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California Bill Seeks to Name Three Obscure Substances "Date Rape Drugs," Enhance Penalties [FEATURE]

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

Possession of so-called date rape drugs could become a felony under a California bill that marks the first effort to roll back parts of last year's voter-approved Proposition 47. That initiative is an effort to begin to reverse the state's prison-swelling war on drugs by making simple drug possession a misdemeanor.

the "date rape" drug ketamine (wikimedia.org)
The avowed goal of the new legislation -- seeking to prevent date rape -- is indeed laudable, but the politicians behind the move are either misinformed about who uses such drugs and why or they are deliberately misrepresenting the facts.

"Date rape drugs are tools in the hand of predators and they're not a recreational drug," said Rep. Tom Lackey(R-Antelope Valley), a former Highway Patrol sergeant and chief sponsor of Assembly Bill 46. A companion measure has been filed in the Senate.

The bills would break with Prop 47 by treating three specified drugs -- ketamine, Rohypnol, and GHB -- more severely than other drugs. Instead of charging people caught with personal amounts of these substances as misdemeanors, as is the case with cocaine, heroin, meth, and all other drugs, prosecutors would now have the option of charging them with a felony.

"We should not wait for women to be victimized before serious charges are available to prosecutors,” said Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), sponsor of the Senate version. "A person found in possession of these drugs is likely intending to use them to commit a sexual assault -- not for personal use. Law enforcement must be able to charge a person accordingly."

But not only are the legislators misrepresenting the vast majority of the users of these drugs, they are also missing the forest for the trees. If they really wanted to criminalize a drug to prevent date rape, that drug would be alcohol. According to a 2005 Justice Department study, the specified "date rape" drugs were present in only 4.2% of sexual assaults, while other drugs, including alcohol, were present in 61%. (That same study also listed 45 other substances that could be used to impair someone.)

Similarly, a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism implicated alcohol in 50% of all -- sexual assaults.

Experts on the topic tell similar stories.

"Quite honestly, alcohol is the No. 1 date rape drug," said Mike Lyttle, regional supervisor for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation's Nashville crime lab. "Roofies are very rarely -- if ever -- seen in real life," he told USA Today.

"We really don't know for sure what the actual numbers are," said Dr. Susan R.B. Weiss, associate director for scientific affairs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health. "But drugs that are sedating drugs or incapacitating drugs probably are not that common in sexual assault. We really don't know the true prevalence, but we know for sure alcohol is much more common than other drugs."

the most common date rape drug (wikimedia.org)
Still, substances targeted in these bills -- Rohypnol, ketamine, and GHB -- are only used as "date rape drugs" and that justifies their users getting harsher treatment, the legislators said.

But a quick glimpse at the -- Vaults of Erowid -- puts the lie to that claim. Erowid is a web site dedicated to "documenting the complex relationships between humans and psychoactives," and one of its most fascinating sections is its user reports. They consist of write-ups of thousands of experiences with a panoply of mind-melting substances submitted by the users themselves.

Erowid describes ketamine as "a disassociative psychedelic" that can, at higher doses, cause users to "find themselves completely removed from their surroundings and their bodies." People going down the K-hole, as it were, might experience "alternate planes of existence, a sense of movement through a space or landscape, a oneness with everything, past and future revelations, and strange fabrics or textures of all sorts," Erowid reports.

The Erowid Experience Vaults for ketamine has hundreds of user reports -- the good, the bad, and the truly weird -- some from people using Special K in lower doses, sniffing it like coke as a social party drug; many from avid and dedicated psychonauts, those explorers of the chemically-enhanced inner mind who blast themselves into some very strange inner places; even some from people attempting to use it therapeutically, self-medicating with it to address issues like depression, addiction, and anxiety.

Erowid describes GHB as "a sedative used both as a prescription sleep-aid and as a recreational intoxicant. It is known for its ability to induce a short (several hour) coma-like sleep at high doses."

Rohynpol, AKA "roofies" (wikimedia.org)
It's obvious from the description that GHB is used to party with, and the Erowid GHB vault, with more than 200 entries, backs that up. The drug is also described as a sedative, and like any sedative, it could be used to dose someone without her knowledge. On its GHB page, Erowid thoughtfully provided an admonitory primer on substance related sexual assault -- nearly 15 years ago.

Rohypnol ("roofies"), a trade name for flunitrazapam, is a strong sedative and hypnotic prescribed for chronic or intense insomnia, but not in the US. The drug has never been approved by the FDA for use here, and actually seems to have had its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, until it was labeled a date rape drug.

It doesn't seem to be much of one now. That Justice Department study cited above found Rohypnol in only 0.5% of victims of drug-facilitated sexual assaults, and a 2006 British study found only 2% had any sedatives in their urine 12 hours after the assault. Similarly, a 2009 Australian study of 97 patients admitted to hospitals claiming their drinks had been spiked was unable to find a single case where the drinkers had actually been dosed with sedatives. They did find, however, that the mean blood alcohol level of the patients was 0.096%, well above what is legally considered too drunk to drive in the US.

