Drug War Chronicle #1080 - September 20, 2019

1. Fentanyl Isn't About to Go Away. What Can We Do About It? [FEATURE]

In the most thorough review yet of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, a new study from the RAND Corporation warns that its arrival heralds a new dynamic in illicit drug markets -- and that is going to require new approaches for dealing with the dangerous drug.

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

A public defender's failure to object in a timely fashion to prosecutorial misconduct cost Oscar Sosa dearly.

3. APPEAL: Help Us Respond to the Opportunities and the Crises

StoptheDrugWar.org needs your support to help us stay on the move at a time of both opportunity and crisis in drug policy.

4. This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A rogue DEA agent cops a plea, a former Detroit cop gets nailed as a dope dealer, and more.

5. Chronicle AM: Tentative Oxycontin Settlement, Philippines Says No to UN Investigators, More... (9/12/19)

It looks like the thousands of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma over Oxycontin are about to be settled, a new audit finds California's unlicensed pot shops greatly outnumber licensed ones, Florida's attorney general seeks to block a marijuana legalization initiative, and more.

6. Chronicle AM: Joe Biden's Muddy Marijuana Policy Message, Peru Coca Eradication Gearing Up, More... (9/13/19)

Joe Biden muddies the waters on his marijuana policy, Copenhagen is moving toward a pilot progeram of legal marijuana sales, Peru prepares to go after coca crops in a lawless region, and more.

7. Chronicle AM: House MJ Banking Bill to Get Floor Vote, Purdue Pharma Files for Bankruptcy, More... (9/16/19)

A bill to open up financial services for the marijuana industry will get a House floor vote this month, the maker of OxyContin files for bankruptcy, the marijuana industry places the blame for vaping deaths on marijuana prohibition, and more.

8. Chronicle AM: DEA Takes Aim at Fentanyl Precursors, CA Governor Takes Aim at Vaping Crisis, More... (9/17/19)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issues an executive order on vaping, the DEA designates some fentanyl precursors as controlled substances, and more.

9. Chronicle AM: Coalition Urges Delay in House Pot Banking Vote, Chicago Mayor: No Pot Shops Downtown, More... (9/18/19)

Civil rights and drug policy groups fearing a loss of momentum in ending federal pot prohibition are urging a delay in a marijuana banking bill vote, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot doesn't want pot shops downtown, and more.

10. Chronicle AM: Beto Says Use MJ Taxes for Drug War Reparations, Yang Says Decriminalize Opiates, More... (9/19/19)

Democratic presidential contenders make dramatic policy proposals, DC loosens up on marijuana, Michigan lawmakers move toward sentencing reform, and more.

1. Fentanyl Isn't About to Go Away. What Can We Do About It? [FEATURE]

In the most thorough review yet of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, a new study from the RAND Corporation warns that its arrival heralds a new dynamic in illicit drug markets -- and that is going to require new approaches for dealing with the dangerous drug.

a fatal dose of illicit fentanyl (dea.gov)
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked the synthetic opioid, which is roughly 50 times as powerful as heroin, to more than 31,000 overdose deaths last year, a little less than half of all drug overdose deaths registered in 2018, and the most people killed by a single drug in a single year in United States history.

Those fentanyl-linked deaths were 10 times the number of synthetic opioid deaths just five years ago. That's because a reliable supply chain has been established. Whether it's coming via DHL or Fedex packages ordered on the dark web direct from under-regulated Chinese pharmaceutical labs or being cooked up from precursor chemicals in informal Mexican labs and then smuggled across the border, fentanyl is pouring into the country.

In addition to its extreme lethality, what makes the rise of fentanyl different from previous drug epidemics is that very few users seek it out. Only the heaviest opioid users with the highest tolerance levels might seek fentanyl. The drug is here, rather, because it works better for drug dealing syndicates. It is cheap and relatively easy to produce, it does not require the control of extensive territories to produce drug crops, and because it is so potent, massive quantities of the drug can be smuggled in small packages, making it more attractive to traffickers.

"This crisis is different because the spread of synthetic opioids is largely driven by suppliers' decisions, not by user demand," RAND researcher Bryce Pardo, lead author of the study, said in a press release. "Most people who use opioids are not asking for fentanyl and would prefer to avoid exposure."

The fentanyl crisis is largely regional, the RAND researchers found. Deaths related to the drug are clustered in Appalachia, the mid-Atlantic and New England.

