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The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2016 [FEATURE]

As 2016 comes to a tumultuous end, we look back on the year in drugs and drug policy. It's definitely a mixed bag, with some major victories for drug reform, especially marijuana legalization, but also some major challenges, especially around heroin and prescription opioids, and the threat of things taking a turn for the worse next year. Here are the ten biggest domestic drug policy stories of the year. (Check back for a top ten international drug policy stories soon.)

1. Marijuana Legalization Wins Big

Legalization initiatives won in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada, losing only in Arizona. These weren't the first states to do so -- Colorado and Washington led the way in 2012, with Alaska, Oregon, and Washington, DC, following in 2014 -- but in one fell swoop, states with a combined population of nearly 50 million people just freed the weed. Add in the earlier states, and we're now talking about around 67 million people, or more than one-fifth of the national population.

The question is where does marijuana win next? We won't see state legalization initiatives until 2018, (and conventional wisdom may suggest waiting for the higher-turnout 2020 presidential election year), and most of the low-hanging fruit in terms of initiative states has been harvested, but activists in Michigan came this close to qualifying for the ballot this year and are raring to go again. In the meantime, there are the state legislatures. When AlterNet looked into the crystal ball a few weeks ago, the best bets looked like Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

2. Medical Marijuana Wins Big

Medical marijuana is even more popular than legal marijuana, and it went four-for-four at the ballot box in November, adding Arkansas, Florida, Montana, North Dakota to the list of full-blown medical marijuana states. That makes 28 states -- more than half the country -- that allow for medical marijuana, along with another dozen or so red states that have passed limited CBD-only medical marijuana laws as a sop to public opinion.

It's worth noting that Montana is a special case. Voters there approved medical marijuana in 2004, only to see a Republican-dominated state legislature gut the program in 2011. The initiative approved by voters this year reinstates that program, and shuttered dispensaries are now set to reopen.

The increasing acceptance of medical marijuana is going to make it that much harder for the DEA or the Trump administration to balk at reclassifying marijuana away from Schedule I, which is supposedly reserved for dangerous substances with no medical uses. It may also, along with the growing number of legal pot states, provide the necessary impetus to changing federal banking laws to allow pot businesses to behave like normal businesses.

Drug reformers are nervous about the future. (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)
3. The Republicans Take Control in Washington

The Trump victory and Republican control of both houses of Congress has profound drug policy implications, for everything from legal marijuana to funding for needle exchange programs to sentencing policy to the border and foreign policy and beyond. Early Trump cabinet picks, such as Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) to lead the Justice Department, are ominous for progressive drug reform, but as with many other policy spheres, what Trump will actually do is a big unknown. It's probably safe to say that any harm reduction programs requiring federal funding or approval are in danger, that any further sentencing reforms are going to be in for a tough slog, and that any federal spending for mental health and substance abuse treatment will face an uphill battle. But the cops will probably get more money.

The really big question mark is around marijuana policy. Trump has signaled he's okay with letting the states experiment, but Sen. Sessions is one of the most retrograde of drug warriors in Washington. Time will tell, but in the meantime, the marijuana industry is on tenterhooks and respect for the will of voters in pot legal states and even medical marijuana states is an open question.

4. The Opioid Epidemic Continues

Just as this year comes to an end, the CDC announced that opioid overdose deaths last year had topped 33,000, and with 12,000 heroin overdoses, junk had overtaken gunplay as a cause of death. There's little sign that things have gotten any better this year.

The crisis has provoked numerous responses, at both the state and the federal levels, some good, but some not. Just this month, Congress approved a billion dollars in opioid treatment and prevention programs, and the overdose epidemic has prompted the loosening of access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and prodded ongoing efforts to embrace more harm reduction approaches, such as supervised injection sites.

On the other hand, prosecutors in states across the country have taken to charging the people who sell opioids (prescription or otherwise) to people who overdose and die with murder, more intrusive and privacy-invading prescription monitoring programs have been established, and the tightening of the screws on opioid prescriptions is leaving some chronic pain sufferers in the lurch and leading others to seek out opioids on the black market.