Compared to the other drugs in question, Rohypnol doesn't appear to be of much interest to the Erowid set -- there are only 20-odd user reports in the flunitrazepam vault. They appear to be using for recreational or self-therapeutic reasons, and user report titles such as "My Mind Is A Blank," "Goofy Roofie," and "A Lot I Don't Remember" provide a hint of the experiences.

It seems clear that while ketamine, GHB, and Rohypnol, like many other drugs, including most prominently alcohol, can be used for nefarious purposes, those three substances are only a tiny part of the problem. It seems equally clear that substantial numbers of people who are not date rapists but recreational drug users are using these drugs. If these misinformed bills actually become law, the people who will be hit with harsher penalties are much more likely to be innocent partiers than deviant criminals.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Historic Federal Bill to Legalize Medical Marijuana Rolled Out Today [FEATURE]

A bipartisan trio of senators today introduced historic legislation to legalize medical marijuana at the federal level. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rand Paul (R-KY) filed the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion, and Respect States (CARERS) Act, which would end the federal prohibition on medical marijuana and allow states to set their own policies.

Senatory Cory Booker (D-NJ) (Bbsrock/wikimedia.org)
"We need policies that empower states to legalize medical marijuana if they so choose-recognizing that there are Americans who can realize real medical benefits if this treatment option is brought out of the shadows," said Sen. Booker. "Doctors and patients deserve federal laws that are fair and compassionate, and states should be able to set their own medical marijuana policies without federal interference. I am thankful to Senators Gillibrand and Paul as well as the Drug Policy Alliance for their hard work on this common-sense bill to make medical marijuana accessible to the millions of Americans who could benefit from it." 

The bill would reclassify marijuana for medical use, allow veterans to have access to medical marijuana, overhaul banking laws to allow licensed medical marijuana businesses to use financial services, and open up more research possibilities for medical marijuana.

In addition to the Drug Policy Alliance, the senators also consulted with the Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access, and other voices for patients in drafting the bill. Although nearly half the states have passed medical marijuana laws (and a dozen more have passed limited CBD cannabis oil laws), marijuana remains illegal under federal law. That means patients and providers in medical marijuana states are still at risk of federal prosecution and families and patients in non-medical marijuana states must relocate or travel long distances to get treatment, facing the risk of prosecution in non-medical marijuana states along the way.

"I am so happy to support this bill. As the mother of a child with a severe seizure disorder, anxiously waiting to get access to a medication that is already helping thousands of others is unbearable," said Kate Hintz, a New York resident who has advocated for CBD to treat her daughter and others to treat epilepsy and seizures. "After persistent advocacy in my home state of New York, we finally saw a medical marijuana law passed last summer.  Yet individual state's laws, including New York's, will not succeed until we lift the current federal restrictions surrounding this plant," she added.

"I applaud Sens. Gillibrand, Booker and Paul for taking this bold step forward and insisting the federal government take action.  Let's end the fear and stigma associated with marijuana, and instead allow this bill to provide research, medicine, and long needed relief to so many. It cannot come fast enough, especially for my daughter," Hintz concluded.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) (senate.gov)
"For far too long, the government has enforced unnecessary laws that have restricted the ability of the medical community to determine the medicinal value of marijuana and have prohibited Americans from receiving essential care that would alleviate their chronic pain and suffering. I am proud today to stand with Sens. Gillibrand and Booker to introduce a bill that will fundamentally change our nation's drug policies and have a positive impact on the lives of our Veterans and children," said Sen. Paul.

While the Obama administration has, in recent years, largely taken a laissez-faire approach to medical marijuana in states that have approved it, that approach is both uneven and dependent on the whim of the administration in power. Just last week, federal prosecutors in Washington state took a family of five medical marijuana patients--the Kettle Falls Five--to trial, threatening them with lengthy, mandatory minimum prison sentences for growing medical marijuana legally under state law (in a state where even recreational marijuana is legal!).

Fortunately for the Kettle Falls Five, a federal jury acquitted them of most charges, including the most serious ones. But under the current state of federal marijuana prohibition, such prosecutions could continue.

Similarly, the Obama administration's recent restraint on medical marijuana is derived from Justice Department guidance to federal prosecutors about which cases raise the level of federal concern high enough to warrant prosecution. That guidance was crafted by a deputy attorney general answerable to Attorney General Holder and the president. Absent protections provided by this bill or similar legislation, a new administration could easily return to the bad old days of DEA raids and patients and providers being hauled off to federal prison.  

