Drug War Chronicle

comprehensive coverage of the War on Drugs since 1997

WATCH: Mexico Cartel's Killer Clowns

Move over, Joker. Step aside, Pennywise. Get back behind the curtain, Giuliani. There's some real-life killer clowns patrolling the streets down Mexico way, and they've got video to prove it.

According to local media reports from Tamaulipas state, just across the Rio Grande River from Brownsville and Harlingen, Texas, soldiers for a major drug trafficking organization, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), and their local affiliate, Los Metros, posted a series of bragging videos in recent weeks.

Unlike too many other Mexican cartel videos that depict horrendous violence, torture, and murder (usually inflicted on rival gang members, cops, or common criminals), these videos show no savage bloodletting. But this video of cartel members wearing clown masks, waving around weapons, and generally having a good time is still downright creepy and disturbing.

See for yourself:

Clown masks notwithstanding, these guys are no laughing matter. In recent years, the CJNGC has emerged as a major player among Mexico's drug cartels and is now the leading challenger to the remnants of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel. Under the leadership of Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera Cervantes, the CJNG is responsible for sending tons of cocaine, meth, and fentanyl-laced heroin to the U.S. and, according to the Justice Department, accounts for one-third of all illicit drugs being imported to the U.S.

As InSight Crime has noted, the CJNG emerged out of bloody intra-cartel battles for control of the lucrative drug trade "and has been associated with the use of extreme violence." Under the rubric of Matazetas (Kill Zetas), it moved into Zetas territory in the northeast of Mexico, claiming responsible for the massacre of 35 people in Veracruz in 2011.

In 2015, the CJNG raised its profile with a spectacular attack on police in Jalisco, killing 15 officers. The following month,, it shot down a Mexican military helicopter, leaving five soldiers dead. Since then, the JNGC has continued on its bloody path to power and wealth, now operating in at least 22 Mexican states, with assets valued at around $20 billion.

The vast bulk of that money is coming from American drug buyers who, under a prohibition regime, are directly financing the JNGC and all the other groups involved in Mexico's delinquencia organizada. In that sense, the cartels are less killer clowns than the Frankenstein's monster of drug prohibition.

Does This State Have the Worst Drug Polices in America? [FEATURE]

With endless miles of farmland shading into ever higher and drier terrain as one moves west, crossing the Missouri River and then on to the Badlands and the Black Hills, South Dakota has a certain austere beauty. Not so in its approach to drugs. When it comes to drug policy, it is one of the ugliest places in the country.

South Dakota's Badlands. The state is a pretty bad land for drug users, too. (Creative Commons)
The staunchly conservative state holds the dubious distinction of being the only state to twice defeat a medical marijuana initiative (although activists are giving it another shot this year, and a more wishful legalization initiative, too). And it is being sued by the state ACLU over the forced drug testing of toddlers and arrestees alike.

South Dakota also boasts the nation’s only law making ingestion—not possession—of a controlled substance a felony, which helps explains the reflex resort to drug testing arrestees: A positive drug test becomes a prosecutable offense. While 10 other states have ingestion laws on the books, none of them makes it a felony.

And now, a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative finds that “South Dakota jails more people per capita than any other state,” that almost “half of all arrests are drug or alcohol related, compared to just 29 percent nationally,” and that people of color—in this case, primarily Native Americans—are disproportionately arrested at a rate far above the national average.

According to the report, South Dakota jailed 2,888 people per 100,000, nearly twice the national average of 1,506, and narrowly edging out Mississippi, which had 2,814 per 100,000. (Other states that jailed more than one out of 50 of their residents were Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.)

But jail is just the gateway to the incarceration complex, and when it comes to long-term stays behind bars, South Dakota displays the same sort of worrying numbers. According to the ACLU of South Dakota, the state’s prison population has increased more than five-fold since 1980, a decade after the drug war began. And despite 2013 reforms designed to reduce the prison population, it stubbornly stays near an all-time high reached in 2017.

In fact, new prison admissions spiked upward by 49 percent between 2015 and 2018. These numbers are largely attributable to drug prosecutions, with nearly one in three prisoners doing time for drugs in 2019, up from one in four in 2014.

As the ACLU noted, “This increase was driven almost entirely by a rise in the number of people whose most serious offense was unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance.”

That’s right—South Dakota is spending millions of dollars to incarcerate people not for drug dealing, not for drug possession, but for having used drugs and still having traces of them in their system.

And it’s doing so in an alarmingly racially disproportionate manner. Native Americans make up only 7 percent of the state’s population but constitute nearly one-third (31 percent) of the state prison population. Similarly, the state has a tiny African American population (2 percent), but black South Dakotans made up 8 percent of the prison population. The imprisonment rate for both African Americans and Native Americans was seven times that of the state’s overwhelmingly white population. For the state’s Latino population, the imprisonment rate was twice that of whites.

In a press release last month, the state ACLU reported that it’s just as bad in the state’s jails, with Native Americans making up roughly half of all jail admissions and accounting for the majority of all drug- and alcohol-related arrests in the state. The group noted that “Native Americans between ages 15 and 64 are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of white people in South Dakota.”

“It’s time to come to terms with the significant racial disparities that are so ingrained in our criminal legal system,” said Libby Skarin, ACLU of South Dakota policy director. “This is not something that can be mitigated by solely reducing the number of arrests in South Dakota. Our elected officials need to acknowledge the realities of these racial disparities and commit to tackling them head-on.”

State leaders grasp that there is a problem here. The state legislature has set up an interim study group to examine the state’s approach to drug offenses, which met for the first time in August. The group includes legislators, law enforcement, court administrators, the South Dakota attorney general and the secretary of the Department of Corrections, but not public health officials or actual drug users.

The panel heard even more disturbing numbers about drug prosecutions. There were 2,104 people convicted of drug possession statewide so far this year, a more than four-fold increase from 2009, even though drug use levels have remained relatively stable over that period. That is leading panel members to wonder about the role of local prosecutors in generating such large increases in prosecutions.

“Though drug use is undoubtedly a serious issue, we can’t incarcerate our way out of addiction,” said the ACLU’s Skarin. “The enormous amount of money South Dakota spends on jailing people for drug-related offenses is disproportionate and causes more harm than good to individuals struggling with addiction, their families and their communities.”

It is for this reason that the ACLU says it is supporting initiatives such as “reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor.”

Skarin explained, “Reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor and investing the resulting savings of state funds in diversion and treatment programs designed to combat addiction would go a long way in helping to solve the underlying problems leading to drug abuse.”

Pennington County (Rapid City) public defender Eric Whitcher is on the same page as the state ACLU. He told the interim panel that 73 of his last 100 drug possession cases involved only trace or immeasurable amounts of drugs and that if such cases were not charged as felonies, his office could operate with significantly fewer felony prosecutors.

“We are an outlier,” said Whitcher, speaking about South Dakota. “We are creating more felonies for the same conduct than our neighboring states. What impact does that have on their lives?”

Dropping ingestion from a felony to a misdemeanor would be a step in the right direction, but it’s an awfully small step. South Dakota has a long, long way to go to get on the right side of drug policy, and no natural beauty can hide that.

Chronicle AM: Pot Vaping Bans, DEA Shrugs Shoulders at Pain Patient Complaints, More.... (10/15/19)

The vaping crisis has impelled two more states to restrict marijuana vaping products, Mexican cartel gunmen kill 14 police in a bloody ambush, and more.

Hydrocodone. Pain patients are complaining over DEA cuts to opioid production quotas, but DEA is sanguine. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Regulators Prepare Ban on Certain Additives in Marijuana Vape Products. The state's Marijuana Enforcement Division has proposed final rules on vaping products that will ban a set of additives for those products. The move comes amidst the emergence of a mysterious lung disease linked to e-cigs and marijuana vape pens. The proposed prohibitions in ingredients used in marijuana concentrates or products intended for inhalation include: Polyethylene glycol (PEG); Vitamin E Acetate; and Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT Oil)—all of which are used to thin THC oil so it can be atomized or vaporized.

Oregon Bans Flavored Marijuana Vaping Products for Six Months. Oregon has now imposed a six month ban on flavored marijuana vaping products, becoming the third state to impose a form of ban on such products since the vaping crisis unfolded. Gov. Kate Brown (D) had issued an executive order on October 4 banning the sale of all flavored vaping products; state officials filed rules last Friday putting the order into effect. The move comes after nine people fell ill in the state, with five of them having bought marijuana products in licensed stores.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

DEA Swats Away Pain Patient Complaints About Reduced Opioid Production Levels. Hundreds of chronic pain patients have implored the DEA to reconsider its proposed cuts to opioid production, which would reduce production quotas for popular opioids for the fourth year in a row, but the agency is just shrugging its shoulders. The cuts should have no impact on decisions made by doctors and "legitimate pain patients," the DEA said. "The agency does not regulate the practice of medicine. We do not get between a doctor and his or her patient," a DEA spokesperson said. "We also want legitimate pain patients, their families and caregivers to know that DEA does not seek to limit or take away their vital prescriptions."

