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Bernie Sanders Files Bill to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition [FEATURE]

Vermont independent senator and Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders Wednesday filed legislation in the Senate that would end federal marijuana prohibition by removing -- not rescheduling -- marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances. It is the first bill ever introduced in the Senate to end the federal war on marijuana.

Bernie Sanders (wikipedia.org)
The bill, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2015, has not yet been assigned a bill number, but the text is available here.

A similar bill was introduced in the House by Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) in 2011, but it never went anywhere.

Two years later, Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) provided a model for the Sanders bill with a bill he proposed in 2013, and reintroduced this year as the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act (HR 1013), although there are slight differences. The Polis bill would shift authority over marijuana from the DEA to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, while the Sanders bill would not, and the Polis bill would amend federal alcohol laws to include provisions for shipping marijuana, while the Sanders bill would not.

"Just as alcohol prohibition failed in the 1920s, it's clear marijuana prohibition is failing today," Polis said in a statement. "For decades, the federal ban on marijuana has wasted tax dollars, impeded our criminal justice system, lined the pockets of drug cartels, and trampled on states’ ability to set their own public health laws. Today's introduction of the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act in the Senate is a huge step forward in the movement to enact the commonsense drug laws needed to grow our economy and restore fairness to our justice system."

Sanders filed the bill one week after he first proposed reclassifying marijuana during a campaign speech at George Mason University.

"In the United States we have 2.2 million people in jail today, more than any other country. And we're spending about $80 billion a year to lock people up. We need major changes in our criminal justice system -- including changes in drug laws," Sanders said. "Too many Americans have seen their lives destroyed because they have criminal records as a result of marijuana use. That's wrong. That has got to change."

No other presidential contender, Democratic or Republican, has staked out a position as advanced on marijuana legalization as Sanders, although Congress is proving increasingly receptive to marijuana reform measures.

Several spending amendments aimed at blocking federal pursuit of state-legal marijuana operations have already passed the House and the Senate Appropriations Committee this year, and Senate Republicans have included spending amendments in their recent "minibus" spending package, including measures to bar the DEA from interfering with state medical marijuana laws, bar the Treasury Department from stopping banks from providing services to marijuana business, and to require the Veterans Administration to allow vets to use medical marijuana.

Also, earlier this year, Sens. Corey Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced the CARERS Act (S. 683), which would legalize the medicinal use of marijuana.

The increasing acceptance of marijuana reforms in Congress comes as the American public also increasingly accepts the idea. Public opinion polls now consistently show majority support for pot legalization, including a Gallup poll last month that had 58% for legalization.

Marijuana reformers are liking what they are hearing from the Sanders camp.

"The science is clear that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol, and that should be reflected in our nation's marijuana policy," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Sen. Sanders is simply proposing that we treat marijuana similarly to how we treat alcohol at the federal level, leaving most of the details to the states. It is a commonsense proposal that is long overdue in the Senate."

"Clearly Bernie Sanders has looked at the polls showing voter support for marijuana legalization," said Michael Collins, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Action, the political arm of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Marijuana reform was already moving forward in Congress but we expect this bill to give reform efforts a big boost."

Will Congress act to end federal pot prohibition? (wikimedia.org)
"This is the first time a bill to end federal marijuana prohibition has been introduced in the US Senate," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "A growing majority of Americans want states to be able to enact their own marijuana laws without harassment from the DEA, and lawmakers should listen. The introduction of this bill proves that the defeat of the Ohio marijuana monopoly measure that wasn't widely supported in our movement isn’t doing anything to slow down our national momentum."

"Many legislators and citizens are still hesitant to move forward with marijuana legalization initiatives in their home states because of the federal ban, which may contradict state law, making both laws difficult to follow or enforce, and making banking transactions all but impossible." said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a criminal justice group working to legalize marijuana.

Four states -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- and the District of Columbia have already legalized marijuana, with another handful expected to do so next year. And 23 states already have medical marijuana laws.

"As more states legalize marijuana for medical or non-medical use the pressure to change federal law will continue to grow," Bill Piper, director of national affairs at Drug Policy Action said. "There is a clear bipartisan majority in Congress for letting states set their own marijuana policies."

(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.)

Double Standard? Marijuana or Hemp? DEA Indian Tribe Raid Raises Questions [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and will appear at http://www.alternet.org/drugs/.

Taking advantage of a 2014 Justice Department memo giving Indian tribes a green light to participate in marijuana commerce, as well as a 2014 congressional vote allowing for industrial hemp pilot programs, Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe earlier this year planted some 30,000 cannabis plants as part of a pilot project with the College of the Menominee Nation.

Last Friday, the DEA came and cut them all down.

The DEA says the plants were marijuana plants; the tribe says they were hemp plants. In either case, tribal officials and marijuana reform advocates don't understand why the grow was raided. Even if it were marijuana, it appears to be an operation well within Justice Department guidelines. And that's leading to some pointed questions about whether the feds have one standard for pot-legal states and another for the tribe-legal jurisdictions.

The memo that allows for marijuana commerce on the reservation includes eight potential enforcement triggers first formulated in a 2013 Justice Department memo (the Cole memo) advising federal prosecutors to lay off of recreational and medical marijuana operations in states where they are legal. Those triggers include diversion to other localities, money going to organized crime, and violence associated with the trade, among others.

The raid came after the tribe allowed a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee and local police to inspect the operation and take plant samples. And that visit came after a meeting between the BIA agent, the local cops, and an assistant US attorney.

According to the DEA affidavit for a search warrant, the samples tested positive for "marijuana," although there was no measurement of THC levels in the plants.

Industrial hemp is high in fiber, but low in THC, with levels at 0.3% or less. Pot produced for the recreational market, by contrast, typically has THC levels of 15% to 20% and beyond. There is a possibility some of the plants could exceed the 0.3% limit, but not by much.

The DEA affidavit also attempted to make a case that the hemp grow was violating those Justice Department triggers. The tribe had hired Colorado cannabis consultant Brian Goldstein to consult on its grow, and Goldstein, along with Tribal Chairwoman Ruth Wapoose, had in fact guided the feds and the local cops on their tour of the operation.

But Goldstein was "white," the affidavit noted, and several other people present appeared "non-native," and some vehicles had Colorado plates. This, the affidavit somewhat tortuously argued, violated the memo's provision about diversion from states where marijuana is legal to those where it is not. It seems to claim that hiring a cannabis consultant from a legal state is equivalent to importing pot from that state.