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) (senate.gov)
"As the parents of severely ill children who could be helped by medical cannabis, we are dedicated to advancing safe, legal and viable access," said Maria De Gregorio, a parent leader of the Kentucky-based Parents Coalition for Rescheduling Medical Cannabis. "Rescheduling efforts must also guarantee access to whole plant extracts that have proven therapeutic benefits. We feel it is crucial to support state rights in all current and future medical marijuana programs. Thus, we strongly endorse this bill as it is written."
 
"Almost half the states have legalized marijuana for medical use; it's long past time to end the federal ban," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This bipartisan legislation allows states to set their own medical marijuana policies and ends the criminalization of patients, their families, and the caregivers and dispensary owners and employees who provide them their medicine."

"With studies showing that medical cannabis access decreases suicide and addiction rates, the CARERS Act is absolutely necessary to help fix a broken healthcare system for veterans, which deals with suicides and addiction at catastrophic rates," said TJ Thompson, a retired U.S. Navy Third Class Petty Officer. "Now, I'm considered a criminal because of the medication that helps me. I take it illegally to treat my PTSD."

"This comprehensive proposal would effectively end the war on medical marijuana and let states compassionately provide care for seriously ill people without the federal government standing in the way," said Tom Angell, director of Marijuana Majority. "The fact that two young Democrats with likely long political futures have teamed up with a probable 2016 Republican presidential candidate shows how medical marijuana is a nonpartisan, noncontroversial issue that draws support from across the spectrum. With polls showing an overwhelming majority of American voters backing marijuana reform, you’d think taking up this proposal would be a no-brainer for legislative leaders who want to show that Congress can still get things done." 

We shall see. The bill text is not yet available on the congressional website, and it has not yet been assigned to a committee. That's the next step in a long process. 

Washington, DC
United States

Louisiana Man Gets 13 Years for Two Joints, Commutation Campaign Underway [FEATURE]

This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.

Bernard Noble has already spent nearly four years in a Louisiana prison for being caught with two marijuana cigarettes -- and he's still less than a third of the way through a 13-year sentence with no shot at parole. The sentence is outrageous, but hardly unique in a state with one of the harshest marijuana laws in the country.

Under Louisiana law, possession of any amount of marijuana up to 60 pounds is punishable by six months in jail on a first offense, up to five years in prison for a second offense, and up to 20 years in prison for a third offense. While first- and second-time offenders are eligible for probation, third-time offenders are not. Distributing any amount of pot, even a joint or two, garners a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, and that includes possession with intent to distribute.

Add in the gross racial disparities in marijuana possession busts -- African-Americans in the state are 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for than whites and account for nearly two-thirds of all pot arrests while making up less than one-third of the population -- and you have a pipeline to prison for black Louisianans.

In Bernard Noble's case, getting caught with a couple of joints morphed into more than 13 years behind bars because of the way the state's harsh marijuana laws intersect with its harsh habitual offender law (known colloquially as "the bitch.") Because Noble had two previous drug possession offenses, one 12 years old and one 24 years old, he fell under the purview of the habitual offender law.

Even though his current offense was trivial (marijuana is decriminalized in nearly 20 states and possession is legalized in four others and DC) and even though his previous offenses were low-level and nonviolent, the statute called for the 13 years, without parole.

Taking into account Noble's minor criminal history, his work record, and his role as the breadwinner for a family with seven children, and making special note of his overpayment of child support to children not living with him, his sentencing judge departed from the statute and sentenced him to only five years. Orleans Parish prosecutors appealed the lower sentence to the state Supreme Court and got the 13-year sentence reinstated last year.

"Thirteen years in prison for two joints is obscene," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of the Office of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance and a lead author of a brief to the state Supreme Court in the case. "The punishment is so far out of proportion to the conduct that we really can't call it 'punishment' -- it is more like torture."

It has also shattered Noble's family and destroyed his fledgling business, a restaurant in Kansas City. Noble had relocated there after Hurricane Katrina and has just returned to New Orleans for a family visit. He left his grandmother's house on a bike ride four years ago and never made it back. He's been locked up ever since.

Bobby Jindal has a chance to do the right thing. (gov.state.la.us)
But there's renewed hope for the black, 48-year-old New Orleans family man, even if it's a longshot. Lawyers working on his case are preparing to formally seek a commutation for him from Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) within the next few days, and they, supporters, and advocates are hoping to light a fire under the governor hot enough to make him act. A rally is set for Sunday to draw attention to his case.

If Jindal's record is any indication, though, it will have to be quite a fire: During his time as governor, Jindal has granted only 40 of 390 commutations requested.

"This is one of the most egregious cases, a real heart breaker," said Yolanda Cadore, director of strategic partnerships for the Drug Policy Alliance. "He's been in there 44 months, and he's not even close to finishing his sentence. He's just passing time. The only rehab available is drug treatment."

Noble's sentence also plays into another ugly dynamic in Louisiana: imprisonment for profit. Back in the 1990s, during another overcrowding crisis, parish sheriffs were offered a cut of future profits if they covered the cost of building prisons in their counties. Now, more than half of state prisoners are held in parish jail administered by sheriffs.

