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Federal Appeals Court Rules Planned Philadelphia Safer Injection Site Violates Drug Law [FEATURE]

With a decision Tuesday, the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals has brought to a screeching -- if hopefully temporary -- halt for efforts to establish a groundbreaking permitted safer injection facility in the city of Philadelphia. In the case of US v. Safehouse, the nonprofit group set to run the site, the court held that allowing the supervised onsite consumption of illegal drugs "will break the law" because it conflicts with a 35-year-old amendment to the Controlled Substances Act aimed at crack houses.

The Vancouver safer injection site. We still can't have those in America. Yet. (vcha.ca)
Never mind that the city is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic and needs to try something new after decades of failed prohibitionist drug policies. The sanctity of the drugs laws must be maintained, the court held: "Though the opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions, local innovations may not break federal law," it opined.

This is just the latest twist in the years-long effort to address an opioid overdose outbreak in the city that began about a decade ago, with overdose deaths nearly doubling between 2009 and 2018 and numbering more than a thousand a year every year since 2016. The crisis led to the formation of a Mayor's Task Force to Combat the Opioid Epidemic in Philadelphia, which issued a final report and recommendations in 2017 calling on the city to consider rolling out overdose prevention services, including safe injection sites, or, as Safehouse refers to them, overdose prevention sites.

Safehouse was formed to make that possibility a reality. Led by Jose A. Benitez, the executive director of the harm reduction group Prevention Point Philadelphia, Safehouse picked up a powerful ally in board member Ed Rendell, the former governor of the state and mayor and district attorney of Philadelphia. With Rendell's clout, the organization had overcome local obstacles and was preparing to open the first legal safe injection site in the country when Attorney General William Barr's Justice Department struck.

The US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania filed a civil lawsuit in February 2019 asking a federal judge to find safe injection sites illegal under the Controlled Substance Act's "crack house" statute, throwing plans to open up into limbo. Eight months later, the court held that "the ultimate goal of Safehouse's proposed operation is to reduce drug use, not facilitate it, and accordingly, [the "crack house" statute] does not prohibit Safehouse's proposed conduct."

A February 2020 ruling from the same court reiterated the legality of safe injection sites in the Eastern District, but that summer, the judge ordered Safehouse to pause amidst the coronavirus pandemic and the police violence protests. Meanwhile, the US Attorney appealed the ruling that the proposed safe injection site was legal, with oral arguments held in November, and the 3rd Circuit's decision issued this week.

The Justice Department pronounced itself pleased.

"The Court's decision reaffirms that 'safe' injection sites are a violation of federal law," said Acting Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen in a statement. "The Department supports efforts to curb the opioid crisis ravaging this country, but injection sites are not the solution. There are more productive ways to address drug abuse, and today's ruling by the Third Circuit has confirmed that these sites are illegal and therefore not the answer."

"The rule of law is still alive and well in Philadelphia -- having been re-affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which held that it is a federal crime to open a heroin injection site or 'consumption room' for illegal drug use," added US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania William M. McSwain. "The 3rd Circuit's opinion is a faithful reading of the statute's plain language and is consistent with Congress's intent to protect American neighborhoods from the scourge of concentrated drug use."

Reform advocates saw it quite differently.

"As the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the already devastating overdose crisis, the Third Circuit's reversal of the earlier court's decision -- which held that safe consumption sites do not violate federal law -- will inevitably result in the unnecessary loss of countless lives," Lindsay LaSalle, managing director of policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), said in a statement. "The 3rd Circuit's decision is misguided -- it is abundantly clear that Congress never intended to criminalize legitimate public health interventions through [the 'crack house' statute]."

The 3rd Circuit's decision is precedential, meaning it holds throughout the district, which includes Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the US Virgin Islands. But other jurisdictions, such as San Francisco and New York City, where similar efforts are underway, are not bound by it, and DPA is encouraging groups pursuing such efforts to "continue to work toward authorization and implementation of supervised consumption sites to address the overdose crisis in their cities and states."

There may be help coming in the new Congress and Biden administration as well. Advocates say they will seek action in Congress to clarify that safer injection facilities should be permitted, and from the Biden Justice Department to provide guidance to US Attorneys to lay off on them.

Federal Appeals Court Rules Safe Injection Sites Illegal, Most Think Marijuana Is Safer than Alcohol, More... (1/13/21)

A federal appeals court has put the kibosh on a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site, a Michigan prosecutors says no more magic mushrooms prosecutions, and more.

