Drug War Chronicle #1136 - July 7, 2021

1. Federal Appeals Court Taps the Brakes on Drug Induced Homicide Prosecutions of Drug Users [FEATURE]

Prosecuting drug users for murder when they score together and one of them overdoses just isn't right, a federal appeals court has ruled.

2. Historic Federal Drug Decriminalization Bill Introduced [FEATURE]

For the first time, a federal drug decriminalization bill will be filed in Congress.

3. Medical Marijuana Update

South Dakota steps into the age of medical marijuana, governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania sign bills easing the burden on patients, and more.

4. This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A South Carolina prison guard gets caught smuggling dope in a Rice Krispies treat, a Birmingham cop is facing some problems, and more.

5. House Democrats Advance Marijuana Banking, DC Pot Sales Bill, NC MedMJ Bill Advances, More... (6/24/21)

The Veterans Administration comes out against a medical marijuana research bill for veterans, House Democrats move a bill that would provide protection to banks doing business with marijuana firms and allow pot sales in DC, and more.

6. RI Marijuana Legalization Push Hits Bump, UN Warns Pandemic Could Propel Drug Use, Cultivation, More... (6/25/21)

There's progress on medical marijuana this week in the South, a key Rhode Island lawmaker slams the brakes on a marijuana legalization push, and more.

7. Clarence Thomas Questions Federal Marijuana Prohibition, ONDCP Reports on Colombia Coca, More... (6/28/21)

A major pharmaceutical company settles with the state of New York over opioid distribution, Minnesota lawmakers are on the verge of passing policing reforms, and more.

8. CA Psychedelic Decrim Bill Advances, Marijuana Gets Legalized in Three States This Week, More... (6/30/21)

The Rhode island legislature is on the verge of passing a bill allowing drug checking and safe consumption sites, Mexico's Supreme Court again declares marijuana prohibition unconstitutional, and more.

9. ME Senate Defeats Drug Decrim Bill, House Approves Marijuana Research Language, More... (7/1/21)

Medical marijuana is now legal in South Dakota, Austin activists roll out a municipal marijuana decriminalization initiative, and more.

10. RI Legislature Passes Safe Injection Site Bill, CA Coerced Treatment Bill Advances More... (7/2/21)

The Mississippi Supreme Court continues to smack down the will of the people on medical marijuana, a coerced drug treatment bill advances in California to the dismay of reformers, and more.

11. NJ Governor Signs MedMJ Telehealth Bill, SD Activists Prepare 2022 Legalization Initiatives, More... (7/6/21)

A Rhode Island marijuana legalization bill gets a hearing but appears doomed this year, a South Dakota Native American reservation opens the state's first medical marijuana dispensary, and more.

1. Federal Appeals Court Taps the Brakes on Drug Induced Homicide Prosecutions of Drug Users [FEATURE]

A woman who bought heroin with a pair of friends, one of whom shortly afterward suffered a fatal overdose on the drug, is not a murderer, at least according to the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. That was the June 1 ruling in US v. Semler, a case that may not set binding precedent, but does send a signal to the prosecutors and the judiciary that the federal courts do not want to see a federal law aimed at so-called drug kingpins applied to mere drug users.

As described in the decision, the case began when two heroin-addicted Philadelphia women, Emma Semler and her old drug rehab buddy Jennifer Werstler, went to score heroin together at Wertsler's request. They were joined by Semler's sister Sarah, who drove them to the West Philadelphia locale where they bought their heroin. It is unclear who actually purchased and then shared the heroin. The trio then shot up in the restroom of a nearby KFC restaurant. Werstler began to show signs of overdosing, and the Semler sisters "attempted to revive Werstler by splashing cold water on her, then left the bathroom and called their mother for a ride home. They did not call 911 or alert anyone to Werstler's condition."

Werstler was later discovered by a KFC employee, who called 911, but EMTs arrived too late to save her and she was pronounced dead. Her official cause of death was "adverse reaction to heroin."

Semler was then indicted by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania with "distribution of heroin resulting in death," punishable by a 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. As an added bonus, she was also charged with doing so within 1,000 feet of a school, as well as aiding and abetting on both counts. She was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 21 years in prison.

Semler appealed, arguing that friends sharing jointly procured drugs did not qualify as drug distribution and that the district court had erred in refusing to allow a jury instruction to that effect, as well as erring in failing to instruct the jury that there had to be a "proximate cause" for it to convict.

Scott Burris, JD, is a professor of both law and public health at Temple University and directs Temple's Center for Public Health Law Research. He is also Semler's appellate counsel and coauthor of an amicus curiae brief supporting Semler, which nicely laid out the issues at play.

"This case presents the Court with an opportunity to determine the proper scope of the Drug Distribution Resulting in Death (DDRD) sentencing enhancement provision," the abstract explains. "The provision, its parent statute, and the totality of modern federal law and policy to stem the overdose crisis are intended to target major drug traffickers. Research suggests that DDRD prosecutions routinely pervert this intent, indiscriminately deploying DDRD and similar provisions to target end consumers of illicit drugs affected by addiction. Rather than deterring drug trafficking, such prosecutions deter help-seeking during overdose events and interfere with overdose prevention measures. This cuts at cross purposes to overdose crisis response, leading to more, not fewer deaths."

