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Chronicle AM: WA Drug Task to Disband, Cites Legalization; Harm Reduction Bills Advance in FL, NM, More... (2/18/16)

Even South Carolinians want drug policy reform, a Washington state drug task force calls it quits after marijuana legalization, harm reduction measures advance in Florida and New Mexico, and more.

With marijuana legal, drug task forces are having to reassess. (Darrin Frisby Harris/DPA)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon House Passes Marijuana Fine-Tuning Bill. The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to approve House Bill 4014, one of three bills this session aimed at fine tuning the state's marijuana legalization program. The bill removes residency restrictions for owning cannabusinesses, reduces some penalties for marijuana offenses, and adjusts licensing requirements to fit the needs of small farms, among other provisions.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Attorney General Approves Medical Marijuana Initiative. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) has certified the popular name and title of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016. Now, initiative backers can begin the process of gathering some 85,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Asset Forfeiture

Iowa Legislature Punts on Asset Forfeiture Reform. A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday took up Senate File 2166, which would have ended civil asset forfeiture in the state, but after a contentious hearing, the subcommittee voted to simply study the issue and develop recommendations for addressing it next year.

Drug Policy

Poll Finds South Carolinians Surprisingly Open to Drug Reforms. According to a a new poll released by the Drug Policy Alliance, a large majority of South Carolina's notably conservative primary voters supports ending mass incarceration, even across party lines. A substantial majority, furthermore, supports decriminalizing drug possession. Some 70% said they considered reducing incarceration rates an important issue and 59% said they favored decriminalizing drug possession.

Drug Testing

Maine Moves to Make It Easier for Employers to Do Drug Testing. The Department of Labor is calling on lawmakers to streamline the approval process for employee drug testing policies and to implement a program to train managers to spot drug-related impairment in the workplace. The proposal comes as an amendment to LD 1384, which is the subject of a Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee work session today.

Harm Reduction

Florida Needle Exchange Bill Advances. The House Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday unanimously approved House Bill 81, which would create a pilot program to establish needle exchange programs in Miami-Dade County. The bill now heads for a House floor vote. Companion legislation in the Senate, Senate Bill 242, also awaits a floor vote.

New Mexico Legislature Approves Overdose Prevention Bills. A pair of bills that would allow individuals and organizations to possess and distribute the opioid reversal drug naloxone (Narcan®) have passed out of the legislature and are headed for the governor's desk. The measures are House Bill 277 and Senate Bill 262.

Law Enforcement

Washington State Drug Task Force to Disband, Cites Marijuana Legalization, Funding Cuts. The East Side Narcotics Task Force is going out of business in June after a quarter-century of fighting drug offenses. "The member agencies did an evaluation of the task force and its mission, and what we decided was that the task force had run its course and that due to a variety of challenges, it was time to sunset the task force and look at other options," Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett explained. One of those challenges was marijuana legalization: "When the state law changed, it made us pause and take a look at our mission," Mylett said. "When I arrived in Bellevue (in April 2015), the police chiefs were already discussing how marijuana laws were changing the whole drug trade landscape." He also complained that federal grants to fund such task forces were declining.

International

Saudis Execute Two Yemenis for Smuggling Hash. Yemeni citizens Ahmed Mubarek and Abdul Salam al-Jamali were executed in the Saudi border city of Jazan Wednesday after being convicted of smuggling hashish into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has already executed 62 people this year, putting it on a pace to exceed last year's 153 executions, the highest number in two decades. It's not clear how many people have been executed for drug offenses.

Chronicle AM: Facebook Goes After Marijuana Businesses, WY Forfeiture Bill Advances, More... (2/17/16)

Facebook is making life hard for marijuana businesses, marijuana and medical marijuana are on the agenda at statehouses across the land, a South Dakota welfare drug testing bill is back in "kinder, gentler" form, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Facebook Shutting Down Marijuana Business Pages. The social media application has recently deleted or suspended dozens of accounts operated by marijuana businesses, without even a warning about possibly offensive material. It's not just businesses that actually deal in marijuana; Facebook has been typically unresponsive, saying only that "These pages have been removed for violating our community standards, which outline what is and is not allowed on Facebook."

Maryland Lawmakers Reject Effort to Increase Penalties for Public Marijuana Smoking. The House of Delegates Wednesday turned back GOP efforts to make it a misdemeanor offense to smoke pot on the Ocean City boardwalk, in state parks, or other public spaces. The move was a proposed amendment to a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to smoke pot in a vehicle. The bill treats in-car pot smoking like an open container violation, with fines, but no jail time.

Oregon House Approves Marijuana Banking Bill. The House has passed House Bill 4094, which protects banks and credit unions from any state liability for dealing with state-legal marijuana businesses. The bill passed on a 56-3 vote and now heads to the Senate.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona GOP Lawmakers Seek to Bar Use of Welfare EBT Cards in Dispensaries. Rep. Kate Brophy (R-Phoenix) has filed a bill, House Bill 2261, that would add dispensaries to the list of locations where EBT cards that deliver cash cannot be used. Other banned locations include liquor stores, race tracks, casinos, and strip clubs. The bill got a hearing Tuesday in the House Rules Committee, but was criticized by Rep. Randall Friese (D-Tucson), a physician. "I have a little trouble just saying you can get your prescription medications but not your medical marijuana," said Friese. "Medical marijuana is used for a variety of things that help people with chronic pain, glaucoma, anorexia, intractable nausea."

