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The Next Five States That Could Legalize Marijuana [FEATURE]

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

Four states, including California, the nation's most populous, voted to legalize marijuana on November 8. That doubles the number of legal states to eight (plus the District of Columbia), and more than quadruples the number of people living in legal marijuana states, bringing the number to something around 64 million.

Every one of those states legalized marijuana through the initiative process, but we're not going to see any more initiatives on state ballots until 2018, and perhaps 2020. That means that if we are to make more progress on spreading marijuana legalization in the next couple of years, it's going to have to come at the state house instead of the ballot box.

Rhode Island State Capitol
That's the same pattern we saw with medical marijuana. California led the way via the initiative process in 1996, with several other states following in 1998 and 2000 before Hawaii became the first state to okay medical marijuana via the state legislature.

The election of Donald Trump is causing great uncertainty about the future of legal marijuana, and will act as a drag on legislators until his stance is clarified. Just as governors hesitated to implement medical marijuana programs in the face of federal hostility a decade ago, legislators will hesitate to move toward legalization in the face of uncertainty, or worse, outright hostility from a Trump administration.

Still, efforts to legalize marijuana through the legislative process have been underway for several years in a handful of states and have already come close to passage in some of them. And now, especially in New England, the pressure of neighboring states having already embraced legalization is fueling legalization fervor. But it's not just New England. The marijuana legalization message is resonating across the land.

Getting a bill through a state legislature is a long, multi-stage process, with too many opportunities for getting derailed, from obstinate committee chairs to skeptical governors wielding the veto pen. Despite the obstacles, here are five states that could get it done before the 2018 mid-terms:

Connecticut

Connecticut already has medical marijuana and decriminalized possession in 2011 with the support of Gov. Dannel Malloy (D). Malloy had said that decriminalization was as far as he wanted to go, but he's hinting at changing his tune after marijuana's big victory on Election Day. "We might have to reexamine our legal position, our position of enforcement, based on what some surrounding states are doing," Malloy said three days later.

For veteran legislators such as state Reps. Juan Candelaria (D-New Haven) and Toni Walker (D-New Haven), Malloy's softening couldn't come soon enough. They've authored legalization bills in past sessions, but they haven't gotten much traction. Look for them to be back at it again next year, with the changed New England political landscape smoothing the road.

Maryland

Maryland approved medical marijuana in 2014 (although the long-delayed program has yet to see any actual dispensaries open) and decriminalization last year under then Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.

The bad news is that O'Malley is gone now, replaced by anti-marijuana Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The good news is that the legislature has already demonstrated a willingness to override Hogan's vetoes when it comes to pot policy; it did that this year with a housekeeping bill that decriminalized the possession of paraphernalia (an oversight in the 2015 decriminalization bill).

Reform-minded legislators last year filed a legalization bill, the Marijuana Control and Revenue Act of 2015, in both houses, but they were stymied by unfriendly committee chairs. They're going to be back next year, backed by a carefully-built coalition of drug reform, social justice, and public health groups -- and with the support of a healthy majority of Marylanders, according to recent polls.

New Mexico

New Mexico Legislative Chambers
Eyeing next door neighbor Colorado, New Mexico is another state ripe for marijuana legalization. Two polls this year had popular support for legalization at 61%, and Democrats have now won control of the state legislature. That means two different moves toward legalization could occur: Rep. Bill McCamley (D-Mesilla Park) has filed a legalization bill the last two years, and says he will do it again next year. "It's not an academic exercise anymore," he said. And Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) also says he will be introducing a constitutional amendment that would take the issue to a popular vote.

But like Maryland, legalizers face an anti-marijuana Republican governor in Susana Martinez. Either Martinez is going to have to have a pot epiphany or the legislature is going to have to have enough votes to override a probable veto.

Rhode Island

This may be the best prospect of the bunch. Medical marijuana is well-established in the state, decriminalization has been in effect for four years, and now, in the wake of the legalization victory in neighboring Massachusetts, Gov. Gina Raimundo (D) says she's ready to more seriously consider doing the same in Rhode Island, although she has concerns about public safety and how any legislation is drafted.

Democrats control both houses of the legislature, and both House Speaker Thomas Mattiello and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio say they are ready to take up legalization bills. That would be a pleasant change: For the past six years, legalization bills have been filed, but never voted on.

Rhode Island's political leaders finally look ready to catch up to their constituents, 55% of whom supported legalization in a recent poll from Brown University and who smoke pot at the highest rate of any state, reporting a 16% past month use rate.

Vermont

Vermont very nearly became the first state to legalize weed through the legislative process this year. A legalization bill, S. 241, was supported by Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) and passed with strong support in the Senate, only to die in the House.