"While synthetic opioids have not yet become entrenched in illicit drug markets west of the Mississippi River, authorities must remain vigilant," said Jirka Taylor, study coauthor and senior policy analyst at RAND. "Even delaying the onset in these markets by a few years could save thousands of lives."

While the RAND report said "nontraditional strategies may be required" to address fentanyl, it did not make any specific policy recommendations. Instead, the authors urged consideration of a number of innovative approaches, many of which are tenets of harm reduction. They include:

  • supervised consumption sites (or safe injection sites)
  • drug content testing
  • providing prescription heroin to addicts (heroin-assisted treatment)
  • creative supply disruption

"Indeed, it might be that the synthetic opioid problem will eventually be resolved with approaches or technologies that do not currently exist or have yet to be tested," said Beau Kilmer, study coauthor and director of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center. "Limiting policy responses to existing approaches will likely be insufficient and may condemn many people to early deaths."

In other words, traditional drug war strategies when it comes to fentanyl are not only unlikely to succeed, but people will die. While tough-on-drugs politicians and prosecutors are quick to embrace harsher penalties, the researchers note there is little reason to believe tougher sentences, such as drug-induced murder laws applied to low-level retailers and couriers, will make any difference.

On the other hand, RAND does advocate for short but swift punishments as a deterrent. The one supply-side intervention RAND discussed in this report is efforts to disrupt dark web drug marketing of fentanyl, because the market is driven by suppliers, not users. "It makes sense," they wrote, "to consider supply disruption as one piece of a comprehensive response, particularly where that supply is not yet firmly entrenched."

That's particularly urgent, the researchers explained, because their study, which also examined fentanyl outbreaks in other countries, found that once the drug gains a prominent place in a local drug market, it doesn't go away.

But fentanyl is clearly already entrenched in parts of the US. The RAND report points the way to smarter approaches to dealing with the crisis -- approaches that focus on saving lives.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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2. 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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3. APPEAL: Help Us Respond to the Opportunities and the Crises

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.

We need your help to stay on the move at this important time. Can you make a generous donation for our work at this time? Visit https://stopthedrugwar.org/donate, and click on the tax-deductible donation link or the non-deductible donation link, whichever kind you wish to make. Our donation form accepts credit card, PayPal, and bank ACH.

We especially need help with non-deductible donations to our 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Because our newsletter reports on political candidates, we cover the substantial cost of our web site server and email list service fully with non-deductible funds. This is to protect our tax-deductible 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which can't afford to be implicated, rightly or wrongly, in candidate advocacy. Most of our current funding is of the tax-deductible kind, especially the larger grants and gifts.

Can you make a non-deductible donation to sustain our newsletter through the campaign season? Or a tax-deductible donation for our campaign to stop Duterte's drug war killings in the Philippines? Our web site supports both one-time donations and recurring ones, on cycles including monthly, quarterly, annually, and other options. Visit our Candidates archive page and our Philippines campaign page to see why this is important.

Donations can also be sent by mail. For a non-deductible donation, make your check payable to Drug Reform Coordination Network, and send to P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016. Tax-deductible donation checks should be payable to DRCNet Foundation, same address.

Visit https://stopthedrugwar.org/about#donations for information on other donation options like stock shares, or to read more about our work. Also visit https://stopthedrugwar.org/global and https://stopthedrugwar.org/philippines for more about what we're doing.

Thank you for your support, and enjoy the rest of your summer.

Sincerely,

David Borden
StoptheDrugWar.org
Washington, DC
"US and UN Drug Policy Reform"
https://stopthedrugwar.org

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4. This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A rogue DEA agent cops a plea, a former Detroit cop gets nailed as a dope dealer, and more. Let's get to it:

In New York City, an NYPD school safety agent was arrested Friday after she was caught with three pounds of marijuana and a stash of cash in her apartment. Agent Iashia Glover, 29, got caught not only with $17,000 in cash, but also $2,390 in counterfeit cash. She is charged with marijuana possession and forgery.

In New York City, a former DEA agent pleaded guilty Monday to participating in a decade long drug conspiracy that smuggled thousands of kilograms of cocaine from Puerto Rico to New York. Fernando Gomez "infiltrated" the DEA in 2011 by lying about his ties to the murderous trafficking ring, then assisted them by, among other things, selling weapons to them and divulging law enforcement information to them. He's looking at up to 20 years in federal prison when sentenced in November.