Oregon Bill to Let Pot Shops Sell Tax-Free Medical Marijuana Advances. A joint legislative committee Tuesday approved the bill that would allow recreational marijuana businesses to produce, process, and sell medical marijuana products. Senate Bill 1511 now heads for a Senate floor vote.

Utah Poll Finds Nearly Two-Thirds Want Medical Marijuana. Some 64% of Utahns support medical marijuana, up from 61% just two months ago, according to a new Utah Policy poll. The poll comes as progress on a full-blown medical marijuana bill in the legislature appears blocked and as patient activists say they are about to embark on an initiative campaign to get around legislative inaction.

Asset Forfeiture

Wyoming Senate Approves Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. The Senate Wednesday approved Senate File 46, which would require a judge to find probable cause property was used or intended to be used in drug trafficking before it could be seized. The bill does not end civil asset forfeiture, but does raise the bar for the state. A measure pending in the House would end civil asset forfeiture, but faces a veto from Gov. Matt Mead (R), who vetoed similar legislation last year. The Senate bill now goes to the House.

Drug Testing

South Dakota Welfare Drug Testing Bill Returns in "Kinder, Gentler" Form. After an earlier bill that would have required drug testing for all welfare recipients was killed, Sen. Phil Jensen (R-Rapid City) has introduced Senate Bill 153, which would randomly drug test 2% of welfare applicants. The bill was set for a hearing in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee today.

Chronicle AM: Obama Wants $1 Billion to Fight Opioids, Legal Pot Sales Hit $5.4 Billion, More... (2/2/16)

A new report finds marijuana is a booming market, California doctors get on board with the AUMA legalization initiative, the White House wants nearly a billion bucks to fight opioid addiction -- with most of it going for "medication-assisted treatment" -- and more.

People line up to buy heroin in Chicago. The White House wants nearly $1 billion to fight opioid addiction. (Chicago PD)
Marijuana Policy

Legal Pot Sales Hit $5.4 Billion Last Year, Report Says. Legal marijuana sales increased 17.4% last year to $5.4 billion, according to data released this week by the ArcView Group. Nearly 80% of the sales were for medical marijuana, but $998 million was for legal adult use, up dramatically from $351 billion in 2014. Overall sales should grow to $6.7 billion this year, the group predicted.

California Medical Association Endorses AUMA Legalization Initiative. The CMA, the largest doctors' group in the state, announced Monday that is will support the Adult Use of Marijuana Act legalization initiative. The initiative, funded by tech billionaire Sean Parker and supported by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), has as one of its proponents Dr. Donald Lyman, who authored the CMA's 2011 policy called for decriminalization. "The California Medical Association believes the Adult Use of Marijuana Act is a comprehensive and thoughtfully constructed measure that will allow state officials to better protect public health by clarifying the role of physicians, controlling and regulating marijuana use by responsible adults and keeping it out of the hands of children," Dr. Steven Larson, CMA's president, said in prepared remarks.

Medical Marijuana

New Hampshire Patient Who Sued Over Medical Marijuana Access Dies. Linda Horan, who sued the state in November to issue her a medical marijuana card so she could get her medicine in Maine because New Hampshire dispensaries hadn't opened, died Monday at age 64. The ailing labor leader won her lawsuit and was able to procure medical marijuana out of state, but succumbed to cancer. The court ruling applied only to Horan, but days after the ruling, the states began sending out ID cards to patients.

Wyoming Medical Marijuana Initiative Won't Qualify for Ballot. A spokesman for Wyoming NORML, which organized the campaign, said Monday that the group had only managed to gather some 7,000 raw signatures ahead of next week's deadline and will fall far short of the more than 25,000 valid voter signatures required to make the ballot. The group will try again in 2018, it said.

Hemp

Twenty States Have Hemp Bills This Year, Vote Hemp Says. The industry group has issued its annual report and says 20 states are working to legalize or expand hemp production. There's much more in the report, too.

Drug Policy

White House Seeks $1 Billion to Fight Heroin and Prescription Opiate Abuse. The Obama administration Tuesday proposed a billion dollars in new funds over the next two years to combat widespread opioid use. More than $900 million of the newly sought funding would go for medication-assisted treatment (opioid maintenance), which also includes therapy. The administration said that 2.2 million people have been identified as needing treatment for opioid addiction, but only one million are receiving it.

Drug Testing

West Virginia Lawmaker Proposes Drug Testing Legislators. State lawmakers have once again introduced a bill to drug test welfare applicants, and in response, Delegate Shawn Fluharty (D-Wheeling) has introduced House Bill 2925, which would subject legislators to the same sort of testing. "There's no reason why state legislators should get a pass, simply because we wear suits," he said.