A field of hemp at sunrise. (votehemp.org)
The affidavit also stretched to assert the operation was setting off other enforcement triggers. The lack of ventilation in a drying room "is a health and safety concern for the community and the individuals associated with the operation, which is a violation of the enumerated priorities listed in the Cole memorandum regarding adverse public health concerns of marijuana cultivation," it argued.

But drying hemp stalks in closed barns is standard practice and is used by farmers around the country, including those who produced legal hemp crops this year in Colorado and Kentucky.

And security personnel guarding the property had guns, leading the BIA agent to question "the ability for the security team to have weapons for protection because it would violate the Cole memorandum."

Now, the grow has been destroyed, any decision on criminal prosecution is in the hands of federal prosecutors, and the tribe and other observers are wondering just what is going on. After all, the Menominee aren't the only tribe to take the Justice Department at its word, only to be raided down the road.

This past summer, the DEA hit two California tribes, the Pit River Tribe and the Alturas Indian Rancheria, seizing 12,000 plants. The feds alleged Cole memorandum violations including financing from a foreign entrepreneur and fears the marijuana would be distributed outside the reservations in ways that violated the state's medical marijuana law. And the US attorney in South Dakota a month earlier refused to agree to lift an injunction barring Oglala Sioux tribal member Alex White Plume from growing hemp, which the Oglala Sioux Nation has legalized.

Are the tribes being held to a different standard than states where it is legal? Has there been a policy shift at Justice? Are individual federal prosecutors going off the reservation?

Menominee Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw doesn't know, but he isn't happy about it.

"I am deeply disappointed that the Obama administration has made the decision to utilize the full force of the DEA to raid our Tribe," he said in a statement after the raid. "We offered to take any differences in the interpretation of the farm bill to federal court. Instead, the Obama administration sent agents to destroy our crop while allowing recreational marijuana in Colorado. I just wish the President would explain to tribes why we can't grow industrial hemp like the states, and even more importantly, why we don't deserve an opportunity to make our argument to a federal judge rather than having our community raided by the DEA?"

Neither was Eric Steenstra, head of the hemp industry advocacy organization Vote Hemp.

"The DEA action in this case is egregious, excessive and presents an unjust prejudice against Indian Country and the rights of sovereign tribal nations," he said. "The Menominee Indian Tribe cultivated their industrial hemp in accordance with Federal Law, per the legislation put forth in the Farm Bill. This is a step backward, at a time when great progress has otherwise been made toward legalizing and regulating industrial hemp cultivation."

In an interview with US News and World Report, tribal law expert Lance Morgan, a member of Nebraska's Winnebago tribe who has worked with tribal governments pondering marijuana operations, said the Cole memorandum guidelines are not being applied consistently and warned the Menominee raid would be remembered as a historic betrayal.

"How can you allow people to buy marijuana in a retail environment in some states and then raid an industrial hemp operation of a tribe? The only difference is that there is a tribe involved," he said. "This odd federal policy of encouraging investment and then raiding the new business sets us back a few decades in federal tribal trust and economic policy."

The raids against tribal pot operations will kill investment in such ventures, Morgan said.

"The new federal policy of 'sort of' allowing tribes to get into the marijuana business is especially cruel and unusual because it encourages investment, but after the investment is made the federal government comes and shuts it down and the investors lose all their money."

Tribal law expert and former head of New York's Seneca Nation Robert Odawi Porter agreed that there is at least the appearance of a double standard.

"This certainly suggests a real divergence in policy approach for Indian country," compared to the pot-legal states, which have been allowed to develop enormous marijuana industries, he said. "It increasingly looks like the Justice Department guidelines are not being interpreted in the same way as they were intended."

It seems like the Justice Department has some explaining and clarifying to do. Can the tribes participate in the new marijuana economy like that states, or not? And does the DEA accept the legal definition and status of hemp? If not, why?

Will Ohio Legalize Marijuana Next Month? [FEATURE]

It's now less than three weeks until Buckeye State voters head to the polls in an off-year election, and they make make Ohio the first Midwestern state to legalize marijuana. A poll this week that asked specifically if respondents supported the initiative on the ballot had 56% saying yes.

They will be voting on Issue 3, a controversial proposal sponsored by ResponsibleOhio that would legalize both medical and recreational marijuana use, cultivation, and distribution. The measure would establish a 10-grower "monopoly" on commercial marijuana production (but not sales) and allow individuals to grow up to four plants for personal use if they pay a $50 license fee and if they keep the plants hidden from public view.

But despite the favorable poll numbers -- even better than the 53% approval of a generic marijuana legalization question in a poll two weeks ago -- victory is by no means a sure thing. It is an off-year election with traditionally low voter turnout among groups likely to be supportive, the effort is opposed by the state's political establishment, and even if it wins, it could be tangled up in court for years because that GOP establishment has placed an initiative on the ballot, Issue 2, specifically designed to invalidate Issue 3. That initiative would bar Issue 3 from taking effect, as a constitutional "monopoly," and would put similar questions on the ballot when other monopoly or oligopoly measures appear in the future.

If both initiatives pass, state officials say Issue 2 will supersede Issue 3, but other legal experts say it's not so clear, especially if the legalization initiative wins more votes than the anti-monopoly initiative, which the new poll suggests it could If both pass, legalization will, at best, be delayed until the mess is sorted out in the courts.

With the exception of NORML, national drug reform groups have kept their distance. The NORML board of directors endorsed Issue 3 last month, but neither the Marijuana Policy Project nor the Drug Policy Alliance, both of which endorse marijuana legalization in general, have made much noise about this initiative.

When it comes to in-state endorsements, ResponsibleOhio looks pretty isolated, with support from the Ohio ACLU, some UFCW locals, and a handful of elected officials, while those taking a stand against the measure include the state Green, Libertarian, and Republican parties, business groups, medical groups, law enforcement groups, children's advocates, and many state political figures, including Republican Gov. John Kasich and Attorney General Mike DeWine.

The initiative has also infuriated many Ohio marijuana activists, who see their years of work going up in smoke in the face of well-heeled investors in ResponsibleOhio, who have generally had little to do with marijuana reform, but who know a money-making opportunity when they see one. By buying into the campaign, those investors have secured their positions controlling the ten designated commercial grows.