In Detroit, a former Detroit police officer was convicted Tuesday of being part of a drug trafficking organization -- and was even paid $20,000 for staging a fake arrest. Former officer Christopher Staton, 52, was found to have conspired with traffickers to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute controlled substances, including cocaine and fentanyl. Staton ran license plates and provided other sensitive law enforcement information to the group.

In Mt. Holly, New Jersey, a former state prison guard was sentenced last Friday to seven years in prison after being convicted of smuggling oxycodone, marijuana and tobacco to inmates in exchange for money. Steven Saunders, 51, will be ineligible for parole for five years. He was convicted of conspiracy, official misconduct, bribery in official matters, and acceptance or receipt of unlawful benefit by a public servant for official behavior, as well as possession of oxycodone with intent to distribute and distribution of marijuana, Grewal said.

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5. Chronicle AM: Tentative Oxycontin Settlement, Philippines Says No to UN Investigators, More... (9/12/19)

It looks like the thousands of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma over Oxycontin are about to be settled, a new audit finds California's unlicensed pot shops greatly outnumber licensed ones, Florida's attorney general seeks to block a marijuana legalization initiative, and more.

Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family will reportedly pay out billions to settle Oxycontin lawsuits. (Creative Commons)
California's Legal Pot Shops Are Outnumbered Three-to-One by Black Market Ones. According to an audit conducted by the United Cannabis Business Association, there are more than three times as many unlicensed marijuana shops as there are regulated ones. The audit found about 2,850 unlicensed dispensaries and delivery services, compared to only 873 licensed sellers in the state. The audit was based on Weedmaps listings. Fewer than 20% of California cities allow regulated pot shops, and though many large cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco, do allow them, unlicensed dispensaries proliferate there as well. Earlier this year, Weedmaps showed 220 unlicensed pot shops in Los Angeles, compared to only 187 licensed ones.

Florida Attorney General Challenges Legalization Initiative. State Attorney General Ashley Moody (R) is challenging a proposed constitutional amendment that would legalize marijuana in the state… on the grounds that it is too detailed. The amendment is 10 pages long. "There is no way 10 pages of the law can be summarized clearly in 75 words or less and would adequately convey to the voters what exactly they will be voting on," the attorney general said. There are two significant legalization initiative campaigns underway in the state; the one Moody is challenging is the "Regulate Marijuana in a Manner Similar to Alcohol to Establish Age, Licensing, and Other Restrictions" initiative. Now it will be up to the state Supreme Court to determine whether the initiative comports with the legal requirements.

New Mexico Task Force Opposes State-Run Pot Shops. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's (D) Cannabis Legalization Working Group, which is looking at regulatory options for marijuana legalization, has come out against state-run marijuana stores. Instead, it is endorsing a system of licensing commercial entities. The working group also recommends barring local governments from banning pot shops, although they would be allowed to impose zoning and similar restrictions.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Medical Board Rejects Anxiety, Autism as Qualifying Conditions. The State Medical Board voted Wednesday to reject adding anxiety and autism spectrum disorder to the state's list of qualifying conditions for the use of medical marijuana. Earlier this year, the state's Medical Marijuana Expert Review Committee recommended adding the conditions, but the board overruled them. It did say it might revisit the issue later "if additional studies or evidence are brought forth in the petition process."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Purdue Pharma, Sackler Family Agree to Oxycontin Settlement. Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family have reportedly agreed to a tentative settlement of thousands of lawsuits filed by states and other localities over the role of Oxycontin in the current opioid epidemic. According to news reports, Purdue will file for bankruptcy and effectively dissolve, while a new company will form and continue selling Oxycontin, with the revenues going to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit settlement. The deal is expected to be worth between $10 and $12 billion, including $3 billion from the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue.

International

Philippines Refuses to Grant UN Access to Investigate Bloody Drug War. The Philippines will not allow visits by the United Nations to investigate its brutal war on drugs, Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin said Wednesday. He called the UN experts "bastards" who had already prejudged his country. Asked if UN investigators should be allowed to work in the country, he said: "No. Because they have already prejudged. I already said those bastards -- especially that woman acting like the queen in Alice in Wonderland -- first, the judgment, then the trial. No." That was a reference to Agnes Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, who has been a staunch critic of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte.