Preparing to inject at the Vancouver safe injection site. A federal appeals court rules we can't do that here. (vcha.ca)
Marijuana Policy

New Survey Finds Majority of Americans View Marijuana as Less Dangerous Than Alcohol. Survey data published in the journal Addictive Behavior finds that a majority of Americans believe marijuana has less potential for abuse than either alcohol or prescription drugs. "This study found that more than half of respondents perceived CBD, THC, hemp, and marijuana as having medical use," the authors wrote. "They also perceived the potential for abuse of CBD, THC, hemp, and marijuana as significantly less than potential for abuse of commonly prescribed anti-anxiety and pain medications." As for alcohol: "A majority of the public perceives THC and marijuana as grouped together with prescription medications rather than with illicit substances and as having more medical value and less abuse potential than alcohol," the researchers wrote.

Psychedelics

Michigan Prosecutor Will No Longer Try Cases Involving Marijuana, Magic Mushrooms, Other Entheogens. New Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor) prosecutor Eli Savit on Tuesday unveiled two policy directives explaining that he will do longer prosecute criminal cases involving the possession of marijuana, magic mushrooms, and other entheogens. Savit pointed to the disproportionate consequences for people of color as being a factor in his decision, and he also cited the medical benefits of both marijuana and natural psychedelics. He also clarified that cultivation of magic mushrooms for personal use will not be prosecuted.

Asset Forfeiture

South Carolina Supreme Court to Hear Asset Forfeiture Appeal on Wednesday. The state Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of civil asset forfeiture. Last year, a lower court ruled the practice unconstitutional, but prosecutors quickly appealed. Now, the Institute for Justice, a leading national advocate of ending civil asset forfeiture, is on the case. "Tomorrow, the court has an opportunity to put an end to civil forfeiture once and for all," said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Robert Frommer, who will argue the case. "Lower courts have rightly found that civil forfeiture is unconstitutional, and we're confident that the state supreme court will agree."

Harm Reduction

Third Circuit Court of Appeals Rules Safe Injection Sites Violate Federal Law. The Third Circuit ruled Tuesday that it is a federal crime to open a supervised injection site or "consumption room" for illegal drug use. Local nonprofit Safehouse planned to open the nation's first such consumption room in the City of Philadelphia, where individuals would be invited to inject heroin and use other drugs under supervision. But the Third Circuit ruled that doing so "will break the law" because Safehouse knows and intends that visitors to its consumption room will have a significant purpose of using illegal drugs. In agreeing with the government's interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act, the Court explained that, "[t]hough the opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions, local innovations may not break federal law."

International

Mexico Publishes Regulations for Medical Marijuana. The Mexican government on Tuesday published the regulations for medical marijuana supply in the country. The move comes three years after the country passed a law permitting the use of medical marijuana. Under the regulations, there will be space to research marijuana's medical applications and for the development of marijuana-based pharmaceuticals.

NJ Pot Legalization Implementation Bill in Limbo, NY Governor Calls Again for Pot Legalization, More... (1/12/21)

New Jersey's governor and legislative leaders are at odds over punishing young marijuana offenders, a battle over what legalization will look like is shaping up in New York, and more.

For the third year in a row, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) is calling for marijuana legalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Marijuana Legalization in Legislative Limbo. Efforts to move forward with implementing marijuana legalization after voters approved it in November collapsed on Monday. Personal possession of marijuana became legal on January 1, but this legislation is needed to set up a regulated legal marijuana market. The bill that would have done that, A-21, has now been pulled. The major bone of contention is how to punish teenagers caught with pot.

New York Governor Vows (Again) to Legalize Marijuana. Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed on Monday that New York will legalize marijuana. "We will legalize adult-use recreational cannabis, joining 15 states that have already done so," he tweeted on Monday. Doing so would "raise revenue and end the failed prohibition of this product that has left so many communities of color over-policed and over-incarcerated," he added. The comments come after he unveiled a new proposal to legalize it last week.  

New York Drug Reform Advocates Say Marijuana Legalization Must Include Restitution. As the legislature prepares to grapple with marijuana legalization, drug reform advocates are warning that any legislation must include funds dedicated to communities most adversely impacted by the war on drugs. "Directing resources to the neighborhoods and the communities that were within the eye of the target of the drug war for so long" is absolutely essential said Melissa Moore, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Those same communities, because of structural inequities, are facing layer upon layer of additional crisis from COVID-19 deaths and job losses and business closures that are hitting even harder than everywhere else in the state," she said.