"We don't support the ResponsibleOhio initiative because we don't believe it achieves the goals of legalization, said Sri Kavuru, president of Ohioans to End Prohibition (OTEP), which is campaigning to get its own initiative on the 2016 ballot. "I testified in favor of the anti-monopoly amendment, and I believe it will pass and get more votes than ResponsibleOhio," he told the Chronicle in August.

The forthrightly named Citizens Against ResponsibleOhio doesn't mind siding with the Republican legislature, either, said the group's leader, Aaron Weaver.

"It is very interesting that all these different parties have come together with the same purpose in mind, to stop the hijacking of our constitution by private interests," Weaver said. "It's very strange indeed, but the collaboration of different groups for a mutually beneficial and moral purpose, I think, is a good thing."

It's also caused a split in Ohio NORML, with the state group throwing out its former leader, Rob Ryan, over his position in support of the initiative.

But the state's largest pro-medical marijuana organization, the Ohio Patients Group, endorsed Issue 3 this week. The group said that, given the lack of a viable alternative and the legislature's refusal to advance the cause, telling its members to vote against the initiative would be doing them a disservice.

"It wasn't a perfect plan, but politics is never the art of the perfect, it's the art of possible," Pardee said.

"Bring Addy Home." Screenshot from Heather Benton's ResponsibleOhio TV ad.
But when you've got money, you don't need that many friends. In a neat political and financial move, ResponsibleOhio and its chairman, Ian James, are using those investor dollars to finance their campaign advertising. The group has spent $3.1 million so far on TV ads, and has millions more where that came from to get them through the election.

The first ad, "Bring Addy Home," which began airing in late August, features Heather Benton, who moved to Colorado in order to obtain medical marijuana to treat her four-year-old daughter's seizures.

"We want to move back to Ohio, but we can't because her medicine is illegal there," says the exiled Benton. "It is time for marijuana reform. It is time to go home."

One of the latest ads takes on the charge from opponents that the initiative would create a monopoly in the state's Constitution. (Voters did something quite similar back in 2009, when they approved a constitutional initiative allowing a strictly limited number of casinos.). This initiative isn't a monopoly, the ad argues.

"Like most states that legalized marijuana, it initially limits the number of growers with strict regulation," a woman says in the ad. "That's a regulated industry without creating a monopoly."

Can ResponsibleOhio pull it off? We won't know until the votes are counted, but if marijuana legalization wins in swing-state Ohio in 2015, that could take the politics of legalization to a whole new level in front of the 2016 general election, where the issue is already likely to be on the ballot in several states -- Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada -- and maybe more.

Sweeping Bipartisan Federal Sentencing Reform Legislation Filed [FEATURE]

A bipartisan group of senators including heavyweights like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin rolled out comprehensive sentencing reform legislation Thursday. The bill aims at reducing prison sentences for some drug offenders and seeking to curb recidivism by bolstering reentry programs for prisoners. The legislation would, however, also expand mandatory minimum sentences in some for some non-drug offenses.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is also cosponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

It is arguably the most sweeping legislation to roll back drug war excesses yet, and it represents "small government" conservatives cooperating with liberals and civil rights advocates -- a remarkable step in this era of poisoned partisan relations in Washington. If passed, it would free some currently serving prisoners, as well as cut sentences for future offenders.

The bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening ways defendants with minimal non-felony criminal histories can avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. The bill also reduces certain mandatory minimums, providing judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences, and preserves "cooperation incentives" to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins.

In addition to reducing prison terms for some offenders through sentencing reform, qualifying inmates can earn reduced sentences through recidivism reduction programs outlined in the CORRECTIONS Act introduced by Cornyn and Whitehouse. The bill also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act and certain statutory reforms that address inequities in drug sentences.

According to a summary provided by Sen. Grassley's office, the bill:

Reforms and Targets Enhanced Mandatory Minimums for Prior Drug Felons: The bill reduces the enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision, but it allows those enhanced penalties to be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies.

Broadens the Existing Safety Valve and Creates a Second Safety Valve: The bill expands the existing safety valve to offenders with more extensive criminal histories but excludes defendants with prior felonies and violent or drug trafficking offenses unless a court finds those prior offenses substantially overstate the defendant's criminal history and danger of recidivism. The bill also creates a second safety valve that gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum. But defendants convicted of serious violent and serious drug felonies cannot benefit from these reforms.

Reforms Enhanced Mandatory Minimums and Sentences for Firearm Offenses: The bill expands the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for violent firearm offenders to those with prior federal or state firearm offenses but reduces that mandatory minimum to provide courts with greater flexibility in sentencing. The bill also raises the statutory maximum for unlawful possession of firearms but lowers the enhanced mandatory minimum for repeat offenders.

Creates New Mandatory Minimums for Interstate Domestic Violence and Certain Export Control Violations: The bill adds new mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and creates a new mandatory minimum for providing weapons and other defense materials to prohibited countries and terrorists.

Applies the Fair Sentencing Act and Certain Sentencing Reforms Retroactively

Provides for Prison Reform based on the Cornyn-Whitehouse CORRECTIONS Act: The bill requires the Department of Justice to conduct risk assessments to classify all federal inmates and to use the results to assign inmates to appropriate recidivism reduction programs, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Eligible prisoners who successfully complete these programs can earn early release and may spend the final portion (up to 25 percent) of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.

Limits Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Custody and Improves the Accuracy of Federal Criminal Records

Provides for a Report and Inventory of All Federal Criminal Offenses

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) is a bill cosponsor (wikimedia/Bbsrock)
"This historic reform bill addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade," Grassley said. "This bill is an important component in my ongoing effort as Judiciary Committee chairman to ensure access to justice for both the victims and the accused."

"The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth," said Durbin. "Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done."

"Crafting criminal justice reform in this Congress is like a Rubik's cube, but this group of Republicans and Democrats worked hard to come up with a fair and balanced package that will make a real difference," said Schumer. "This bill would make much needed reforms to sentencing for nonviolent offenders, resulting in a much fairer criminal justice system. I'm hopeful that we can continue moving the ball forward in a bipartisan way to make the reforms our system needs."

"For decades, our broken criminal justice system has held our nation back from realizing its full potential," said Booker. "Today, we take a step forward. Mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately affected communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a promising, bipartisan step forward to help right this wrong."

Although the bill doesn't move completely away from the resort to mandatory minimums, it is still garnering general support among the civil rights, drug reform, and criminal justice reform communities.