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6. Chronicle AM: Joe Biden's Muddy Marijuana Policy Message, Peru Coca Eradication Gearing Up, More... (9/13/19)

Joe Biden muddies the waters on his marijuana policy, Copenhagen is moving toward a pilot progeram of legal marijuana sales, Peru prepares to go after coca crops in a lawless region, and more.

Joe Biden. Where, exactly, is he on marijuana policy? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Bipartisan House Bill to Reschedule Marijuana Filed. Florida US Reps. Donna Shalala (D) and Matt Gaetz (R) filed a bill Thursday aimed at reducing barriers to marijuana research by moving it from Schedule I to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act. The Expanding Cannabis Research and Information Act is identical companion legislation to a bill filed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) in July, S. 2400.

Joe Biden Says Marijuana Offenses Should Be Misdemeanors, But Without Jail Time. During Thursday night's Democratic presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden muddied the waters by saying marijuana offenses should be treated as misdemeanors, even though he has earlier called for decriminalization. Many other candidates are calling for legalization. Here's what Biden said: "Nobody who got in prison for marijuana, for example -- immediately upon being released, they shouldn't be in there." he said. "That should be a misdemeanor. They should be out and their record should be expunged. Every single right should be returned," he said. "When you finish your term in prison, you should be able to not only vote but have access to Pell grants, have access to be able to get housing, have access to be able to move along the way."

International

Denmark's Capital City Moves toward Legal Marijuana. The Copenhagen city council overwhelmingly supports a pilot program that would see marijuana sold legally across the city. The city has long been prepared to move down this path, but had been stymied by a conservative national government. But now, left-wing parties won an overall majority in elections this summer. The new health minister, Magnus Heunicke, doesn't endorse the scheme, but the city council is moving forward anyway. Under the proposed plan, a half dozen or so marijuana dispensaries would operate in the city.

Peru to Start Eradicating Coca Crops in the VRAEM. For the first time, Peruvian security forces will attempt to eradicate illicit coca plants in the country's largest coca growing area, the Valleys of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers (VRAEM), the government announced Thursday. Starting November 1, authorities will undertake a 45-day operation aiming to eradicate some 1,800 acres of coca crops, and they are vowing to intensify such operations next year. The region produced some 60,000 acres of coca in 2017, according to the UN. Although the region has been in a state of emergency for decades, recent governments have declined to send in coca eradication teams for fear of a violent backlash from coca farmers and remnants of the Shining Path guerrillas who have morphed into drug traffickers.

(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.)

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7. Chronicle AM: House MJ Banking Bill to Get Floor Vote, Purdue Pharma Files for Bankruptcy, More... (9/16/19)

A bill to open up financial services for the marijuana industry will get a House floor vote this month, the maker of OxyContin files for bankruptcy, the marijuana industry places the blame for vaping deaths on marijuana prohibition, and more.

Is marijuana prohibition to blame for vaping deaths? The industry is pointing a finger. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Will Vote This Month on Marijuana Banking Bill. The office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has confirmed that he intends to bring the SAFE Banking Act to the House floor for a vote this month. Hoyer announced the move at a whip meeting last Thursday. The bill passed out of the House Financial Committee in March on a 45-15 vote. It would provide protections for banks that work with marijuana companies since the substance is still illegal under federal law, despite several states having legalized medical or recreational marijuana.

Marijuana Industry Blames Vaping Deaths on Failed Prohibition Policies.The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) has blamed the recent wave of vaping deaths -- a total of six so far -- on "failed prohibition policies" and called on Congress to legalize and regulate marijuana. "These unfortunate illnesses and deaths are yet another terrible, and largely avoidable, consequence of failed prohibition policies," said NCIA Executive Director Aaron Smith. "Current federal laws interfere with research, prevent federal regulatory agencies from establishing safety guidelines, discourage states from regulating cannabis, and make it more difficult for state-legal cannabis businesses to displace the illicit market. It is now the responsibility of Congress to end prohibition and regulate cannabis without delay," Smith added. "By removing cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances and instituting a clear regulatory framework through existing agencies, the federal government can provide helpful guidance to states that have or wish to establish regulated cannabis control systems while helping put irresponsible illicit market producers out of business for good."