Now, a pair of key lawmakers said they are ready to try to get legalization through the legislature again. Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said legalization votes in Maine and Massachusetts are forcing the state's hand. "For me, that's a game-changer, that Massachusetts has voted to legalize," Sears said.

Sears' counterpart in the House, Judiciary Committee chairwoman Rep. Maxine Grad, is also ready to go, saying the Maine and Massachusetts votes will make lawmakers more amenable to moving forward.

There's just one problem: Shumlin is gone now, replaced by incoming Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who is not a big fan of government regulation, but is not a big fan of marijuana legalization, either. "I can appreciate the discussion around ending the prohibition of marijuana," he said, but had many, many concerns about this year's bill. Still, it's possible legislators will have heard those concerns and will come up with a bill that Scott can live with -- or a majority that can override a veto.

Will Trump's Dead Alcoholic Brother Haunt His Drug Policy? [FEATURE]

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

As incoming president, Donald Trump will be, among other things, the man in charge of the nation's drug policy. Whether he takes a hand-on, direct approach to policy-making or whether he delegates decision-making authority on drug matters to subordinates -- think Attorney General Jeff Sessions and shudder -- the buck ultimately stops with Donald.

Booze did in older brother Freddy, Jr. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
What a Trump administration will do with states that have legalized marijuana is a huge burning question, but the drug policy horizon extends well beyond weed. The Obama administration has championed federal drug sentencing reform, and the president is now commuting the sentences of dozens of drug offenders each week as the clock ticks down on his tenure. Will Trump reverse course?

There's also a huge cry for drug treatment in response to increasing heroin and prescription opioid use. Will a Trump administration be sympathetic? And what about harm reduction -- needle exchanges, supervised consumption sites, and the like? Do such programs have a future under Trump?

The short answer is: Who knows? Trump is proving day by day that how he governs will not necessarily have much correlation with anything he said on the campaign trail. And, as with his approach to many policy areas, what he has said about drugs, both during the campaign and in his earlier life, sounds both spur-of-the-moment and self-contradictory.

But Trump is not just a rather unpredictable president-elect. He's also a person with his own personal and family history, and that history includes a close encounter with substance abuse that sheds some light on his attitudes towards drugs and may influence his drug policy decision-making.

Donald Trump's older brother, and his overbearing father's namesake, "Freddy, Jr." was a full-blown alcoholic by his mid-20s (and Donald's teens) and drank himself into an early grave at the age of 43 in 1981. Freddy wasn't ready to take over the family business and instead became a fun-loving airline pilot, but his descent into the bottle had a traumatic -- and lasting -- impact on his little brother.

Trump says Freddy's alcoholism turned him into teetotaler. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
"I learned a lot from my brother Fred's death," Trump told Esquire in a 2004 interview. "He was a great-looking guy. He had the best personality. He had everything. But he had a problem with alcohol and cigarettes. He knew he had the problem, and it's a tough problem to have. He was ten years older than me, and he would always tell me not to drink or smoke. And to this day I've never had a cigarette. I've never had a glass of alcohol. I won't even drink a cup of coffee. I just stay away from those things because he had such a tremendous problem. Fred did me a great favor. It's one of the greatest favors anyone's ever done for me," he recalled.

Trump's experience with his brother turned him into a teetotaler, although he does swill Diet Coke instead. And he admits to one other "vice" in revealing terms. In a 2007 video, he said that hot women are his "alcoholism," especially "beautiful" teens.

"I never understood why people don't go after the alcohol companies like they did the tobacco companies," he continued in the Esquire interview. "Alcohol is a much worse problem than cigarettes."

Still, the free-wheeling marketeer wasn't ready to reinstate Prohibition because of Freddy, and that attitude extended to drugs. In the early 1990s, Trump reportedly talked about drug legalization, calling drug law enforcement "a joke" and saying "You have to legalize drugs to win that war. You have to take the profits away from these drug czars."

But Trump was singing a different tune on the campaign trail, especially in New Hampshire, which has been hit hard by the opioid wave. In a November 2015 interview with ABC News' Martha Raddatz, Trump backtracked.

"Well, I did not think about it," he confessed. "I said it's something that should be studied and maybe should continue to be studied. But it's not something I'd be willing to do right now. I think it's something that I've always said maybe it has to be looked at because we do such a poor job of policing. We don't want to build walls. We don't want to do anything. And if you're not going to want to do the policing, you're going to have to start thinking about other alternatives. But it's not something that I would want to do."