Chronicle AM: Senate Has Deal on Sentencing Reform, OR Legal Pot Sales Begin Today, More (10/1/15)

Oregon dispensaries can now sell marijuana to all comers (21 and over), a bipartisan group of senators announces a deal on major sentencing reform, Albuquerque's mayor vetoes decrim again, heroin policy on the campaign trail is featured, and more.

now on sale to adults in Oregon (wikimedia/Mangokeylime)
Marijuana Policy

Family Physicians Say Marijuana Should Be Decriminalized, Rescheduled. Meeting in Denver, the American Academy of Family Physicians has passed two resolutions on marijuana policy. The first originally called for legalization, but was watered down to decriminalization, while the second calls on the DEA to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. Click on the link for details on the debate.

California Marijuana Arrests Decline to Lowest Level Since 1966. Data from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report shows that pot arrests in the state are at the lowest in nearly 50 years. Some 19,711 people were arrested on marijuana charges last year, down slightly from 20,346 in 2013. Arrests have nose-dived since the state decriminalized possession in 2008. But some things apparently never change: Blacks were arrested for marijuana offenses at a rate more than twice their percentage of the state's population.

Legal Recreational Marijuana Sales Are Now Underway in Oregon. Medical marijuana dispensaries across the state began selling pot to anyone with an ID showing he is 21 or over today. State officials moved to allow dispensaries to start selling recreational marijuana early in order to allow Oregonians to have a place to legally purchase it until adult use shops open next year. Not all dispensaries are participating; about 200 of the 345 in the state are.

Albuquerque Mayor Vetoes Decriminalization (Again). Mayor Richard Berry has vetoed a decriminalization ordinance passed by the city council. He vetoed a similar measure last year. In a veto statement, he said he had a "hard time signing legislation that preempts state and federal law." Except that it doesn't. Decriminalization has majority support in the city and Bernalillo County, but the mayor doesn't appear to be listening.

Heroin and Prescription Opiates

Heroin As a Campaign Issue. This USA Today story looks primarily at the attention Hillary Clinton is paying to heroin and opiate addiction in New England and the role of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) in advising her on drug policy, but also mentions Carly Fiorina and Bernie Sanders. Jeb Bush has also been talking about addiction this week.

Sentencing

Senators Reach Deal on Sentencing Reform Package. A bipartisan group of senators announced a historic deal on criminal justice reform Thursday, rounding out a negotiation process that has lasted almost five months. The bill, spearheaded by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), will involve reductions in mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, an expansion of the federal "safety valve" (which allows judges to use their discretion to sentence people below statutory mandatory minimums), and will expand reentry programming and early release, among other things. Look for a Chronicle feature story on this in coming days.

(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.)

Ohio Marijuana Monopoly Madness: ResponsibleOhio and Its Foes [FEATURE]

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

Ohio may about to legalize marijuana, but not the way other states have done it. A constitutional amendment that would go before voters in November would create a virtual monopoly on commercial marijuana grows for the entire state. That's not sitting well with a number of Ohioans, including the Republican state legislature and a good number of Buckeye State legalization and medical marijuana activists. It's also leaving major national drug reform organizations deeply ambivalent.

The ResponsibleOhio initiative is almost certain to qualify for the ballot any day now. Its well-financed campaign has handed in more than 700,000 signatures to state officials, nearly twice the 305,000 valid voter signatures needed. Those officials have until later this week to verify the signatures. [Update: Monday, state officials said the initiative was 29,000 signatures short, but ResponsibleOhio has another 10 days to make up the shortfall and it says it will challenge the disqualified signatures at the state Supreme Court.]

ResponsibleOhio

The initiative allows adults 21 and over to grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana and calls for a system of regulated and taxed marijuana production and sales. It even has provisions for medical marijuana. None of that is controversial.

But under ResponsibleOhio's initiative, commercial marijuana production can only take place at 10 sites in the state. The sites have already been allocated to 10 sets of investors, who have kicked in $1.7 million for the campaign so far and are prepared to spend $20 million or more convincing the public to vote for it.

The investors include a number of Ohio business interests -- real estate developers, venture capital firms, philanthropists, with nary a Cheech or a Chong among them -- as well as some home state big names who could sway public opinion. These include NBA legend Oscar "Big O" Robertson, Cincinnati-based fashion designer Nanette Lepore, and former Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns defensive end Frostee Rucker (now with the Arizona Cardinals).

In return for their hoped-for voter-granted monopoly, the investor groups would pay a $100,000 fee and a 15% tax on their gross revenues, as well as other commercial fees. Critics have charged that the plan freezes out all but the initial investor groups, but ResponsibleOhio counters that there will be plenty of commercial opportunities in making and selling marijuana products.

While this written-in monopoly may seem strange to many, it's not going to seem so strange to Ohio voters. In 2009, they legalized gambling by approving a constitutional amendment that specified sites for four casinos owned by the companies backing the amendment.

ResponsibleOhio looks to have deep enough pockets to put on a full-scale, multi-million-dollar advertising campaign. Estimates are that to win in California next year, legalizers will have to spend $10 million or so in advertising, but ResponsibleOhio is talking about spending $20 million in a much smaller media market, and it doesn't have to go begging for donors.