International

Mexican Cartel Gunmen Ambush Police, Killing More than a Dozen. Gunmen of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) ambushed a police convoy in the western state of Michoacan on Monday, killing 14 police officers in one of the bloodiest attacks on security forces since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office. Photos from the scene showed burning police videos, the bodies of slain officers, and placards signed "CJNG" warning police not to support rival crime groups, such as Los Viagras.

Chronicle AM: Scottish Political Party Calls for Drug Decriminalization, Cannabis Cafes in Alaska, More... (10/14/19)

California will see a batch of new marijuana-related laws, Scotland's largest political party calls for drug decriminalization, and more. 

Amsterdam cannabis cafe. Could we see something like this in Anchorage? Stay tuned. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Governor Signs Marijuana Tax Fairness Bill but Vetoes Cannabis in Hospitals. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has signed into law a number of marijuana-related bills, including one—AB 37—thatwill let state-legal businesses use more tax deductions, but he vetoed a bill that would have allowed patients to use medical marijuana in hospitals and other health care facilities.

Anchorage, Alaska, to Vote on Allowing Cannabis Cafes. The Anchorage Assembly voted last week to let voters decide whether the city should allow people to smoke pot in retail locations around town. The question will be on the April 7, 2020, municipal ballot.

International

Philippines National Police Chief Resigns Amidst Drug Scandal. Gen. Oscar Albayalde, chief of the Philippines National Police, has stepped down amidst allegations that he intervened as a provincial police chief to prevent his officers from being prosecuted for allegedly selling a huge quantity of seized drugs. The National Police have led enforcement of the Philippines' bloody drug war.

Scottish National Party Formally Endorses Drug Decriminalization. Scotland's largest political party has formally endorsed the "decriminalization of possession and consumption of controlled drugs" and called on the British government to allow Scotland to make drug policy decisions for itself. The move came at the party's annual convention; the resolution passed unanimously.

Chronicle AM: Study Finds No Long Term Crime Increase Post-Legalization, CA Approves Medical MJ in Schools, More... (10/11/19)

A new study deflates one of the leading worries of marijuana legalization foes, the state of Texas abruptly quit taking medical marijuana dispensary applications, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Study Finds No Significant Change in Post-Legalization Crime Rates. A new study published by Justice Quarterly suggests that recreational marijuana legalization did not have a statistically significant impact on violent and property crime rates in Colorado and Washington. Researchers from Washington and Colorado compared pre- and post- legalization crime rates in those two states with the crime rates in 21 states "that have not legalized marijuana use for recreational or medical purposes on a large scale." They found that there was an immediate increase in property crime rates in both states, and aggravated assault rates in Washington, but those changes did not persist.

Medical Marijuana

California Governor Signs Bill Allowing Medical Marijuana at School. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has signed into law a bill that will allow parents in some school districts to bring medical marijuana to school for their children who are medical marijuana patients. The bill only allows the in-school use of non-smokeable and non-vapable forms of marijuana. Former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a similar bill last year.

Texas Abruptly Halts Permitting Process for New Medical Marijuana Dispensaries. Only a week after opening the application process for medical marijuana dispensaries, the state Department of Public Safety has suddenly suspended it. "The Department's Compassionate Use Program is not accepting applications at this time," it says on the department web site. The sudden announcement comes nearly a month after the state said it would keep the application process open for a month, from Oct. 1 through Nov. 1. The department did not explain why it stopped accepting applications.

Chronicle AM: New Federal Opioid Tapering Guidelines Urge Docs to Go Slow, More... (10/10/19)

HHS comes out with new guidelines for physicians on tapering patients off opioids, marijuana social equity advocates keep the pressure on Congress, Tulsi Gabbard calls for decriminalization of drug use, and more.

Marijuana social equity organizations are keeping the pressure on Congress to not stop with merely a banking bill. (CC)
Marijuana Policy

. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, representing more than 200 organizations, sent a letter to lawmakers Tuesday calling on lawmakers to cosponsor a bill that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. That bill is the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3884), filed by Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). The letter comes as the Leadership Conference says earlier passage of a marijuana banking bill wasn't enough. That bill was "an incremental step toward rolling back the federal war on marijuana," but that "it lacks provisions to help communities that have been historically and disproportionately devastated by United States' punitive drug laws," the letter said.

California Awards Cities $10 in Social Equity Marijuana Grants. The state Bureau of Cannabis Control has awarded $10 million to 10 cities to help build social equity programs. The two biggest recipients are Los Angeles and Oakland, which will split $3.5 million.

Drug Policy

Tulsi Gabbard Suggests Decriminalizing Drugs Like Cocaine and Heroin. Democratic presidential contender Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) suggested in an interview Tuesday that she would support the legalization of drugs such as cocaine and heroin. When asked whether sales of such substances should be illegal, she said removing criminal penalties for users is "the direction that we need to take while still criminalizing those who are traffickers and dealers of these drugs."

Sentencing Policy

California Governor Signs Sentencing Reform Bill. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has signed into law the RISE Act (SB 136), which removes a sentencing enhancement that added an extra year to an individual's base sentence for each of their prior prison or felony jail terms.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

New Federal Guidelines on Tapering Tell Doctors to Go Slow. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued new guidelines for doctors on how, when, and whether to taper opioid-using patients off the drugs. The main thrust of the new guidelines is that doctors should be slow, cautious, and deliberate in reducing dosages and that they should consult with patients about how they are tolerating the process. The guidelines come after years of reaction to the prescription opioid crisis that resulted in a severe tightening of access to opioid pain medication. Many chronic pain patients and others have complained that they can no longer receive sufficient opioids for their medical needs.

International

Panama Lawmakers Debate Legalizing Medical Marijuana. Two years into a legislative effort to legalize medical marijuana, the congressional Commission on Work, Health, and Social Development took up the measure Wednesday. It still faces several legislative hurdles before becoming law. If it does, it would become the first Central American country to do so.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. 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.)

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A Georgia narc gets in trouble for his sticky fingers, a Philadelphia narc uses a confiscated Porsche for his stepdaughter's prom pictures, and more. Let's get to it:

In Lawrenceville, Georgia, a former Gwinnett County deputy was arrested last Wednesday for allegedly using his position on a federal narcotics task force to steal cocaine and methamphetamine. Antoine Riggins faces federal charges of stealing cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as multiple counts of making false statements to cover up his thefts. Riggins was assigned to transport seized drugs to the evidence vault but would repeatedly take some for himself.

In Philadelphia, a Philadelphia police narcotics officer was arrested last Thursday for using a 2018 Porsche he confiscated during a drug investigation to drive his stepdaughter to take photos for her school prom. James Coolen Jr., 45, is charged with unauthorized use of an automobile and misapplication of entrusted property, both second-class misdemeanors. He resigned from the department last Wednesday to avoid being fired.

In Senath, Missouri, a Senath police officer was arrested last Friday after a traffic stop turned up meth, drug paraphernalia, and a bunch of guns. Officer Freddie Williams, 38, faces one count of class C felony possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute and nine counts of class E felony unlawful use of a weapon. Williams is also the former police chief in Cardwell, Missouri.

In Springville, Alabama, a St. Clair Correctional Facility guard was arrested Tuesday after a work vehicle search found 138 grams of methamphetamine and 16 grams of heroin in his car as he came to work. Ivan Caldwell, 26, is charged with two counts of trafficking in controlled substances, promoting prison contraband, and violation of license to carry a pistol. He has resigned as a correctional officer.  

Chronicle AM: UN Criticizes US Afghan Drug Lab Airstrikes, SD Moving on Hemp, More... (10/9/19)

Two UN agencies report that US airstrikes on Afghan drug labs were illegal and killed civilians, a Michigan roadside drug testing pilot program has now gone statewide, and more.

A Michigan pilot roadside drug testing program has now gone statewide. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Roadside Drug Testing Program Now Statewide. A pilot program to test drivers for a range of illicit drugs has now gone statewide, the Michigan State Police have announced. The program had been underway in five counties for the past year. It uses check swab tests to detect the presence of amphetamines, benzodiazepines, cannabis (delta 9 THC), cocaine, methamphetamines and opiates. During that first year, police arrested 89 people for impaired driving based on the test, most of them for marijuana.