The 3rd District Court of Appeals agreed, vacating Semler's conviction and sending her case back for retrial using proper legal instructions for jurors. "We hold that the definition of 'distribute' under the Controlled Substances Act does not cover individuals who jointly and simultaneously acquire the possession of a small amount of a controlled substance solely for their personal use," wrote Judge Jane Richard Roth.

It was a victory, if not a complete exoneration, for Emma Semler and any other drug user federal prosecutors in the 3rd Circuit might have been thinking about charging under that statute. Hopefully it also serves as a distant early warning signal for states that have passed drug induced homicide laws, as well as for state-level prosecutors, who are zealously embracing them to convict low-level drug users as murderers.

The Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University School of Law reported that the number of states with such laws jumped from 15 to 25 in from 2009 to 2019, while the number of drug induced homicide prosecutions hovered at near zero from the 1970s until the early 2000s. Then, as overdose deaths jumped, so did prosecutions, rising to 100 per year by 2011 before skyrocketing to nearly 700 per year by 2018.

In a 2019 Utah Law Review article, Northeastern law professor and faculty director of the Health in Justice Action lab faculty adviser Leo Beletsky found while the laws are ostensibly aimed at drug dealers, "half of those charged with drug induced homicide were not, in fact, 'dealers' in the traditional sense, but friends and relatives of the deceased." He also found that in cases that involved a traditional "drug dealer," half of those prosecuted were black or brown people who sold drugs to whites -- a fact he noted does not fit the demographics of the United States or of drug dealers.

"In view of that context," he wrote, "these findings suggest that drug-induced homicide charges are being selectively and disproportionately deployed to target people of color. This disparate application can further reinforce already dire racial disparities, particularly in the enforcement of drug laws and the length of sentencing for drug-related crimes."

And, as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) pointed out in its 2017 report, An Overdose Death is Not a Murder: Why Drug Induced Homicide Laws Are Ineffective and Inhumane, those laws don't work to reduce overdoses: "Prosecutors and legislators who champion renewed drug induced homicide enforcement couch the use of this punitive measure, either naively or disingenuously, as necessary to curb increasing rates of drug overdose deaths. But there is not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities. In fact, death tolls continue to climb across the country, even in the states and counties most aggressively prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases."

"The Semler case is one more example of how the Drug War has warped our legal system and led to mass incarceration," DPA senior staff attorney Grey Gardner told the Chronicle in an email exchange. "Prosecutors twisted the law to criminalize this young woman and subject her to a more than 20-year sentence after several friends bought drugs to use together and one suffered a tragic fatal overdose. Urging the jury to convict one of them of drug distribution when each of these users were suffering from substance use disorder and using together was not only overreaching, it highlights the arbitrary nature of our drug laws."

It is also counterproductive, he added: "This prosecution and those like it do nothing to make people safer, but instead put people in greater danger. By elevating the threat of prosecution, they make it less likely that people close to an overdose victim will call for help," he pointed out.

"Thankfully in this case the Court of Appeals rejected the prosecution's overbroad definition of distribution, but what's clear is that we need an entirely new approach," said DPA's Gardner. "Instead of the failed War on Drugs, we need to stop turning to the criminal legal system and spending billions on these ineffective policing strategies. Instead we need better approaches -- such as investments in drug checking, overdose prevention centers, and expanded access to naloxone -- to protect those who are experiencing addiction and are at the greatest risk."

"The court seemed sympathetic to the view that criminal law is not the best way to get at substance use disorder and the behavior of people coping with it," Burris told the Chronicle in an email exchange.

The appeals court labeled its decision as non-precedential, meaning it is not binding on federal district courts in its region, but it still may have a broader impact in the federal courts, Burris explained.

"I think her lawyers are going to ask the court to reconsider that," he said. "It is at least what we call 'persuasive authority' in that its reasoning may be adopted voluntarily by other courts."

As for impact on state and local prosecutions, not so much, he added.

"It has no impact other than as persuasive authority," Burris said. "The state attorney general and local district attorneys pursuing these cases seem to think they are sensible and just, and they are hard to shake," he confessed.

"The overdose crisis is just one symptom of the fundamental disease of inequality and inequity in our country," was Burris's bottom line. "Getting at that root cause requires a sea change in policy such that government at all levels -- and the people who elect the government -- commit to ensuring the basics of decent life to everyone: good work, good housing, good education, good transportation, and a place of respect in the community. In this the 'deaths of despair' idea seems to be to get the problem just right. Of course, short of that, there are many things to do: stop criminalizing drug use; create safe injection sites everywhere they are needed; eliminate regulations that make methadone and buprenorphine harder to get than the drugs whose use they are meant to reduce."

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2. Historic Federal Drug Decriminalization Bill Introduced [FEATURE]

As Richard Nixon's self-declared "war on drugs" reaches its 50th birthday -- he declared drugs "public enemy number one" and pledged to "fight and defeat that enemy" at a June 17, 1971 press conference -- a pair of US representatives are ready to end the half-century campaign that has seen hundreds of billions of dollars burned, millions of people arrested, and relationships between communities and law enforcement strained, all without ever even coming close to defeating that "enemy."

