young people stand to be hurt the most. They get that," said Johnson. "Unless we change who's voting, things will stay the same," she said. "It's time to send a message -- not only to the policymakers... but to the people -- that we can change this." You can do that by putting marijuana on the ballot, she said.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Governor Says He Will Sign House Bill. Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) sent a letter Friday to lawmakers saying he could sign the medical marijuana bill passed by the House. Senate File 2470 was filed by Rep. Carly Melin (DFL-Hibbing) after her earlier, full-fledged medical marijuana bill, House File 1818 was blocked by law enforcement and the governor. A stronger bill, Senate File 1641, has passed the Senate, but Dayton didn't say he could sign that one. Now, the Senate must accept the House version or try to reach a compromise in conference committee.

Ohio Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign in Midst of Signature-Gathering. The Ohio Rights Group is leading a signature-gathering campaign to put a medical marijuana (and hemp) initiative on the November ballot. They need to collect 385,000 valid voter signatures by July 5. They had 50,000 signatures on March 1 and haven't reported any more recent figures, but the campaign has been ramping up this month.

Arkansas Attorney General Again Rejects Medical Marijuana Initiative Language. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has once again rejected the proposed wording for a medical marijuana initiative from Arkansans for Medical Cannabis. This is about the sixth time he has rejected proposals from the group. Meanwhile, another initiative, this one from Arkansans for Compassionate Care, is in the signature-gathering phase. The Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act needs some 65,000 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Asset Forfeiture

Minnesota Governor Signs Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) signed into law Senate File 874, which forces authorities to actually convict someone of a criminal offense or get a guilty plea before seizing his property. The bill also forces the government to prove the property was the instrument or proceeds of crime. Previously, it had been up to the victim of the seizure to prove it was not connected to crimes.

Drug Testing

Federal Judge Rejects City of Key West Prospective Employee Drug Testing. A US district court judge has ruled that Key West's policy of drug-testing prospective employees is illegal. The ACLU of Florida had brought suit on behalf of a woman who was offered a job as the city's recycling coordinator, but had the job offer rescinded after she refused a drug test. The city failed to demonstrate "a special need or important government interest which justifies the policy's Fourth Amendment intrusion," Judge James Lawrence King held. And while the city argued that the tests should be allowed because job applicants were forewarned, King wasn't buying it. The law doesn't allow a government entity "to violate a person's rights under the Fourth Amendment so long as prior notice of the impending violation is given," he ruled.

International

Heroin Maintenance Coming to Norway? The Norwegian city of Bergen has proposed undertaking a program of heroin maintenance, or heroin-assisted treatment (HAT). Norway has long been skeptical of opioid maintenance therapies, allowing the use of methadone only in 1998. Dr. Ola Josendal, director of addiction medicine at Haukeland University Hospital proposed HAT clinical trials in December, but the national health minister rejected them. Now, however, the Labor Party, the largest bloc in parliament, is in favor, so it could happen. Stay tuned.

Bermuda Cannabis Reform Collaborative Says Decriminalize It. A panel tasked with examining Bermuda's marijuana laws issued its report last Friday, and it calling for the decriminalization of small-time pot possession, allowing people to grow a small number of plants, and allowing the medical use of the plant on the island. Marijuana prohibition is not working, the report said.

Mexico's Plan to Demobilize Anti-Cartel Vigilantes Hits Snags. Anti-cartel vigilantes in the state of Michoacan were supposed to begin laying down their arms and integrating into a new rural police force Saturday, but The Washington Post reports that the process isn't exactly going smoothly. The vigilante groups formed more than a year ago with an apparent wink and nod from the government and managed to drive the Knights Templar cartel out of parts of the state, but now, the government fears they may get out of control. Click the link for a full report.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Tennessee's Scary New Law Criminalizing Drug-Using Pregnant Women [FEATURE]

When -- despite the objections of medical groups, reproductive health advocates, and even the drug czar's office -- Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) signed into law Senate Bill 1391 late last month, the Volunteer State became the first in the nation to pass a law criminalizing pregnancy outcomes. Other states, such as Alabama and South Carolina, have used fetal harm laws to charge drug-using pregnant women, but Tennessee is the first to explicitly criminalize drug use during pregnancy.

Passed in the midst of rising concern over prescription drug and heroin abuse and aimed, its proponents said, at protecting babies, the law allows women to be criminally charged with an "assaultive offense for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug or for criminal homicide if her child dies as a result of her illegal use of a narcotic drug taken while pregnant."