North Dakota Activists Submit Petition for 2022 Marijuana Legalization Initiative. Marijuana legalization supporters have taken the first step toward putting an initiative on the ballot in 2022. They submitted a petition for a marijuana legalization constitutional amendment to Secretary of State Al Jaeger (R) on Monday. The same group circulated the same initiative last year, but came up shy on signatures as the coronavirus effectively shut down their efforts.

CA "Contingency Management" Meth Treatment Bill Filed, NJ Marijuana Mess, More... (1/11/21)

Voter-approved marijuana legalization initiatives are running into problems with elected officials, federal prosecutors say the Honduran president was taking big bribes from drug traffickers, and more.

Can you pay people not to take meth? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Legislature Refuses to Fund Implementation of Voter-Approved Marijuana Legalization. The state's Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee voted overwhelmingly last Wednesday to refuse to allocate funds to the Department of Revenue to implement the voter-approved marijuana legalization plan. The department had sought $1.35 million to hire 20 staffers and cover administrative costs of getting the program up and running. Now, that means implementation of a legal marijuana market could be delayed.

New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Legislation Hits Snag. Bills to decriminalize marijuana and set up a taxed and regulated legal marijuana industry are in limbo after the governor and legislative leaders failed to reach agreement on how to punish underage pot smokers. A floor vote set for today has been postponed indefinitely until Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Democratic leaders can reach some sort of agreement.

South Dakota Governor Uses Executive Order to Challenge Voter-Approved Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Kristi Noem (R) issued an executive order last Friday okaying a legal challenge to the voter-approved constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. She argued that the initiative "was not proper and violated the procedures set forth in the South Dakota Constitution." Her order also said Highway Patrol Superintendent Col Rick Miller, who earlier sued to block the initiative from being implemented, could do so because he is acting on her behalf.  At the same time, Noem's attorney general, Jason Ravnsborg, is defending the initiative in court.  

Medical Marijuana

South Carolina Medical Marijuana Bill Pre-Filed. Once again, state Senator Tom Davis (R-Beaufort County) has filed a medical marijuana bill, S 150, the Compassionate Care Act. Davis has filed similar bills for nearly a decade. This year could be the charm, he predicted. "The bill has been thoroughly vetted," said Davis. "It’s been looked at by the SC Medical Association. It has been looked at by law enforcement. We have a very good tightly regulated medical cannabis bill, and what it seeks to do is empower physicians."

Drug Treatment

California Lawmakers Seek to Expand Contingency Management Treatment for Meth. Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) has filed legislation, Senate Bill 110 that seeks to expand contingency management as a treatment for methamphetamine addiction. Contingency management is controversial becomes it uses cash payments as incentives for users to stay off the drug, but it has been shown to be a proven treatment for meth and cocaine addiction. "We need to embrace this proven, effective approach to meth addiction, make it clearly legal and start reimbursing for it, so we can address this health epidemic," he said.

International

Amsterdam Mayor Wants to Ban Foreigners from Cannabis Coffee Shops. Mayor Femke Halsema has proposed allowing only Dutch residents to enter the city's famous cannabis coffee shops in what she said was an effort to blunt the flow of hard drugs and organized crime linked to the marijuana business. "The cannabis market is too big and overheated," Halsema said in emailed comments. "I want to shrink the cannabis market and make it manageable. The residence condition is far-reaching, but I see no alternative." She submitted her plan to the city council last Friday, setting the stage for an energetic political debate.

Honduran President Accused of Helping Drug Traffickers in US Court Filings. Federal prosecutors in New York City last week laid out evidence implicating Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in drug trafficking. They accused him of using Honduran armed forces to protect large cocaine shipments in return for bribes. Prosecutors quoted Hernandez as saying he wanted the DEA to think Honduras was fighting drugs while he was instead going to "shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos." Honduras has received hundreds of millions of dollars in US anti-drug aid.

 

 



These Five States Are Well-Placed to Legalize Marijuana This Year [FEATURE]

Last year, the number of states that have ended marijuana prohibition reached 15 plus the District of Columbia, as voters in four states -- Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota -- legalized it via the initiative process. This isn't an election year, so any states that attempt to legalize in 2021 will have to do so through the much more cumbersome legislative process, but at least a handful are poised to do so.

It is no coincidence that the early progress toward state-level legalization has been led by states that allow for voter initiatives. State legislatures badly trail public opinion on the issue, and beyond that, the legislative process itself is messy, beset with horse-trading, and progress of a bill is beholden to key legislative gatekeepers -- the committee chairs and majority leaders. And because crafting legislation is a complex process, getting a legalization bill through both chambers and signed by a governor is a process that generally takes not one, but two or three or even more years.