The state pays them $24.39 a day per prisoner, much less than the $55 a day if would cost to house them in state prisons. If a sheriff can keep jails full, he can pull in as much as $200,000 per jail per year, all the while keeping expenses -- staffing and inmate care and programs -- as low as possible. Other sheriffs lease their prisons to for-profit prison companies in return for guaranteed annual payments.

Sheriffs have a direct financial incentive to keep their jails full, and they know it. Sentencing reforms would hurt their bottom line, and they have organized to make sure that doesn't happen. The Louisiana Sheriffs Association consistently lobbies against sentencing reforms, and its political action committee uses its financial clout to help elect politicians who agree with them.

Orleans Parish, the most populous in the state, acts as a conveyor belt for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders to fill the cells and the coffers for other parishes.

"Orleans Parish is the parish that is fueling the prison system in other parts of the state, and it's mostly black men fed into the prison system from there," said Cadore. "Look at Bernard Noble, look at Victor White, who was stopped, frisked, questioned, and ended up dead in the back of a police car after they found marijuana on him."

Case after case after case of black men being sent away for years for relatively trivial offenses is starting to have a cumulative effect on public opinion.

"What's rising to the surface is the impact these current laws have on a particular community -- the black community," Dore pointed out. "We are noticing that the drug war has a color, and that's black, and it has a gender, and that's mostly male, and it has a location, mainly urban, where the young black men are. In all of that, Louisiana is no outlier."

Winning a commutation for Bernard Noble would be a step in the direction of social and racial justice. But he's just one prisoner. The state has 40,000 more, many of them also nonviolent drug offenders.

"If we are ever going to make a dent in reducing the incarceration rate and having a serious conversation about policy reform, we have to look at the impact of these draconian, regressive policies that are fueling the incarceration problem in the state," said Cadore.

"We also have to point out where lawmakers are making policy not based on evidence, but on tradition or notions of morality. We're in an age where evidence-based policy-making is not only the right thing, but the fiscally and socially responsible thing to do," she continued. "Louisiana has been casting a blind eye to evidence. Is it that they're not paying attention or that they're not paying attention to things that are profit-generating?"

Marijuana is Now Legal in Washington, DC! [FEATURE]

This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.

As of midnight, it became legal to possess, grow, and consume small amounts of marijuana in the nation's capital. An initiative passed with the support of 70% of DC voters has now gone into effect.

Republicans' efforts to block the law have been to no avail. Congress passed a budget bill that blocked the District from spending money on easing marijuana laws -- and that has stopped the District council from moving forward with a bill to tax and regulate marijuana commerce -- but that came after voters had already approved the ballot measure, Initiative 71.

Though some Republicans have cried foul, DC interpreted that timing as meaning that the initiative would take effect. After the 30 legislative days Congress had to act to block the initiative ran out (after DC officially forwarded the November election result to Congress), Congress had 30 days to act to block the legalization it. It failed to do so, and the 30-day period ends today. Absent a court ruling to the contrary, the initiative is law.

District officials, from Mayor Muriel Bowser to Police Chief Cathy Lanier, have signaled that they intend to heed the will of the voters.

"DC residents spoke loud and clear," Bowser said at an event Tuesday with the council where she and other city leaders vowed to carry out the new law.

The city has even produced a Q & A pamphlet that seeks to clarify exactly what is and is not allowed under Initiative 71.

That is particularly useful because this is legalization with some caveats. Adults 21 and over can possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants in their homes, of which no more than three can be flowering. They can also give (but not sell) up to an ounce to other adults.

But there is no public consumption allowed, and there is no provision for taxed and regulated marijuana sales. There will be no legalized pot shops in DC -- at least for now -- although existing dispensaries will continue to operate to serve the medicinal market.

Anyone convicted of smoking or consuming marijuana in public faces a $500 fine and up to 60 days jail time. Selling marijuana carries a $1,000 fine and six months jail time. And any business that lets patrons use pot could lose its license.

It's still not legal on federal property. (wikimedia.org)
And the DC law doesn't apply on federal property. This is significant because 22% of the District is federal property. If you are caught with marijuana on the Mall or the Jefferson Memorial, for example, you can face federal marijuana charges.

DC now joins Alaska, Colorado, and Washington in having marijuana legalization in effect. In Oregon, where residents also voted to legalize it last November, the new law goes into effect on July 1.

"The sky isn't going to fall," predicted Michael Collins, policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance national affairs office, which worked closely with the DC Cannabis Campaign, the group that sponsored Initiative 71. "But there will be some confusion about what this means. It's going to be very similar to other states that have legalized or are in the process. In those states, legalization went into effect and they didn't have tax and regulate for months, and there wasn't any chaos. There won't be any chaos here, either."

"I feel good," said long-time activist Adam Eidinger, the driving force behind Initiative 71. "I've stopped pinching myself."