Hemp

South Dakota Lawmakers Move to Legalize Hemp Over Governor's Objection. A legislative Hemp Study Committee met Monday to begin writing a bill to legalize hemp next year over the objections of Gov. Kristi Noem (R). The legislature passed a hemp bill last year, only to have Noem veto it, citing difficulties for law enforcement and fears it was a stalking horse for marijuana legalization. One issue for legislators now is whether to include CBD in hemp legalization.

Foreign Policy

UN Says US Airstrikes on Afghan Drug Labs Unlawful, Killed Civilians. A United Nations report Wednesday found that US airstrikes on Afghan drug labs killed or wounded at least 39 civilians, violating international humanitarian law since the victims were non-combatants. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the UN Human Rights Office jointly issued the report. "UNAMA has assessed that the personnel working inside the drug production facilities were not performing combat functions," the report said. "They were therefore entitled to protection from attack, and could only have lost this protection if, and for such time, as they had been directly participating in hostilities."

Chronicle AM: Mexico MJ Legalization Vote This Month, MA Governor Pushes High Driving Bill, More... (10/8/19)

Mexico is moving rapidly toward marijuana legalization, Scotland's largest political party is set to embrace drug decriminalization, and more.

Mexico's congress is set to vote on a marijuana legalization bill this month. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Governor, Cops Push High Driving Bill. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) on Monday pushed for passage of his administration's impaired driving bill. Introduced earlier this year, the bill aims to make it easier for law enforcement to crack down on people driving under the influence of marijuana. The bill would allow police to seek electronic search warrants and punish drivers who refuse drug tests. It would also bar open or loose pot packages in vehicles. Law enforcement officials who appeared with Baker also supported the bill.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania ACLU Sues County for Prohibiting Probationers from Using Medical Marijuana. The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed a lawsuit against Lebanon County's policy prohibiting people who are on probation and who are registered medical marijuana patients from using their medication. The action will take the form of a class action lawsuit involving more than 60 people in the county who are on some form of community supervision and are medical marijuana patients. Although medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 2016, a Lebanon County judge ruled that medical marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, and county officials used that rationale to institute the policy. "The plain language in the medical marijuana law shows that the legislature intended to protect all patients, including those on probation," said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Judges may not agree with the Medical Marijuana Act or may not support people using marijuana for any reason, but they must follow the law."

International

Mexico Senate Leader Says Lawmakers Will Vote on Marijuana Legalization by Month's End. Sen. Ricardo Monreal, Senate leader of the ruling MORENA Party, said Monday that the Senate is just about done crafting a marijuana legalization bill after weeks of public forums and open-session debates and that a vote would come soon. "We're thinking that we'll bring the law out, approve it, at the end of October," Monreal said. "That's the schedule we have."

Scottish National Party Set to Back Drug Decriminalization. Scotland's largest political party, the Scottish National Party (SNP) is set to adopt a platform plank calling for drug decriminalization. The move to support relaxing laws against possession and consumption of drugs is expected to be passed at the party's annual conference in Aberdeen this weekend. The move comes as the country grapples with an overdose death crisis.

Chronicle AM: NV Gets First Pot Lounge, British Police Force to Provide Free Heroin to Hardcore Addicts, More... (10/7/19)

Nevada sees its first "cannabis tasting room," a New York poll finds continuing support for marijuana legalization amidst the vaping scare, British drug policy upheavals, and more.

Diacetylmorphine (prescription heroin) will be provided to hardcore addicts in a British pilot program. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Nevada's First Marijuana Lounge is Now Open. The state's first marijuana tasting room opened this weekend in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Pauite Tribe is operating the NuWu Cannabis Marketplace on tribal land, which gives it a leg up on potential competitors. Under a state law signed in June, local governments are barred from licensing marijuana consumption lounges until 2021, but tribal lands are not subject to the law.

New York Sienna Poll Has Continuing Support for Legalization, Even as Vaping Fears Grow. A new Sienna poll has support for marijuana legalization in the Empire State at 56%, even as nearly as many respondents (52%) support banning all e-cigarettes and vaping devices from sale. An even higher number, 61%, support Gov. Andrew Cuomo's emergency executive order banning the sale of flavored e-cigarettes. Half, 52 percent, have used marijuana and 21 percent currently do.

Medical Marijuana

Missouri Patients Won't Lose Welfare Over Medical Marijuana Use. After patients complained that their medical marijuana use put them at odds with a state law that requires welfare recipients to be screened for drug use, the state has revamped its policy. Department of Social Services spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said that the agency now exempts recipients with medical marijuana cards.

International

British Drug Advisory Panel Member Quits, Cites Political Interference. Professor Alex Stevens, a senior member of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD), has resigned over the alleged "political vetting" of panel members by the government. The move comes after then crime minister Victoria Atkins blocked the appointment of Niamh Eastwood, the executive director of the drug policy nonprofit Release, after finding that she had previously criticized the Home Office and called for drug policy reform. Stevens said there was at least one other case of people being denied a place on the ACMD because of criticizing government drug policy. "I have resigned because of my concerns over the political vetting of potential members of the ACMD," Stevens said. "The political vetting fundamentally undermines the independence of the council," Stevens added. "It is supposed to be protected by the working protocol between the home secretary and the ACMD. This does not seem compatible if ministers exclude those who disagree with them."

British Government Replaces Minister Responsible for Drug Policy. Victoria Atkins, who had been responsible for drug policy for the Conservative Party, was quietly replaced in that position over the summer. She was replaced as minister of state for policing, crime, and fire services by Kit Malthouse, but it had been believed Atkins kept the drug portfolio. But on Monday, Malthouse's office confirmed he was now responsible for drug policy. He has recently been speaking for the government on drug policy issues and laying out a hard line against opening safe injection sites.

British Police Force to Begin Giving Free Heroin to Select Addicts. The police force in Cleveland, North Wales, will begin a program to provide free heroin to a small group of hardcore addicts. They will be provided with injectable pharmaceutical grade heroin at a National Health Service clinic three times a day. The idea is to reduce crimes committed by people seeking money to pay for their medications. Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner Barry Coppinger said the program would be available for heroin users "for whom all other treatment has failed and who are known to be the most active criminals in the town as they look to finance their addiction."

Chronicle AM: Feds Allow States to Drug Test for Unemployment, FL Marijuana Initiative, More... (10/4/19)

The Trump administration allows states to demand drug tests for laid off workers seeking unemployment benefits, a Florida marijuana legalization initiative's signature gathering campaign is off to a fast start, and more.

Coca production is spiking along the Peru-Bolivia border. (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Legalization Initiative Already Has 100,000 Signatures. Make It Legal Florida, the group behind one of two state marijuana legalization initiatives, is fast out of the gate. The group reported that it has gathered 100,000 raw signatures in the first 20 days of signature gathering. According to state law, a petition must undergo a Florida Supreme Court review before it can even be considered, and that can be done only after 76,632 valid voter signatures have been collected. To actually qualify for the 2020 ballot, the group will need 766,000 valid voter signatures by February.

Drug Testing

Trump Administration Okays Rule Allowing States to Demand Drug Tests for Unemployment Benefits. The Department of Labor published a new rule Friday that will allow states to force more laid off workers to submit drug tests in order to receive benefits. The move reverses Obama administration policies, and allows states to demand drug tests from laid off workers who work for companies that normally require job applicants to pass drug tests.

California Governor Vetoes Bill to Expand Drug Testing in Fatal Traffic Accidents. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has vetoed Assembly Bill 551, which would have required drug tests to be performed after every fatal accident in the state. State law already requires mandatory testing for alcohol. The bill had passed unanimously in both houses, but Newsom said that county coroners already had the authority to conduct drug testing.

International

Coca Crops Surge Amid Security Vacuum on Peru-Bolivia Border. Coca planting is spiking near a national park on the Bolivia-Peru border, with nearly 25,000 acres of plantings reported this year, a fourfold increase from 2017. The local coca boom is causing a dramatic population increase in the area, which suffers from disintegrating security and a shift in cocaine smuggling from Bolivia from airplanes to moving drugs by land.

Chronicle AM: Philly Safe Injection Site Wins Legal Victory, Pot Companies Call for Descheduling, More... (10/3/19)

A federal judge hands a preliminary legal victory to proponents of a Philadelphia safe injection site, hundreds of marijuana industry figures call on Congress to deschedule marijuana as a means of grappling with the vaping crisis, and more.