The bill aims to reduce federal prison populations. (nadcp.org)
"The legislation is recognition from leadership in both parties that the war on drugs has failed and that the harsh sentencing laws that appealed to lawmakers in the 80s and 90s have had disastrous consequences -- especially for communities of color," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. "There are things we like about the bill and things we don't, and much more action is needed to tackle mass incarceration, but this is a worthy compromise."

"In an age of intense partisan conflict, it's heartening to see lawmakers across the spectrum working together on restoring justice in this country," said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals working to end the drug war. "We could reduce the impact that drug prohibition has on people of color and for so many others who have been victims of unreasonable and ineffective drug prohibition laws. There's still a lot of work to be done, but this is a considerable step in the right direction."

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights was also on board.

"Today marks a unique moment in our history and an important step forward in making long overdue reforms to our justice system," said Wade Henderson, the group's CEO. "This bill represents the most robust bipartisan effort at criminal justice reform in years. "This harmonic convergence of left and right -- of civil rights and small government advocates -- represents a coalition of conscience that can carry this legislation to the White House. We applaud the effort and look forward to working with the cosponsors on this legislation."

Now, the bill has to actually get through Congress. Given the high-powered and bipartisan support in the Senate, prospects look good there, but whether the House will be willing to sign on remains to be seen.

Here Comes the Big One: The ReformCA Marijuana Legalization Initiative [FEATURE]

The California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform, also known as ReformCA, has filed a draft marijuana legalization initiative with state officials, the group announced Sunday. The long-anticipated move means the campaign best-placed to bring legalization to the Golden State can finally get underway.

The Control, Regulate and Tax Cannabis Act of 2016 would allow people 21 and over to possess and cultivate limited amounts of marijuana and it would set up legal marijuana commerce overseen by a pair of new state agencies, the California Cannabis Commission and the Office of Cannabis Regulatory Affairs.

"We believe this effort has the most statewide input and consensus, and thus the greatest likelihood of succeeding on the 2016 ballot," ReformCA said. "We engaged in extensive discussions with thousands of stakeholders across California, including community leaders, activists, elected officials, city and county employees and locals."

ReformCA also consulted with the California NAACP, the Latino Voters' Leagues, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, and medical, health care and environmental groups. It took part in lengthy discussions with the Drafting Advisory Group, which includes state and national activist and industry groups, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, Americans for Safe Access, the California Cannabis Industry Association, the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance, the Emerald Growers Association, New Approach, the Harborside Group, and the Council on Responsible Cannabis Regulation.

"We've filed our proposed initiative language based on the policy priorities and common sense reforms Californians have been asking for for six years now" and the Manatt, Phelp and Phillips Law Firm has created "an elegant policy document," ReformCA said, adding that it was crafted to comport with the guidelines laid down by pro-legalization Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy and to complement the statewide medical marijuana regulation scheme approved last month by the legislature.

A handful of other legalization initiatives have already been filed, and some are approved for signature gathering, but there isn't much sign that any of them have the bucks or the organization to get the job done. It takes some 365,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2016 elections, a number that means paid signature gathering at a cost that could run a million dollars or more.

And that's just to get on the ballot. With 38 million residents and some of the country's largest media markets, California is an expensive place to run an initiative advertising campaign -- as in $10 million or $20 million or more.

Let the campaign begin! (reformca.com)
There is money out there, and unlike 2010, when Richard Lee's Proposition 19 came up short, both financially and at the polls, the state's already existing legal (medical) marijuana industry looks to be gearing up to help. Earlier this year, Weedmaps.com contributed $2 million toward the cause, with half going to an initiative campaign committee that will spend it on the initiative it likes best. The other half is going to a PAC that will work to elect pro-legalization candidates. Facebook cofounder Sean Parker, who did support Prop 19, says he will probably invest in a legalization initiative, too.

But if, as expected, both the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project get behind the ReformCA initiative -- they were a teensy bit nervous last week -- that should help open the floodgates and pave the way to getting those signatures and making the ballot.

This is a first draft of the initiative, and the campaign is seeking feedback before filing a final version, but only until midnight Pacific Time this Wednesday. Here's what it will do:

  • Personal Use and Cultivation. Legalizes possession of up to an ounce by people 21 and over and allows for personal cultivation of up to 100 square feet and the possession of "the results of lawfully harvested homegrown cannabis."
  • Unlawful Acts. A $100 fine for minors possessing or sharing not more than an ounce with other minors; a $500 fine for adults providing less than an ounce to minors, for minors who possess more than an ounce but less than a pound, for adults who possess more than an ounce, for public consumption, and for smoking up in a moving vehicle; either a misdemeanor or infraction (prosecutor's choice) for possessing more than a pound, selling more than an ounce but less than a pound, growing marijuana beyond 100 square feet without a license or as a minor; a felony for providing pot to minors under 18, distribution to other states, growing on federal or state protected lands, or engaging in violence.
  • Driving. No measuring metabolites. Instead: "A person shall be deemed to be under the influence of cannabis if, as a result of consuming cannabis, his or her mental or physical abilities are so impaired that he or she is no longer able to drive a vehicle or operate a vessel with the caution of a sober person, using ordinary care, under similar circumstances. This standard shall be the sole standard used in determining driving under the influence allegations."
  • Employment. Does not affect employers' ability to fire employees for marijuana use.
  • Medical Marijuana. With limited exceptions, "does not infringe upon the protections granted under the Compassionate Use Act of 1996," grants business licenses to existing, compliant medical marijuana businesses.
  • Regulated Marijuana Commerce. Establishes the California Cannabis Commission and the Office of Cannabis Regulatory Affairs to regulate and rule-make; envisions licenses for cultivation, nursery, manufacturing, distribution, transportation, retail, and testing enterprises.
  • Local Control. Cities and counties can ban marijuana commerce, including retail outlets, but not delivery services, but only by popular vote -- not by executive or legislative action. This means the default position is "no ban."Localities cannot ban personal cultivation.
  • Taxation. Tax on cultivators of $2 per square foot licensed; production tax paid by first purchaser of $15 an ounce ($5 an ounce for first 500 pounds from small producers); 10% retail sales tax -- half to the state and half to the locality.

Remember this is just the draft, but ReformCA is finally out of the gate. California should join the ranks of the legalization states next year, and the Control, Regulate and Tax Cannabis Act of 2016 is the most likely vehicle.