Legalization bills are likely to appear in nearly every state that has not already freed the weed, but it's likely to be an uphill struggle this year for most of them. The five states listed below have already been grappling with marijuana reform for years though, they have governors who are backing legalization, and they will only be emboldened by the Democrats' majorities in the US House and Senate (which could pass federal legalization this year) and by budgetary pressures related to the pandemic to push forward. If all goes well, by years' end, the number of legal marijuana states could top 20.

Here are the five best state marijuana legalization prospects for 2020:

Connecticut

Marijuana legalization has been fermenting in the legislature for several years now, but in November, Democrats added to their legislative majorities, increasing the odds that the issue will move this year. Governor Ned Lamont (D) just reiterated his call for legalization in his State of the State address, saying: "I am working with our neighboring states and look forward to working with our tribal partners on a path forward to modernize gaming in our state, as well as the legislature on legalization of marijuana. Sports betting, internet gaming, and legalized marijuana are happening all around us. Let's not surrender these opportunities to out-of-state markets or even worse, underground markets." And House Speaker Matthew Ritter (D) is vowing to take the issue to the voters if the legislature doesn't act. "I think it'll be a very, very close vote in the House," he said at a pre-session press conference. "But if we do not have the votes -- and I'm not raising the white flag -- I want to be very clear: We will put something on the board to put to the voters of the state of Connecticut to amend the state constitution to legalize marijuana."

New Mexico

The Land of Enchantment saw a marijuana legalization bill get through one Senate committee last year only to be killed in another, but with the support of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who formed a working group on legalization in 2019, and the ousting of some anti-reform legislators in the November elections, this could be the year it gets over the finish line. Lujan Grisham has argued that if the state had legalized it last year, it could have helped reduce revenue shortfalls because of the coronavirus. And earlier this month, she emailed supporters to jab at legislative legalization foes: "Unfortunately, the Legislature couldn't come to an agreement, even though the economic impact would have created thousands of new jobs and sustainable state revenue sources to invest in New Mexico's future," she wrote. The Senate had been the biggest obstacle to moving a legalization bill, but now the Democratic senators who voted with Republicans to kill it last year are out. The state has a 60-day "short session" that begins January 19. It could be the first out of the gate this year.

New York

Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has been calling for years for marijuana legalization, but measures in the legislature have always stalled because of disputes over taxes, social equity provisions, and pure legislative power plays. Now, like Connecticut, the Empire State is feeling the pressure of neighboring states having already legalized it, as well as increased budgetary pressure because of the pandemic, and Cuomo is once again calling for legalization. In his State of the State address this week, Cuomo again proposed legalization: "I think this should have been passed years ago," he said in a briefing. "This is a year where we do need the funding, and a lot of New Yorkers are struggling. This year will give us the momentum to get it over the goal line." Democrats now have a supermajority in both chambers, which both makes it easier to pass legislation despite Republican objections and makes it easier for the legislature to override any Cuomo's veto of a legalization bill over provisions he may not like. A legalization bill, SB 854, has already been filed in the Senate. For New York, the fifth time may be the charm.

Rhode Island

Governor Gina Raimundo (D) and legislative leaders are all on board with moving forward on legalization, although the governor wants a state-run model and some legislators favor a private model. "The time has come to legalize adult cannabis use," Senate Majority Leader Michael McCaffrey (D) said in November. "We have studied this issue extensively, and we can incorporate the practices we've learned from other states." He and Senator Joshua Miller (D), who spearheaded past efforts to get legalization passed, have been tasked by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio (D) with coming up with workable legislation this session. And the House is on board, too, with new Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) saying he is "absolutely" open to legalization and that the House is already "very close" to having enough votes to pass it. There are a couple of complicating factors for Rhode Island now, though: The division over state vs. private sales and the fact that Raimundo will likely soon be leaving office after being nominated as commerce secretary in the new Biden administration.

Virginia

Two legalization bills, HB 269 from Delegate Steve Heretick (D), and Delegate Lee Carter's (D) HB 87, have already been filed this year, and Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has said he supports marijuana legalization: "Legalizing marijuana will happen in Virginia," he said recently. At the time, Northam laid out his requirements for such a bill -- social, racial, and economic equity; public health; protections for youth; upholding the state Clean Air Act; and data collection -- and said it could take up to two years, but growing public and political support and financial pressures related to the pandemic could well speed up that timeline.