Will this be Trump's solution to the nation's drug problems? (nadcp.org)
That suggests that he thinks if we just enforce drug laws more vigorously, we could solve the problem. But it also suggests that he hasn't really been paying attention to the last 40 years of the war on drugs. Still, he has also said that marijuana legalization "should be a state issue, state by state," suggesting that he will not try to roll back pot legalization in the eight states that have now voted to free the weed.

And in an October 15 speech in New Hampshire, where he made his most coherent remarks about drug policy, he was mainly about building the wall on the Mexican border to stop the flow of heroin from Mexico. But in that speech, he at least sketched the outlines of response that included increased access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, increased reliance on drug courts, and increased access to the silver bullet of drug addiction, "abuse-deterring drugs." But he didn't say anything about how much he would be willing to spend on treatment and recovery (Hillary Clinton rolled out a $10 billion plan), nor how he would pay for it.

As with many policy areas, Trump's positions on drug policy are murky, seemingly only half-developed, and full of potential contradictions. Will having a teetotaler with a dead alcoholic brother in the White House make for better drug policies or an administration more understanding of the travails of addiction? As with many things Trump, we shall have to wait for his actions. Nominating drug war hardliners like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to head the Justice Department and giving Vice President-elect Mike Pence props for enacting mandatory minimum drug sentences aren't good omens, though.

Marijuana Wins Big on Election Day, But Faces Uncertain Future Under Trump [FEATURE]

Donald Trump wasn't the only big winner on Tuesday. Marijuana law reform also had a stellar night, with medical marijuana winning in all four states it was on the ballot and marijuana legalization winning four out of five.

Pot legalization won in California (Prop 64), Maine (Question 1), Massachusetts (Question 4), and Nevada (Question 2), losing only in Arizona (Prop 205), where a deep-pocketed opposition led by a hostile sitting governor managed to blunt the reform thrust. Medical marijuana won overwhelmingly in Florida (Amendment 2), the first state in the South to embrace full-blown medical marijuana, as well as in Arkansas (Question 6), Montana (I-182), and North Dakota (Measure 5).

This week's election doubles the number of legal marijuana states from four to eight and brings the number of full-fledged medical marijuana states to 28. It also means some 50 million people just got pot-legal, more than tripling the number of people living in states that have freed the weed.

 "This is one of the most significant days in the history of marijuana prohibition and this movement," said Rob Kampia, long-time head of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which was behind the legalization initiatives in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada and which also backed the California initiative. "When four states legalize it, it's a big deal, and California is an even bigger deal. The next time we'll see a day as important as yesterday is when a president signs a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition."

A major question is whether Donald Trump might be that president. During the campaign, he suggested that he would follow President Obama's lead and not interfere with state-level marijuana legalization and regulation (roughly the same position as Hillary Clinton). But his political alliances leave some reformers less than sanguine about a Trump administration.

"Marijuana reform won big across America on Election Day - indeed it's safe to say that no other reform was approved by so many citizens on so many ballots this year," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which was involved in the California campaign. "But the prospect of Donald Trump as our next president concerns me deeply. His most likely appointees to senior law enforcement positions - Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie - are no friends of marijuana reform, nor is his vice president.

 "The momentum for ending marijuana prohibition took a great leap forward with the victories in California and elsewhere, but the federal government retains the power to hobble much of what we've accomplished," Nadelmann continued. "The progress we've made, and the values that underlie our struggle - freedom, compassion, reason and justice - will be very much at risk when Donald Trump enters the White House."

MPP's Kampia had a more optimistic take.

"The positions of Clinton and Trump were very similar," he said. "We have no reason to believe Trump would escalate the war on nonviolent marijuana users in states where it is legal. States will continue moving forward, and we will see a string of successes in the future, as well as being able to implement the laws passed yesterday."

That remains to be seen, as does the chance that a Republican Congress will move in a positive direction on marijuana. In a Wednesday tele-conference, marijuana reform stalwart Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), pointed to three areas where congressional action is needed: reforming the IRS's 280-E tax code provision that bars marijuana businesses from getting normal business tax breaks, reforming Treasury Department regulations that bar financial institutions from doing business with pot businesses, and removing barriers to research on marijuana's medical efficacy.

"I believe the next administration will follow the policy of the Obama administration," he said. "We had strong support for legalization in nine diverse states, with more support for these legalize, regulate, and tax policies than for either presidential candidate. The people have spoken, and that will make it easier for us in Congress to build bipartisan support for this legislation. There are now 28 states where there are state-legal businesses having to pay their taxes with shopping bags full of $20 bills. We have growing support in the House and Senate to stop this insanity," Blumenauer said.

"I believe we will see action within the next two years to stop this discrimination against state-legal marijuana businesses," he prophesied. "Now that the playing field has expanded dramatically, including that overwhelming vote in Florida, which will become the second largest state marijuana market in the country, there is even more incentive. Some representatives are ambivalent or even opposed to marijuana legalization, but will serve their constituents."