5. Obama Commutes More Than a Thousand Drug War Sentences

In a bid to undo some of the most egregious excesses of the drug war, President Obama has now cut the sentences of and freed more than a thousand people sentenced under the harsh laws of the 1980s, particularly the racially-biased crack cocaine laws, who have already served more time than they would have if sentenced under current laws passed during the Obama administration. He has commuted more sentences in a single year than any president in history, and he has commuted more sentences than the last 11 presidents combined.

The commutations come under a program announced by then-Attorney General Eric Holder, who encouraged drug war prisoners to apply for them. The bad news is that the clock is likely to run out before Obama has a chance to deal with thousands of pending applications backlogged in the Office of the Pardons Attorney. The good news is that he still has six weeks to issue more commutations and free more drug war prisoners.

6. The DEA Gets a Wake-Up Call When It Tries to Ban Kratom

Derived from a Southeast Asian tree, kratom has become popular as an unregulated alternative to opioids for relaxation and pain relief, not to mention withdrawing from opioids. It has very low overdose potential compared to other opioids and has become a go-to drug for hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions of people.

Perturbed by its rising popularity, the DEA moved in late summer to use its emergency scheduling powers to ban kratom, but was hit with an unprecedented buzz saw of opposition from kratom users, scientists, researchers, and even Republican senators like Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who authored and encouraged his colleagues to sign a letter to the DEA asking the agency to postpone its planned scheduling.

The DEA backed off -- but didn't back down -- in October, announcing that it was shelving its ban plan for now and instead opening a period of public comment. That period ended on December 1, but before it did, the agency was inundated with submissions from people opposing the ban. Now, the DEA will factor in that input, as well as formal input from the Food and Drug Administration before making its decision.

The battle around kratom isn't over, and the DEA could still ban it in the end, but the whole episode demonstrates how much the ground has shifted under the agency. DEA doesn't just get its way anymore.

7. Federal Funds for Needle Exchanges Flow Again

It actually happened late in 2015, but the impact was felt this year. In December 2015, Congress approved an omnibus budget bill that removed the ban on federal funding of needle exchanges. The ban had been in place for 20 years, except for a two-year stretch between 2009 and 2011, when Democrats controlled the House.

Federal funding for needle exchanges is another drug policy response that could be endangered by Republican control of both the Congress and the presidency.

Vancouver's safe injection site. Is one coming to a city near you? (vch.ca)
8. The Slow Turn Towards Safe Injection Sites Accelerates

When will the US join the ranks of nations that embrace the harm reduction tactic of supervised drug consumption sites? Maybe sooner than you think. Moves are underway in at least three major US cities to get such facilities open, a need made all the more urgent by the nation's ongoing opioid crisis, as the Drug Policy Alliance noted in a December report calling for a number of interventions, including safe injection sites, to address it.

In New York City, the city council has approved a $100,000 study into the feasibility of safe injection sites, while in San Francisco, city public health officials have endorsed a call for them there and have even suggested they need as many as a half dozen. But San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee opposes them, so battle lines are being drawn.

The best bet may be Seattle, where city and surrounding King County officials are on board with a plan to open safe injection sites to fight heroin and prescription opioid abuse. That plan, conceived by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, was released in September.

9. Asset Forfeiture Reform Advances

Nearly 20 years after Congress passed limited federal civil asset forfeiture reform, the practice is now under sustained assault in the states. More than a half-dozen states had passed civil asset forfeiture reforms before the year began, and this year the following states came on board (although some of the new laws did not end, but only modified or restricted civil asset forfeiture): California, Florida, Mississippi, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

And next year looks to be more of the same. Bills have already been filed in Missouri and Texas, and renewed efforts are likely in New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where they were thwarted this year.

10. The DEA is Busting Fewer People

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) reported in December that convictions for drug cases referred by the DEA continued a 10-year decline. During Fiscal Year 2016, federal prosecutors won 9,553 criminal convictions on cases referred by the DEA. That's down 7.1% from the previous year, down 25% from five years ago, and down 35% from 10 years ago. TRAC notes that the decline in convictions is the result of fewer referrals by the DEA, not a lowered conviction rate, which has held steady.