NY, CT Governors Renew Calls for Marijuana Legalization, VA Legalization Bills Filed, More... (1/7/21)

East Coast governors start the push for marijuana legalization this year, a Tennessee lawmaker files a bill to allow out-of-staters who have medical marijuana cards to possess half an ounce in-state, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Governor Renews Call for Marijuana Legalization. In his State of the State address Wednesday, Governor Ned Lamont (D) called for the legislature to pass marijuana legalization this year. "I am working with our neighboring states and look forward to working with our tribal partners on a path forward to modernize gaming in our state, as well as the legislature on legalization of marijuana," he said.

New York Governor Renews Call for Marijuana Legalization. In his State of the State address Wednesday, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) called for the legalization and regulation of marijuana. He is proposing the creation of an Office of Cannabis Management to handle both recreational marijuana and the state's already existing medical marijuana program. Legislators pre-filed a bill to do that earlier this week. This is the third year Cuomo has called on the legislature to legalize it.

Virginia Marijuana Legalization Bills Filed. Delegate Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth) has filed a marijuana legalization bill, HB 269. This is a repeat effort for Heretick, who has filed both decriminalization and legalization bills in the past. And that isn't the only legalization bill filed. Delegate Lee Carter (D) filed HB 87, which would do the same thing.

Medical Marijuana

Tennessee Lawmaker Files Bill to Protect Out-of-State Medical Marijuana Patients. State Senator Sarah Kyle (D-Memphis) has filed a bill that would allow patients with a valid medical marijuana registration card to possess up to half an ounce without penalty. Since Tennessee doesn't have a medical marijuana program, SB 0025 would only apply to outstate visitors from states that do have medical marijuana programs.

NY Marijuana Legalization Bill Pre-Filed, UNODC Warns on Innovative Meth Production Practices, More... (1/6/21)

New Jersey lawmakers attempt to move forward with implementing voter-approved marijuana legalization, the UNODC warns of innovative meth production practices in Asia, and more.

Asian meth cooks are getting creative, the UNODC warns. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Lawmakers File Bill to Fine Underage Marijuana Users in Bid to Get Legalization Implemented. Legislators have filed a bill, A5211, that would fine underage pot smokers after Gov. Phil Murphy (D) refused to sign the bill that would implement the marijuana legalization referendum approved by voters in November. "The bill is largely a consensus between the Legislature and the governor’s office," said one source within the administration. "There’s some final technical edits that still need to be made. By and large, the governor’s office is working in good faith with the Legislature to get this finalized for next week." The bills will get Senate Judiciary Committee and Assembly Appropriations Committee hearings on Thursday, with floor votes likely on Monday.

New York Lawmakers Pre-File Marijuana Legalization Bill. Legislators representing nearly a third of the state Senate pre-filed a marijuana legalization bill on Tuesday. The bill was filed by Sen. Liz Krueger (D) and 18 cosponsors and is identical to a bill she filed last year. It would legalize marijuana for adults 21 and over and allow for the home cultivation of six plants, as well as setting up a system of taxed and regulated sales.

South Dakota State Bar Advises Lawyers Not to Represent Legal Pot Firms. A State Bar advisory committee has issued an opinion saying that attorneys cannot represent clients in the marijuana industry because the plant remains illegal under federal law.

International

UN Warns of Increasingly Creative Methamphetamine Producers. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned that meth producers are getting increasingly creative and that increasing seizures across Asia suggest that producers are finding new chemical means of manufacturing meth. The new meth-making abilities "suggest increased sophistication among illicit manufacturing facilities," the agency said. "The crime groups are using increasingly diverse sets of chemicals and increasingly diverse chemical sources, meaning from different countries," said Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC regional representative for southeast Asia and the Pacific. "If they can't get their hands on one chemical, they're getting their hands on other chemicals and then getting creative in terms of how they produce the meth. "Pseudoephedrine seizures aren't being made at all, even though there are indications that it is still in use," he said. "What we're seeing is diversity in chemicals, including some very unique chemicals pushing into the region. It's alarming because that indicates it is going to be even harder, given they're using potentially non-controlled chemicals."

MO GOP State Senator Pre-Files Marijuana Legalization Referendum Bill, MI Prosecutor Goes No Cash Bail, More... (1/5/21)

A Utah bill would once again allow any doctor to recommend medical marijuana, the prosecutor in Michigan's Washtenaw County ends cash bail, and more.

The national movement to end cash bail gained a victory in Michigan this week. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Missouri Republican Wants Recreational Marijuana Program, No Caps on Dispensaries. State Rep. Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin) has pre-filed a bill, House Joint Resolution 30 that would amend the state constitution via a popular referendum to legalize marijuana for people 21 and over. The bill also deliberately provides no state regulation over who can grow and sell the substance. "I don’t think we need a huge bureaucracy to pick winners and losers in terms of who gets licenses," Dogan said.