Preempting the Nixonian half-centennial, on June 15, Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO) unveiled the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), whose most striking provision is drug decriminalization. The bill would do away with federal criminal penalties for drug possession, a huge step away from drug war orthodoxy.

And although the vast majority of drug possession arrests are conducted by state and local police under state drugs law -- there were more than 1.5 million drug arrests of all sorts in 2019 and the DEA accounted for only slightly more than 26,000 of them -- the bill is not merely symbolic. It would also penalize states that do not adopt decriminalization by limiting their access to funds from federal law enforcement grant programs.

In line with shifting from a law enforcement approach to drug use to a public health approach, the bill significantly would move regulation over drugs from the Justice Department to the Department of Health and Human Services. The bill also features a number of other provisions, from expunging past records and allowing currently serving inmates to seek resentencing to removing many of the collateral consequences of a drug possession conviction, such as the loss of voting rights and employment opportunities, the denial of public benefits such as food stamps, and deportation for non-citizens.

"The United States has not simply failed in how we carried out the War on Drugs -- the War on Drugs stands as a stain on our national conscience since its very inception," said Rep. Watson Coleman in a press release accompanying the roll-out of the bill.

"Begun in 1972 as a cynical political tactic of the Nixon Administration, the War on Drugs has destroyed the lives of countless Americans and their families. As we work to address the opioid epidemic, it is essential that we change tactics in how we address drug use away from the failed punitive approach to a health-based and evidence-based approach," Watson Coleman continued.

"Growing up in St. Louis, I saw the crack-cocaine epidemic rob my community of so many lives," said Rep. Bush in the joint press release. "I lived through a malicious marijuana war that saw Black people arrested for possession at three times the rate of their white counterparts, even though usage rates are similar. As a nurse, I’ve watched Black families criminalized for heroin use while white families are treated for opioid use. And now, as a Congresswoman, I am seeing the pattern repeat itself with fentanyl, as the DEA presses for an expanded classification that would criminalize possession and use. This punitive approach creates more pain, increases substance use, and leaves millions of people to live in shame and isolation with limited support and healing. It's time to put wellness and compassion ahead of trauma and punishment."

While the introduction of the bill is a historic first -- no other drug decriminalization bill has ever been filed in Congress -- the public is already on board and waiting for Congress to catch up. According to a June 9ance (DPA), which helped Reps. Bush and Watson Coleman draft the bill, 83 percent of respondents said the war on drugs has failed, 66 percent support "eliminating criminal penalties for drug possession and reinvesting drug enforcement resources into treatment and addiction services," 64 percent support ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, and 63 percent said drug use should be approached as a public health, not a law enforcement issue.

"This is a huge transformational shift, acknowledging that the majority of people who use drugs do not use them problematically," said Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for DPA's Office of National Affairs, during a June 15 virtual press conference on the bill. "As evidenced by 50 long years, criminalization and stigma don't make drug use disappear, they just make using drugs more dangerous. We cannot afford another 50 years of drug war violence and neglect. We must consider forging a new path that doesn't include putting people in cages.

Neill Franklin is a 34-year police veteran who for years commanded drug task forces in northeast Maryland. He recently retired as head of the pro-drug reform group the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), and continues to serve as a spokesperson and board member. LEAP's members are past and former members of law enforcement and prosecutors' offices. Franklin was also on the virtual press conference.

"During my career, I was personally responsible for arresting so many people just for possessing drugs," he said. "It's difficult for police to accept what we are now learning about this health issue of drug use, especially after we've been involved in this failed war on drugs for so long, but not one of us at LEAP disagrees with removing the medical issue of drug use from the police and placing it in the capable hands of practitioners and counselors."

Drug decriminalization is especially important now because of fraught relations between police and the communities they are supposed to serve, as evidenced by the mass protests occasioned by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year. Drug prohibition drives many of those tense interactions between police and people of color.

"This is critical for police reform in this country," Franklin continued. "The war on drugs is one of the main reasons we and our community members have conflicts. Searching our citizens day after day, looking for drugs, civil forfeiture, all that."

With only one state -- Oregon -- having so far embraced drug decriminalization, the feds could lead the way, Franklin added.

"With a federal policy of decriminalizing drugs and the people who use them, the states will follow," he predicted.

But with the first federal decriminalization bill just being introduced, the first hurdle is actually moving it. Reps. Bush and Watson Coleman are now busy seeking cosponsors and moving toward hearings as an initial step.

"We're in the process of arranging conversations, looking for a Senate sponsor and speaking with House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) about future hearings," said Watson Coleman during the virtual press conference. "We recognize that this is beyond urgent, and we'll be doing outreach on both the Senate and the House side.

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3. Medical Marijuana Update

South Dakota gingerly enters the medical marijuana age, governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania sign bills that will ease burdens on patients, and more.

New Jersey

New Jersey Governor Okays Telehealth Prescriptions for Medical Marijuana. Governor Phil Murphy (D) has finally signed a bill allowing health care providers to recommend medical marijuana via telehealth. He originally vetoed SD 619/A 1635 back in April after criticizing it for including a 270-day waiting period before going into effect. The legislature then amended the bill and got rid of that waiting period so it will go into effect immediately. The amended bill also removed language requiring an in-person doctor visit before initiating telehealth.