At the InSite safe injection site in Vancouver. Could a similar facility be coming to Philadelphia? (vch.ca)
Marijuana Policy

Hundreds of Marijuana Companies Sign Letter Calling for Descheduling to Prevent Vaping Injuries. Some 800 marijuana industry executives have signed onto a letter to Congress calling on that body to deschedule marijuana as a means of reducing the risks of vaping black market marijuana products. The letter was delivered to Congress Thursday.

Massachusetts Sued Over Marijuana Vaping, E-Cig Ban. The Vapor Technology Association, a national vaping industry trade organization, has filed suit in federal court seeking to block the state's recently instituted four-month ban on sales of marijuana vapes as well as e-cigarettes. Massachusetts last month became the first state to ban the sale of marijuana and tobacco vaping products.

Drug Policy

Majority of Americans Support Decriminalizing All Drugs, Poll Finds. A new poll from the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute finds a majority support decriminalizing all drugs. The poll of 1,700 adults found that 55% would rather treat drug offenses as infractions than as criminal offenses, with 44% opposed. Among Democrats, 69% favored decriminalization; among independents, 54%; among Republicans only 40%.

Harm Reduction

Federal Judge Rules Proposed Philadelphia Safe Injection Site Doesn't Violate Federal Law. US District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled Wednesday that a nonprofit group's plan to open a safe injection site in Philadelphia does not violate federal law. The judge ruled that the "crack house" provision of the Controlled Substances Act does not apply to the group's bid to assist opioid users. "No credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress" when that body wrote the law in 1986 or amended it in 2003, McHugh wrote. "I cannot conclude that Safehouse [the safe injection site] has, as a significant purpose, the objective of facilitating drug use. Safehouse plans to make a place available for the purposes of reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment and connecting participants with social services."

Chronicle AM: Nation's First Cannabis Cafe Opens Doors, Dutch Supreme Court Rules Against Ayahuasca, More... (10/2/19)

Los Angeles sees the nation's first legal cannabis cafe, the Arizona legalization initiative draws industry opposition, the Justice Department says DEA didn't adequately regulate opioid manufacturing, and more.

Ayahuasca-inspired art. The Dutch Supreme Court has ruled the substance illegal. (Pinterest)
Marijuana Policy

Senators Introduce Federal Student Financial Aid Bill. US Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced new bipartisan legislation Tuesday they say would allow students with a felony drug conviction access to the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education. The Eliminating Discrimination and Creating Corridors to Expand Student Success Act of 2019 (ED ACCESS Act) would fix this inequity by repealing the lifetime ban. The measure does not yet have a bill number.

Arizona Legalization Initiative Campaign Draws Industry Opponents. A new marijuana industry group has formed to fight the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, which itself is backed by other industry groups. The new group calls itself the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce and has its own ideas about what legalization should look like. The group complains that the initiative is tailored to the needs of existing dispensary owners, that there wouldn't be enough licenses available, and that the proposed 16% sales tax rate is too high.

Pennsylvania Bill Filed to Legalize via State-Run Model. State Rep. David Delloso (D) on Monday filed a bill that would legalize marijuana and allow adults 21 and older to possess, consume, cultivate and purchase marijuana through a state stores system run by the Liquor Control Board. Retail pot shops would be taxed at 19%, and all of that revenue would go toward the state general fund. The bill would also create a distinct regulatory scheme for industrial hemp. The bill is not yet available on the state legislative web site.

Tennessee Steps Back from Marijuana Enforcement. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has announced that it will no longer test amounts of marijuana less than a half ounce, making it virtually impossible for prosecutors to build a case against small-time possessors.

Nation's First Cannabis Café Opens in Los Angeles. The first-ever licensed cannabis café in the US has opened in Los Angeles. The Lowell Café opened its doors to the public in West Hollywood on Tuesday. The café is a hybrid marijuana lounge and restaurant where you can order some weed along with your meal.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Justice Department Says DEA Failed to Properly Regulate Opioids. In a new report from the agency's inspector general, the Justice Department found that the DEA fell short in regulating the supply of prescription opioids in the past two decades. The agency continued to raise manufacturing quotas for opioids with little regard to oversupply or misuse, the report found. The DEA "ill-equipped to effectively monitor ordering patterns for all pharmaceutical opioids, which could enable the diversion of these prescription drugs and compromise public safety." Although alarm bells were already ringing by the turn of the century, the DEA allowed manufacturing levels of oxycodone -- sold as OxyContin by Purdue Pharma -- to nearly quadruple between 2000 and 2013.

International

Dutch Supreme Court Rules Ayahuasca Illegal. The Dutch Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that ayahuasca falls under the country's hard drug laws and that its import is illegal. The ruling came in the case of a woman who had imported about 70 pounds of ayahuasca tea from Brazil for use in Santo Daime church rituals. Because the substance contains DMT, which is covered by Dutch drug laws, ayahuasca is covered as well.

Mexican Marijuana Legalization Bill Would Create State-Run System. Diputado Mario Delgado Carrillo, coordinator of the ruling MORENA Party's bench in the Chamber of Deputies, filed a bill Tuesday that would legalize marijuana through a government-run system. Under the bill, a regulatory body called Cannsalud would be in charge of the legal market, which would be the "exclusive property of the federal government, with a technical, operational and management autonomy for the realization of its primary purpose" to create a legal, regulated system. "With this, the cannabis market is not left to autonomous regulation by individuals, but the state is involved as a constant supervisor and controller of the activity of this substance within a margin of legality that guarantees a benefit for all," Delgado said. "This is a first step towards the opening of a new lawful market, and a public company is proposed as an obligatory intermediary in order to identify and contain the risks inherent in the establishment of a new market, when there are already international commercial interests that seek to maximize its utilities above the protection of people's health," he said.

Chronicle AM: Marijuana Arrests Increased Last Year, CA Psilocybin Decrim Init Filed, More... (10/1/19)

Marijuana arrests nationwide increased last year despite spreading legalization, a California psilocbyn decriminalization initiative has been filed, and more.

Cocaine. Peru's potential cocaine production "remains elevated," the drug czar's office said.
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Arrests Increased Again Last Year Despite More States Legalizing, FBI Data Shows. According to the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports released Monday, the number of marijuana arrests in the US last year was 663,367, a slight increase over the 659,700 pot arrests tallied in 2017 and the 653,249 tallied in 2016. This despite the fact marijuana is now legal for adults in 11 eleven states and medical marijuana is legal in 33 states. Before 2016, marijuana arrests had been declining for roughly a decade.

Psychedelics

California Psilocybin Decriminalization Initiative Filed. A group of activists calling itself Decriminalize California has filed a psilocybin decriminalization initiative with state officials. The group has submitted ballot language to the attorney general's office and is now awaiting approval for an official title and summary. Once that is completed, activists will have 180 days to come up with 625,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. The initiative would decriminalize "personal possession, storage, use, cultivation, manufacturing, distribution in personal possession amounts without profit, transport, and consumption of psilocybin mushrooms" by individuals 18 and older.

International

ONDCP Releases Data on Coca Cultivation and Production in Peru. On Tuesday, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) released the results of the annual US Government estimates measuring coca cultivation and potential cocaine production for the Republic of Peru. The estimates found that cultivation "remained elevated" at more than 125,000 acres, up slightly from 2016 and 2017, but still below the recent record of about 180,000 acres in 2013. "The ongoing coca cultivation in Peru and across the Andean Region of South America remains a significant threat to the United States. As part of the Trump Administration's whole-of-government approach to the addiction crisis, we will continue to support our partners in Peru to curb cultivation and production in critical growing regions. We are committed to bringing those who profit off the international drug trade to justice to help accomplish our goal of saving lives," ONDCP Director Jim Carroll said.

Will Oregon Be the First State to Decriminalize All Drugs? [FEATURE]

The groundwork is being laid now for a possible effort to decriminalize the possession of drugs in Oregon. Last month, a trio of drug reform advocates quietly filed a decriminalization initiative, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, with state officials.

Mt. Hood, outside Portland (Creative Commons)
That is only the first step in the long and complicated process of getting the initiative on the November 2020 ballot and approved by voters, but it is a first step. Between now and then, the Oregon activists and national groups will be weighing whether success is actually possible and if a full-blown campaign to get it passed will happen.

As is evident from the initiative's title, it is not just about drug decriminalization, but also about coming up with better ways than drug-war style policies to address drug misuse and addiction; it is a public health approach rather than a criminal justice approach to the problem.

And it is one that would use taxes derived from the legalization of marijuana to pay for drug treatment and other services for people with drug problems.