Medical Marijuana

Utah Bill Would Allow Any Doctor to Recommend Medical Marijuana. State Senator Evan Vickers (R-District 28) is supporting a bill that would allow any doctor to recommend medical marijuana. Currently, doctors must register as a qualified medical provider to do so, but under a previous law which expired at the end of 2019, they did not have to do so. The bill would eliminate a major bottleneck for patients, supporters said. "If they don't have a physician in their area, especially in a rural area, they'd have to go to a physician somewhere else in the state," said Vickers. "Some of those physicians who have become QMPs are charging a pretty high fee."

Bail Reform

Michigan Prosecutor Will Stop Seeking Cash Bail. Incoming Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor) Chief Prosecutor Eli Savit has announced that his office will no longer require cash bail. The move comes after similar announcements last month by prosecutors in California and Virginia, and is the latest victory in a nationwide movement to eliminate financial conditions for pretrial release. "One’s wealth must never play a role in their detention," he said in August as he campaigned on the issue.  

DC Decriminalizes Drug Paraphernalia; Pot Possession, Cultivation Now Legal in MT, More... (1/4/21)

Illinois has expunged nearly half a million marijuana arrests years ahead of schedule, a New Mexico court rules that people under correctional control can use medical marijuana, and more.

Drug parapernalia is now decriminalized in the District of Columbia. (Creeative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Illinois Expunges Nearly Half a Million Marijuana Arrest Records Four Years Ahead of Schedule. State officials announced last Thursday that state police had expunged some 492,129 marijuana possession arrest records, four years ahead of a deadline set by the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act, which legalized marijuana in the state. Governor J.B. Pritzker also announce another 9,219 pardons for marijuana possession, bringing the total number of pot pardon's he has issued to 20,000. "Statewide, Illinoisans hold hundreds of thousands low-level cannabis-related records, a burden disproportionately shouldered by communities of color," Pritzker said. "We will never be able to fully remedy the depth of that damage. But we can govern with the courage to admit the mistakes of our past—and the decency to set a better path forward."

Montana Marijuana Legalization Now in Effect. As of New Year's Day, the marijuana-legalizing Initiative 190 has gone into effect. It is now legal for adults 21 and over to use and possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to four plants for personal use. The state is now working on setting up a system of licensed, taxed, and regulated marijuana commerce.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Court Rules Inmates Can Have Access to Medical Marijuana. A district court judge in Albuquerque ruled last week that inmates at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center who are qualifying medical marijuana patients can use the substance while under correctional control. It is unclear whether other state and local jails would voluntarily comply with the ruling, but it has set a precedent for other state courts. The ruling came in the case of man serving a 90-day house arrest sentence.

Asset Forfeiture

Institute for Justice Issues New Edition of Asset Forfeiture Report. The libertarian-leaning Institute for Justice has released the third edition of its report on asset forfeiture laws in the states, "Policing for Profit." The report details each state's laws around civil asset forfeiture. The Institute handed out only one "A" grade in this edition. That went to New Mexico, which banned civil asset forfeiture in 2015.

Paraphernalia

Washington, DC, Decriminalizes the Possession of Drug Paraphernalia. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has signed into law B54, the Opioid Overdose Prevention Act of 2019. The bill decriminalizes the possession of drug paraphernalia and will also allow harm reduction and community groups to distribute harm reduction supplies that were previously criminalized under DC law.

International

Colombia Says It Manually Eradicated the Most Coca in a Decade. Defense Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo announced last week that Colombia had eradicated 325,000 acres of coca crops, the highest figure in a decade. Eradicators had uprooted about 240,000 acres in 2019 and 150,000 acres in 2018. "These 130,000 hectares eradicated translate into an affectation of about US$301 million to drug trafficking organizations, if the average price of a hectare of coca is taken as a reference, and represents about 115,440 kilos of cocaine that were no longer produced," Trujillo said as he watched an eradication operation in the company of US Ambassador Phillip Goldberg. The Trump administration has pressed Colombia to do more to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production.

Year from Hell II: The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2020 [FEATURE]

As we wave an eager goodbye to 2020 in the rearview mirror, it's time to assess the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to drug policy and drug reform at the international level. As in other realms of human behavior, the coronavirus pandemic is inescapable, but even as the pandemic raged, drug policy developments kept happening. Here are the biggest world drug policy stories of 2020:

The Coronavirus Pandemic and the World of Drugs

As with virtually every other aspect of human affairs, the year's deadly coronavirus pandemic impacted the world of drugs, from disruptions of drug markets and anti-drug policing to drug trafficking groups as social distancing enforcers, fallout on efforts to reform drug policies, and beyond.