Chronicle AM: Joe Manchin Wants New Drug War, AZ&MI Appeals Courts Rule for MedMJ, More... (12/21/16)

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (D) calls for a new war on drugs and gets roundly ridiculed for it, appeals courts in Arizona and Michigan issue favorable medical marijuana rulings, a Missouri bill would end the asset forfeiture loophole that lets state police circumvent tough state laws by going to the feds, and more.

Medical marijuana saw court victories in Arizona and Michigan this week. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

California Bill Would Ban Bud Billboards. Over the past year, billboards advertising marijuana products and businesses have popped up all over the state, but now, some lawmakers want to impose strict limits on marijuana advertising. Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) is one of the sponsors of Assembly Bill 64, which would bar ads that could be seen by minors "We have legal adult use and medical use, and we want to make sure that advertising hits the target audience as much as possible and doesn't slip beyond that," Bonta said. "We want to target adults and patients and not the broader audience that includes kids and carpools and school buses and families." The bill would require a two-thirds majority to pass because it would amend Proposition 64.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Appeals Court Rules Local Officials Can't Use Fed Law to Hassle Dispensaries. In a unanimous decision, the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that local officials can't use the federal ban on marijuana to refuse to provide zoning for dispensaries. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (R) had no legal basis to claim that federal law trumps the state's voter-approved medical marijuana, the court held.

Arkansas Regulators Set Number of Commercial Grows at Five. The state Medical Marijuana Commission voted Tuesday to allow up to five commercial cultivation centers in the state. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment, approved by voters last month, specified that there could be between four and eight centers; the commission opted to start on the low end. Grows won't start, however, until rules about growing, processing, and distribution are finalized.

Michigan Appeals Court Rules Medical Marijuana Law Protects People Transporting It. The state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the state's medical marijuana law extends to people accused of illegally transporting it. A state law written after voters approved medical marijuana, requires that it be stored in the trunk or other inaccessible part of the vehicle, but the court held that law is invalid because it imposes additional requirements on medical marijuana users.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

West Virginia Democratic Senator Calls for "War on Drugs" to Fight Opioid Crisis. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said Tuesday a new "war on drugs" in necessary to combat rampant opioid use, sparking immediate ridicule on Twitter and other social media. "We need to declare a war on drugs," Manchin said on CNN when asked what President-elect Donald Trump should do about the opioid situation. Manchin added that he has met addicts who started out smoking marijuana but ended up taking prescription drugs and then moving on to heroin. "It's just been unbelievable," he said. But it was Manchin's resort to last-century tropes that the Internet found unbelievable. Taking on his call for a new drug war, one Twitter user responded, "If only someone would have thought to do that, say, 30 or 40 years ago. Genius!!"

Asset Forfeiture

Missouri Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Filed. State Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-St. Louis) has pre-filed House Bill 231, which would close a loophole that allowed state and local police to circumvent tough state asset forfeiture laws by turning cases over to the feds. The bill would prohibit such behavior unless the amount involved was more than $100,000 cash.

Chronicle AM: Opioid ODs Keep Rising, More Vancouver SIJs, More DC "Smoke Sessions", More... (12/9/16)

Trump's anti-marijuana attorney general pick gets a surprise visit from DC activists, the CDC announces that opioid OD deaths went up again last year, British Columbia expands its safe injection site program, and more.

Marijuana Policy

DC Activists Visit Sessions' Office, Offer Free Weed. As part of their #SmokeSessions campaign to defeat the nomination of Trump's attorney general pick, activists from the DC Cannabis Campaign, the same group that led the DC legalization campaign, visited the offices of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) Thursday, carrying marijuana with them as they went. Sessions staffers listened to arguments against prohibition and stories about medical benefits and did not call Capitol Police to arrest the federal lawbreakers, leading organizer Adam Eidinger to ask: "If you're not going to arrest people in your own office who bring marijuana… why would you break down people's doors as a federal policy?"

Hemp

Missouri Hemp Bill Filed. State Sen. Rob Schaaf (R-St. Joseph) has pre-filed a bill that would authorize commercial hemp farming, production, and sale, and does not require growers to get federal permission to grow their crop. The measure is SB120. The legislative session starts next month.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Opioid Deaths Surpassed 30,000 Last Year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data Thursday showing the opioid overdose deaths had surpassed 30,000 for the first time in recent history last year. That's up nearly 5,000 deaths over 2014. And for the first time since the 1990s, more people died from heroin overdoses than prescription opioid overdoses. "The epidemic of deaths involving opioids continues to worsen," said CDC Director Tom Frieden in a statement. "Prescription opioid misuse and use of heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are intertwined and deeply troubling problems."