According to the proponents, the aim of the initiative "is to make health assessment, treatment and recovery services for drug addiction available to all those who need and want access to those services and to adopt a health approach to drug addiction by removing criminal penalties for low-level drug possession."

Here's what the initiative would do:

  • Decriminalize the possession of small amounts of all drugs. People caught with personal use amounts of any drugs, including heroin and cocaine, would be cited for a violation -- not a felony or misdemeanor -- and would be subject to no more than a $100 fine. Drug sales and manufacture would still be criminalized.
  • Create Addiction Recovery Centers across the state to address "the acute needs of people who use drugs and assessing and addressing any on-going needs thorough intensive case management and linkage to care and services." Those centers will offer health assessments for each client, as well as an individual intervention plan, intensive case management, and connection to services.
  • Increase community access to care, including "low barrier substance abuse disorder treatment," peer support and recovery services, housing, and harm reduction interventions, such as naloxone and needle exchanges, as well as "stimulant-specific drug education and outreach."
  • Pay for it with a Drug Treatment and Recovery Services Fund and an Oregon Marijuana Account. The marijuana account, funded by marijuana tax and fee revenues, would be distinct from the state's General Fund and would provide funding for the Drug Treatment and Recovery Services Fund, which would provide grants to government and nonprofit groups to provide such services. The fund could also receive monies appropriated by the legislature, as well as any savings from reduced criminal justice costs after decriminalization.

Such a measure is desperately needed, said Anthony Johnson, chief proponent of the initiative, who also headed the state's successful 2014 marijuana legalization campaign. His fellow proponents are Haven Wheelock of the Portland needle exchange Outside In, and Janie Gullickson, executive director of the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon.

"Oregon ranks nearly last in the country in access to drug addiction treatment," Johnson explained in an emailed statement. "The waitlist to get treatment can be months long, and in some rural counties, there is practically no treatment at all. This is one reason why one to two Oregonians die of drug overdoses every day, sometimes while they are waiting to get treatment. But instead of expanding access to treatment and recovery, Oregon has recently cut it, reducing general fund money for drug addiction treatment by 89%. If we don't do something soon, many more people will die."

While there is a popular belief that being able to arrest people for drug possession is a key to getting them into treatment, Johnson demurs.

"It shouldn't be," he said. "Most people who need treatment do not get arrested, and many are reluctant to get treatment because drug possession is a crime. Although there are some who may seek treatment as the result of an arrest, the damage done by saddling someone struggling with addiction with a criminal record is vastly worse, stigmatizing them and often costing them jobs, housing, student loans, time, and separation from their family and support network, among other things. Treatment is more effective when people want it and when it is available on demand."

And there's enough money in legal marijuana to pay for it, he said.

"If revenue from marijuana continues to grow at the same rate it has been growing as estimated by the state, this act will bring in about $100 million a year for treatment and services by 2021," Johnson argued. "That number is projected to grow by about $20 million a year. For comparison, there was a recent bill that failed in the legislature that would have provided $2.9 million in new money for treatment. This act would provide more than 30 times that amount -- all from existing resources."

The state took in $103 million in marijuana tax revenue in fiscal year 2019, and it estimates that number will grow by about $23 million a year in the foreseeable future. Under the initiative's provisions, all marijuana tax revenue above $45 million will go to services such as drug addiction treatment, recovery, peer support and housing. The other $45 million will continue to go where it does now -- for schools, public safety and drug addiction treatment and services.

Social and racial justice also demands Oregon find a new path, Johnson argued. A recent study found that blacks in the state are convicted of felony drug possession offenses at twice the rate of whites.

"Our drug laws are deeply inequitable, disproportionately targeting and impacting people of color and in poverty," he said. "Oregonians use drugs at about the same rate, regardless of the color of their skin. However, people of color are much more likely to be arrested, charged and convicted of drug crimes. People of color are also sentenced more harshly and forced to pay higher fines. That's morally reprehensible. At the same time, our current drug laws distort the priorities of police, who end up spending too much time arresting people for being addicted to drugs instead of focusing on community safety."

The initiative was drafted with the help of the Drug Policy Alliance, as well as dozens of Oregonians working in treatment, addiction, and recovery, along with experts on equity, economics, criminal justice, civil liberties, ballot measure campaigns, law, Oregon state politics, and more.

The initiative has been filed, but a final decision on whether it's a "go" has yet to be made. While the Drug Policy Alliance has been involved, it has not yet committed to getting behind this initiative just yet.

"We've been looking at a number of states, including Oregon, that could benefit from moving towards a health-centered approach to drugs and away from criminalization," Matt Sutton, the group's director of media relations said in an email. "At this point in time, we have connected with various groups on the ground and are exploring all of our options. It is much too soon to determine whether or not we will move forward with this measure, however, the process to get something on the ballot in Oregon can be lengthy, and we wanted to make sure the door was still open for the potential measure to proceed."

"We would not be where we were unless there was a strong path to victory, but the campaign is still in an exploratory phase, and we have a lot more work to do before we make a final decision about whether to go forward with the campaign," Johnson said.

Still, the groundwork is being laid for Oregon to once again take a pioneering role in drug policy. It was the first state to decriminalize marijuana possession way back in 1973 and the third to legalize marijuana in 2014. Now, it could be the first to decriminalize the possession of all drugs in 2020.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of StoptheDrugWar.org.

Chronicle AM: CDC Warns on THC Vaping, Indianapolis to End Small Marijuana Prosecutions, More... (9/30/19)

The feds are homing in on THC products as the vaping crisis intensifies, a Virginia poll shows a rapid increase in support for marijuana legalization there, Indianapolis says bye-bye to small-time pot prosecutions, and more.

What's in your vape? The CDC warns on THC vaping. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Feds Focus on THC Vapes as Source of Most Illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that more than three out of four people who have been sickened by vaping in recent weeks reported using products containing THC, while only 16% reported using only nicotine products. A second CDC study focused on Illinois and Wisconsin found that 87% of patients reported using products containing THC. CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat has now advised people to consider "refraining from the use of vaping products, particularly those containing THC" -- the first time federal officials have specifically warned against the use of such products.

Arizona Legalization Initiative Gets Updated, Begins Signature Gathering. The Smart and Safe Arizona Act legalization initiative has been amended to allow more people to expunge past marijuana convictions and to allow for 26 retail licenses to be issued to "individuals from communities disproportionately impacted" by prohibition. Now, signature gathering gets underway. Organizers have one year to come up with some 237,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.

Virginia Poll Shows Strong Majority for Legalization. A new poll from the University of Mary Washington has support for marijuana legalization in Virginia at 61%, up sharply from the 39% support reported in the same poll in 2017. "The latest Mary Washington survey demonstrates -- to quote Bob Dylan, 'the times they are a-changin'' -- here in the Old Dominion," said Stephen J. Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington and director of its Center for Leadership and Media Studies. The poll found majority support for legalization among all demographic groups except Republicans and people over 65.

Indianapolis Will No Longer Prosecute Marijuana Possession Cases. The Marion County (Indianapolis) Prosecutor's Office announced Monday it will no longer prosecute small-time pot possession cases. "Too often, an arrest for marijuana possession puts individuals into the system who otherwise would not be. That is not a win for our community," Prosecutor Ryan Mears said. "The enforcement of marijuana policy has disproportionately impacted people of color, and this is a first step to addressing that." Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill (R) responded that he was "concerned" that the move would "attract to Indianapolis people with a particular interest in communities where drug enforcement is lax."

House Passes SAFE Banking Act

The House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1595), which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to get access to banking and other financial services.

The vote was 321-103, with near unanimous support from Democrats, as well as nearly half of Republicans. The industry pronounced itself pleased.

"We applaud the House for approving this bipartisan solution to the cannabis banking problem, and we hope the Senate will move quickly to do the same, " said Neal Levine, CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, which lobbied in support of the bill. "This vital legislation will have an immediate and positive impact, not only on the state-legal cannabis industry, but also on the many communities across the nation that have opted to embrace the regulation of cannabis. Allowing lawful cannabis companies to access commercial banking services and end their reliance on cash will greatly improve public safety, increase transparency, and promote regulatory compliance. "

The vote came although some civil rights and drug reform groups had called for it to be put off until more comprehensive marijuana or criminal justice reform could be enacted. They argued that passage of a narrowly targeted financial services bill could erode momentum toward broader reforms.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) was one of those groups. In a statement released after the vote, the group said it had no problem with the banking bill but wanted more.