The momentum is there. The entire country is riding a wave of increasing support for marijuana legalization, and Ohio is no exception. An April Quinnipiac University poll last month had support at 53% (it also had narrow majorities for legalization in swing states Florida and Pennsylvania), up two points from the same poll a year earlier.

Strange Bedfellows

But ResponsibleOhio is facing a head-on challenge from the legislature, attacks from legalizers left out in the cold, and a more general discomfort with constitutionally-mandated monopolies.

Late last month, the legislature approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar any addition to the state constitution that created "a monopoly, oligopoly, or cartel" to distribute a federally controlled substance. The proposed amendment specifies that if it passes, any initiative that conflicted with it -- i.e. the ResponsibleOhio initiative -- "shall not take effect."

If both initiatives passed, rest assured that lengthy legal battles would ensue, but in the meantime, marijuana legalization in Ohio would be dead in the water. While legislative leaders paid lip service to concerns about anti-competitiveness, the amendment is clearly designed to stop legalization and is the instrument of a body that has steadfastly refused to consider legalization for nearly 20 years.

That didn't stop some legalization supporters -- and ResponsibleOhio foes -- from applauding the move, and even encouraging it.

"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 legalization 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 AlterNet.

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."

"The current system is actually better than their plan. It gives them a monopoly where only these 10 groups get the right to cultivate commercially, and that's bad policy for the state," Kavuru argued. "It creates an environment that allows a black market to thrive, and it doesn't eliminate arrests. The purpose of legalization is supposed to be to get rid of criminal arrests."

The ResponsibleOhio initiative would increase penalties on some cultivators and would leave people under 21 subject to arrest, Kavuru charged. He also attacked its medical marijuana provisions.

"It doesn't actually give any protection for patients and only says a commission 'may' implement a medical program," he said. Everything for recreational is 'shall.'"

Ohio Families CANN is also not satisfied with ResponsibleOhio's initiative, said Nicole Scholten, a spokesperson for the group, which seeks access to marijuana to treat sick children.

"We are wary of ResponsibleOhio's approach," she said. "We are not convinced it would yield the type and volume of medical cannabis that would be effective for our children. Legalization does not equal sustainable medicine. The medicine that would help our kids requires specific strains of cannabis and vast quantities. ResponsibleOhio's plan to have only ten grow sites is problematic. There is no guarantee these businesses would devote the grow space to the kind and volume of cannabis we need."

But another patient-activist organization that has tried unsuccessfully for years to get an initiative on the ballot, the Ohio Rights Group, is less negative. Its executive director, Jack Pardee, noted that the legislature has refused for nearly 20 years to even discuss marijuana legalization bills.

"We've been having a debate in our community about the merits of what the legislature is trying to do with this thing and, in my opinion, it has nothing to do with protecting Ohioans from economic forces," Pardee said. "ResponsibleOhio isn't perfect, but it has a lot of the pieces that ending prohibition needs to be successful."

National Drug Reform Groups Ambivalent

The divisions among Ohio activists are somewhat reflected by the national groups that have so far been the big players in marijuana legalization. None of them are directly involved with ResponsibleOhio -- it certainly doesn't need their fundraising abilities -- but they are watching with great interest and concern.

"It doesn't resemble our initiatives," said Marijuana Policy Project spokesperson Mason Tvert. "We have not proposed such laws in the past, and it's not the type of law we would draft," he told AlterNet.

"It's up to Ohio voters to decide if this is the kind of system they want to replace marijuana prohibition with," said Tvert. "It would get the job done, but we think marijuana should be treated like alcohol, and there should be a system where there can be a lot of competition and different businesses out there producing this product."

And he had a word of advice to Ohio activists opposing ResponsibleOhio.

"If they want to end marijuana prohibition, they need to weigh their opposition to this initiative against the possibility of having to wait longer for a better initiative," Tvert said.

"A lot of legalizers, we feel like the movement has been hijacked by the money people," said Keith Stroup, founder and currently counsel for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "But the bottom line for NORML is that we want to legalize marijuana," he told AlterNet.

"While we'd have a preference for the little or medium-sized guy, we're not that concerned about who gets rich off it," the movement veteran said. "We're about not treating marijuana users like criminals, and we can speed that process along by three or four or five years because some rich investors run their own initiative, if it actually legalizes pot smoking and dispensaries where they can buy, if they qualify for the ballot, we will support it even if it's not perfect."

Stroup took great umbrage with the legislature's move to block the initiative.

"That's a bad faith move by the legislature," he growled. "The reason we have the initiative process is because legislatures were not responsive to the will of the people, and now we have a case where the people are going around the legislature, and the legislature is going to try to go around the people."

Stroup prophesied high-stakes litigation if ResponsibleOhio wins at the ballot box, but its victory is nullified by passage of the legislature's initiative.

"That undermines the basic purpose of initiatives, and we have at least one legal opinion that nothing in that resolution would in any way affect the initiative if it were to pass," he said. "I hope the courts act in that case."

"We've fought for a long time to end marijuana prohibition for civil rights, social justice, public health, and public safety reasons, and to create a legal market," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, "But to then have some folks come along trying to create a constitutionally-mandated oligopoly kind of sticks in everybody's craw."