North Carolina

North Carolina Compassionate Use Act Wins First Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary voted Wednesday to approve Senate Bill 711, the Compassionate Use Act. The measure would allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes and set up a system of taxed and regulated medical marijuana cultivation and distribution. It must also pass the Senate finance, health care, and rules and operations committees before heading for a floor vote.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) on Wednesday signed into law House Bill 1024, which updates the state's medical marijuana law to protect patient safety standards and product quality, as well as empowering the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board to consider adding new qualifying medical conditions. "It's been five years since Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana, and in that time the Department of Health has examined the program's successes and challenges and made important recommendations on improving the law," Gov. Wolf said. "This legislation provides important updates to our state's medical marijuana program to ensure that patients have improved access to medication."

South Dakota

South Dakota State Troopers Will No Longer Arrest People with Less Than Three Ounces of Weed -- If It's Medical. With medical marijuana becoming legal in the state as of July 1, the office of Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has announced that state Highway Patrol troopers will no longer arrest people possessing up to three ounces of "natural and unaltered marijuana" as long as they have a patient card, or even if they don't, if they claim the marijuana is for medical use and offer some sort of documentation. Meanwhile, the state's largest city, Sioux Falls, has announced it will no longer make arrests for small-time pot possession. "Even if you don't have a medical marijuana card, the decision was made that on low level, low quantity offenses, it's a waste of resources to try and enforce the very, very complicated version of medical marijuana that was passed by the voter," Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said. In a state where people are still arrested for testing positive for marijuana, this is progress.

South Dakota Tribe Opens First Medical Marijuana Dispensary in the State. While the state's medical marijuana program, approved by voters last November, is not set to go into operation until next year, medical marijuana became legal in the state on July 1, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe isn't waiting for state regulators. The state's first medical marijuana dispensary opened on the reservation that same day. The tribe requires customers to first obtain a medical marijuana ID card through its medical marijuana program, which is independent of the program being crafted by the state Health Department. That is leading some skeptics to fear that non-tribe members could face problems with state law enforcement even though the Noem administration last week released Highway Patrol guidelines saying troopers would not arrest people with unexpired medical marijuana cards provided they possessed less than the legally allowed three ounces.

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4. This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A South Carolina prison guard gets caught smuggling dope in a Rice Krispies treat, a Birmingham cop is facing some problems, and more. Let's get to it:

In Columbia, South Carolina, a state prison guard was arrested last Thursday after being caught smuggling pills into the prison hidden in a Rice Krispies treat. Correctional Officer Marcy T. Shaffer faces charges of possession of narcotics with intent to distribute, furnishing prisoners with contraband, and misconduct in office. And she was fired.

In Birmingham, Alabama, a Birmingham police officer was arrested last Saturday on rape and drug possession charges. Officer Matthew Wilcox, 37, went down after police received a complaint about him and executed a search warrant at his home, where they found illegal drugs and guns. Police did not release any details on the alleged sexual assault, other than to say it did not occur on duty. He walked out of jail on a $26,000 bond on Sunday. There was no further information at press time.

In Lawrenceville, Virginia, a Brunswick County prison guard was arrested Monday after being caught carrying around a bag with dope in it at work. Guard Jakela Shanice Armstrong, 32, went down after she was observed carrying the bag around during her shift. A prison investigator stopped her and made her surrender the bag, which contained "a white powder wrapped in clear plastic and black tape." She is charged with drug possession with intent to distribute. And she's been fired.

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5. House Democrats Advance Marijuana Banking, DC Pot Sales Bill, NC MedMJ Bill Advances, More... (6/24/21)

The Veterans Administration comes out against a medical marijuana research bill for veterans, House Democrats move a bill that would provide protection to banks doing business with marijuana firms and allow pot sales in DC, and more.

Marijuana Policy

House Democrats Advance Funding Bill with Marijuana Banking Protection and DC Marijuana Sales. The House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee voted Thursday to advance a massive funding bill that includes language protecting financial institutions that work with state-legal marijuana firms and allowing Washington, DC, to go ahead with legal marijuana sales. The move puts the subcommittee at odds with the Biden administration, which in its budget proposal supported continuing a 2014 congressional rider to the DC appropriations bill sponsored by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD). The full House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to take up the legislation on Tuesday.

Medical Marijuana

Veterans Administration Does Not Want to Conduct Medical Marijuana Research9. During a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday, VA Acting Deputy Under Secretary of Health for Community Care Mark Upton made it plain the administration opposes a bill that would require the VA to conduct clinical trials on the therapeutic potential of marijuana for vets with chronic pain and PTSD. The agency "does not support this bill," Upton told the committee. He said the legislation was unnecessary because the VA is "already dedicating resources and research expertise to study the effects of cannabis on conditions affecting veterans."

North Carolina Senate Committee Moves on Medical Marijuana. The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday adopted and passed a substitute version of a medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 711. The bill would allow medical marijuana use for a list of specified debilitating medical conditions, including cancer, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis. Under the substitute adopted by the committee, a 13-member Medical Cannabis Advisory Board would be empowered to add new conditions to the list. The bill must now also get through the Senate finance, health care, and rules and operations committees being getting a floor vote.