Medical Marijuana

Utah Lawmakers Meet to Revise Medical Marijuana Law. Legislators returned to the state capitol Monday to once more amend the state's medical marijuana law. One issue is how and where patients will obtain medical marijuana products. The state had contemplated a central government-run pharmacy that would distribute the drug to a system of private pharmacies, but local leaders have balked at having government employees distributing a federally illegal drug.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Purdue Pharma Files for Bankruptcy. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, filed for bankruptcy on Sunday, the first step of a tentative agreement the company and its owners, the Sackler family, reached last week to settle thousands of lawsuits blaming it for its involvement in the opioid epidemic. The deal is estimated at between $10 and $12 billion, with $3 billion coming from the Sacklers' personal fortunes.

Psychedelics

Ann Arbor Group Wants to Decriminalize Natural Psychedelics. A local group calling itself Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor is planning to ask the city council to decriminalize natural psychedelics, such as peyote and magic mushrooms. They are calling on the council to approve a resolution to prohibit the use of city funds to investigate, arrest, or prosecute anyone for use or possession of such plants.

International

British Labor Party Wants Royal Commission on Drug Policy, Would Follow Its Recommendation to Decriminalize Drugs. A Labor government would consider decriminalizing all drugs if that was recommended by a royal commission, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said. "There is nothing more important than preserving the life of our citizens," she said. "Our current approach to drugs is simply not doing that." Safe injection sites would also be considered, she added.

Thailand Bill Would Allow for Six Marijuana Plants for Personal Use. A member party in the country's ruling coalition government has proposed a bill that would let Thais grow up to six marijuana plants per household for medicinal use. "The principle is for medical use, you can have it at home for ailments, but not smoke it on the street," said Bhumjaithai Party lawmaker Supachai Jaisamut. The bill would also allow the sale of plants to institutions licensed by a Plant-based Drug Institute that would have the authority to purchase, extract, and export CBD.

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8. Chronicle AM: DEA Takes Aim at Fentanyl Precursors, CA Governor Takes Aim at Vaping Crisis, More... (9/17/19)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) issues an executive order on vaping, the DEA designates some fentanyl precursors as controlled substances, and more.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) takes aim at the vaping crisis. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Governor Issues Executive Order on Vaping. Responding to rising concerns over vaping-related deaths and illnesses, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) on Monday issued an executive order launching a new crackdown on the industry, for both tobacco-related companies and marijuana businesses. The order jump-starts a new public awareness campaign focused on the potential dangers of vaping both tobacco and marijuana, seeks recommendations on mandating additional warning signs on vaping products and at stores, and heightens enforcement against counterfeit e-cigs and marijuana products. It requests the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) begin developing recommendations for warnings on vaping products and at retail locations -- possibly including cannabis retailers -- and increasing enforcement against retailers that sell vaping products to minors. While Newsom focused on e-cigs, he also made clear that he was looking at the marijuana industry, too. "This is about these vaping products that are used for both cannabis and tobacco products," Newsom said. "We're getting serious about this issue and we're going to drive these issues as far as we can through executive authority."

Medical Marijuana

Utah Legislature Passes Changes to Medical Marijuana Law, Allows More Dispensaries. The legislature on Tuesday approved changes in the state's medical marijuana law that will allow for 14 medical marijuana dispensaries, and possibly more in the future. But lawmakers said they still need to make further "tweaks" in the law, including removing a state-operated "central fill pharmacy" after local officials expressed concerns about possibly violating federal laws. The state's program is supposed to be up and running by March 1, 2020.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

DEA Proposes to Control Three Precursor Chemicals Used in Illicit Fentanyl Manufacture. The DEA has proposed to control three substances used by operators of clandestine laboratories to illicitly manufacture the deadly Schedule II controlled substance fentanyl. The DEA proposed on September 13 that benzylfentanyl and 4-anilinopiperidine be controlled as list I chemicals under the Controlled Substances Act. On Tuesday, DEA proposed to designate norfentanyl as an immediate precursor (i.e., a substance from which another is formed) for fentanyl and to make it a Schedule II controlled substance under the CSA. Both Notices are based on findings that these substances are important precursors used in the illegal production of fentanyl. Most illicit fentanyl manufacturing is done outside the United States.

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9. Chronicle AM: Coalition Urges Delay in House Pot Banking Vote, Chicago Mayor: No Pot Shops Downtown, More... (9/18/19)

Civil rights and drug policy groups fearing a loss of momentum in ending federal pot prohibition are urging a delay in a marijuana banking bill vote, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot doesn't want pot shops downtown, and more.