Oakland, CA 95472
United States

Despite Legalization and Decrim, Marijuana Arrests Spiked Last Year [FEATURE]

Despite marijuana legalization being in effect in two states last year and decriminalization laws in nearly 20 more, the number of marijuana arrests actually increased last year, according to data from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report.

Pot arrests accounted for nearly 45% of all drug arrests, which totaled 1.56 million last year. Drug arrests were the single largest category of offenses. There were three times as many drug arrests last year as there were arrests for violent crimes.

There were 700,993 marijuana arrests in 2014, compared with 693,000 in 2013. More than 88% of those arrests were for simple possession -- also an increase over 2013, by 2%.

Last year, people were being arrested for marijuana offenses at a rate of one every 45 seconds. That compares with one every half hour in 1965 and one every two minutes in 1990, when marijuana arrests really started skyrocketing. In that year, there were some 330,000 pot arrests; they peaked in 2007, with nearly 900,000. Last year's number represent a 20% decline from the 2007, but is still an increase over 2013.

The spread of legalization and decriminalization in the West is reflected in the numbers. Marijuana arrests were more likely to occur in the Midwest and South, while many fewer arrests were reported in the West.

Marijuana reform advocates were quick to denounce the uptick.

"These numbers refute the myth that nobody actually gets arrested for using marijuana. Could you imagine if hundreds of thousands of adults were arrested last year simply for possessing alcohol? That would be crazy. It's even crazier that hundreds of thousands of adults were arrested for possessing a less harmful substance," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.

Marijuana busts can happen at home, at a concert, on the sidewalk, when driving...
"It's hard to imagine why more people were arrested for marijuana possession when fewer people than ever believe it should be a crime," Tvert continued. "Law enforcement officials should not be wasting their time and resources arresting and prosecuting adults for using marijuana. While law enforcement was busy making nearly three quarters of a million marijuana arrests, more than 35% of murders went unsolved, the clearance rate for rape was less than 40%, and for robbery and property crimes, it was below 30%."

"It's unacceptable that police still put this many people in handcuffs for something that a growing majority of Americans think should be legal," said Tom Angell, chairman of Marijuana Majority. "A record number of states are expected to vote on legalizing marijuana next year, so we hope and expect to see these numbers significantly dropping soon. There's just no good reason that so much police time and taxpayer money is spent punishing people for marijuana when so many murders, rapes and robberies go unsolved."

The numbers should decrease next year. By the end of 2016, legalization will have been fully in effect in Alaska, DC, and Oregon, as well as in Colorado and Washington, where it was in effect all of last year. But for the numbers to have gone up last year even as legalization and decriminalization expanded across the country strongly suggests that enforcing the marijuana laws continues to be a favorite pastime for law enforcement.

Washington, DC
United States

As Peace Negotiations Advance, Colombia Revamps Drug Policy [FEATURE]

Marking the end of an era, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos Tuesday unveiled a new policy for dealing with coca cultivation and cocaine production, one that will rely on crop substitution and alternative development, with manual crop eradication only to be used as a last resort.

harvesting the coca crop in Colombia (dea.gov)
Santos then flew to Havana, where he met with leaders of the leftist FARC guerrillas and Wednesday announced an agreement on a transitional justice deal that should lead to the end of the world's longest-running insurgency by March 2016. The agreement on how to deal with combatants in the nearly half-century long civil war is the latest in peace talks that have been going on in Havana since November 2012. Negotiators had already forged agreements on the thorny issues of land reform, the FARC's political participation after peace is achieved, and how to deal with illicit drug production.

Colombia's years-long policy of attempting to eradicate coca crops by spraying fields with herbicides will be history at the end of this month. That policy was backed and financed by the United States as part of its multi-billion dollar effort to defeat drug trafficking and, later, to defeat the FARC.

Despite the billions spent, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer, according to the US government. While production is down from record levels early this century, it rose 39% last year to about 276,000 acres. Figures from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime show a lower extent of cultivation (170,000 acres), but echo that it is on the increase. According to UNODC, the increase was 44% last year.

The plan announced Tuesday, the Integrated Plan for Crop Substitution, has as its goals reducing the crime associated with the drug trade by reorienting policing efforts toward processing, trafficking, and money laundering -- not harassing peasants -- improving state capacity through the improvement of social, economic, and political conditions in the countryside, and dealing with drug consumption with a focus on human rights, public health, and human development.

It sets out six foci:

  1. Social Investment. That will include state and private spending on roads, energy supply, water supply, and investment in public health and education.
  2. Crop Substitution. A phased-in plan with community involvement that will create socio-economic stabilization and create new income opportunities. Agreements will be made with whole communities, not individual growers. Once a community has agreed to crop substitution, voluntary coca eradication will begin. If there is no agreement to eradicate, the government will do it manually, by force.
  3. Interdiction. Interdiction will continue, but in concert with the priorities of local communities and farmers. The plan also envisions "strengthening the legal tools available to fight the illegal drug business."
  4. Investigations and Prosecutions. The government will give top priority to going after "intermediate and top links of the drug trafficking chain," not peasant farmers.
  5. Prevention and Treatment. The new plan will emphasize youth prevention, as well as drug treatment using "programs founded on evidence." The plan calls for an increase in the quantity and quality of drug treatment offered.
  6. Institutional Reforms. The plan will create a new agency for alternative development in illicit cultivation zones. The agency will establish metrics for success, which will be made public on a regular basis.

The government's plan is in line with the recommendations of its Advisory Commission on Drug Policy in Colombia, which in a May report, called for drug policy to be based on evidence and the principles of public health, harm reduction and human rights, with effective state institutions to coordinate policy implementation. Combating the drug trade should focus on trafficking organizations and money laundering, and peasant coca growers should be offered alternative development, not criminal prosecution, the report also recommended. (The report and the issues it addressed were recently discussed at this http://www.brookings.edu/events/2015/09/21-colombian-antidrug-policies-a.... " target="_blank">Brookings Institution event.)

Aerial eradication ends at the end of this month. (wikipedia.org)
"With this program we hope to have a twofold result: reducing the illicit cultivation and improving the living conditions of hundreds of thousands of peasants," Santos said in a speech from the presidential palace.

The plan will focus on the southern provinces of Narino and Putumayo, "where there are some 26,000 families that produce coca," Santos said. "Work will be done to construct roads, schools, health clinics, aqueducts and service networks," he added, noting that coca cultivation is most extensive in areas where the state is weakest.