Asset Forfeiture

Institute of Justice Sues Border Patrol, IRS Over Asset Forfeiture FOIA Records. The libertarian-leaning Institute of Justice filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the Border Patrol and the IRS, saying the two agencies are violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The IRS demanded $750,000 to turn over asset forfeiture records, while the Border Patrol denied the FOIA request, first claiming it was "overbroad" and then saying to do so would reveal law enforcement techniques. "The lack of transparency surrounding forfeiture is deeply troubling, especially considering the vast power law enforcement has to take property from people without so much as charging them with a crime," The Institute for Justice's research director Lisa Knepper said in a press release announcing the suit. "The public ought to know how forfeiture is being used."

Ohio Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Heads to Governor's Desk. A bill that would require the filing of criminal charges before the state could institute civil asset forfeiture proceedings won final approval in the House Friday and now head to the desk of Gov. John Kasich (R). The measure, House Bill 347, was earlier approved unanimously by the state Senate.

International

New Safe Injection Sites Open in Vancouver, with More Yet to Come. Two new safe injection sites for drug users opened in the city's Downtown Eastside Thursday, and similar facilities will open in Surrey and Victoria next week. And later this month, additional sites will open in all three locations. The move was announced by the British Columbia Ministry of Health, which did not seek permission from the federal government to do so. But they did let Health Canada and the Ministry of Public Safety know it was coming. BC Health Minister Terry Lake said the actions were necessary to combat a rising toll of opioid overdose deaths. "We can't wait for federal changes in order to save people's lives," he said. "We know people are using in alleys, they are using in their rooms, and they are not where the people who can help them are. And so in the face of this crisis, we really just wanted to do more."

Germany's Dusseldorf Wants to Legalize Weed. Following the lead of Berlin, which is moving to allow cannabis coffee shops, the city of Dusseldorf is moving to enact total marijuana legalization. The city council met Wednesday with experts in crime, economics, and psychology to discuss how best to move forward.

Chronicle AM: Organic Foods Group Disses Kratom, DPA Releases Opioids Plan, More... (12/7/16)

An organic foods group says allowing kratom would be "dangerous," the Drug Policy Alliance comes out with a plan for heroin and prescription opioids, Iowa shuts down its asset forfeiture unit, and more.

The Natural Products Association says allowing kratom would be "dangerous." (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Marijuana Arrests Plummet. Marijuana arrests have dropped 14% in the state over the past two years, the largest decline this century, and they appear headed for further declines this year. Changes in prosecutorial priorities appear to be behind the fall, with some prosecutors saying they need to husband their resources for felony prosecutions.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Drug Policy Alliance Releases Public Health and Safety Plan to Address Problematic Opioid Use and Overdose. The Drug Policy Alliance, the nation's leading proponent of drug policy reform, is releasing a plan to address increasing rates of opioid use and overdose (now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States). The plan marks a radical departure from the punitive responses that characterize much of US drug policy and instead focuses on scientifically proven harm reduction and public health interventions that can improve treatment outcomes and reduce the negative consequences of opioid misuse, such as transmission of infectious diseases and overdose. The plan has 20 specific recommendations, including establishing safe injection sites, moving ahead with prescription heroin (heroin-assisted treatment), and embracing Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) to keep people out of the criminal justice system and bring them in contact with social services.

Kratom

Natural Products Association Says Allowing Kratom Would Be "Dangerous." The largest trade group representing the organic and natural foods industry and dietary supplements makers has commented on the DEA's proposed ban on kratom, saying that "adding kratom to the US food supply could likely be dangerous and lead to serious unintended consequences." Kratom products have not met the strict standards for new items to be marketed to the public or undergone FDA approval, the group said. "Adding an untested and unregulated substance such as kratom to our food supply without the application of longstanding federal rules and guidelines would not only be illegal," said Daniel Fabricant, PhD, NPA's CEO and executive director. "It could likely be dangerous, leading to serious unintended consequences as our nation struggles with the crisis of opioid addiction."