"We had no objections to the substance of the SAFE Banking bill. However, DPA and allies from the civil rights community sent a letter of concern because we believe it is a mistake for the House to pass an incremental industry bill before passing a comprehensive bill that prioritizes equity and justice for the communities who have suffered the most under prohibition, " said Queen Adesuyi, Policy Coordinator at DPA's Office of National Affairs.

DPA is pushing for passage of the MORE Act, which would federally deschedule marijuana.

"We have long feared that passing SAFE Banking would undermine passage of the MORE Act by taking the momentum out of marijuana reform, " said Adesuyi. "The onus is now upon House Democrats to prove us wrong and pass the MORE Act. We are encouraged by the announcement from House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler that he intends to hold a vote on MORE and will push him in the coming weeks to commit to a date. We also thank Majority Leader Hoyer for his commitment to work with Mr. Nadler and others to advance broader marijuana reform in this Congress. The marijuana banking bill cannot be the end of the road for marijuana reform this Congress. "

But even the banking bill must get through the Senate, where it is not clear it can pass. A companion version of the SAFE Banking Act (S.1200) was introduced in April by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and a bipartisan group of 21 original cosponsors. It currently has 33 total cosponsors. Earlier this month, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said his committee will take up the cannabis banking issue this year and is working on preparing a new bill.

"This is a serious public safety matter that needs to be addressed by Congress this session, " Levine said. "It is only going to grow in urgency and magnitude as states continue to roll back cannabis prohibition policies. Enacting the SAFE Banking Act would greatly bolster state's efforts to promote safety, regulatory compliance, and equity within the cannabis industry. Cannabis-related companies are lawfully operating in states around the country, and they deserve the same access to banking that is afforded to every other type of lawful business. "

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A rapey reserve officer is in hot water in Louisiana, an NYPD officer who moonlighted as a bodyguard for El Chapo's wife gets nailed in a sting, an Indiana hospital cop gets caught with his fingers in the pain pill jar, and more. Let's get to it:

n New York City, an NYPD officer was arrested last Wednesday in a drug sting. Officer Ishmael Bailey, who recently moonlighted as a bodyguard for the wife of Sinaloa Cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's wife during his trial, went down after being caught transporting cocaine for an undercover officer posing as a drug dealer. He is charged with selling and possessing cocaine, as well as receiving bribes, conspiracy and official misconduct.

In Muncie, Indiana, a former Indiana University Ball Memorial Hospital police officer was arrested last Thursday for allegedly stealing pain medications from a hospital safe. Michael Goldsmith, 30, went down after surveillance video implicated him in the theft of 141 opioid pain pills. He is charged with official misconduct, obtaining a controlled substance by fraud or deceit, theft and possession of a controlled substance.

In Merryville, Louisiana, a Merryville police reserve officer was arrested Monday on charges he gave drugs to a 16-year-old boy and then sexually assaulted him. Reserve Officer Roland Harrison, 38, faces charges of rape and drug possession. He also faces four counts of unauthorized use of movables, for taking police gear including uniforms without authorization.

In Harvest, Alabama, a state prison guard was arrested Tuesday after he got caught trying to smuggle drugs into the Limestone Correctional Facility. Officer Travis Wales, 39, got caught with a Subutex pill, a bag of methamphetamine, and a bottle of synthetic urine substitute (for passing drug tests). He is charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance and promoting prison contraband after a drug dog found the contraband in Wales' possession.

Medical Marijuana Update

New Hampshire patients will be able to grow their own, DC patients will be able to use medical marijuana at school, and more.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire is One Step Closer to Legalizing Medical Home Growing. The state House voted last Wednesday to override Gov. Chris Sununu's (R) veto of HB 364, which would allow qualified patients to grow up to three mature plants and 12 seedlings. The Senate was expected to take up the issue Thursday.

New Hampshire Legislature Overrides Veto on Patient Home Grows. The state Senate joined the House Thursday in overriding Gov. Chris Sununu's (R) veto of HB 364, which would allow qualified patients to grow up to three mature plants and 12 seedlings.

Washington, DC

Medical Marijuana Patients Will Be Able to Get Treatment in DC Schools Under Emergency Legislation. The DC city council on last Tuesday passed emergency legislation to allow students enrolled in District schools to use medical marijuana at school. DC Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) plans to sign the bill shortly. The emergency legislation would take effect for 90 days after the Mayor's signature.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin Lawmakers Announce Bipartisan Medical Marijuana Bill. Sens. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) and Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison) have announced a bipartisan bill to introduce legalized medical cannabis in Wisconsin. The bill "recognizes that people should not have to engage in a criminal act to access medicine for debilitating conditions," they said.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM: MA Will Get Cannabis Cafes, Australia's Capital City Legalizes Weed, More... (9/25/19)

Massachusetts regulators approve cannabis cafes and home delivery, a key congressman pledges continuing support for broad marijuana reforms, Australia's capital city legalizes pot possession, and more.

Cannabis cafes are coming to Boston. (RegulateMass)
Marijuana Policy

Judiciary Committee Chairman Pledges Broader Marijuana Reform After Banking Vote. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that a vote set for Wednesday on the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1595) would only be the first step in a broader push toward marijuana policy reform. "The House is expected to consider the SAFE Banking Act on the floor tomorrow and I will vote for it," Nadler said. "This bill will address one of the many serious problems that results from the criminalization of marijuana at the federal level. "As the sponsor of the MORE Act (HR 3884), I also strongly support additional marijuana reform -- to deschedule marijuana federally and to provide critical assistance and relief to individuals and communities that have been disproportionally impacted by the racially biased war on drugs," Nadler said. "I am therefore committed to marking up this bill and look forward to working with reform advocates and my colleagues in this important effort going forward." The statement comes amid division among reform advocates over whether to seek broader reforms before passing the SAFE Act.

Arizona Legalization Initiative Gets Updated, Begins Signature Gathering. The Smart and Safe Arizona Act marijuana legalization initiative has been amended to allow more people to expunge past pot convictions and to allow for 26 retail licenses to be issued to "individuals from communities disproportionately impacted" by marijuana prohibition. Now, signature gathering gets underway. Organizers have one year to come up with some 237,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot.

Massachusetts Regulators Approve Cannabis Cafes, Home Delivery. The state Cannabis Control Commission on Tuesday voted to approve regulations that will allow for cannabis cafes where people can eat, vape, or smoke marijuana legally and for marijuana home delivery services. "We feel like we have got a good balance between trying to meet the will of the voters but recognizing that there are concerns from a public health and a public safety standpoint," said Cannabis Control Commission Chairman Steven Hoffman. Both new types of licenses will be reserved for the first two years for social equity and economic empowerment applicants, which are categories of businesses owned by minorities, people with drug convictions and people who have lived and worked in communities disproportionately affected by marijuana prohibition.

New York Governor Seeks Cooperation with Neighboring States on Vaping and Marijuana Legalization.Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Tuesday he will travel to Connecticut and New Jersey to try to create regional coordination on marijuana legalization. "For one state to do it, it makes no sense if the neighboring state has a different policy because then you just incentivize people to drive over the border and buy it there," he said. "When you start to discuss how to legalize marijuana it moves into the vaping space because a lot of the marijuana products can be vaped" Cuomo said. "When you start saying I want to outlaw flavored cigarettes well how about gummy bear marijuana products?"

International

Australian Capital City Legalizes Marijuana. Canberra, the national capital, has become the first ciaty in Australia to legalize marijuana. Lawmakers in the Australian Capital Territory voted Tuesday to approve a bill allowing people 18 and over to possess and grow marijuana for personal use. The new law will go into effect on January 31, 2020. People will be able to legally possess up to 50 grams (just under two ounces) and grow up to two plants per person, or four per household. The new law, however, conflicts with national marijuana prohibition laws and could be overridden.

Canada's Trudeau Says Liberals Not Looking to Decriminalize Drugs. As he campaigns to keep his job, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that the Liberal Party is not going to decriminalize drugs. "We're not looking at full decriminalization at all right now," Trudeau said. "There are other things that we are doing that (are) having a big impact and we're going to make decisions based on science," Trudeau said, pointing to the Liberal government's actions on safe injection sites and other harm reduction methods. Trudeau's stance contrasts with that of the national Liberal caucus, which approved a resolution last year to "re-classify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations" rather than criminal ones.

Chronicle AM: Mexico Legalization Deadline Looms, State AGs Urge Support for Fed Marijuana Bill, More... (9/24/19)

More than 20 state attorneys general have urged congressional leaders to pass legislation to protect state-legal marijuana, Mexico faces a deadline to legalize marijuana, Canadian researchers recommend providing prescription heroin to hard-core addicts, and more.