While the government will seek agreements with communities to voluntarily eradicate their coca crops, "if an agreement is not reached, forced eradication will be resorted to," Santos warned. Forced eradication has led to conflict between farmers and eradicators in the past, with nearly 200 eradicators killed in attacks from unhappy peasants or guerrillas of the FARC, which has taxed and protected coca cultivation in areas under its control.

When Santos arrived in Havana Wednesday he was sounding optimistic, both about the new approach to coca cultivation and about the prospects for peace.

"We've already started. And if we can move forward now, imagine how much we could move forward if we do away with the conflict," said Santos. "We've already talked with the FARC about joint plans for the substitution of crops. Imagine what this means. That the FARC, instead of defending illicit crops and the entire drug trafficking chain, will help the state in their eradication. As the slogan says, with peace we will do more," Santos said.

California Legislature Passes Historic Medical Marijuana Regulation Package [FEATURE]

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

After nearly 20 years of wrangling over what is and is not legal under California's 1996 Proposition 215 medical marijuana law, the state legislature has passed a set of bills designed to bring order to the chaos.

Fresh from working with the office of Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on acceptable language, the Assembly and the Senate Friday passed Assembly Bill 243, Assembly Bill 266, and Senate Bill 643 just hours before the session ended.

If, as expected, Gov. Brown signs the bills into law, the medical marijuana status quo, rife with ambiguities, contradictions, and grey areas, will be transformed into a robust, strictly regulated medical marijuana industry. It won't always be painless, and there will be winners and losers.

The general consensus -- although not universal -- is that patients will benefit from the package of bills. They will gain access to quality-controlled medical marijuana through unambiguously legal means, and even though localities will retain the ability to ban dispensaries, patients will now be able to have their medicine delivered anywhere in the state.

Growers who seek the security of legality also stand to benefit. They will be able to come out from the shadows, pay their fees, get their licenses, and go about their business. But growers using the ambiguity of the state's current lack of regulation as a cover for grey or black market production will probably find their wiggle-room decreased. A similar dynamic will be at play in other sectors of the industry, including some that have operated in the open throughout the years.

"Big Marijuana," that favorite bogey-man of prohibitionists, doesn't fare so well. There are constraints on vertical integration within the industry, and the licensing scheme foreseen is tilted toward small and medium producers.

Finally, Sacramento acts. (assembly.ca.gov)
The bills will once and for all clarify to law enforcement that licensed medical marijuana producers and activities "are not unlawful under state law and shall not be an offense subject to arrest, prosecution, or sanction under state law, or be subject to a civil fine or be a basis for seizure or forfeiture of assets under state law."

The bills also clarify that medical marijuana can be a profit-making and -taking industry. Some local law enforcement and prosecutors have used making a profit as a basis for charging medical marijuana operators. Now, no more.

Patients and caregivers maintain their Prop 215 rights to possess and grow their own medicine, but collectives will be phased out, and anyone who wants to grow more than a personal amount will need a license. The bills provide for 12 different types of licenses, for "specialty," small, and medium indoor, outdoor, and mixed-light commercial grows; manufacturers, testers, transporters, distributors, and dispensaries.

"This is an important and inevitable step forward. It finally lays the groundwork for a legally regulated medical cannabis distribution and production system in California," said Dale Gieringer, longtime director of California NORML.

"There was a pretty broad coalition of groups that contributed to the process of drafting the bills and who managed to more or less concur on the final thing, despite some reservations," he said in something of an understatement.

Getting the package passed required the juggling of many moving parts, not only in the state legislature and executive branch, but in balancing the interests of groups ranging from state law enforcement and local government associations to the various interest groups within the medical marijuana industry -- patients, growers, dispensary operators, manufacturers, distributors -- as well as groups, such as those concerned with environmental degradation, who see themselves impacted by the medical marijuana industry.

Making sure the proper balance was reached is going to require careful scrutiny and ongoing monitoring of rulemaking and implementation, Gieringer said.

"This is a really complicated piece of legislation, and we're combing through it carefully, looking for possible glitches," he said. "There are some problematic details, but most of the potential glitches are in the future. It's going to take at least a year for this to ramp up, and there's a new agency that has to be up by January, and we're now also going to have all these local governments starting to take a look at this and deciding what they want to do. There are hardly any jurisdictions in the state that recognize commercial cultivation, but there are probably 40,000 people doing that now. How many cities and counties are going to act to recognize and ally themselves with the growers they're already harboring?"

That's something Hezekiah Allen is wondering, too. The son of Mendocino County pot farmers, he's followed in their footsteps, but has now traded farm apparel for suit and tie as chair and executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, and was deeply involved in the sausage-making around the bills. They were overdue, he said.

"Regulation is never an easy thing to transition to, but there has been a decades long crisis due first to prohibition and then to the unregulated nature of this industry, and at the end of the day, we took a monumental and historic step toward bringing some order to this industry and creating stronger communities," he said. "It's a pretty amazing thing."

Not only does the legislation treat marijuana growing as an agricultural issue and address questions of direct relevance to producers, it also seems to support small and medium producers, Allen pointed out.

"We only ever wanted to be farmers -- that's how we should be regulated -- and cultivation is pretty firmly in the agriculture category," he said. "We also really believe in decentralized economies and small, sustainable agriculture moving forward. This legislation outlines specific policy tools to license small and medium producers, but not large ones. That's a real bias toward small and medium producers."

Allen also pronounced himself pleased that the legislation allowed for addressing things like standards for what can be called organic and standards for pesticides.

"There is a mish-mash of state-federal policy challenges, one example being organic standards," he said. "It's really challenging for us to label anything as organic given that the FDA 'owns' the term, but the state already has the Organic Produce Act, which created provisions that gives us authority to develop organic standards, and this legislation takes that another step forward."

It's a similar issue with pesticides, Allen said. There are no guidelines for pesticides with medical marijuana because the federal government hasn't established them, but the legislation encourages state regulators to develop guidelines.

"We called for this," he said.

Americans for Safe Access (ASA), the country's largest medical marijuana advocacy group, was also deeply involved in the work in Sacramento.

"We think the regulatory bills are mostly good," said ASA press secretary Chris Brown. "We've researched licensing and regulation in the past and found it perfectly compatible with patient access. We also think it's very important to have a system in place for medical marijuana before adult use comes in, so it won't be seen as the unregulated part of a broader market."