Asset Forfeiture

Iowa Disbands State Asset Forfeiture Team, Returns $60,000 Taken From Travelers. Under increasing fire over asset forfeiture practices that saw a thousand seizures a year, the state Attorney General's Office announced Monday that the Department of Public Safety had disbanded its Interstate 80 drug interdiction and forfeiture team. The move came because of increased personnel demands and the need to focus on reducing traffic deaths, the office said, and had nothing to do with the recently announced settlement of a lawsuit brought by a pair of California gamblers who had $100,000 seized after they were stopped and a small amount of marijuana was found. That settlement resulted in the men getting most of their money back.

Law Enforcement

Justice Department Probing Possible Criminal Charges Over Atlanta DEA Informants. A DEA official told a congressional committee last week that the agency has referred "potential criminal charges" to the Justice Department over an Atlanta DEA supervisor who allegedly was in sexual relationships with two informants, one of whom was paid $212,000 for helping to bust four St. Louis drug traffickers. There are allegations of false documentation of payments to the snitch, who got $2,500 a month for two years, along with two "bonuses" of $55,000 and $80,750. The monthly payments apparently covered the rent for apartment near the DEA supervisor's home in the Atlanta metro area.

Chronicle AM: World AIDS Day, Psilocybin Could Help Terminal Patients, More... (12/1/16)

New studies suggest psychedelics could help terminal patients deal with their fears, the Ohio legislature prepares to pass asset forfeiture reform, and more.

Psilocybin, the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms, can help terminal patients cope, a pair of new studies suggests.
Psychedelics

Studies Suggest Magic Mushrooms Could Help Cancer Patients Deal With Fear. A pair of studies published Thursday in the Journal of Psychopharmacology suggest that psilocybin, the psychedelic drug in magic mushrooms, could help terminal cancer patients cope with fear and anxiety around impending death. "The findings are impressive, with good safety data and large effect sizes," says Robin Carharrt-Harris, who studies psychedelic drugs at Imperial College London. "My feeling is that these studies will play a significant role in waking up the scientific and medical mainstream to the therapeutic potential of psychedelics."

Asset Forfeiture

Ohio Legislature Poised to Pass Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform, Despite Police and Prosecutors' Opposition. Legislative leaders say they expect to pass a civil asset forfeiture reform bill in the state Senate next week. The measure, House Bill 347, passed the House in the spring, but was delayed in the Senate when a committee approved an amendment to address concerns raised by prosecutors. The bill originally would have eliminated civil asset forfeiture, but now has been softened to allow it if the property owner is dead, the suspect cannot be located, or the owner does not claim the property. It also allows for civil forfeiture post-conviction.

Harm Reduction

It's World AIDS Day. We Can't End AIDS Until We End the War on Drugs. "Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day," writes the Drug Policy Alliance's Laura Thomas. "In 1989, I was arrested in front of the White House on World AIDS Day, demanding that then-President Bush take action on HIV/AIDS. Among the issues we were demanding action on then, so many years ago, was the availability of sterile syringes for people who inject drugs, so they could stop the transmission of HIV. In the decades since, we have celebrated amazing victories against HIV/AIDS. We now have treatments we could only dream of then. We have pills that will prevent HIV. We have a National HIV/AIDS Strategy. We even have an effective cure for hepatitis C. And we are keeping many, many more people with HIV alive now. And yet, it is syringe access -- needle exchange -- that we have been the slowest to win…" Click on the link for the whole post.

Chronicle AM: No More Small MJ Arrests in Vegas; NM & RI to Consider Legalization, More... (11/17/16)

Marijuana, marijuana, marijuana. The news today is almost all about marijuana, plus an asset forfeiture bill pre-filed in Texas.

Viva Las Vegas! (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana

Maine Recount to Proceed. Opponents of the Question 1 legalization initiative, which won by around 4,000 votes (less than 1% of the total votes cast), have handed in petitions seeking a recount. Now, state officials must verify that at least 100 signatures on the petition came from registered voters who voted in the November 8 election. Once that hurdle is passed, the actual recount will begin. The recount will cost Maine taxpayers about $250,000. "With thousands of votes in the margin, the recount is not going to be successful," said Yes on 1 campaign spokesperson Alysia Melnick, "and it's unfortunate the opposition would go against the will of the people and use taxpayer dollars for a recount that will not change the outcome."