Under a Supreme Court ruling, the Mexican congress has one month to pass a marijuana legalization bill. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

21 State Attorneys General Urge Congress to Protect State Marijuana Programs from Federal Interference. Attorneys general from 21 states sent a letter Monday to congressional leaders urging support for the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act (HR 2093), which would shield state-legal marijuana programs from federal interference. Attorneys general from Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Washington, DC, signed the letter.

Pennsylvania Court Rules Odor of Marijuana No Longer Probable Cause for Traffic Searches. A Lehigh County judge has ruled that since medical marijuana is now legal in the state, the mere presence of a "strong odor" of marijuana does not provide probable cause for a vehicle search. Judge Maria Dantos ruled that because police lacked probable cause for a search, a small amount of marijuana and a weapon found during the search was inadmissible as evidence of a crime. The state is appealing to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

International

Canadian Research Group Recommends Giving Addicts Medical-Grade Heroin. Guidelines published Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal recommend that health-care providers offer injectable medical-grade heroin or another prescription opioid to severely addicted users who have proven resistant to other treatment modalities. The recommendations call for the use of injectable diacetylmorphine (prescription heroin) or hydrocodone for patients who have not responded to the most effective oral treatments, methadone and buprenorphine.

Mexico Has One Month to Legalize Marijuana. A Supreme Court-ordered deadline to legalize marijuana is now only one month away, and the country's congress is now pondering 10 different bills that would do just that. One of those bills is drawing concern from activists. It would not change the legal status quo, but would instruct the health ministry to give permits for self-consumption, thereby complying with the Supreme Court ruling, but not completely legalizing marijuana. Mexico must act on one of these bills by Oct. 24.

Chronicle AM: SAFE Banking Act Battle, SD Pot Legalization Initiative Advances, More... (9/23/19)

Battle over voting on the SAFE Banking Act, South Dakota marijuana legalization initiative okayed for signature gathering, Dr. Bronner's kicks in for Oregon psilocybin initiative, and more.

Dr. Bronner's CEO David Bronner. The company has just donated $150,000 to the Oregon psilocybin initiative. (maps.org)
Marijuana Policy

No Marijuana Banking Without Justice Reform, Three Democratic Presidential Candidates Say. In a sign of divisions within the marijuana legalization movement, three Democratic presidential contenders have joined Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and a coalition of civil rights and drug reform groups in calling for a delay in the passage of the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1595) until more progress is made in ending federal marijuana prohibition. The three candidates are Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Those calling for a delay in the banking bill fear that its passage will undermine efforts to advance justice aspects in legalization, while those supporting an early vote say it is a first step that will bolster broaden marijuana reform. A House floor vote is set for Wednesday.

South Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative Cleared for Signature Gathering. A constitutional amendment initiative that would legalize marijuana has been cleared for signature gathering. The measure was introduced by a former federal prosecutor and is backed by the Marijuana Policy Project. Petitioners now have one year to come up with 33,921 valid voter signatures to get the measure on the November 2020 ballot. The measure would allow adults 21 and older to possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana. Individuals would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants. The South Dakota Department of Revenue would be tasked with issuing licenses for manufacturers, testing facilities and retailers. Sales would be taxed at 15%. The measure would also instruct the legislature to pass legislation legalizing hemp and medical marijuana.

Psychedelics

Dr. Bronner's Kicks in $150,000 for Oregon Psilocybin Initiative Campaign. Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps, the natural soap company, has donated $150,000 for the Psilocybin Service Initiative, or Initiative Petition #34. The move came Friday night, as Dr. Bronner's CEO David Bronner joined chief petitioners Tom and Sheri Eckert at a kickoff event for the initiative in Portland Friday night. The initiative would allow Oregonians to access psilocybin in a therapeutic setting to treat a range of issues from depression to anxiety to addiction.Backers of the initiative have until July 2, 2020, to get 112,020 signatures to get the measure on the November 2020 ballot. "The Bronner family is no stranger to severe depression and anxiety," Bronner said. "We firmly believe that the integration of psilocybin therapy, to which the FDA recently granted a special 'breakthrough designation' is crucial to heal epidemic rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction that pharmaceutical drugs are completely inadequate for."

International

Mexican President Hints at Referendum on Drug Legalization. President Andres Lopez Manuel Obrador said Friday he was considering a public consultation or referendum on drug legalization: "I am not ruling out the possibility of calling a referendum or a collective reflection about legalizing certain drugs, especially those used for medicinal purposes," Lopez Obrador said. "I have also been considering how this is part of the chain for ensuring peace and tranquility," the president said. There are some people who do not want to legalize the use of drugs, not even for medicinal purposes, and there are people that support it (and insist) that the violence originates from the ban (on drugs),"he said.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. 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.)

Chronicle AM: House MJ Banking Bill Vote Next Week, Guatemala Now a Cocaine Producer, More... (9/20/19)

The House prepares to vote on a marijuana banking bill, New Hampshire lawmakers override a veto to ensure patients can grow their own, Guatemala concedes it is now a cocaine-producing nation, and more.

Cocaine -- it's not just from South America anymore. (US CBP)
Marijuana Policy

House Will Vote on Marijuana Banking Bill Next Week. The House leadership confirmed Friday that the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act (HR 1595) will get a House floor vote next week. The move comes with support from financial institutions, but over the objections of advocacy groups who want to see broader marijuana reforms advance before those catering to the industry alone.

Senate Funding Bill Would Again Block DC Marijuana Legalization. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Financial Services and General Government funding bill for FY 2020 and again included a provision that blocks Washington, DC, from using its own money to implement a legal marijuana sales regime.

Medical Marijuana

New Hampshire Legislature Overrides Veto on Patient Home Grows. The state Senate joined the House Thursday in overriding Gov. Chris Sununu's (R) veto of HB 364, which would allow qualified patients to grow up to three mature plants and 12 seedlings.

Wisconsin Lawmakers Announce Bipartisan Medical Marijuana Bill. Sens. Patrick Testin (R-Stevens Point), Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) and Representative Chris Taylor (D-Madison) have announced a bipartisan bill to introduce legalized medical cannabis in Wisconsin. The bill "recognizes that people should not have to engage in a criminal act to access medicine for debilitating conditions," they said.

International

Guatemala Joins Ranks of Cocaine Producers. Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart conceded Thursday that the country is now a full-fledged cocaine producer after security forces there uncovered several coca plantations and processing laboratories. Guatemala has long been a major transit country for cocaine, and traffickers have exercised influence over political parties and in some cases territorial control. The country has made little progress fighting the drug war. "Following the discovery of these narco-laboratories and the different fields with the coca plants, Guatemala now becomes a cocaine producer and that puts Guatemala in a totally different situation with respect to regional security," Degenhart said.

APPEAL: Help Us Respond to the Opportunities and the Crises

Posted in:

Dear reader,

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/borden12.jpg
David Borden
As I wrote last week, this is a good time and a bad time in drug policy. Marijuana reform continues to have 2019 momentum. Presidential candidates are debating criminal justice and drug policy more than ever. But politicians are still ready to file new and bad sentencing bills -- so quickly forgetting lessons they claimed to have learned -- and international human rights in the drug war are in full blown crisis.

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Court Finds Prosecutorial Misconduct Led to a Drug Conspiracy Conviction, But Lets 30-Year Sentence Stand Anyway [FEATURE]

This article is part 11 of Drug War Chronicle's occasional series on prosecutorial misconduct in drug cases written by investigative journalist Clarence Walker.

The federal prison in Gilmer, WV. Oscar Sosa's home for the next quarter-century, unless he wins on appeal. (BOP)
On October 7, 2016, a jury in Brownsville, Texas, convicted Oscar Sosa, then 32, of conspiracy to possess and possession with intent to distribute three kilos of methamphetamine. On April 24, 2017, Southern Texas Federal District Judge Andrew Hanen hammered Sosa with 30 years in federal prison followed by five years of supervised release.

Sosa appealed, claiming prosecutors committed three errors in the case, rendering the trial unfair. Sosa's appeal alleged the government erred when prosecutors improperly introduced drug profiling evidence by a DEA agent to connect their client into the conspiracy. Sosa also alleged that the prosecutor unfairly bolstered witnesses' purported credibility by indicating Sosa was part of the conspiracy, even though there were no tape-recorded conversations or written documents to prove with certainty that Sosa participated in the trafficking of illegal drugs, nor was he ever caught with any drugs.

With no drugs and no surveillance or documentary evidence, Sosa was in essence convicted by the testimony of cooperating witnesses who faced the possibility of life in prison on drug charges if they didn't help the prosecution. All three cooperating witnesses received prison sentences ranging from six to seven years each for their role in the dope deal.