ASA wasn't happy with everything, though.

"There was a late provision added that sets a maximum 100 square feet of cultivation space per patient," Brown noted. "We didn't know about that and we don't like it."

And there will be ongoing concerns as the regulatory rulemaking process takes shape.

"There are a lot of issues around vertical integration, and there are things we're going to have to monitor closely to see if they create problems moving forward," Brown said. "We will monitor things as they move forward, and we'll be very active in rulemaking and implementation. We have a lot of experience with that in other states, and our activists are great in terms of getting their voices heard."

Some other voices from the medical marijuana community are even less happy. At Harborside Health Center in Oakland, the state's largest dispensary, executive director and cofounder Steve DeAngelo "welcomed" the legislation, but had some "concerns."

"Harborside welcomes the long overdue enactment of statewide medical cannabis regulations -- almost two decades after Proposition 215 called for them," said DeAngelo. "However, we are concerned that time pressures made it impossible for legislators to adequately consider the impact of the new regulations on medical cannabis patients and the organizations that serve them. In addition, some of the language in the bill is unclear or may be in conflict with prior legislation. Harborside looks forward to working with lawmakers next session to address and resolve these outstanding issues."

And Steven Kubby of the American Medical Marijuana Association is threatening to sue over what he calls the "hijacking" of Proposition 215.

"Our medical cannabis rights, protected for nearly 20 years by Prop. 215, have been hijacked and Prop. 215 is under attack like never before. The new law is an unacceptable and illegal infringement on our rights under Prop. 215," said Kubby. "I'm getting calls from frightened patients who fear their own state government is planning on going after cannabis doctors as if they are some sort of dangerous threat that must be carefully supervised. Sick people cannot handle this kind of stress. Thousands of patients will die because of this calculated attempt to thwart the will of the people and deprive them of medical cannabis and the doctors who write recommendations to use the healing herb," he added.

Kubby cited the 100 square foot patient garden limit, provisions that allow localities to ban medical marijuana activitiies, and new restrictions on medical marijuana-recommending doctors.

Clearly, there remains work to be done. Potency and purity standards haven't been set yet, the dual licensing structure with both state and local permits hasn't been settled, and lots of issues remain to be hashed out by state officials charged with writing regulations to implement the bills. And the critics need to be addressed, assuaged, or proven wrong.

But California's billion dollar medical marijuana industry is about to come in from the cold.

Sacramento, CA
United States

Illinois Governor Vetoes Heroin Bill Over Medicaid Treatment Funding [FEATURE]

Faced with a public health crisis related to heroin and prescription opioid use, the Illinois state government created a bipartisan Heroin Task Force in a comprehensive effort to address the problem from all angles. The task force created a set of policy recommendations that were embodied in House Bill 1, the Heroin Crisis Act.

Heroin is taking a toll not only in Chicago, but in its suburbs. (kirk.senate.gov)
The bill passed the House and Senate in May, and was sent to Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) in June, where it sat on his desk until this week. On Monday, Rauner finally acted -- not by signing the bill, but by vetoing critical sections of it that he says the state cannot afford. He has now sent the bill back to the legislature and asked it to remove the offending sections.

But saying, "People are dying," the measure's House sponsor, Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie), has vowed an effort to override the veto. An override could be within reach -- the bill passed by veto-proof majorities in both houses -- but for members of a governor's own party, a veto override is a hard vote to take.

Here's what the bill does:

  • It increases the availability of opiate overdose reversal drugs and requires private insurance to cover at least one of them, as well as acute treatment and stabilization services. It allows licensed pharmacists to dispense overdose reversal drugs, allows school nurses to administer them to students suffering from overdoses, and provides protection from civil liability for people who administer them in good faith.
  • It requires the Department of Human Services and the State Board of Education to develop a three-year pilot heroin prevention program for all schools in the state, requires the Department of Human Services to develop materials to educate prescription opiate users on the dangers of those drugs, and it requires the Department of Insurance to convene working groups on drug treatment and mental illness and on parity between state and federal mental health laws.
  • It intensifies the state's prescription monitoring program by tightening reporting requirements and it requires doctors to now document the medical necessity of any three sequential 30-day prescriptions for Schedule II opioids.
  • On the criminal justice front, it permits multiple chances at drug court and prevents prosecutors from unilaterally blocking entry to drug court, and it requires prosecutors and public defenders to undergo mandatory education on addiction and addiction treatment. It also increases criminal penalties for "doctor shopping" if fraud is involved.
  • It requires Medicaid coverage of all heroin treatment, including methadone and other opiate maintenance treatment, as well as all anti-overdose medications.

People lining up to buy heroin in Chicago. (Chicago PD)
It's the latter provision to which Rauner objects.

"I support all of the above measures and applaud the multifaceted approach to combating this epidemic in Illinois. Unfortunately, the bill also includes provisions that will impose a very costly mandate on the State's Medicaid providers. I am returning the bill with a recommendation to address that concern," he said in a veto statement.

"House Bill 1 mandates that fee-for-service and medical assistance Medicaid programs cover all forms of medication assisted treatment of alcohol or opioid dependence, and it removes utilization controls and prior authorization requirements," Rauner continued. "These changes would limit our ability to contain rising costs at a time when the State is facing unprecedented fiscal difficulties. Importantly, the State's Medicaid programs already cover multiple forms of medication necessary to treat alcohol and opioid dependence. But without adequate funding to support mandated coverage for all forms of treatment, regardless of cost, this change would add to the State's deficit."

His recommendation is simply to delete the language requiring Medicaid coverage.

Rep. Lang and other bill supporters aren't going for that.

"There's a human cost to not doing it," Lang said. "People are addicted, people are sick, people are dying. You want to talk about the costs of providing methadone and Narcan to addicts, but you forget totally that if you cure them or they get off the stuff, there's a savings to the Medicaid system on a different line item, because they're no longer in emergency rooms, they're no longer a burden to law enforcement."

Heroin and opiate addiction is a serious problem in Illinois. The rate of drug overdose deaths has nearly doubled since 1999, and in the Chicago suburbs, people have been dying of drug overdoses at a rate of three per day since 2012. In the state as a whole, 633 people died of heroin overdoses last year, with nearly half (283) in Chicago.