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6. RI Marijuana Legalization Push Hits Bump, UN Warns Pandemic Could Propel Drug Use, Cultivation, More... (6/25/21)

There's progress on medical marijuana this week in the South, a key Rhode Island lawmaker slams the brakes on a marijuana legalization push, and more.

The coronavirus pandemic could propel new cultivation of illegal drug crops, the UNODC reports. (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Rhode Island Key Lawmakers Slams Brakes on Legalization Effort. On the day after the state Senate passed a marijuana legalization bill, an amended version of Senate Bill 568, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi (D-Warwick) signaled he was in no hurry to finish the job. He said the state could afford to wait to legalize it while authorities consider diverging proposals, that a proper regulatory structure needed to be created, and that he wanted to ensure that the state gets adequate revenues from legalization. "If we're going to legalize recreational use of marijuana, we want to make sure that the state gets its fair share," he said. He said he had seen "six or seven legitimate proposals" for marijuana legalization that are "very divergent." But the Senate has only passed the one.

Medical Marijuana

Alabama Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Bill into Law. Governor Kay Ivey (R) has signed into law a medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 46. The new law allows people suffering from a specified list of medical conditions to use medical marijuana with a physician's recommendations. The state had enacted a law allowing for the use of CBD in 2014 and broadened that law in 2016, but now has enacted a full-fledged medical marijuana law. But patients will not be allowed to use smokable marijuana nor grow their own. Instead, 12 commercial growers and 12 dispensaries will be authorized to cultivate and distribute medical marijuana. The system is expected to be up and running by the fall of 2022.

Louisiana Governor Signs Bill Allowing Smokable Medical Marijuana. Governor John Bel Edwards (D) has signed into law House Bill 391, which will allow patients to use smokable medical marijuana. The bill passed non-controversially, and its sponsor, Rep. Tanner Magee (D-Houma) said its purposes was to drive down costs and respond to popular demand. "Having the raw form of it, which the public has shown they really want, will allow them to drive down their costs so they can pass on to the consumer and have a real alternative to opioids," Magee said. Smokable medical marijuana will not be available for purchase until January because of time lags with the two state universities who are currently the only institutions authorized to produce medical marijuana.

International

UNODC Releases Annual Report, Warns That Fallout from Pandemic Could Last for Years. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released the 2021 World Drug Report Thursday and warned that the coronavirus pandemic is propelling more people into drug use, has caused drug trafficking groups to adapt to changed conditions, and sowed economic hardship that could lead to increased cultivation of illicit drug crops. "[D]rug markets have swiftly resumed operations after the initial disruption at the onset of the pandemic; a burst that has triggered or accelerated certain pre-existing trafficking dynamics across the global drug market," UNODC said. "Among these are: increasingly larger shipments of illicit drugs, a rise in the frequency of overland and water-way routes used for trafficking, greater use of private planes for the purpose of drug trafficking, and an upsurge in the use of contactless methods to deliver drugs to end-consumers. The resilience of drug markets during the pandemic has demonstrated once again traffickers' ability to adapt quickly to changed environments and circumstances." On the potential increase in drug crops, UNODC said: "While the impact of COVID-19 on drug challenges is not yet fully known, the analysis suggests that the pandemic has brought increasing economic hardship that is likely to make illicit drug cultivation more appealing to fragile rural communities. The social impact of the pandemic -- driving a rise in inequality, poverty, and mental health conditions particularly among already vulnerable populations -- represent factors that could push more people into drug use."

UN For First Time Engages with Marijuana Regulations. In the 2021 World Drug Report released Thursday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime called for a global ban on marijuana advertising, saying "a comprehensive ban on advertising, promoting and sponsoring cannabis would ensure that public health interests prevail over business interests." While the call is in line with the UN's long-standing opposition to marijuana legalization, it also marks the first time the anti-drug agency has engaged with the notion of regulating -- not merely prohibiting -- marijuana use and production.

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7. Clarence Thomas Questions Federal Marijuana Prohibition, ONDCP Reports on Colombia Coca, More... (6/28/21)

A major pharmaceutical company settles with the state of New York over opioid distribution, Minnesota lawmakers are on the verge of passing policing reforms, and more.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas questions the viability of federal marijuana prohibition. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Clarence Thomas Says Federal Marijuana Prohibition May No Longer Make Sense. One the Supreme Court's most conservative justices said Monday that because marijuana is already legalized either medically or recreationally in a growing number of states, federal pot prohibition may no longer make sense. "A prohibition on interstate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the federal government's piecemeal approach," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas as the high court declined to hear the appeal of a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary that was denied federal tax breaks. "Federal policies of the past 16 years have greatly undermined its reasoning," he said. "The federal government's current approach is a half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Johnson & Johnson Settles With New York for $230 Million, Agrees to Stop Selling Opioids. Pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson has agreed to a $230 million settlement with the state of New York over its role in the country's opioid crisis, which has led to nearly half a million dead of overdoses in the past two decades. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to not promote opioids and confirmed it has quit distributing them in the US. Pharmaceutical companies and distributors have faced a barrage of lawsuits over opioids, with governments arguing that the companies pushed the drugs and caused people to become addicted and then turn to illegal opioids as states and the federal government cracked down. The companies argued that they were distributing medically necessary opioids for people who need them. The crackdowns on opioid prescribing have left one group of people in particular in the lurch: chronic pain patients, who must seek opioids and doctors willing to prescribe them in large quantities in the midst of the retrenchment.