DPA has worked and is working on legalization in a number of states, and was consulted in the drafting of the ResponsibleOhio initiative, but is not endorsing it. Nadelmann's ambivalence was indicative of the mixed feelings the measure is arousing among activists.

"The fact is, we have investors putting up $20 or $30 million to win this thing in a state that will be the center of national political attention next year -- no one else is going to do it in Ohio. There is a possibility the oligopoly provision could get knocked out. The best outcome would be for this initiative to win, and then get that knocked out," he said.

"Aside from the oligopoly provision, it's actually pretty good," Nadelmann continued. And after criticism of an earlier draft, "they were actually pretty solicitous, they added home grow, medical marijuana protections, and the distribution model is pretty good."

Who Will Be in the Driver's Seat?

But the ResponsibleOhio move also signals the emergence of monied interests whose deep pockets could leave activists and the drug reform movement on the sidelines -- and who may not share the same interests dear to the hearts of reformers.

"There's something similar going on in Michigan," Nadelmann noted, referring to an as-yet-to-filed initiative from the Michigan Responsibility Council, one of three groups planning legalization initiatives in the state right now. "And look at Arizona, there's a lot of industry funding there, and there's been hard negotiations between MPP and those guys."

"The influence of DPA, MPP, and other activists is going to diminish rapidly," he predicted. "This is going to be increasingly driven by industry, and a lot of competing interests within the industry. And as this evolves into legislative processes, other forces are going to come into play and certain players will be able to make their demands felt. Social justice concerns could get knocked out."

If Not ResponsibleOhio, Who, and When?

The unhappy Ohio legalization activists and other ResponsibleOhio critics say that if and when it is defeated, they can move forward with their own legalization plans. Given the legislature's recalcitrance, that means they would have to run their own initiative campaign.

They haven't been able to do that so far, and while some, such as OTEP's Kavuru, say they can do it now, others aren't so sure.

"We have access to a lot of money," Kavuru said. "And we have a real solid political team. We're in negotiations right now for significant funding, and it's much easier to raise money for a recreational initiative than a medical one, because people are also looking at it as an investment."

But ResponsibleOhio is here and now, and if it goes down, it remains to be seen if anyone else can actually get on the ballot.

"If this is defeated this year, I doubt any major funders would step in to play a role in 2016," said NORML's Stroup. "I understand. The people in Ohio feel they were doing a great grassroots effort and hear these rich guys came along and bought the space. But the Ohio activists so far haven't shown they can get the funding to do good surveys, let alone pay for signatures or a professional campaign. This year may be our chance to take a conservative state like Ohio and leapfrog it ahead on legalization. I'm not real comfortable with ResponsibleOhio, but I just want it legalized."

The fun is just beginning in Ohio.

The Surprising State That Could Be the Next to Legalize Weed [FEATURE]

[This article was written in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.]

It's looking more and more likely that voters in a key battleground state will be voting on marijuana legalization in November, and recent polling suggests it could win. That's this November, not November 2016.

The state is Ohio, where a controversial legalization initiative is already well on the way to qualifying for the ballot, and its backers -- or should we say investors? -- have the cash on hand to make sure it does.

There are marijuana legalization bills pending in any number of states, and early on, there were hopes this would be the year a state legislature would get around to legalizing it. New England states such as Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont looked like the best bets, but it now doesn't seem like it's going to happen.

2016 promises to see a wave of legalization initiatives -- think Arizona, California, Nevada, Maine, and Massachusetts, for starters, with Arkansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio also likely to see serious efforts emerge.

But that's next year. The group ResponsibleOhio is well on the way to putting the issue before Buckeye State voters this year. They've already had their proposed constitutional amendment approved for signature gathering and, thanks to paid signature-gatherers, are cruising toward qualifying for the ballot.

To qualify in Ohio, initiatives need 305,000 valid voter signatures; ResponsibleOhio collected 180,000 raw signatures in its first three weeks and still has more than two months to gather the rest. And the campaign is still expanding.

Veteran initiative watchers will tell you campaigns want a cushion of excess signatures to account for ones that are thrown out, maybe 25% to 30% above the requirement at a bare minimum. In Ohio this year, that would be 400-450,000 raw signatures. The campaign says they are aiming for 700,000.

Given the progress so far, and the organization and money behind it (see below), ResponsibleOhio's legalization initiative looks like it will qualify for the ballot.

A New Legalization Model

This is not legalization like we've seen anywhere else. Yes, it allows adults 21 and over to grow and possess limited amounts of marijuana and yes, it calls for a system of regulated and taxed marijuana production and sales. And it even has provisions for medical marijuana.

But under ResponsibleOhio's initiative, commercial marijuana production can only take place at 10 sites in the state, and those sites have already been allocated to 10 sets of investors, who have already kicked in $1.7 million for the campaign so far and who are prepared to spend up to $20 million convincing the public to vote for it.

The Big O in his NBA heyday. (wikimedia.org)
The investors include a number of Ohio business interest-real estate developers, venture capital firms, philanthropists, with nary a Cheech or a Chong among them -- but also some home state big names that could sway public opinion. These include NBA legend Oscar "Big O" Robertson, Cincinnati-based fashion designer Nanette Lepore, and former Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns defensive end Frostee Rucker (now with the Arizona Cardinals).