New Mexico Democrats Eye Legalization Bills Next Year. Democrats now control the state legislature, and they are vowing to introduce new legalization bills despite the opposition of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. 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.

Rhode Island Governor Ponders Legalization in Wake of Election Victories. Gov. Gina Raimundo (D) said Tuesday she's ready to more seriously consider legalization after voters in neighboring Massachusetts approved it last week. 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.

Tennessee Attorney General Says Municipal Decriminalization Measures Not Enforceable. The state's two largest cities, Memphis and Nashville, have both passed decriminalization ordinances this year, but in an opinion issued Wednesday, state Attorney General Herbert Slatery ruled that the measures are unenforceable because there are pre-empted by state laws that continue to make pot possession a criminal offense. "A municipal ordinance that attempts to regulate a field that is regulated by state statute cannot stand if it is contradictory to state law," he wrote.

Las Vegas Prosecutors Announce End to Small-Time Pot Prosecutions. Prosecutors in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, say they will now quit pursuing charges against people caught with small amounts of marijuana and won't file any new charges for pot possession. Prosecutors in the city of Las Vegas say the same thing. The moves comes in the wake of last week's victory for the Question 2 legalization initiative.

Asset Forfeiture

Texas Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Filed. State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa has pre-filed a bill for the session beginning in January that seeks to raise the burden of proof in asset forfeiture proceedings. The measure, Senate Bill 156, would raise the burden of proof from "a preponderance of the evidence" to "clear and convincing evidence."

Chronicle AM: Obama Says Federal Pot Prohibition "Not Tenable" After Tuesday, More... (11/07/16)

Marijuana Policy 

President Obama Says Federal Pot Prohibition in Question After Tuesday's Vote. Appearing on the Bill Maher Show Friday night, President Obama said federal marijuana prohibition will not "be tenable" if more states vote to legalize the weed on Tuesday. "The good news is is that after this referenda, to some degree it’s gonna call the question, because if in fact it passed in all these states, you now have about a fifth of the country that’s operating under one set of laws, and four-fifths in another," Obama said. "The Justice Department, DEA, FBI, for them to try to straddle and figure out how they’re supposed to enforce laws in some places and not in others — they’re gonna guard against transporting these drugs across state lines, but you’ve got the entire Pacific corridor where this is legal — that is not gonna be tenable," he said.

 

Maine Legalizers Have Huge Cash Advantage. Supporters of the Question 1 marijuana legalization initiative have raised more than $2.4 million dollars, according to campaign finance reports, while opponents have raised only $201,000. Most of the pro-legalization money has come from the New Approach PAC, the instrument of the heirs of late Progressive Insurance founder and drug reform philanthropist Peter Lewis, while 99% of the anti-legalization money has come courtesy of Project SAM's Kevin Sabet, who now heads the newly formed non-profit Alliance for Healthy Marijuana Policy.

Las Vegas Casino Magnate Sheldon Adelson Again Kicks in Against Nevada Pot Initiative. The Sands Corporation head honcho and prolific funder of anti-drug reform efforts has given more than $1.35 million to the campaign trying to defeat the Question 2 marijuana legalization initiative in recent weeks, according to campaign finance reports. That's on top of $2 million he gave opponents in September. In fact, Adelson is virtually a one-man opposition campaign, having provided 97.4% of all reported opposition campaign contributions. Proponents of Question 2 have raised only $1.2 million.

Medical Marijuana

New Report Calls Marijuana a "Promising Option" for Dealing With Opioid Addiction. A new report from the National Cannabis Industry Association finds that increasing legal access to marijuana can be a potent weapon in the fight against opioid addiction. The report findssignificant progress in reducing addiction and overdose deaths in states that have legalized it.

New Mexico Panel Votes to Allow Medical Marijuana for "Opiate Use Disorder." A state advisory board that makes recommendations to the Health Department on New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program voted 5-1 Friday in favor of adding "opiate use disorder" to the list of conditions that qualify. Now, it's up to incoming Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher to accept or deny the recommendation. Such a move could add thousands of new patients to the state's rapidly expanding medical marijuana program.