Law Enforcement

Minnesota Lawmakers Reach "General Agreement" on Policing Reforms. Legislative leaders of both the Democratic Farm Labor Party and the Republicans have reached "general agreement" on a broad-ranging police reform bill, leaders of both parties said late Saturday. Among other things, the bill would restrict the use of no-knock warrants, civil asset forfeiture reforms (but not an outright ban), reforms of fines and fee structures, restrict the use of confidential informants to better protect them, and make modifications to state police misconduct database to create an early warning system to keep bad cops off the street. The legislature is working under a deadline: If the broader public safety bill that includes the policing reforms is not passed by Wednesday, key government public safety functions, such as running state prisons and the State Patrol, would theoretically face shutdowns. But Gov. Tim Walz (DFL) said he will keep those operations functioning, even if that is legally questionable.

International

US Drug Czar's Office Says Colombia Coca Cultivation Expanded Last Year. Colombian coca cultivation increased 15% last year and potential cocaine production rose 7.9% to around a thousand metric tons, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), said Friday. The report from ONDCP differed from a report issued by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released on June 9, which had a lower figure for crop cultivation but a higher figure -- 1,228 metric tons -- for potential cocaine production. In either case, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer, ahead of second place Peru and third place Bolivia.

Cuba Reiterates Zero Tolerance Drug Policies. Cuba used the occasion of the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on Saturday to make clear that its zero tolerance policy toward drug use, production, and trafficking remains unchanged. In a tweet, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez vowed that the island nations will never be a place to use, store, or traffic illicit drugs.

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8. CA Psychedelic Decrim Bill Advances, Marijuana Gets Legalized in Three States This Week, More... (6/30/21)

South Dakota gingerly enters the medical marijuana age, governors in New Jersey and Pennsylvania sign bills that will ease burdens on patients, and more.

New Jersey

New Jersey Governor Okays Telehealth Prescriptions for Medical Marijuana. Governor Phil Murphy (D) has finally signed a bill allowing health care providers to recommend medical marijuana via telehealth. He originally vetoed SD 619/A 1635 back in April after criticizing it for including a 270-day waiting period before going into effect. The legislature then amended the bill and got rid of that waiting period so it will go into effect immediately. The amended bill also removed language requiring an in-person doctor visit before initiating telehealth.

North Carolina

North Carolina Compassionate Use Act Wins First Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary voted Wednesday to approve Senate Bill 711, the Compassionate Use Act. The measure would allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes and set up a system of taxed and regulated medical marijuana cultivation and distribution. It must also pass the Senate finance, health care, and rules and operations committees before heading for a floor vote.

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) on Wednesday signed into law House Bill 1024, which updates the state's medical marijuana law to protect patient safety standards and product quality, as well as empowering the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board to consider adding new qualifying medical conditions. "It's been five years since Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana, and in that time the Department of Health has examined the program's successes and challenges and made important recommendations on improving the law," Gov. Wolf said. "This legislation provides important updates to our state's medical marijuana program to ensure that patients have improved access to medication."

South Dakota

South Dakota State Troopers Will No Longer Arrest People with Less Than Three Ounces of Weed -- If It's Medical. With medical marijuana becoming legal in the state as of July 1, the office of Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has announced that state Highway Patrol troopers will no longer arrest people possessing up to three ounces of "natural and unaltered marijuana" as long as they have a patient card, or even if they don't, if they claim the marijuana is for medical use and offer some sort of documentation. Meanwhile, the state's largest city, Sioux Falls, has announced it will no longer make arrests for small-time pot possession. "Even if you don't have a medical marijuana card, the decision was made that on low level, low quantity offenses, it's a waste of resources to try and enforce the very, very complicated version of medical marijuana that was passed by the voter," Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said. In a state where people are still arrested for testing positive for marijuana, this is progress.

South Dakota Tribe Opens First Medical Marijuana Dispensary in the State. While the state's medical marijuana program, approved by voters last November, is not set to go into operation until next year, medical marijuana became legal in the state on July 1, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe isn't waiting for state regulators. The state's first medical marijuana dispensary opened on the reservation that same day. The tribe requires customers to first obtain a medical marijuana ID card through its medical marijuana program, which is independent of the program being crafted by the state Health Department. That is leading some skeptics to fear that non-tribe members could face problems with state law enforcement even though the Noem administration last week released Highway Patrol guidelines saying troopers would not arrest people with unexpired medical marijuana cards provided they possessed less than the legally allowed three ounces.

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9. ME Senate Defeats Drug Decrim Bill, House Approves Marijuana Research Language, More... (7/1/21)

Medical marijuana is now legal in South Dakota, Austin activists roll out a municipal marijuana decriminalization initiative, and more.