Should Congress move on marijuana banking or end federal prohibition first? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Civil Rights Groups Urge Congress to Delay Marijuana Banking Vote. A broad coalition of organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and Drug Policy Alliance is calling on Democratic congressional Democratic leaders to postpone a planned vote on a marijuana banking bill next week until farther-reaching legislation to end federal marijuana prohibition advances first. "We are concerned that if the House approves this bill, it will undermine broader and more inclusive efforts to reform our country's marijuana laws," the groups wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) in a letter on Tuesday.

Chicago Mayor Wants No Pot Shops Downtown. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) rolled out a proposal Tuesday for how legal marijuana would work in the city. Under her plan, use of marijuana would be banned in public places and no pot shops would be allowed to operate in the Central Business District. That's generating some pushback from some city council members. The proposal would also prohibit the sale of recreational marijuana within 500 feet of schools and within 1,500 feet of other dispensaries. A vote on the proposal is expected next month.

International

Colombia Bill to Legalize, Regulate Marijuana Filed. Leftist opposition Sen. Gustavo Bolivar has filed a bill to legalize and regulate the production and consumption of marijuana. The bill is part of a package of drug policy bills aimed at ending the repressive policies of President Ivan Duque. The bill is reportedly backed by former President Juan Manuel Santos, but it is the votes of the Liberal Party that will determine whether the bill advances.

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10. Chronicle AM: Beto Says Use MJ Taxes for Drug War Reparations, Yang Says Decriminalize Opiates, More... (9/19/19)

Democratic presidential contenders make dramatic policy proposals, DC loosens up on marijuana, Michigan lawmakers move toward sentencing reform, and more.

Beto O'Rourke wants to legalize marijuana and use the taxes to pay drug war victims. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Beto O'Rourke Proposes Drug War Reparations Funded by Marijuana Taxes. Democratic presidential contender Beto O'Rourke on Thursday proposed legalizing marijuana and using the tax revenues to make direct payments for former drug war prisoners through a "Drug War Justice Grant" program. "We need to not only end the prohibition on marijuana, but also repair the damage done to the communities of color disproportionately locked up in our criminal justice system or locked out of opportunity because of the War on Drugs," ​O'Rourke said in a press release.​ "These inequalities have compounded for decades, as predominantly white communities have been given the vast majority of lucrative business opportunities, while communities of color still face over-policing and criminalization. It's our responsibility to begin to remedy the injustices of the past and help the people and communities most impacted by this misguided war."

DC City Employees Free to Use Marijuana on Own Time. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) issued a mayoral order Wednesday notifying District municipal workers that marijuana use can no longer prevent either getting a government job or keeping one. Some safety-sensitive workers, such as police, are still barred from using marijuana, but now, city agencies can no longer create their own policies and instead must restrict marijuana use only by employees who fit into such categories.

Medical Marijuana

New Hampshire is One Step Closer to Legalizing Medical Home Growing. The state House voted 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.

Medical Marijuana Patients Will Be Able to Get Treatment in DC Schools Under Emergency Legislation. The DC city council on 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.

Drug Policy

Andrew Yang Calls for Decriminalization of Opiates. Democratic presidential contender Andrew Yang said Wednesday he would decriminalize the possession of opiates for personal use if elected president. "In addition to decriminalizing marijuana, I would decriminalize opiates for personal use," Yang said, noting that this would include heroin. [Ed: One way that criminalization of opiates increases harm is that when addicted users are incarcerated and then get out, some of them return to using, but with lower tolerance levels than they had before. If they don't realize that, they may take doses that their bodies could handle before, but can kill them now.]

Sentencing Policy

Michigan Sentencing Reform Package Rolled Out. Lawmakers and ACLU officials stood together Wednesday to roll out a new bipartisan plan for sentencing reform. The proposed bill package, introduced by state Sen. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington), state Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit), is aimed at overhauling the state's mandatory minimum sentencing laws "It's quite simple: We don't have a problem with crime. We have a problem with incarceration," Santana said. The number of inmates in the state increased by 13,000 during the administration of former Gov. John Engler (R).

(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.)

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Permission to Reprint: This issue of Drug War Chronicle is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Articles of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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