Asset Forfeiture

Montana Supreme Court Affirms Right to Jury Trial in Civil Forfeiture Cases. In a ruling last week, the state high court upheld and strengthened a 2015 law that reformed asset forfeiture procedures. The ruling came in the case of a man whose land was seized after police found 300 marijuana plants on it. The man was convicted of federal drug charges, but not prosecuted by the state. Even though he faced no state charges, the state seized his land. He requested a jury trial, but was denied in lower court, and a judge turned the property over to the state. But the Supreme Court said the 2015 law supplanted older law on which the trial judge based his decision.

Law Enforcement

Even As Arrests Drop, California Racial Disparities Persist. A new report from the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris finds that arrest rates for all racial groups have dropped in the past decade, but blacks were still much more likely than whites to be arrested on felony charges. When it comes to drugs, black men were six times as likely as whites to be arrested, and black women were nearly three times as likely to be arrested as whites. Latinos, on the other hand, were arrested for drugs at roughly the same rate as whites. 

Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Sentences, Filipinos Like Duterte's Drug War, More... (10/7/16)

The president continues granting clemency to federal drug war prisoners, Iran executes more drug prisoners, Filipinos approve of their president's dirty, deadly drug war, and more.

Thanks, Obama! (whitehouse.gov)
Medical Marijuana

Connecticut Minors Can Now Qualify for Medical Marijuana. Under changes in the state's medical marijuana system that went into effect this week, minors with certain specified conditions can now enroll in the program. Those conditions include cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, irreversible spinal cord injury with intractable spasticity, severe epilepsy, intractable seizure disorders, and terminal illness.

Asset Forfeiture

Arizona Civil Asset Forfeiture Law Challenged in New Lawsuit. The Institute of Justice has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an elderly Washington state couple who loaned their car to their adult son so he could drive to Florida, but had their vehicle seized after the son was arrested in Arizona with a "personal use quantity" of marijuana. The state's asset forfeiture laws are unconstitutional, the lawsuit alleges. This case was filed against the sheriff of Navaho County. The ACLU of Arizona is pursuing a similar case in Pimal County.

Pardons and Commutations

Obama Commutes Sentences of 102 More Drug War Prisoners. President Obama Friday granted clemency to another 102 imprisoned federal drug offenders, bring the total so far to 774. Obama has now freed more prisoners that the previous 11 presidents combined, but advocates want him to do more. "The President is doing the right thing, but we hope to see many more commutations," said Michael Collins, deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "We also need Congress to remain engaged on this issue." Congress has pending sentencing reform bills before it.

International

Iran Hangs Seven More for Drug Offenses. Even as the parliament considers ending the death penalty for drug offenses, executions continue apace. Seven prisoners were hanged in late September for drug offenses at Minab's Central Prison. Last year, drug offenders accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 970 people executed in the Islamic Republic.

Filipinos Overwhelmingly Approve of Duterte's Deadly Drug War. A national opinion poll finds that 84% of Filipinos surveyed said they were satisfied or moderately satisfied with the president's harsh anti-drug campaign, which has left more than a thousand people killed by police and twice that number killed by vigilantes. Some 94%, though, said suspects should be brought to trial alive, but despite Duterte's call for killing them, most respondents still rated his efforts as "excellent."

Chronicle AM: Kratom Ban Delayed (But Still Coming), Mad Drug Arrest Binge in Indy, More... (9/30/16)

California's governor signs asset forfeiture reform and medical marijuana "micro farmer" bills, a Massachusetts town pays out big time for killing an elderly black man in a drug raid, Indianapolis narcs have arrested 1,000 people in two and a half months and think that's success, and more.

Eurie Stamps. Killed in a 2011 drug raid, now his family wins a $3.75 million settlement. (Stamps family)
Marijuana Policy

Another California Poll Has Prop 64 Winning. A new KPIX 5/Survey USA poll has the Prop 64 legalization initiative winning with 52% of the vote, with 41% opposed. It's the latest in a long line of polls that show the initiative winning, but has it winning by a smaller margin than most other polls.