You can expect to see these continue in Maine after the Senate defeated drug decriminalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Passes Bill to Let Researchers Access Marijuana from State-Legal Dispensaries. The House on Thursday approved an omnibus transportation bill that also includes language allowing researchers to get marijuana from state-legal dispensaries in order to study impaired driving. The measure would mandate a federal report with recommendations for creating a national clearinghouse with different marijuana samples for researchers from non-legal states. A transportation bill with similar marijuana research language is also moving in the Senate. The passage of the bill would be especially significant given the federal government's long history of stymying medical research through its historic monopoly on marijuana for research purposes, which puts medical marijuana in the Catch-22 of not winning FDA approvals becuase there has not been enough research.

Texas Activists Unveil Austin Marijuana Decriminalization Ballot Initiative. A new progressive group, Ground Game Texas, on Wednesday rolled out a campaign to put an initiative to decriminalize marijuana possession and ban no-knock warrants on the ballot in the state capital, Austin. The city currently handles small-time pot busts by issuing tickets, but the proposed initiative would end both arrests and citations, as well as barring citations for paraphernalia or residues. "Marijuana reform is a winning issue and local efforts will drive voter engagement. State lawmakers -- Democrats and Republicans -- failed us during the legislative session," said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. "Maybe this level of political pressure will get their attention and bring them on board with meaningful reform statewide." To get on the November ballot, advocates will need 20,000 valid voter signatures by July 20.

Medical Marijuana

North Carolina Compassionate Use Act Wins First Committee Vote. The Senate Judiciary voted Wednesday to approve Senate Bill 711, the Compassionate Use Act. The measure would allow the use of marijuana for medical purposes and set up a system of taxed and regulated medical marijuana cultivation and distribution. It must also pass the Senate finance, health care, and rules and operations committees before heading for a floor vote.

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) on Wednesday signed into law House Bill 1024, which updates the state's medical marijuana law to protect patient safety standards and product quality, as well as empowering the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board to consider adding new qualifying medical conditions. "It's been five years since Pennsylvania legalized medical marijuana, and in that time the Department of Health has examined the program's successes and challenges and made important recommendations on improving the law," Gov. Wolf said. "This legislation provides important updates to our state's medical marijuana program to ensure that patients have improved access to medication."

South Dakota State Troopers Will No Longer Arrest People with Less Than Three Ounces of Weed -- If It's Medical. With medical marijuana becoming legal in the state as of July 1, the office of Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has announced that state Highway Patrol troopers will no longer arrest people possessing up to three ounces of "natural and unaltered marijuana" as long as they have a patient card, or even if they don't, if they claim the marijuana is for medical use and offer some sort of documentation. Meanwhile, the state's largest city, Sioux Falls, has announced it will no longer make arrests for small-time pot possession. "Even if you don't have a medical marijuana card, the decision was made that on low level, low quantity offenses, it's a waste of resources to try and enforce the very, very complicated version of medical marijuana that was passed by the voter," Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead said. In a state where people are still arrested for testing positive for marijuana, this is progress.

Drug Policy

Maine Senate Votes Down Bill to Decriminalize Drug Possession. The Senate on Wednesday voted to kill a drug decriminalization bill, LD 967. The bill was opposed by Gov. Janet Mills (D) and by both some Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who argued that arresting and prosecuting drug users can help them get into treatment and stay straight. The bill had already passed the House amidst a drug overdose epidemic that saw deaths at a record rate in 2020 and early this year. "The Senate had an opportunity to provide people with desperately needed relief, and it failed," said Courtney Allen, policy director at the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project. "We need to change our drug laws if we want to save lives. LD 967 would have saved the state money and reinvested resources from the criminal system into access to recovery services. People need treatment and support to enter sustained recovery, not arrest and a criminal record."

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10. RI Legislature Passes Safe Injection Site Bill, CA Coerced Treatment Bill Advances More... (7/2/21)

The Mississippi Supreme Court continues to smack down the will of the people on medical marijuana, a coerced drug treatment bill advances in California to the dismay of reformers, and more.

The InSite safe injection site in Vancouver has been operating successful for years. Now, Rhode Island wants to emulate it.
Medical Marijuana

Maine Legislature Approves Bill to Give Caregivers, Patients Input in Medical Marijuana Regulations. A bill that would require the state's Office of Marijuana Policy, which regulates both medical and recreational marijuana, to work with patients, caregivers, and medical marijuana enterprises in crafting regulations has passed both houses of the legislature. LD 1242 was passed as an emergency measure and has been enacted as law without the signature of Gov. Janet Mills (D), effective July 1. The bill was a response to proposed rules changes announced earlier this year by the Office of Marijuana Policy, which caregivers and the industry found onerous, including 24/7 surveillance and requiring growers to use the state's inventory tracking system, as is done with adult use marijuana. "This gives the people that are in the industry the real power in making and designing the laws and the rules that we will work around," said Susan Meehan, a medical marijuana caregiver, and chairperson of the Maine Cannabis Coalition.