But, as DPA's Nadelmann noted, even if Congress is favorably disposed to move in a positive direction on marijuana, the Trump executive branch is likely to feature staunch foes of marijuana law reform. Will advisors and possible appointees such as Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and Mike Pence push Trump to try to undo the spreading marijuana legalization movement? And will Trump listen if they do? We will know the answer to these questions only in the fullness of time.

In the meantime, voters in initiative and referendum states and legislators in states without the initiative process can work to create more facts on the ground, more legalization states. National public opinion polls—and this week's elections—show that marijuana legalization is a winning issue. And the more states that legalize it, the more ridiculous, or as Obama put it this week, "untenable," federal marijuana prohibition becomes. Even a Trump victory, with all the frightening prospects that brings, may not be able to stop the marijuana juggernaut. 

Using Medical Marijuana to Reduce Dependence on Opiates in an Aging, Aching Population [FEATURE]

Pain is a drag. And chronic pain is a never-ending drag. Unfortunately, as we grow older, we can expect to increasingly suffer its torments. Half of older adults who live on their own report suffering from chronic pain. For people in elderly care facilities, that figure jumps to somewhere around 80%.

Older patients reported relief and good quality of life with marijuana. (Darren Harris Frisby/DPA)
An aging population with its associated aches and pains is one reason opioid pain prescriptions have increased so dramatically this century. Opiates are a very popular pain management technique, despite the well-known problems with them, primarily addiction and lethality. They can ease your pain, but they can also kill you or get you strung out. And opiate users report other problems less severe, but still affecting quality of life, such as constipation and foggy-headedness.

In recent years, we have seen increasing evidence that one substance can reduce both pain and the reliance on opioids to treat it, and that its use can have a positive impact on fatal opioid overdoses. That substance is marijuana.

As the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported in 2014, "In states where it is legal to use medical marijuana to manage chronic pain and other conditions, the annual number of deaths from prescription drug overdose is 25% lower than in states where medical marijuana remains illegal."   

Now, new research findings from Care By Design, one of California's leading medical marijuana producers, add more evidence of the positive role marijuana can play in treating chronic pain and reducing dependence on opioid pain medications. The study surveyed 800 patients, mostly between 50 and 70, more than 80% of whom reported suffering from chronic pain, half of whom reported suffering from acute pain, and more than 40% of whom reported suffering from both.

These patients were in a world of hurt and had tried a number of pain management tools—opiates, medical marijuana, anti-inflammatory agents (NSAIDS), nerve blockers, exercise/physical therapy, and surgery—with respondents reporting trying an average of four of them. A quarter of patients reported having tried all six.  

The patients reported that marijuana was very effective for pain, with few negative side effects.  That was in striking distinction to opiates, which patients also said were effective for pain, but had a significant negative impact on quality of life for a significant number of them. In fact, the differences between the two substances in terms of quality of life were so dramatic they led to dramatic changes in patient behavior.

Medical marijuana (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
"This survey brings some very important information to light," said Care By Design spokesman Nick Caston. "We see here in our patient data that cannabis is improving the quality of life of our patients—particularly elderly patients suffering from age-related pain—and that it does so without the dangerous side effects of other pain management modalities. 

"The study’s most striking finding was cannabis’ apparent impact on opiate reliance: Ninety-one percent of survey respondents reported that they decreased the amount of opiates they were taking or eliminated them altogether," Caston continued.

The study also found while marijuana, opiates, exercise/physical therapy, and NSAIDS all provided noticeable pain relief in more than half the patients, marijuana was the only pain management tool where there were no reports of worsening pain. And half of the patients using opiates reported that they had a negative impact on overall well-being, interfering with mood, energy, sleep, and functional abilities.

More than half of the patients reported using both marijuana and opiates to manage pain. But as noted above, nine out of 10 reduced or eliminated their opiate consumption after beginning to use marijuana. And nearly two-thirds (63%) said they were now off opiates altogether.

Over half of respondents reported that they had used both cannabis and opiates for pain management. Of great interest was the impact of cannabis therapy on opiate usage: Ninety-one percent of this subgroup reported that they used fewer or no opiates after beginning cannabis therapy. Sixty-three percent said that they went off opiates altogether.

"A tenet of healthcare in the United States is 'First, do no harm,'" the study concluded. "Patient reports of cannabis’ efficacy together with its low side effect profile suggest that it should be considered as a first-line treatment for pain and/or as an adjunct treatment to opiates rather than as a medication of last resort."