In return for their hoped-for voter-granted monopoly, the investor groups would pay a $100,000 fee and a 15% tax on their gross revenues, as well as other commercial fees. Critics have charged that the plan freezes out all but the initial investor groups, but ResponsibleOhio counters that there will be plenty of commercial opportunities in making and selling marijuana products.

The ResponsibleOhio plan has raised a lot of hackles among movement veterans such as NORML founder Keith Stroup, who voices widely-held worries about the impact of big money in the movement and Ohio activists, some of whom have their own initiative plans, but they may not matter as much as suburban Columbus soccer moms when it comes to election day.

And while this written-in monopoly may seem strange to many, it's not going to seem that strange to Ohio voters. In 2009, they legalized gambling by approving a constitutional amendment that specified sites for four casinos owned by the companies backing the amendment.

Can It Win?

Initiatives need to have money, momentum, and votes to win.

ResponsibleOhio looks to have deep enough pockets to put on a full-scale, multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Estimates are that to win in California next year, legalizers will have to spend $10 million or so in advertising, but ResponsibleOhio is talking about spending up to $20 million in a much smaller media market, and it doesn't have to go begging to donors.

The momentum is there. The entire country is riding a wave of increasing support for marijuana legalization, and Ohio is no exception. A Quinnipiac University poll last month had support at 53% (it also had narrow majorities for legalization in swing states Florida and Pennsylvania), up two points from the same poll a year earlier.

The conventional wisdom is that initiatives should be polling 60% or more at the beginning of the campaign because they are bound to lose some support in the face of organized opposition. But when it comes to marijuana, these hardly seem like conventional times. National polls show an upward trend, and Ohio polls show an upward trend. Whether it can win at the polls in an off-off-year election remains to be seen (the casino initiative did), but it certainly looks like it's going to be on the ballot, and it's got a very good shot on Election Day.

Ohio isn't the West Coast or New England. It's a mid-sized Midwest swing state critical in presidential politics. If Ohio legalizes it this year, the politics of pot is going to get very, very interesting next year.

OH
United States

Chronicle AM: Federal Pot Banking Bill, OK Okays CBD Oil, IN Needle Exchange Approved, More (4/30/15)

Seventeen congressmembers introduced a federal marijuana banking bill, CBD cannabis oil gets approved in Oklahoma, medical marijuana advances in Louisiana, Indiana approves needle exchange programs, and more.

Facing an HIV outbreak in one county, Indiana has approved statewide needle exchange programs. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Marijuana Banking Bill Filed. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and 16 bipartisan cosponsors yesterday introduced the Marijuana Business Access to Banking Act (HR 7076), which would allow marijuana businesses to open bank accounts. The bill would provide banks with a "safe harbor" so they can offer accounts to such businesses without fear of federal retaliation.

Rhode Island House Committee Hears Testimony on Legalization Bill. The House Judiciary Committee yesterday heard testimony on House Bill 5777, the marijuana regulation, taxation, and legalization bill from Rep. Thomas Slater. No vote was taken; the bill was held for further study. Click on the title link for more hearing details.

Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Governor Signs CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. Gov. Mary Fallin (R) today signed into law House Bill 2154, also known as Katie and Cayman's Law. It allows for the use of CBD cannabis oil by children suffering from epileptic seizures and sets up a study program.

Louisiana Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Senate Committee Vote. Only a year after overwhelmingly rejecting a similar bill, the Senate Health Committee Wednesday unanimously approved a medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 143, sponsored by Sen. Fred Mills, Jr. (R-Parks). The bill is set for a Senate floor vote next week. The bill does not allow for smoked marijuana; only marijuana processed into oils.

New Synthetic Drugs

North Carolina House Votes to Ban New Synthetics. The House voted unanimously today to add more compounds to the state's list of illegal drugs. House Bill 341 adds the NBOMe (N-bomb) compounds to the list. The drugs are described as similar to LSD. The bill now heads before the Senate Rules and Operations Committee.

Texas House Approves Bill Giving Cops More Power to Move Against Synthetics. With no debate and on a voice vote, the House Wednesday approved House Bill 1212, which would give law enforcement greater ability to move against synthetic drug manufacturers. A final vote of approval was expected today, and then the bill moves to the Senate. Similar legislation is already moving in that chamber.

Harm Reduction

Indiana Legislature Approves Needle Exchange Programs. Faced with an HIV outbreak in one southwestern county, the legislature last night approved a bill allowing for the establishment of needle exchange programs throughout the state. Gov. Mike Pence (R) says he will sign SEA 461.

International

Canada Supreme Court to Take Up Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentencing. The Supreme Court announced today that it will hear an appeal of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses in the case of R v. Lloyd. Lloyd was arrested carrying small amounts of heroin, crack, and meth, and was subject to a one-year mandatory minimum sentence, but the Provincial Court found that sentence to be cruel and unusual. The BC Court of Appeal overturned the Provincial Court and increased his sentence. Now, the Supreme Court will decide if the sentence violates Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Jamaica is About to Decriminalize Ganja

This article was published in collaboration with AlterNet.