Mississippi Supreme Court Refuses to Reconsider Ruling Throwing Out Medical Marijuana Initiative Victory. In a two-page decision released Thursday, the state Supreme Court has rejected a call for it to reconsider its May decision throwing out a voter-approved initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state. In that decision, which essentially invalidated the state's initiative process, the court held that because the state constitution called for signatures to be gathered in all five of the state's congressional districts, the initiative was unconstitutional because the state has had only four congressional districts since redistricting in 2000. In its decision this week, the court said that the parties asking for a reconsideration should have done so last November and that "the present motion for leave to intervene is not well take and should be denied." There is pressure on Gov. Tate Reeves (R) to call a special session to enact the will of the voters, but he has yet to do so.

Drug Treatment

California Coerced Drug Treatment Bill Advances. A bill that would let Yolo County create a locked drug treatment facility for people convicted of "drug-motivated felonies" has already passed the Assembly and this week was approved nearly unanimously by the Senate Public Safety Committee. Assembly Bill 1542 would not be used for people simply convicted of drug possession or other misdemeanors, and those eligible would be "assessed by treatment providers who would decide the level and length of treatment." Those found suitable "would be given a choice of serving time in jail or prison or entering the soft secured facility where they would receive treatment to help them get well." While the bill has strong political support in Sacramento, there is strong opposition in the treatment and reform community. Even Human Rights Watch has weighed in, writing:"It [the bill] runs directly counter to the principle of free and informed consent to mental health treatment, which is a cornerstone of the right to health. Conflating health treatment and jailing, as envisioned by AB 1542, risks substantial human rights abuse, is ineffective as a treatment, and takes resources and policy focus away from initiatives that are much more likely to help people." The bill is now headed to the Senate Health Committee.

Harm Reduction

Rhode Island Legislature Approves Safe Injection Site Pilot Program. With a final vote Thursday, the state legislature has approved a bill, 2021-H 5245A/2021-S 0016B, to authorize a two-year pilot program to create "harm reduction centers" where people could "safely consume pre-obtained substances," otherwise known as a safe injection site. The bill would require local approval before such a site could open, but it could also face a federal challenge. An earlier effort to open a safe injection site in Philadelphia was blocked by the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled it would violate the Controlled Substance Act. But that case was brought by a conservative US attorney during the Trump administration. To sue to block this bill -- if enacted into law -- would require a Biden administration US attorney to bring a case, and it's not clear that would happen. Also, Rhode Island sits in the 1st US Circuit Court district, not the 3rd, so that Philadelphia decision is not binding there.

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11. NJ Governor Signs MedMJ Telehealth Bill, SD Activists Prepare 2022 Legalization Initiatives, More... (7/6/21)

A Rhode Island marijuana legalization bill gets a hearing but appears doomed this year, a South Dakota Native American reservation opens the state's first medical marijuana dispensary, and more.

South Dakota's Badlands. The state saw its first medical marijuana dispensary last week, and the fight for legali pot continues.
Marijuana Policy

Rhode Island Marijuana Legalization Bill Gets House Committee Hearing. The House Finance Committee held a hearing on a marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 6370, sponsored by Rep. Scott Slater (D-Providence). While the Senate has already passed a legalization bill, Senate Bill 568, Slater's bill includes some features the Senate bill does not, including automatic expungement for past marijuana offenses and oversight and impact fees to be paid to municipalities where retail stores open. It would legalize possession of up to an ounce and includes a home cultivation provision allowing for up to 12 plants. No committee vote was taken, and House Speaker Joseph Sjekarchi (D-Warwick) has said the House would not consider the bill until the next legislative session.

South Dakota Activists Move to Put Marijuana Measures on 2022 Ballot. South Dakota voters approved a marijuana legalization initiative with 54% of the vote last November, but now, after the administration of Gov. Kristi Noem (R) challenged the constitutionality of the initiative in court, with a decision pending at the state Supreme Court, backers of the original initiative are back with a new package of legalization initiatives in case the high court rules against them. Last Friday, South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws filed paperwork for four ballot measures dealing with marijuana policy and one that would repeal a single-subject amendment that voters approved in 2018. The court challenge to last November's initiative argues that it violates the single-subject requirement. That argument was upheld by a circuit court judge earlier this year.

Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Governor Okays Telehealth Prescriptions for Medical Marijuana. Governor Phil Murphy (D) has finally signed a bill allowing health care providers to recommend medical marijuana via telehealth. He originally vetoed SD 619/A 1635 back in April after criticizing it for including a 270-day waiting period before going into effect. The legislature then amended the bill and got rid of that waiting period so it will go into effect immediately. The amended bill also removed language requiring an in-person doctor visit before initiating telehealth.

South Dakota Tribe Opens First Medical Marijuana Dispensary in the State. While the state's medical marijuana program, approved by voters last November, is not set to go into operation until next year, medical marijuana became legal in the state on July 1, and the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe isn't waiting for state regulators. The state's first medical marijuana dispensary opened on the reservation that same day. The tribe requires customers to first obtain a medical marijuana ID card through its medical marijuana program, which is independent of the program being crafted by the state Health Department. That is leading some skeptics to fear that non-tribe members could face problems with state law enforcement even though the Noem administration last week released Highway Patrol guidelines saying troopers would not arrest people with unexpired medical marijuana cards provided they possessed less than the legally allowed three ounces.

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