In other words, if we want to reduce the reliance on opioids, with all their negatives, for the management of pain in an aging population, we should be easing access to medical marijuana. With medical marijuana legal in 25 states, we're halfway there. 

Clinton's and Trump's Drug Policies [FEATURE]

(This article was written prior to the election.)

One means of judging the competing presidential candidates is to examine their actual policy prescriptions for dealing with serious issues facing the country. When it comes to drug policy, the contrasts between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump couldn't be more telling.

Donald Trump talks drugs. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)
The country is in the midst of what can fairly be called an opioid crisis, with the CDC reporting 78 Americans dying every day from heroin and prescription opioid overdoses. Both candidates have addressed the problem on the campaign trail, but, as is the case in so many other policy areas, one candidate has detailed proposals, while the other offers demagogic sloganeering.

Guess which is which.

Hillary Clinton has offered a detailed $10 billion plan to deal with what she called the "quiet epidemic" of opioid addiction. Donald Trump's plan consists largely of "build the wall."

That was the centerpiece of his October 15 speech in New Hampshire where he offered his clearest drug policy prescriptions yet (though it was overshadowed by his weird demand that Hillary Clinton undergo a drug test).  To be fair, since then, Trump has also called for expanding law enforcement and treatment programs, but he has offered no specifics or cost estimates.

And the centerpiece of his approach remains interdiction, which dovetails nicely with his nativist immigration positions.

Donald Trump wants a wall here to stop drugs and immigrants. (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)
"A Trump administration will secure and defend our borders," he said in that speech. "A wall will not only keep out dangerous cartels and criminals, but it will also keep out the drugs and heroin poisoning our youth."

Trump did not address the failure of 40 years of ever-increasing border security and interdiction policies to stop the flow of drugs up until now, nor did he explain what would prevent a 50-foot wall from being met with a 51-foot ladder.

Trump's drug policy also takes aim at a favorite target of conservatives: so-called sanctuary cities, where local officials refuse to cooperate in harsh federal deportation policies.

"We are also going to put an end to sanctuary cities, which refuse to turn over illegal immigrant drug traffickers for deportation," he said. "We will dismantle the illegal immigrant cartels and violent gangs, and we will send them swiftly out of our country."

In contrast, Clinton's detailed proposal calls for increased federal spending for prevention, treatment and recovery, first responders, prescribers, and criminal justice reform. The Clinton plan would send $7.5 billion to the states over 10 years, matching every dollar they spend on such programs with four federal dollars. Another $2.5 billion would be designated for the federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant program.

Hillary Clinton has a detailed drug policy position. (state.gov)
While Trump advocates increased border and law enforcement, including a return to now widely discredited mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders, Clinton does not include funding for drug enforcement and interdiction efforts in her proposal. Such funding would presumably come through normal appropriations channels.

Instead of a criminal justice crackdown, Clinton vows that her attorney general will issue guidance to the states urging them to emphasize treatment over incarceration for low-level drug offenders. She also supports alternatives to incarceration such as drug courts (as does Trump). But unlike Trump, Clinton makes no call for increased penalties for drug offenders.

Trump provides lip service to prevention, treatment and recovery, but his rhetorical emphasis illuminates his drug policy priorities: more walls, more law enforcement, more drug war prisoners.

There is one area of drug policy where both candidates are largely in agreement, and that is marijuana policy. Both Clinton and Trump have embraced medical marijuana, both say they are inclined to let the states experiment with legalization, but neither has called for marijuana legalization or the repeal of federal pot prohibition.

If Clinton's drug policies can be said to be a continuation of Obama's, Trump's drug policies are more similar to a return to Nixon's. 

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org"s lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays 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.)

Flailing Trump Pivots to Drug Policy, Demands Hillary Drug Test, Pivots Away Again [FEATURE]

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

Reeling from allegation after allegation of sexual misconduct, Republican presidential contender Donald Trump tried to go on the offensive on drug policy over the weekend, but in a manner typical of his campaign, he touched only briefly on the topic before flying off on new tangents, and he began his drug policy interlude with a bizarre attack on Hillary Clinton.

Donald Trump talks drugs. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)
At a speech at a Toyota dealership in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Saturday, the GOP candidate claimed that Clinton was on performance-enhancing drugs before their last debate and suggested drug tests were in order.

"Why don't we do that?" he demanded, adding that Clinton was likely "getting pumped up" as the prepared for that debate.

"We should take a drug test prior cause I don't know what's going on with her. But at the beginning of last debate, she was all pumped up at the beginning and at the end it was like, oh take me down. She could barely reach her car," he claimed.