The island nation most closely associated with marijuana is about to decriminalize it. The Jamaican cabinet Monday approved a bill that would do just that, as well as allow for the creation of medical marijuana and hemp industries.

Rastaman has a reason to smile. (wikimedia.org)
The bill, the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act of 2015, goes to the Senate tomorrow and will be debated there next Friday.

It would decriminalize the possession of up to two ounces of ganja; allow its use for religious, medical, scientific, and therapeutic purposes; prohibit smoking it in public places; and provide for the granting of licenses for the development of a legal hemp and medical marijuana industry.

While Jamaica is home to the Rastafarian religion, whose sacrament is marijuana, and has high usage rates (9.8% of the adult population, ranking it 10th worldwide, according to the UN), it has been slow to move forward on marijuana law reform.

It's been 14 years since a government-appointed National Commission on Ganja recommended decriminalization. At the time, Jamaican politicians were able to point to baleful threats coming from Washington as a reason not to move forward.

But things have changed. The United States is no longer wielding international drug control treaties as clubs with which to beat down reform efforts and, in fact, is moving unevenly toward marijuana legalization itself. Four states and the District of Columbia have already legalized it, and 14 more have decriminalized it.

The situation in the hemisphere is similar. Uruguay has already legalized it, while Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico have decriminalized the possession of small amounts. The land of the legendary Lamb's Bread pot strain and the home of ganja icon Bob Marley is in danger of being left behind when it comes to bringing marijuana laws into the 21st Century.

Groups such as the Ganja Law Reform Coalition, the Ganja Future Growers and Producers Association, and the Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Task Force have been urging the government to loosen the island's pot laws not only for the sake of social justice, but also for fear that failure to act will hurt Jamaica's competitiveness in what is foreseen to be an emerging international legal marijuana market.

Now, while they're not getting full legalization, they are getting decriminalization and the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a legal marijuana industry.

"The development is long overdue and comes after years, and, in recent times, heavy pressure from what is now a diverse and broadening group of stakeholders on human rights, social, economic, scientific and medical grounds," cannabis taskforce director Delano Seiveright said in a statement.

For Justice Minister Michael Golding, it's less about social justice than economics. Marijuana law reform could boost the island's already significant tourist industry, he said.

"We need to position ourselves to take advantage of the significant economic opportunities offered by this emerging industry," Golding said.

Kingston
Jamaica

Chronicle AM: Decrim in Jamaica/MD/Philly, Chris Christie Talks Drugs, PA ODs Bill, More (10/1/14)

Decrim comes to Maryland and Philadelphia, and Jamaica is working on it, too; the Oregon initiative campaign heats up, Chris Christie talks drugs, a SWAT reporting bill in Michigan gets a hearing, and more. Let's get to it:

Rastas down Jamaica way will soon have something to smile about. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Legalization Campaign Unveils First TV Ad. The Measure 91 legalization initiative campaign has unveiled the first of its TV spot ads, featuring a former veteran Oregon law enforcement officer explaining why he supports legalization. The campaign has about $2 million budgeted for TV ads in the final weeks of the campaign. Click on the title link to view the ad.

Leading Legalization Foe to Make Oregon Campaign Appearances. The man who is arguably the leading public opponent of marijuana legalization, Dr. Kevin Sabet of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana), will make seven appearances in Oregon this week to campaign against the Measure 91 legalization initiative. He had planned a 13-stop "Oregon Marijuana Education Tour" partly funded with federal grant dollars, but that was scrapped after the Measure 91 campaign cried foul. Now, Sabet's crusade is privately funded.

Philadelphia Mayor Signs Decriminalization Bill. Mayor Michael Nutter (D) today signed into law a bill that decriminalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Up to an ounce will be considered a civil offense, punishable by a $25 fine or a $100 fine for public consumption. The new law will go into effect October 20.

Decriminalization Now in Effect in Maryland. As of today, the possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana is no longer a crime, but a civil infraction punishable by a fine of up to $100. The move comes after the legislature earlier this year passed and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) signed into law SB 364. Now, 17 states and the District of Columbia have decriminalized small-time pot possession.

Louisiana Poll Shows Little Support for Harsh Marijuana Sentences. A new Public Policy Polling survey released by the ACLU of Louisiana found that 78% opposed sentences of longer than six months for pot possession, 71% opposed life sentences for felons caught with marijuana, and 68% support medical marijuana. Louisiana has some of the nation's harshest marijuana laws, including a sentence of up to life in prison for marijuana possession by a felon and a prison sentence of up to 20 years for repeat pot possession offenders. Simple possession first offense is punishable by up to six months in jail, but 60% of respondents said it should be decriminalized. Click on the poll link for demographics and methodologies.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Lawmakers to Hear High CBD Cannabis Oil Testimony Today. A legislative panel is meeting today in Lawrenceville to hear testimony from law enforcement, health care professionals, and others about medical marijuana extracts and cannabis oils. This could lay the groundwork for new legislation to be filed next year.

New Mexico Credit Unions Will Close Medical Marijuana Producer Accounts. Some credit unions have sent letters to nearly half the state's licensed medical marijuana producers saying they no longer accept their business and are closing their accounts. The credit unions said they could not comply with federal guidelines. Medical marijuana supporters are demanding to know why.