Still, Eidinger said, he had nothing special planned to mark the day. "We'll plant some seeds, that's about it," he said.

He has certainly planted the seed of marijuana legalization in the nation's capital, but there is more to be done, he said, pointing to the huge racial imbalance in DC marijuana arrests. Blacks accounted for 91% of all marijuana arrests in the city and were arrested at a rate eight times that of whites.

Anger over the disparate enforcement of the pot laws was key to winning the initiative. Multiple civil rights, faith, and community advocacy groups campaigned for Initiative 71, seeing it as an opportunity to redress racial injustice.

"Marijuana has been effectively legal in the affluent and white parts of the District west of 16th Street for years," said Bill Piper, head of the Drug Policy Alliance's national office. "All Initiative 71 does is treat the black community the same way -- no arrests for minor marijuana violations."

The man with the plan: DC activist Adam Eidinger, with his daughter Arundhati. (twitter.com)
But without full legalization, Eidinger said, racially-biased enforcement will continue.

"Home cultivation and possession begin to address the racial justice end of this, but that will not be fully addressed until we have in-store sales," Eidinger said. "We will still have people selling marijuana illegally."

The experience has also reawakened the DC political gadfly's long-standing interest in home rule for the District.

"I've been very disturbed by the way Congress has been treating residents of the capital," he said. "The whole effort to overturn the initiative really opened my ears to how once and for all we have to have equal rights as a state. We're planning a big push for home rule in the spring. That would benefit marijuana, too."

But as earth-shaking as marijuana legalization in the shadow of the Capitol is, what is equally striking is the inability of Republican conservatives to stop it.

"The big story is not that DC legalized it," said Collins, "but that the Republicans couldn't stop this. They had 30 days to review this, they had the opportunity to hold a quick up and down vote, and they chose not to. The Republicans are split on this issue. A lot of them support marijuana reforms, and many more are not interested in being the anti-marijuana party."

"There is simply no organized, significant group of members of Congress willing to waste time fighting against marijuana legalization, an issue that has become extremely popular with voters everywhere," added Piper. "The Republican House voted five times last year to let states set their own marijuana policies. And the recent scandal over DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz shows that it is opposition to marijuana reform that is now politically toxic."

Now, the fight will turn to whether and how the District can move forward with taxation, regulation, and marijuana commerce. While some will be toking up in DC tonight, the battle is only half over.

Federal Marijuana Legalization Bills Introduced [FEATURE]

This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and originally appeared here.

Two congressmen from two states where marijuana is already legal under state law today filed two separate bills to legalize marijuana at the federal level. Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) introduced a bill that would allow states to legalize marijuana without fear of federal intervention, while Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) introduced a bill that would tax marijuana at the federal level, in addition to any state taxes. The bills were not yet available on congressional web sites as of this afternoon.

marijuana bud (horsma/hamppuform wikimedia.org)
Polis's Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (HR 1013) removes marijuana from the schedule set by the Controlled Substances Act; transitions marijuana oversight from the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Agency to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; and regulates marijuana like alcohol by inserting language into the section of the US code governing "intoxicating liquors."

"Over the past year, Colorado has demonstrated that regulating marijuana like alcohol takes money away from criminals and cartels, grows our economy, and keeps marijuana out of the hands of children," said Polis. "While President Obama and the Justice Department have allowed the will of voters in states like Colorado and 22 other jurisdictions to move forward, small business owners, medical marijuana patients, and others who follow state laws still live with the fear that a new administration -- or this one -- could reverse course and turn them into criminals. It is time for us to replace the failed prohibition with a regulatory system that works and let states and municipalities decide for themselves if they want, or don't want, to have legal marijuana within their borders."

Blumenauer's Marijuana Tax Revenue Act (HR 1014) would, after federal legalization, impose a federal excise tax on the sale of marijuana for non-medical purposes as well as apply an occupational tax for marijuana businesses. The bill would establish civil and criminal penalties for those who fail to comply, like those in place for the tobacco industry.

Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) (congress.gov)
The bill also requires the IRS to produce periodic studies of the marijuana industry and to issue recommendations to Congress. It phases in an excise tax on the sale by a producer (generally the grower) to the next stage of production (generally the processor creating the useable product). This tax is initially set at 10% and rises over time to 25% as the legal market displaces the black market. Medical marijuana is exempt from this tax.

"It's time for the federal government to chart a new path forward for marijuana." said Blumenauer. "Together these bills create a federal framework to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana, much like we treat alcohol and tobacco. The federal prohibition of marijuana has been a failure, wasting tax dollars and ruining countless lives. As more states move to legalize marijuana as Oregon, Colorado, Washington and Alaska have done, it's imperative the federal government become a full partner in building a workable and safe framework."