Early on, there were reports that Mexican drug traffickers were raising wholesale meth and fentanyl prices because of disruptions in the precursor chemical supply, and that pandemic lockdowns had disrupted the cocaine supply chain, driving down the farmgate price for coca and endangering the livelihoods of nearly a quarter-million coca-producing families in the Andes.

But some things couldn't be disrupted: Just a day after closing its famous cannabis cafes in response to the pandemic, the Dutch reopened them as the government was confronted with long lines of people queuing up to score after the ban was initially announced. In France, the price of hashish nearly doubled in a week as increased border controls due to the pandemic put the squeeze on. By midyear, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported pandemic-related border closures, lockdowns, and flight shortages were making drugs more expensive and difficult to obtain around the world.

Those same drug organizations struggling with the pandemic took on roles normally assumed by government in some countries. In Mexico, the Gulf Cartel and Los Viagras handed out food to poor families in Tamaulipas and the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel did the same in Guadalajara, spurring President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to acknowledge their efforts and implore them to knock it off and just stay home. Instead, the Sinaloa Cartel locked down the city of Culiacan, its home base, and patrolled the streets in heavily armed convoys to enforce a curfew. In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro drug gangs enforced social distancing and handed out cash and medications as the government of rightist authoritarian populist President Jair Bolsonaro was largely absent and in denial about coronavirus. In Colombia, with the government missing in action, drug gangs and armed groups enforced lockdown orders, even killing people who didn't comply, according to Human Rights Watch.

Some countries took positive steps to ameliorate these effects of the pandemic. In Great Britain, the government agreed to hand out methadone without a prescription to those already receiving it and shortly later began allowing monthly buprenorphine injections for heroin addicts. In Canada, British Columbia early on moved to increase a "safe supply" of drugs that registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe, make more medications available, and expand eligibility to people who are at risk of overdose, including those who may not necessarily be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. The province followed that move by lowering barriers to prescription medications, increasing the supply of opiate maintenance drugs and even dispensing some of them via a unique vending machine. By providing a safe supply of legal drug alternatives, the province hoped to lower a sudden spike in drug overdose deaths that coincided with the coronavirus outbreak in Vancouver.

Not everybody let a measly little coronavirus get in the way of their drug war. In Colombia, President Ivan Duque ordered a nationwide lockdown in March, but exempted coca eradicators and launched a major offensive against small producer coca farms. And Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte let his drug war rage on in the midst of the pandemic despite imposing a national partial lockdown in March. At least nine people were killed by unknown gunmen in Cebu Province alone. "Reports of drug-related killings continuing amid the lockdown order are deeply concerning, but not surprising," said Rachel Chhoa-Howard of Amnesty International. "The climate of impunity in the Philippines is so entrenched that police and others remain free to kill without consequence." In September Human Rights Watch noted the pace of acknowledged drug war killings by police had doubled. Duterte has also threatened to have the police and military shoot people who violate quarantine.

The coronavirus also wreaked havoc with drug reform initiative signature gathering campaigns in the US, preventing several marijuana legalization and one drug decriminalization initiative from qualifying for the ballot this year, and played a role in delaying marijuana legalization in Mexico when its Senate shut down in the spring because of the pandemic.

UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Votes to Remove Cannabis from Most Restrictive Drug Schedule

In an historic move on December 2, the 53 member states of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the UN body charged with setting drug policy, voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the United Nations' drug classification system as they met in Vienna. Cannabis was both a Schedule I and a Schedule IV drug under the international drug treaties. Schedule I includes "substances that are highly addictive and liable to abuse or easily convertible into those (e.g. opium, heroin, cocaine, coca leaf"), while Schedule IV includes Schedule I drugs with "particularly dangerous properties and little or no therapeutic value" (e.g. heroin, carfentanil).

The vote removing cannabis from Schedule IV means the global anti-drug bureaucracy now recognizes the therapeutic value of cannabis and no longer considers it "particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects." With medical marijuana legal in dozens of countries in; one form or another, the ever-increasing mountain of evidence supporting the therapeutic uses of cannabis, not to mention outright legalization in 15 American states Canada and Uruguay, with Mexico about to come on board, this decision by the CND is long past due, but nonetheless welcome.