The claim didn't come out of nowhere. Trump was echoing an ad from two weeks ago from the pro-Trump super PAC Make America Number 1 that showed Clinton coughing and then stumbling to her van on the morning of September 11. The super PAC is bankrolled by Trump backer and big time conservative donor Robert Mercer, who dropped $2 million on the PAC in July.

The unfounded allegation of Clinton pre-debate drug use and the demand for a drug test grabbed media attention, but if Trump was attempting to turn a corner and shift the campaign's focus away from his peccadillos, his strange accusation against Clinton only served to raise more questions about his temperament and suitability for the nation's highest office.

Trump wanted Hillary Clinton to submit to a pre-debate drug test. (Wikimedia)
And it virtually smothered any discussion of actual drug policy proposals Trump made during the speech. While Trump has obliquely addressed the heroin and prescription opioid problem in the past, Saturday's speech was the first time he tried to put any flesh on his proposals for dealing with it.

If anyone were paying attention to the policy details amidst all the racket about the drug test challenge, they would have heard drug policy proposals rooted squarely in the failed drug war strategies of the last century.

Trump would, he said, block drugs from coming into the US by -- you guessed it -- building the wall on the Mexican border. He would also seek to tighten restrictions on the prescribing of opioids. And he would reinstitute mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

"We have 5 percent of the world's population but use 80 percent of the prescription opioids," Trump said, eerily echoing former rival Jeb Bush, who used the same language while campaigning in the state earlier this year.

That statistic is aimed at showing that the US is over-prescribing narcotic pain killers, but according to the World Health Organization, the actuality is that in much of the rest of the world, they are underprescribing them. In fact, the WHO said that in more than 150 countries with 83 percent of the global population, there is virtually no access to prescription opioids for relief of pain.

And the under-treatment of chronic pain isn't just a problem in India or China or Africa. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 50 million Americans suffer significant chronic or severe pain. An opioid policy that focuses only on reducing prescriptions without addressing the need for access to pain killing opioids for actual pain is only half a policy.

When it comes to the border, Trump correctly asserts that Mexico is the source of most of the heroin in the US (it produces 45% itself and another 51% comes from Latin America, mostly Colombia and Guatemala, often through Mexico), but relies on a hyper-interdiction policy ("build the wall") to thwart it. Interdiction -- blocking the flow of drugs into the country -- has been a pillar of US drug policy for decades, but despite massive border build ups and the doubling of the number of Customs and Border Patrol agents in the past 15 years, the drugs still flow.

Long after their popularity wanes, Trump calls for new mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders. (nadcp.org)
Interdiction hasn't done the trick so far, and there is no indication that even a Trumpian wall would make a difference. The creativity of drug smugglers is legendary, and the economic incentives under drug prohibition are great. As the saying goes, "Build a 50-foot wall, and they'll bring a 51-foot ladder" (or a tunnel).

The third component of his drug policy is a Reaganesque "lock 'em up." In his New Hampshire speech, he saluted running mate Mike Pence for increasing mandatory minimums for drug offenders as governor of Indiana.

"We must make similar efforts a priority for the nation," Trump said.

That position flies in the face of a growing bipartisan consensus that the use of mandatory minimums for drug offenses is draconian, ineffective, and harms mainly minority populations. During the Obama administration, mandatory minimum sentences have been reduced with congressional assent, and Obama himself has granted commutations to hundreds of drug war prisoners serving those draconian sentences, with little dissent.

Trump's drug policy is but a sketch, but even its vague outlines reflect outdated approaches to the issue and a quickness to resort to cheap demagoguery on the issue. Still, while there is plenty of room for discussion of his approach, Trump has apparently already left the issue behind, barely mentioning it since Saturday as he tilts at other windmills.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays 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.)

A Possession Arrest Every 25 Seconds: The Cruel Folly of the War on Drugs [FEATURE]

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

Nearly a half century after Richard Nixon inaugurated the modern war on drugs, to criticize it as a failure as so common as to be banal. Yet even as marijuana prohibition falls in some states, the drug war rolls on, an assembly line of criminalization and incarceration, dealing devastating blows to the lives of its victims that linger far beyond the jail or prison cell.

More than 1.25 million arrests for simple drug possession last year. (Creative Commons)
And most of its victims are not capos or kingpins, but simple drug users. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), drug possession is the single offense for which the largest number of arrests are made in the US, totaling more than 1.25 million last year, and accounting for more than three-fourths of all drug arrests.

Based on analysis of national and state-level data, as well as more than 360 interviews with drug offenders, family members, past and present government officials, and activists conducted mostly in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and New York, the 196-page report, "Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States," finds that enforcement of drug possession laws causes extensive and unjustifiable harm to individuals and communities across the country.