The federal bills come as marijuana is increasingly accepted in the US. Now, nearly two-thirds of Americans live in a state or jurisdiction that allows for some form of legal marijuana use. Four states -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use, while 23 others allow for medical marijuana. Eleven more states have passed laws allowing for the use of low-THC cannabis products to treat specified medical conditions.

By now, nearly half (46%) of all people 18 and over have tried marijuana at least once, and in the past few years, public opinion polls have consistently found support for legalization at or above 50%. But while states and localities have taken the lead in finding ways to accommodate legal marijuana, the federal government continues to not only criminalize marijuana, but to classify it as among the most dangerous illegal drugs.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) (wikipedia.org)
The Obama administration has taken a relatively laissez-faire approach to medical marijuana and legal marijuana in the states, but that is a matter of policy, not law. And as long as federal marijuana prohibition remains on the books, policy can change with a new administration, or even if this one decides to take a different tack.

The congressional bills were met with approval by drug reform movement groups.

"As more state marijuana legalization laws come on board it's increasingly important for federal policy to catch up," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "The Obama administration's enforcement approach over the past few years has created some room for Colorado and Washington to implement their laws and show the world that legalization works. And we even saw the Republican-controlled Congress vote last year to stop the DEA from spending money to interfere with state medical marijuana laws. Now it's time to fully and officially end the federal criminalization of marijuana so that states can move ahead with full certainty that the DEA won't be able to step in whenever the drug warriors that run the agency feel like it."

"Cops have better things to worry about than the recreational habits of responsible, nonviolent adults," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), a former Maryland narcotics officer and now executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals opposed to the drug war. "And dispensary owners have better things to worry about than whether the federal government is going to arrest them and/or seize their assets for acting in accordance with state law."

"These bills would regulate and tax marijuana, taking cultivation and sales out of the underground market and allowing it to be controlled by legitimate businesses under the close watch of authorities. Marijuana would be grown in licensed facilities instead of national forests and basements in the suburbs. It would be sold in stores that create good jobs and generate tax revenue, instead of on the street where it benefits cartels and criminals," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Congress has been ignoring our broken and outdated marijuana laws for decades," Riffle continued. "Their failure to let go of prohibition is causing serious problems for state governments and interfering in the lives of countless Americans. It's time for our federal representatives to come to grips with the fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol and most people think it should be treated that way. Members who consider it unthinkable to return to alcohol prohibition need to ask themselves why they are clinging to the prohibition of a less harmful substance."

The bills are there. Now it's time to see whether Congress will act on them.

Washington, DC
United States

Seven States That Are Next In Line to Legalize Marijuana [FEATURE]

Written in partnership with Alternet and originally published here.

President Obama is taking a pretty much laissez-faire approach to legalization experiments in the states. (whitehouse.gov
During a series of YouTube interviews Thursday, President Obama demonstrated a remarkably laissez-faire attitude toward marijuana legalization experiments in the states. And he signaled strongly that the Obama administration wouldn't be taking to the hustings to try to beat back legalization efforts, as previous administrations had been wont to do.

"What you're seeing now is Colorado, Washington through state referenda, they're experimenting with legal marijuana," the president said in response to a question from YouTube host Hank Green. "The position of my administration has been that we still have federal laws that classify marijuana as an illegal substance, but we're not going to spend a lot of resources trying to turn back decisions that have been made at the state level on this issue. My suspicion is that you're gonna see other states start looking at this."

Indeed. Legalization bills are already popping up in state legislatures around the country, and while it's unlikely -- though not impossible -- that any of them will pass this year, 2016 looks to be the breakout year for freeing the weed. One state is going to be the first to legalize it through the legislature, and next year seems reasonable. And the presidential election year is also likely to see successful legalization initiatives in several more.

Currently four states -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have ended pot prohibition. But that's only about 18 million people. By the time they quit counting the votes on Election Day 2016, that number is likely to triple, and then some.

So, where's it going to happen? Here's where:

California

That California is the only state on the West Coast to not yet have legalized pot is an embarrassment to Golden State activists. They were first with medical marijuana in 1996, and they tried to be first to legalize it with Prop 19 in 2010, but came up short, garnering 46% of the vote on Election Day despite leading in the polls up until the final weeks. In 2012, with the big players sitting on their cash stashes, none of the competing initiative efforts even managed to make the ballot.

It will be different in 2016. The actors with deep pockets are all ready to get involved next year, the polling is good (if not great, hovering in the mid-50s), and the state's disparate and fractious cannabis community is already working to forge a unified front behind a community-vetted initiative. The main vehicle for activists is the California Coalition for Cannabis Law Reform, which has already started holding meetings statewide to try to a unified marijuana reform community.

California activists are laying the groundwork for 2016. (cannabispolicyreform.org)
With 38 million people, California is the big prize. It's also an expensive place to run an initiative, with the cost of getting on the ballot alone at around a million dollars. And it'll take several million more to pay for advertising in the key final weeks of the campaign. But the money is lining up, it'll take fewer signatures to qualify for the ballot (thanks to the dismal turnout in last year's midterms), and once it qualifies, it will have momentum from (by then) four years of legalization in Colorado and Washington and two years of it in Alaska and Oregon. California will go green in 2016.