Felony assault can earn you up to 15 years in prison in Tennessee. And while some prosecutors have said they will only file misdemeanor charges, that's not written into the law.

Proponents cited recent reports that the number of babies being born addicted to drugs is on the rise. Such infants are diagnosed as having Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or withdrawal symptoms after being exposed to opiates in the womb.

"Over the past decade, we have seen a nearly ten-fold rise in the incidence of babies born with NAS in Tennessee," the state Department of Health reported. Infants with NAS stay in the hospital longer than other babies and they may have serious medical and social problems."

But the state Health Department notwithstanding, experts in the field say that NAS doesn't actually have long-term effects, it's not accurate to call newborn infants "addicted," and that misrepresenting matters by vilifying pregnant women isn't helpful. In fact, more than 40 of them said so in an open letter last month.

More generally, leading medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Public Health Association reject the prosecution and punishment of pregnant women who use drugs. The groups mentioned above and many others said so in this 2011 document.

A coalition of medical, public health, women's rights, and social justice groups worked to oppose the bill as it made its way through the legislature, and then to convince Gov. Haslam to kill it. A petition with over 11,000 signatures urging him to veto the bill went to his office late last month. More than two dozen organizations devoted to ensuring families have access to health care likewise urged a veto, as did the American Association of Pediatrics, the National Perinatal Association, and International Doctors for Healthier Drug Policy.

Even acting drug czar Michael Botticelli raised a warning flag.

"Under the Obama administration, we've really tried to reframe drug policy not as a crime but as a public health-related issue, and that our response on the national level is that we not criminalize addiction," he said during a visit to Nashville as the governor pondered. "We want to make sure our response and our national strategy is based on the fact that addiction is a disease. What's important is that we create environments where we're really diminishing the stigma and the barriers, particularly for pregnant women, who often have a lot of shame and guilt about their substance abuse disorders."

But none of that mattered. On April 29, Haslam signed the bill into law.

"In reviewing this bill, I have had extensive conversations with experts including substance abuse, mental health, health and law enforcement officials," Haslam said in a statement. "The intent of this bill is to give law enforcement and district attorneys a tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs."

"Today, the Tennessee governor has made it a crime to carry a pregnancy to term if you struggle with addiction or substance abuse," Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement in response to the signing. "This deeply misguided law will force those women who need health care the most into the shadows. Pregnant women with addictions need better access to health care, not jail time."

The statewide coalition Healthy and Free Tennessee also lambasted the new law.

"We are very sorry to see that Governor Haslam let an opportunity to do the right thing slip through his fingers," said Rebecca Terrell, the group's chairwoman."The experts could not have been clearer: this law is bad for babies and bad for Tennessee."

"This law says that women are to be held criminally accountable for the outcomes of their pregnancies," said Farah Diaz-Tello, a staff attorney with National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which was part of the coalition fighting the new law. "It essentially creates a system of separate and unequal rights. Drug ingestion is not a crime in Tennessee, just possession, and now, only pregnant women are criminalized for ingesting. They can be surveilled and punished by the state in ways different from other people. The law also treats fertilized eggs or fetuses as if they were people independent of the pregnant woman," she told the Chronicle.

Gov. Bill Haslam (tn.gov)
"It's the wrong response to the problem of addiction," said Diaz-Tello. "It's a health problem that is not responsive to threats and punishment. What kind of society do we want to be? Do we want to punish the people most in need of help and support? These are women largely living in poverty, women of color, who are already made vulnerable by our social policies, and now we hold them solely responsible without looking at society and what else is going on leading to pregnancy among addicted people and this horrible punitive response."

Even framing the issue as "pregnant women taking drugs" is somewhat misleading, said Diaz-Tello.

"We often make the mistake of thinking of people using drugs during pregnancy as pregnant women who became addicted to drugs when it should be the other way around," she said. "The reasons for addiction are complex and often gender-based. Women who have experienced violence and trauma are often self-medicating, and there is a lot of unresolved pain and trauma out there. And half the pregnancies in our country are unintended, which disproportionately affects women on the margins. It's not like someone wakes up pregnant one day and decides they want to do drugs."

The law will not operate in a vacuum. Tennessee is one of those states that has refused to expand Medicaid and has rejected the Affordable Care Act. It is more difficult for poor women there to get access to health care services, including drug treatment, but now it will be easier to prosecute them.