The long-term consequences can separate families; exclude people from job opportunities, welfare assistance, public housing, and voting; and expose them to discrimination and stigma for a lifetime. While more people are arrested for simple drug possession in the US than for any other crime, mainstream discussions of criminal justice reform rarely question whether drug use should be criminalized at all.

"Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use," said Tess Borden, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and the report's author. "These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence."

Among those interviewed was for the study was Corey, who is doing 17 years in Louisiana for possessing a half ounce of marijuana. His four-year-old daughter, who has never seen him outside prison, thinks she's visiting him at work.

The harmful consequences of a drug arrest extend far beyond prison walls (ussupremecourt.gov)
Another is "Neal," whose name was changed to protect his privacy. Also in Louisiana, he's doing five years for possessing 0.2 grams of crack cocaine. He has a rare autoimmune disorder and said he cried the day he pleaded guilty because he knew he might not survive his sentence.

Then there's Nicole, held for months in the Harris County Jail in Houston and separated from her three young children until she pleaded guilty to a felony -- her first. The conviction meant she would lose her student financial aid, the food stamps she relied on to feed her kids, and the job opportunities she would need to survive. All for an empty baggie containing a tiny bit of heroin residue.

"While families, friends, and neighbors understandably want government to take action to prevent the potential harm caused by drug use, criminalization is not the answer," Borden said. "Locking people up for using drugs causes tremendous harm, while doing nothing to help those who need and want treatment."

The report also emphasized the now all-too-familiar racial disparities in drug law enforcement, noting that while blacks use drugs at similar or lower rates than whites, they're more than two-and-a-half times more likely to arrested for drug possession and more than four time more likely to be arrested for pot possession. It's even worse in some localities, such as Manhattan, where blacks are 11 times as likely to be busted for drug possession as whites. That amounts to "racial discrimination under international human rights law," the two groups said.

Aside from the vicious cruelty of imprisoning people for years or decades merely for possessing a substance, that drug conviction -- and drug possession, even of tiny amounts, is a felony in 42 states -- also haunts their futures. Drug convicts face the loss of access to social welfare benefits, the stigma of criminality, the disruption of family life, the financial burden of paying fines and fees, and the burden of trying to find work with a felony record. And that harms society at large as well as the criminalized drug users.

And despite tens of millions of drug arrests over the past few decades, with all their collateral damage, the war on drugs doesn't achieve its avowed goal: reducing drug use. There has to be a better way, and Human Rights Watch and the ACLU have something to say about that.

report launch at National Press Club, Washington, DC, 10/12/16
"State legislatures and the US Congress should decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs. Federal and state governments should invest resources in programs to decrease the risks associated with drug use and provide and support voluntary treatment options for people struggling with drug dependence, along with other approaches," the two groups recommended.

"Until full decriminalization is achieved, officials at all levels of government should minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of current laws and practices," they added, providing detailed recommendations to state legislatures, police, prosecutors, and other state and local government entities, as well as the federal government.

"Criminalizing personal drug use is a colossal waste of lives and resources," Borden said. "If governments are serious about addressing problematic drug use, they need to end the current revolving door of drug possession arrests, and focus on effective health strategies instead."

Weed is Going to Win Big in November [FEATURE]

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

A month out from Election Day, it's looking like marijuana legalization is going to be a big winner. Initiatives are on the ballot in five states, including California, and all indications are that they are going to pass in all of them, with one possible exception.

In what is the closest thing ever to a national referendum on weed, states on the West Coast, in the Southwest, and in New England with a total of more than 55 million residents will be rendering their verdict. That's about one-sixth of the national population.

The four states that have already legalized marijuana -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- have about 17 ½ million residents. Even if California were the only state to see a victorious legalization initiative -- and it very likely won't be -- victory there would triple the number of people living in pot-legal states. A clean sweep would quadruple it.

Nationally, attitudes toward marijuana have undergone a sea change in recent years. Gallup's annual polls show that only a decade ago, support for legalization was at a mere 36%. But by 2012, when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize it, nationwide support had climbed to 50%, and by 2014, when Alaska and Oregon (and Washington, DC) followed suit, it was at 58%. It blipped down last year in the Gallup poll, but this year, it's back to 58% again.

The national polls are encouraging, but just as in the presidential race, they don't really matter when it comes to the nitty-gritty of winning state-level elections. What does matter are the state level polls, and at this point, they're looking pretty damned good for legal weed.

And a good November for marijuana legalization could be the turning point on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition. Championing an end to federal pot prohibition has been a lonely stance so far -- thanks, Bernie Sanders! -- but with more states, and especially California, set to go legal next month, the next Congress is going to have a considerable contingent of members whose constituents have already embraced legalization.