Nevada

Nevada is the state that is actually furthest down the path towards legalizing it next year. The Marijuana Policy Project-backed Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Nevada has already qualified a legalization initiative for the 2016 ballot. It would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults 21 and over and allow for taxed and regulated marijuana commerce.

Under Nevada law, the legislature now has a chance to approve the initiative. If it does so, it would become law; if it rejects it or fails to act on it, it then goes to the voters on Election Day 2016.

Nevadans approved medical marijuana in 1998 (59%) and again in 2000 (65%), but voted down decriminalization in 2002 (39%) and legalization in 2006 (44%). But it has since then effectively decriminalized possession of less than ounce, and it's now been a decade since that last legalization initiative loss at the polls. Either marijuana will be legal by Election Day 2016 thanks to the legislature or the voters will decide the question themselves at the polls.

Arizona

In Arizona, possession of any amount of pot is still a felony, but polling in the last couple of years shows support for legalization either hovering around 50% or above it. Those aren't the most encouraging polling numbers -- the conventional wisdom is that initiatives want to start out at 60% support or better -- but a serious effort is underway there to put the issue before the voters in 2016.

The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) is teaming with Safer Arizona and other state activist groups for the 2016 initiative campaign and has formed a ballot committee to begin laying the groundwork for a Colorado-style initiative.

The initiative language is not a done deal, and there are some signs that local activists aren't completely happy with MPP's proposed language, but that's why there are consultations going on.

Maine

The Marijuana Policy Project has been laying the groundwork for a statewide legalization initiative in 2016 with local initiative campaigns in some of the state's largest cities in 2014 and 2013 and is working on final initiative language now. But it is also seeing competition from a state-based group,Legalize Maine, that says it is crafting its own initiative and is criticizing both MPP and Maine politicians for advancing "out of state corporate interests" at the expense of Mainers.

Whether MPP and Legalize Maine can get together behind a single initiative remains to be seen. If they can, good; if they can't, well, Maine is a small and relatively inexpensive state in which to run a signature-gathering campaign. There could be not one, but two legalization initiatives in Maine next year.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Diane Russell has filed a legalization bill in the legislature this year. Maine is one of the states where the looming presence of legalization initiatives could actually move the legislature to act preemptively to craft a legalization scheme to its own liking.

Massachusetts

Massachusetts is another. As in Maine, but to a much greater degree, Bay State activists have been laying the groundwork for legalization for years. Groups such as MassCann/NORML and the Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts have run a series of marijuana reform "public policy questions" in various state electoral districts each election cycle since 2000 -- and they have never lost! The questions are non-binding, but they're a clear indicator to state legislators where voter sentiment lies.

The state has also seen successful decriminalization and medical marijuana initiatives, in 2008 and 2012, respectively. In both cases, the initiatives were approved with 63% of the vote. And again as in Maine, the Marijuana Policy Project is organizing an initiative, but local activists with similar complaints to those in Maine are threatening to run their own initiative. Organized as Bay State Repeal, which includes some veteran Massachusetts activists, the group says it wants the least restrictive legalization law possible. Whether the two efforts can reach a common understanding remains to be seen.

Show Me Cannabis may pull off a surprise in Missouri.
Meanwhile, the issue could move in the legislature in the next two years. New Republican Gov. Charlie Baker says he's opposed to legalization, but is praising Democratic Senate President Stanley Rosenberg's decision to appoint a special Senate committee to examine issues around legalization. Rep. David Rogers (D-Cambridge) isn't waiting. He's filed a legalization bill, and while previous such bills have languished in the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, incoming committee head Sen. Will Brownberger (D-Boston) has said he will give it a hearing. Something could happen this year, although it's more likely next year, and the voters doing it themselves on Election Day 2016 is more likely yet.

Vermont

Vermont could be the best bet for a state to legalize it this year and for the first state to legalize it through the legislative process. There is no initiative process in the state, so that's the only way it's going to happen. And the state has already proceeded well down that path.

Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has endorsed legalization in principle -- the devil is the details -- and the legislature last year approved a RAND study on the impacts of legalization, which was just released earlier this month. That study estimated that freeing the weed could bring the state $20 to $70 million in annual pot tax revenues.

Other state officials have expressed openness to the idea, and a May 2014 poll found 57% support for legalization. There's not a bill in the hopper yet this year, but one could move quickly in this state where a lot of the legislative groundwork has already been laid.

The Marijuana Policy Project has formed the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana to help push the process along. Stay tuned; this is one to watch.

Missouri

And there's a dark horse in the heartland. The Missouri activist group Show Me Cannabis has been running an impressive educational campaign about marijuana legalization for the past few years. The group tried to get an initiative on the ballot last year, but came up short.