When the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals took up his case, it found that prosecutorial misconduct had indeed occurred, but rejected his bid for a new trial because his federal defender had failed to object during his original trial.

"Today's outcome is the same as many of our prior decisions addressing drug profiling testimony and bolstering of witnesses' testimony," the court held in its July 25, 2018, ruling. "We find the government engaged in misconduct but nonetheless the court concludes the defendant cannot meet the heavy burden of obtaining reversal for error that he did not object to during trial."

And the court implicitly chided prosecutors more interested in winning than in justice. "If the ultimate end of prosecution is securing convictions it may not be surprising this trend has not deterred improper trial tactics," the court noted.

"It leaves a bad taste to know Oscar Sosa will spend the next 30 years in prison because his defense attorney failed to object to the prosecutorial misconduct," said attorney John T. Floyd, a Harris County Texas federal and state law criminal defense attorney.

"So when a lawyer fails to object it's likely harmless error because over the years the US Supreme Court has watered down all of the amendments in favor of the government," said criminal law veteran Cheryl Irvin, who has tried numerous drug cases including drug related murders.

Although concessions that prosecutorial misconduct unfairly influenced the jury should have resulted in the appeals court granting Sosa a new trial, the appellate jurists -- Justices James Yue-Ho, Gregg Costa and Jennifer Walker Elrod -- made it clear why Sosa's conviction wasn't overturned: "Troubled as we are by the continued use of these improper tactics we do not find that Sosa has met his burden of showing that the errors substantially affected the outcome of the trial," they wrote.

In other words, while prosecutors' conduct in the case was wrong, it wasn't wrong enough to win him a new trial.

Conspiracy dope cases in the federal courts under the statute (21 U.S.C. 846) are inherently dangerous for an individual accused of complicity with other defendants, especially when the evidence is considerably circumstantial and undeniably weak.

To prove a federal drug conspiracy charge the prosecutor must prove:

  • Two or more people conspired to commit an illegal act.
  • A person(s) intentionally or knowingly participated in the conspiracy.
  • A person(s) acted beyond the initial agreement in furtherance of carrying out the crime.

Thus, someone can be prosecuted and convicted in a drug conspiracy case even if he is never caught with drugs in his possession. This is known as a "dry conspiracy."

Dry conspiracies usually start off with one or more individuals who got caught with drugs by police. They then decide to cooperate with the feds, giving up the names of others allegedly involved in the conspiracy in return for much lighter sentences. They will also provide inside information on drug offenses committed, such as how money was laundered, how much drug weight was trafficked, and how much money was paid to couriers, among other things.

Oscar Sosa went down in a dry conspiracy. No drugs, no hard evidence, just the word of cooperating witnesses was enough to put him away -- that and prosecutorial misconduct and a pinch of public defender neglect. After Sosa got slammed with 30 years, his new court-appointed attorney filed an appeal alleging that Assistant US Attorneys Karen Betancourt and Jody Young, committed serious misconduct that should be grounds for the conviction to be reversed.

Going After Sosa

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/oscar-sosa.jpg
Oscar Sosa (Facebook)
The case against Sosa unfolded after DEA agents and sheriff's deputies arrested two drug couriers, Juan Sarmiento and Jose Galvan, while carrying three kilos of meth at a bus station in Harlingen, Texas. When confronted by agents acting on a tip, the pair consented to be searched, and the lawmen found six bundles of meth sewn into Sarmiento's jacket lining and four more in Galvan's pockets.

DEA agents received a tip about the men headed to a gas station which also served as a bus stop. When law enforcement officers confronted Sarmiento and Galvan they panicked and gave officers consent to search them and their luggage, whereupon the lawmen discovered six bundles of crystal meth sewn into Sarmiento's jacket lining. Four more bundles were found in Galvan's pockets.

During questioning the men gave agents conflicting statements about the origin of the drugs. Eventually, though, the men admitted they'd planned to take the meth to a man named 'Oscar' in Plant City, Florida. The men also identified two women "Betty and Patti" as the owner or managers of the narcotics they were carrying.

DEA later identified the women as Mexican nationals Patricia Sosa and Bertha Sosa. Patricia allegedly was either Oscar's aunt or mother and Bertha was an aunt or cousin. Also implicated and charged in the scheme was Genaro Luera, who was also identified as a possible in-law relative connected to Patricia and Bertha.

On appeal, Sosa's attorney identified three examples of prosecutorial misconduct, arguing that the cumulative effect of the errors should cause the conviction to be overturned. While the 5th Circuit jurists agreed that the prosecution erred, it refused to annul the verdict.

"The first error is when the government introduced impermissible profiling testimony by having a DEA expert witness not only describe typical aspects and behavior of a drug trafficking organization, but, also tell the jury where Sosa fit into that structure," the court noted, citing U.S. vs Gonzalez-Rodriguez (621 F. 3d 354), to explain the problem with the profiling testimony.

Here's the exchange between the prosecutor and the DEA agent that unfairly used profiling to bolster the case that Sosa was a drug dealer:

Prosecutor: "When you're looking at (Sosa's records) and you're not finding any assets in Mr. Sosa's name, is that somehow strange he doesn't have any assets in his name, that tells me what?

DEA Agent Jason Bradford: "Yes, we consider that conduct common of drug traffickers.

Prosecutor: "And why is that?"

DEA Agent Bradford: "Because they don't want to leave a trail for their assets."

The appeals court found that the prosecutor erred by eliciting that testimony from the DEA agent. While Sosa had no property or assets in his name, that didn't make him a drug dealer, and it was up to the jury -- not the prosecutor and the DEA agent -- to make that determination.

"When stated in general terms, such testimony may help the jury understand the significance and implications of certain conduct," the court held. "But the ultimate responsibility of linking a defendant's conduct with the characteristics of drug trafficking must be left to the jury."

Sosa's second ground for appeal was that prosecutors committed error by stating in open court that the witnesses' testimony had already been determined to be true, or, worse yet, that they falsely alleged that the judge in the case has concluded the witnesses' testimony was truthful.

The appeals court agreed with that claim, too: "Sosa's claim the government improperly bolstered the credibility of the cooperating witnesses (Sarmiento and Galvan) has merits," it held, citing US vs Gracia (522 F. 3d 597).

In that case, the appellate judges reversed Gracia's conviction for possession of 50 kilos of cocaine based on the prosecutor's bolstering of the witness's testimony. The appeals court pointed out how the prosecutor told the jury that the agents in the case were "very, very credible witnesses" and went far as to ask the jury if they thought an agent, a man with a family, would lie under oath to convict Gracia.

"A personal assertion by a prosecutor of government witnesses' credibility is impermissible," the 5th Circuit explained. "Improper bolstering occurred" in Sosa's case, the judges agreed, when the prosecutor claimed the judge's stamp of approval of the witnesses' credibility.

Credibility of a witness's testimony must always be determined by the jury, and it is not the prosecutor's position that the judge declared such testimony by the cooperating witnesses to be true.

Despite these grave errors, Sosa's attorney, Raquel Munoz, failed to object and have the errors corrected and preserved for appeal.

5th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod dissented, arguing prosecutorial misconduct must be punished.
Sosa's third appellate issue argued that a confrontation clause violation occurred when DEA agent Jason Bradford mentioned a tip implicating Patricia Sosa, Sosa's mother or aunt. Prosecutor asked Bradford how DEA determined Patricia Sosa was involved in dealing drugs from Mexico.

Bradford explained how he received an Automated Alert about other agents that were investigating the woman. Bradford further said a Houston undercover agent confirmed Patricia Sosa had sought to find couriers to transport drugs from Mexico into the Houston area. The 5th Circuit ruled against Sosa on this point by stating the tip about Patricia Sosa was something the jury already knew about. "As a result, there was no clear confrontation violation," the justices concluded.

The appeals court found two clear instances of prosecutorial misconduct in Sosa's case, but found that because his defense attorney failed to object in a timely fashion, his conviction should stand, in effect condoning the behavior.

5th Circuit Justice Jennifer Walker disagreed. "I do not condone prosecutorial misconduct here," she wrote in her dissent. "And as the Supreme Court suggested, we should continue to discourage it."

The next step for Oscar Sosa to possibly get a crack at a new trial is to petition for one at the US Supreme Court. Meanwhile, he remains behind bars at FCI Gilmer Unit in West Virginia with more than 25 years to go.

Reach Investigative Criminal Justice Journalist Clarence Walker at [email protected]

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