Medical Marijuana

California Governor Signs Marijuana "Micro Farmer" Bill. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) Thursday signed into law the Cottage Cannabis Farmers Bill, Assembly Bill 2516. The measure creates a new medical marijuana cultivator license for "micro farmers," defined as farms with 2,500 square feet or less of total canopy size for mixed-light cultivation, up to 25 mature plants for outdoor cultivation, or 500 square feet or less of total canopy size for indoor cultivation, on one premises.

Kratom

DEA Ban Delayed, But Only for Days. The DEA says that despite loud protests, its proposed emergency ban on kratom is still coming; it's just been delayed for a few days as the agency deals with paperwork. It was supposed to become Schedule I Friday, but the reprieve could last a week or more. A DEA spokesman said it's "highly accurate" to say the ban won't take effect next week, either.

Asset Forfeiture

California Governor Signs Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) Thursday signed into law Senate Bill 443, which requires a criminal conviction before police can permanently seize property valued at under $40,000. Bill sponsor Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) sponsored a similar bill last year, but it failed after law enforcement grumbled that it would make it more difficult to go after big drug dealers. Police dropped their opposition after Mitchell agreed to the $40,000 threshold.

Law Enforcement

Family of Massachusetts Man Killed in SWAT Drug Raid Awarded $3.75 Million. The town of Framingham has agreed to pay $3.75 million to settle a lawsuit in the death of Eurie Stamps, 68, who was shot and killed by a Framingham police officer as he laid on the floor of his home complying with officers' demands. It was the killing of Stamps that inspired the Chronicle's tracking of drug war deaths, a work now in its sixth year.

Federal Bill to Require Police Reporting of Deaths and Injuries Filed. Rep. Mark Veasey (D-TX) has filed HR 6217, which would "require States and units of local government to have in place laws requiring law enforcement officers to submit... reports when an individual is injured or killed by such a law enforcement officer in the course of the officer's employment as a condition on receiving certain grant funding, and for other purposes. Currently, there is no federal database on law enforcement killing or injuring suspects.

Indianapolis Narcs on Mad Arrest Binge. A newly formed Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department drug unit has arrested more than 1,000 people in the past two and half months. Local media is calling it a "success" and IMPD Chief Troy Riggs vowed that more of the same was coming. "We're not backing off," he said. "This is the new normal."

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A Mississippi police chief shoots himself during an investigation into asset forfeiture funds, a Massachusetts police officer shoots herself during an investigation into thefts from her evidence room, an Ohio cop goes to prison for lying on drug search warrants and stealing big time, and more. Let's get to it:

In Braintree, Massachusetts, somebody has been stealing from the police evidence room, according to an audit released Wednesday. The audit found that the Braintree Police Department is missing nearly 5,000 pieces of drug evidence, 60 guns, 4,700 pieces of property evidence, and $407,000 in seized cash are missing. Some drug evidence bags were torn open and emptied, while others had the drugs replaced with other substances. Two of the missing guns were found at the home of Officer Susan Zopatti, who was in charge of the evidence room. She killed herself in May after being interviewed as part of the audit. At least six drug cases have been dropped, and more are likely to follow.

In Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the police chief shot and killed himself last Thursday after being relieved of duty during an investigation into the department's handling of asset forfeiture funds. Chief Mike De Nardo was being escorted by two deputies out of the police station when he shot himself in the chest.

In Eugene, Oregon, a former Deschutes County sheriff's captain was sentenced last Thursday to five years in federal prison for stealing more than $205,000 from drug buy funds and money seized in drug busts. Scott Beard repeatedly stole funds over a two-year period and laundered them using the bank account of his mistress, whom he treated to a lavish lifestyle. He copped to two counts of theft and two counts of money laundering in May, and was taken into custody upon sentencing.

In Columbus, Ohio, a former Reynoldsburg police officer was sentenced last Friday to 33 months in federal prison for falsifying search warrants in drug cases and stealing $150,000 in property and cash. Shane Mauger had worked with Reynoldsburg Detective Tye Downard, who hung himself in his jail cell after being arrested for using his connections to sell drugs, including drugs stolen from the evidence room. Both were members of the Franklin County Drug Task Force, and at least 15 felony drug cases have been dropped because they lied on search warrant applications. Mauger pleaded guilty in May to conspiracy to deprive persons of the civil rights and theft.

Drug War Issues

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