They've already filed paperwork for 2016 for a constitutional amendment to make it legal to grow, sell, and use marijuana for people 21 and over.

One reason Show Me Cannabis came up short in 2014 was the lack of support from major players outside the state. Given the lack of polls showing strong support for legalization, the big players remain sitting on their wallets, but that could change if good poll numbers emerge. And there's still plenty of time to make the 2016 ballot.

Justice Department Limits Seized Asset Sharing With State, Local Cops [FEATURE]

This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet.

Attorney General Eric Holder (justice.gov)
Attorney General Eric Holder this morning issued an order that will bar federal agencies from participating in "adoptions" of assets seized by state and local law enforcement agencies. "Adoptions" occur when state or local law enforcement agencies seize cash or properties under state laws, but then ask that a federal agency takes the seized property and forfeit it under federal law.

State and local law enforcement agencies routinely resort to "adoption" as a means of circumventing state laws that mandate seized assets go to designated programs, typically a state's general fund or education fund. When a seizure is "adopted" by the feds, the seizing agency gets to keep 80% of the proceeds, with the federal government getting the rest.

"With this new policy, effective immediately, the Justice Department is taking an important step to prohibit federal agency adoptions of state and local seizures, except for public safety reasons," Holder said in a statement. "This is the first step in a comprehensive review that we have launched of the federal asset forfeiture program. Asset forfeiture remains a critical law enforcement tool when used appropriately -- providing unique means to go after criminal and even terrorist organizations. This new policy will ensure that these authorities can continue to be used to take the profit out of crime and return assets to victims, while safeguarding civil liberties."

While much asset forfeiture activity is related to drug cases, they are not included in the list of exceptions to the new policy barring "adoptions." Those public safety exceptions include firearms, ammunition, explosives, and materials related to child pornography.

The new policy does not impact asset forfeitures conducted by federal law enforcement, nor does it bar state and local law enforcement from conducting civil asset forfeiture under state law.

"Policing for profit" just took a big hit. (wikimedia.org)
Under the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing asset forfeiture "adoption" program, state and local law enforcement has made more than 55,000 seizures of cash and property with a value of more than $3 billion since 2008.

Holder's move Friday is the boldest step to roll back sweeping police powers to seize goods and property since federal asset forfeiture began as tactic in the war on drugs in the 1980s. The Justice Department adopted the Equitable Sharing program in 1993.

Civil asset forfeiture -- the seizure of goods or property without having obtained a criminal conviction -- has come under increasing fire in recent years. Several asset forfeiture reform bills were filed in the last Congress, one has already been filed in the new Congress, and members from both parties are working jointly to draw up a bill to reform civil asset forfeiture.

The issue brought together libertarian-leaning groups like the Institute for Justice, which produced the highly critical study "Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture," and left-leaning groups like the ACLU to press for reforms. They met with congressional staffers to seek changes last fall.

Just last Friday, a bipartisan group of legislators including Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) sent a letter to Holder calling on him to end the Equitable Sharing program.

Pressure mounted after a Washington Post investigative piece published in September found police had seized nearly $2.5 billion in cash from motorists without search warrants or indictments since September 11, 2001. In that investigation, the Post found that police routinely stopped drivers for minor traffic violations, then intimidated them into agreeing to warrantless searches and seized cash without evidence of criminal misconduct.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) is working on civil asset forfeiture reform legislation. (house.gov)
Holder's move is likely to exacerbate already strained relations between the Obama administration and law enforcement agencies. Police groups have expressed unhappiness with remarks both Holder and Obama made about controversial police killings in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.

And now, the administration is in effect taking money out of their pockets. More than 7,500 of the nation's 18,000 state and local police departments and joint task forces have participated in the Equitable Sharing program. And hundreds of departments and sheriff's offices have seizure proceeds accounting for more than 20% of their budgets.

The move will also hurt federal agencies that have been "adopting" the seizures, particularly the DEA and ICE. Federal law enforcement has pocketed $800 million under Equitable Sharing seizures without arrests or convictions since 2001.

This is the second major asset forfeiture reform at the federal level. Spurred by reports of abuses of asset forfeiture in the late 1990s, Congress passed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. That bill originally contained a provision "ending the sharing of seizure proceeds between local police and federal agencies," but it was removed in the face of fierce opposition from police and prosecutors.

Since 9/11, with calls by federal officials for state and local law enforcement to surveil the nation's highways looking not only for drugs, but now for terrorists, the program only expanded. It didn't help that the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security paid out millions to private companies to teach police officers aggressive highway interdiction techniques emphasizing the importance of seizing cash.

The Equitable Sharing program and the aggressive interdiction techniques created what lawmakers a decade-and-a-half ago called "a perverse incentive" for police to concentrate more on seizing cash than seizing drugs. Now, Holder has butchered the cash cow.

Washington, DC
United States

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."

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.

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!

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