Drug Policy

Chris Christie Talks Drug Treatment, Ending Mandatory Minimums. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a possible 2016 GOP presidential contender, called Tuesday for making drug and alcohol treatment "more available for everybody" and criticized mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. "With 23 million folks addicted, it's not working," Christie said of the war on drugs. "There's gotta be a separation between the criminal act [of using illegal drugs] and the disease." Click on the link for more details.

Harm Reduction

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Overdose Prevention Bill. Gov. Tom Corbett (R) Tuesday signed into law SB 1164, which has two harm reduction measures aimed at reducing drug overdoses. The bill creates a "Good Samaritan" immunity from prosecution for people helping overdose victims and it makes the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) more available to police and the public. The new law will go into effect on October 20.

Law Enforcement

Michigan House Committee Hears Testimony on SWAT Reporting Bill. The state House Criminal Justice Committee is hearing testimony today on a bill that would require SWAT teams in the state to report on their activities. The SWAT Team Reporting ACT, HB 4914, would require agencies with SWAT teams to n the number, location, reason, authorization and outcome of all deployments, and to file reports with the Attorney General's office twice a year.

International

Jamaica on the Way to Marijuana Decriminalization. Justice Minister Mark Golding said today that a bill to decriminalize marijuana has been drafted and should be passed into law before the end of the year. The bill would make possession of up to two ounces a petty offense and would also allow decriminalization for religious purposes, allowing the island nation's Rastafarians to smoke "Jah herb" without fear of arrest.

Chronicle AM: Scary Alaska Marijuana Poll, Maryland SWAT Raids, West Africa Drug Meeting (8/20/14)

An unsettling poll in Alaska, Minnesota medical marijuana mom gets busted, there's money to be made in drug testing, Maryland SWAT teams have been busy, a West African meeting on drugs is underway, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Alaska Legalization Initiative Trails in Poll. The people trying to legalize marijuana in Alaska are in for a tough battle, if the most recent Public Policy Polling survey is any indicator. That poll, taken at the end of July and the beginning of this month, has the marijuana legalization initiative trailing, 44% to 49%. That's a reversal from PPP's last poll on the topic in May, which had the initiative leading by a margin of 48% to 45%. Neither set of numbers is likely to lead to smiling faces at the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Alaska, the group behind Measure 2.

Washington Attorney General Files Brief in I-502 Lawsuit. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has filed a brief in a lawsuit filed by would-be marijuana business operators seeking to overturn local bans on such businesses. The brief argues that nothing in the state's voter-approved marijuana legalization law overrides the authority of local governments to regulate businesses, including marijuana businesses. In other words, the attorney general is supporting the localities against the marijuana business people.

Stoner Arrested for Growing Pot. Sorry, we couldn't resist (and it's a slow news day). Charlottesville, Virginia, resident Paul Stoner has been arrested by the Blue Ridge Narcotics and Gang Task Force for allegedly growing $10,000 worth of marijuana. He is charged with manufacturing marijuana and possessing a handgun while in possession of more than a pound of pot.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Mom Busted for Giving Son Cannabis Oil Too Soon. Although the state this year passed a law allowing for the use of some forms of medical marijuana, it doesn't go into effect until next July. That's too long to wait for Angela Brown, who traveled to Colorado to obtain cannabis oil for her 15-year-old son. Now she is facing two criminal misdemeanors, including child endangerment. The family says it is now considering moving to Colorado so the boy can get his medicine without his mom facing prosecution.

Drug Testing

Big Bucks to Be Made in the Drug Testing Industry, Report Says. The drug testing industry racked up $2.8 billion in sales last year and is expected to continue to grow, according to a new report from industry watcher Kalorama Information. The report, Drugs of Abuse Testing Markets, says the market is expected to crack the $3 billion mark next year. "Continued demand for testing in the workplace in sports and in government and demand for fast reliable new tests and technologies will be the catalyst for sustained growth" said Bruce Carlson, publisher of Kalorama Information."New drugs are also a factor."

Law Enforcement

More Than 6,500 SWAT Raids in Maryland Since 2010. According to data from the Maryland Statistical Analysis Center, which is required to be reported under a state law passed in the wake of the infamous Prince Georges County SWAT raid that killed the dogs of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, SWAT teams in the state have been deployed more than 6,500 times in the past four fiscal years. That's 4.5 SWAT raids per day. Prince Georges County (suburban DC) carried out by far the most raids, accounting for 31% of all state SWAT raids. About 90% of SWAT deployments were to execute search warrants, but less than half of those warrants were for violent crimes. The available data doesn't separate out drug offenses.

International

Kofi Annan, Olusegun Obasanjo Meet With Ghanaian President on Drug Policy. The chairman of the West African Commission on Drugs, Olusegun Obasanjo, and its most prominent member, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are meeting today with Ghanaian President John Mahama to discuss regional approaches to the illicit drug trade in the region. The commission earlier this summer called the drug trade a threat to West African institutions, public health, and development and urged regional governments to reform their drugs laws, including by decriminalizing drug possession.

Drug War Issues

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