At the same time as the problem with heroin and prescription opioids has been deepening, the state's ability to provide treatment has been decreasing. According to a report this month from the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, the state's ranking for drug treatment capacity has fallen from 28th in the nation in 2009 to 47th this year. This as demand for heroin and opiate treatment statewide is increasing dramatically. In Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, 35% of drug treatment admissions are for heroin, more than twice the national average.

The consortium's director and the study's lead author, Kathleen Kane-Willis, noted that Illinois is one of only a few states nationwide that doesn't allow Medicaid coverage of opiate maintenance treatment.

"We're going to pay for not paying," she said.

But bill supporters could also find the votes to override the veto. Rep. Lang says that is what's he going to try to do, and with a 114-0 vote in the House and a 46-6 vote in the Senate the first time around, he has plenty of supporters to ask. If that happens, Illinois will get the drug treatment it needs, and Rauner will still be able to maintain his fiscally conservative credentials.

Springfield, IL
United States

Obama's Heroin Initiative: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? [FEATURE]

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

The White House Monday announced a new initiative to combat heroin that will pair law enforcement and public health in what it called a bid to shift the focus of the fight from punishing drug addicts to treating them. Under the plan, drug intelligence officers will work with public health officials to track heroin supplies, how it gets to street-level dealers, and how and where it's getting cut with sometimes deadly adulterants.

The initiative has won support from some elected officials in states hard-hit by rising levels of heroin use and heroin overdose deaths. But drug reform advocates called it "one step forward, two steps back."

Under the plan, announced today as part of a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) funding program by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, $5 million will go to "a broad range of efforts that will reduce the trafficking, distribution, and use of heroin," with half of that funding a Heroin Response Strategy involving an "unprecedented partnership" of five HIDTA programs -- Appalachia, New England, Philadelphia/Camden, New York/New Jersey, and Washington/Baltimore -- to fight smack.

Another $4 million in HIDTA funds will go toward prevention in 18 HIDTAs, including programs that feature "key partnerships between law enforcement agencies and their counterparts in public health and education," the announcement says. Another $1.3 million will go to five Southwest border HIDTAs "to enhance investigational efforts" against the Mexican trafficking organizations supplying most of the nation's heroin.

"The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program helps Federal, state, and local authorities to coordinate drug enforcement operations, support prevention efforts and improve public health and safety," said ONDCP head Michael Botticelli. "The new Heroin Response Strategy demonstrates a strong commitment to address the heroin and prescription opioid epidemic as both a public health and a public safety issue. This Administration will continue to expand community-based efforts to prevent drug use, pursue 'smart on crime' approaches to drug enforcement, increase access to treatment, work to reduce overdose deaths, and support the millions of Americans in recovery."

Branded heroin packet from New Jersey (NJ State Police)
The funding will pay for 15 drug intelligence officers and 15 health policy analysts to work within the HIDTA programs. The narcs will gather information on trafficking patterns and trends and feed it to street-level law enforcement. The health policy analysts will increase overdose monitoring, look for dope cut with dangerous adulterants, and train first responders on how to use the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.

The announcement comes amidst rising clamor over heroin's comeback and increasingly lethality in recent years. While the causes of the increase in heroin use are multifaceted and debatable, the reality of it doesn't seem to be. According to the Centers for Disease Control in a report released last month, more than half a million people were using heroin in 2013, up 150% from 2007.

The number of heroin overdose deaths is climbing even faster. The CDC reported that fatal overdoses hovered around 2,000 a year in the early 2000s before doubling to around 4,000 in 2011, and then doubling again to 8,257 two years later in 2013.

The sound of more federal funding is music to the ears of politicians in states like New Hampshire, which saw more than 300 heroin overdose deaths last year and where Republicans and Democrats are squabbling over how much money to spend on drug treatment. Elected officials across the political spectrum had kind words for the initiative Monday.

People lining up to score in Chicago. (Chicago PD)
"While the announcement of additional federal support for New England is an important first step, we must see these resources move as quickly as possible and we will need continued engagement from our federal partners to help combat this pressing public health and safety challenge," said Gov. Maggie Hassan (D).

"Stemming the tide requires investments in prevention, treatment and recovery, and broad cooperation at the federal, state and local levels," said US Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D).

"Today's announcement is welcome news for New Hampshire and other New England states that are confronting this crisis," added US Senator Kelly Ayotte (R). "We must take a multi-pronged approach in this fight, and prevention is a key part of that."

But the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) took a more skeptical view.

"Half of what they're doing is right -- the focus on health and overdose prevention -- but the other half, the side that focuses on the failed arrest and incarceration policies of the past is destined to ruin lives and fail," said Bill Piper, director of the group's office of national affairs.

DPA took particular exception to the use of the HIDTA program as a vehicle for addressing heroin use, noting that even though its mandate was originally to focus on high-level drug traffickers, its programs "lack congressional oversight and generally waste resources pursuing individuals engaged in low-level drug crimes."

HIDTAs came into being in 1988, with five being created to focus on "top priority" areas. But since then, the HIDTA program has swollen to 28 different regional HIDTAs covering more than 60% of the US population, including such major drug trafficking hotbeds as South Dakota and Wyoming.

And, thanks to Congress, since 1998, no HIDTA money can be spent on drug treatment. DPA and other advocates have pointed out that this statutory ban reduces program flexibility and access to treatment, and have called on Congress to repeal the ban, eliminate the HIDTA program altogether, or move it out of the White House and into the Justice Department and merge it with the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force as the Bush administration once proposed.

If the Obama administration wants to really address drug use as a public health issue and not throw away more money on failed drug war policies, DPA had some suggestions:

  • "Shifting federal resources from enforcement and incarceration to treatment and public health program funding to save more lives and realize substantial savings for taxpayers. The federal government's drug control budget has increased exponentially throughout the years. Despite a recent change in rhetoric, the federal government still focuses the vast majority of its drug-related spending on interdiction, enforcement and incarceration.
  • "Committing more federal investments into naloxone access, overdose prevention, and greater access to methadone and buprenorphine and other forms of evidence-based treatment.
  • "Funding community-based initiatives such as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion that reduce barriers to drug treatment and other health services.
  • "Removing barriers to methadone and other forms of medication assisted treatment in military treatment facilities that care for active duty and veterans.
  • "Investing more funding into making overdose prevention and medication assisted treatment available to incarcerated individuals who are at elevated risk of substance use and overdose.
  • "Eliminating federal legal barriers to research trials for supervised injection facilities and heroin assisted treatment."

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