Now, the votes haven't been cast yet, there are opposition campaigns of varying strength in the different states, and there are untoward surprises that could happen -- say, a teenager on pot runs over a bunch of school kids -- but as we enter the final weeks of the campaign season, it's increasingly looking like weed is going to win big.

Here's the state-by-state rundown:

Arizona

This is the tightest race, with the Prop 205 legalization initiative leading by 10 points, but only hitting 50% in an August Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll. Other recent polls have showed the initiative narrowly losing. Voters in this red state approved medical marijuana in 2010, but only by the narrowest of margins. If legalization can pass in Arizona this year, that will be a real sign that support for prohibition is crumbling.

Still, the initiative faces a vigorous and well-funded opposition campaign led by state officials, and it has more money in the bank right now than the pro-legalization forces. The Prop 205 campaign has raised more money than the opposition ($3.2 million versus $2 million), but the opposition still has $1.4 million to do damage, while the legalizers only have $170,000 in cash on hand.

California

The Big Enchilada is ready to pop out of the oven. California tried to be first out of the gate with 2010's Prop 19, but it came up just a few points short. This time will be different. Polls this year have consistently shown support for the Prop 64 legalization initiative at over 50% and mostly in the upper fifties. The latest poll, a September survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, had support at 60%. An August poll that did not ask specifically about Prop 64 but asked whether respondents believed "marijuana should be legal for adults to purchase and use recreationally" garnered 64% support.

Support for legalization has gone mainstream in California, with the initiative campaign fronted by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), endorsed by the state Democratic Party (among many others), several sitting US representatives, and leading newspapers in the state, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

And the initiative campaign has big, big bucks. Yes on 64 has raised more than $20 million, including more than $7 million from tech billionaire and philanthropist Sean Parker and has a war chest of more than $14 million. The campaign has committed nearly $7 million to campaign TV ads that began airing last week, and that leaves a big, fat bankroll for any last minute expenditures. The opposition, on the other hand, has raised only a fraction as much money, mainly from law enforcement groups and conservative philanthropists.

The Golden State is going green next month.

Maine

New England aims to become the first region outside the West to embrace legal weed, and it's looking like Maine's Question 1 legalization initiative will help lead the charge. A March poll had support at 54%, while a Portland Press Herald poll two weeks ago had it at 53%. Only 38% were opposed, and the number of undecideds is smaller than the gap between "yes" and "no" votes.

There is virtually no organized opposition, nor any sign of opposition fundraising. And the Question 1 campaign had $1.7 million in the bank last month. That's plenty of money for last-minute ad buys in a small-market state.

Massachusetts

The Bay State is the second New England state poised to go green this year, with the Question 4 legalization initiative polling at 53% in a new WBZ-TV/ UMass Amherst poll. Only 40% were opposed. Voting for marijuana reform is nothing new for Massachusetts residents: A series of non-binding district level public policy questions on pot law reform has won an unbroken string of victories since 2002 and voters approved both medical marijuana (2008) and decriminalization (2012) by nearly two-to-one margins.

Support for marijuana reform has typically outpaced the polls. When, for instance, voters approved medical marijuana with 63% of the vote in 2012, the last polls before election day had it only at 58%.

There is a serious bipartisan organized opposition campaign underway that includes both Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D), along with the usual suspects in law enforcement and some of the medical establishment. The opposition has been up to some dirty dealing and is getting some support from local alcohol interests.

There is some cause for concern with the state of campaign finances, though. While the pro-legalization side has out-fundraised the opposition by a wide margin -- $2.4 million to $363,000 -- the opposition still has $320,000 in the bank, while legalizers had only $22,000 left in mid-September. That could mean a late onslaught of unanswered attack ads.

Nevada

Just across the Sierra Nevada from California, the Silver State looks to be catching green fever, too. The Question 2 legalization initiative appears to be pulling away. Earlier polls had support hovering around 50%, but a KTNV/Rasmussen Reports poll last month had support at 53%, and the most recent poll, just two weeks ago from Suffolk University, had support rising to 57%, with only 33% opposed. That's a huge gap.

Organized opposition has been all but invisible, with No on 2 campaigns reporting having received only $30,000 by mid-summer. That could have changed since then, but there is no sign of any big cash infusions by the opposition side. Conservative Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal and managed to flip its editorial stance from "pro" to "con" earlier this year, but even the state's largest newspaper doesn't seem to carry enough weight to defeat legalization.

Meanwhile, the Yes on 2 campaign has raised over a million dollars, locked in $900,000 in TV ad buys back in June, has billboards up, and is ready to hit the airwaves in these final weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then some, DPA's Davies added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treatment Expansion and Enhancement

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

Health and Harm Reduction

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

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

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