"This is definitely for the most part going to affect poor, marginalized, predominantly rural women," said Cherisse Scott, founder of SisterReach, a Memphis-based group working for reproductive justice for women and girls in the city and the Mid-South area. "That's because of the many barriers they face. Many rural areas just don't have the facilities to offer help to these women."

Scott also bemoaned the criminalization of pregnant women who use drugs under the law, a process of stigmatization and punishment only made more severe for women lacking resources.

"Low income women, women of color, already have issues navigating the court system, and many don't have any kind of support system," she said. "When their children are taken, they don't have the resources to get them back. And the other piece of this is that jails aren't hospitals or treatment centers. They don't offer women an opportunity to be properly rehabilitated from drug use."

And then there's the aftermath of a criminal conviction.

"If you look at this through the lens of racial and reproductive justice, how does a woman with this on her record bounce back, how does she get a job? With a criminal background, she will be further locked out," said Scott. "These are the kinds of barriers and issues that will ultimately hurt the mothers of Tennessee. We can't support legislation that uses criminalization as a means of rehabilitating people," she told the Chronicle.

"Our lawmakers had good intentions, but they didn't think it through," said Scott. "They seem to be very ready to separate mothers and children as a way of helping, and we don't see it like that, especially when there are rehab programs that keep mother and children together."

The new law is also generating alarm with advocates for people who use opioid maintenance therapy to deal with opiate addictions. Methadone and buprenorphine maintenance are the gold standard for treating pregnant women addicted to narcotics. While state health officials have said they interpret the law to mean that a pregnant woman on methadone maintenance would not be in violation of it, there is no language in it that explicitly says that.

"I asked the governor to veto the bill because that exclusion wasn't made," said Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence. "The real question is whether some representative for the attorney general's office or a DA or child protection services interprets it that way. This is a potential problem. When you're talking about child protection, it's not unusual for a judge or child protection worker to say to a pregnant mom 'You can't be on methadone.' I hope this law will not be used as a method of forcing maintained patients out of care."

While babies born to opiate-addicted women can suffer from Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or withdrawals, they can be treated for that, mainly by slowly tapering the dose of opiates. But, Parrino said, not all pregnant mothers on methadone maintenance have babies with the syndrome, and consequences for fetuses can be serious if mothers are forced off opiates during their pregnancies.

"What happens to a fetus if you force mom to end her medication?" he asked. "In the first trimester, a sudden decrease can be harmful to the fetus. There could be spontaneous abortion. It's in the literature. That's why laws like this raise concerns in people who have some knowledge about how pregnant women are treated."

Parrino, too, saw race a playing a role, but in an unexpected way.

"What I am seeing for the first time in 30 years is a real interest by elected officials, many US senators and governors and legislators, who can't wrap their heads around why white teens and 20-somethings from middle class families in the suburbs and rural areas are shooting heroin," Parrino observed. "Those elected officials are right to be worried. This legislation in Tennessee is a result of those dynamics."

While the law may have been passed with the best motives, "the problem is the criminalization aspect," said Parrino. "Even if it can be explained as having a reasonably good intention of getting pregnant women not to use drugs and go to treatment, you are unwittingly subverting that goal by saying that being in methadone maintenance might be seen as not complete treatment. That uncertainty is creating anxiety."

The new law is set to go into effect on July 1, but efforts are already underway to block it and, barring that, to mitigate its effects.

"We're still trying to figure out the best plan of action," Scott said. "We want to figure out the best way to support women who are going to be victims of this policy. At the grass roots level, that means education, awareness, getting the word out through rehab centers to let the women know this is coming. Then we have to figure out what is the legal strategy to try to change this law. We're working on it."

"We're thinking about a legal challenge, especially on constitutional grounds," said Diaz-Tello. "We have worked with public defenders in Tennessee and other states on challenging similar laws on constitutional grounds. There's also the possibility of an affirmative suit to get the law enjoined. It would be ideal to stop this law before anyone gets arrested under it."

Barring the successful blocking of the law, drug-addicted pregnant women in Tennessee will face the tender mercies of the criminal justice system. But not all of them, of course.

"Race and class plays a role as always," said Scott. "Poor mothers go to jail; mothers with access to more resources may not be penalized at all. Women who have access to health care and can afford private prenatal care and treatment will get treatment; women who have no alternative but public aid or a public health clinic will be disproportionately impacted as always. Nothing's changed as far as race and class."

TN
United States

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