The UN Common Position on Drug Policy Gains Traction

Change at the United Nations comes at a glacial pace, but it can and does come. The shift away from punitive, law enforcement-heavy approaches to drug use has been building for years and picked up steam at the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016 and advanced further with the adoption of the UN Common Position on Drug Policy in 2018.

That approach, which seeks to get all the UN agencies involved in drug policy, public health, and human rights on the same page, explicitly calls for the decriminalization of drug use and possession for personal use. Among the position's directions for action is the following: "To promote alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, and to promote the principle of proportionality, to address prison overcrowding and overincarceration by people accused of drug crimes, to support implementation of effective criminal justice responses that ensure legal guarantees and due process safeguards pertaining to criminal justice proceedings and ensure timely access to legal aid and the right to a fair trial, and to support practical measures to prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and torture."

At least 30 countries have instituted some form of drug decriminalization (although in many it is only marijuana that has been decriminalized), and the Common Position is providing breathing space for others that may be inclined to take the plunge. In 2020, the US state of Oregon broke ground by becoming the first state to decriminalize the use and possession of all drugs, and just a few hundred miles to the north and across the Canadian border, the city council of Vancouver, British Columbia, voted to decriminalize and seek an exemption from the federal government to do so.

Decriminalization could also be around the corner in Norway, where a proposal first bruited in 2017 could pass some time next year. And Ghana (see below) has also effectively decriminalized drug use and possession. With a more consistent message from the UN, which the Common Position represents, we can expect further progress on this front in years to come.

The Philippine Drug War Faces Increasing Pressure

Four years into the government of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines remains embroiled in a bloody war on drug users and sellers, but is facing increasing pressure from human rights groups, domestic critics, and international institutions over mass killings that are believed to now total more than 30,000. In a June report, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights said that tens of thousands of people had been killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drug users and sellers amid "near impunity" for police and the incitement of violence by top officials. The report said that rhetoric may have been interpreted as "permission to kill."

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for independent investigations into the killings and said her office was ready to help credible domestic Philippine or international efforts to establish accountability. Two months later, during the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Bachelet called for an end to the policies and rhetoric that led to abuse and killings. She acknowledged some small steps taken by the Duterte government but warned "there is clearly an urgent need to revoke the policies that continue to result in killings and other human rights violations, to bring to justice the perpetrators, and to halt the use of rhetoric inciting violence against people who use or sell drugs."

In October, Duterte said he accepted responsibility for drug war killings, but only those acknowledged by police, not the thousands committed by shadowy vigilantes. That same month, global civil society groups including StoptheDrugWar.org (the publisher of this newsletter) and Movement for a Free Philippines launched the Stand for Human Rights and Democracy campaign to keep the pressure on. The campaign launch included an "Autocrat Fair" demonstration outside Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC; and an accompanying video, "Trump and Duterte -- Allies in Violence." An event organized by StoptheDrugWar.org on December 22 discussed the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The pressure on the Duterte government only heightened at year's end, when the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor issued a report saying there was "reasonable basis to believe" Filipino forces committed crimes against humanity in Duterte's drug war. That leaves one stage left in the Office's "preliminary examination," admissibility. For the ICC to have jurisdiction, prosecutors must show that the Philippine justice system lacks a legitimate or capable response to the killings. Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has promised a decision will be by mid-2021, when her term ends, over whether to seek authorization from the court to open a formal investigation. She has also pointedly warned that the court's resources fall badly short of what's needed to carry out their mission, which affects how cases are prioritized, and may affect whether the new prosecutor initiates cases.

Even as Drug War Violence Continues Unabated, Mexico is About to Become the World's Largest Legal Marijuana Market

There is no end in sight to Mexico's bloody drug wars. The year began with the announcement that 2019 was the most murderous year in recent history, with some 35,588 recorded homicide victims. As the year ends, 2020 appears on track to equal or surpass that toll, with the country registering about 3,000 murders a month.

As mass killing after mass killing took place throughout the year, the number of dead wasn't the only thing rising either. In January, the government announced that the number of "disappeared" people in the country was around 61,000, up from an estimated 40,000 in mid-2019. By July, the number of those officially missing had risen to 73,201 as prohibition-related violence ripped through the country.

While President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador came into office in 2018 critical of the role of the military in the drug war, and with a plan to reduce crime and violence by focusing on their root causes, in May he renewed orders keeping the military on the streets for another four years. "His security strategy is not working and that is why he has had to order with this decree for the Armed Forces to support public security," security specialist Juan Ibarrola told the Milenio newspaper at the time.

The following month, Lopez Obrador signaled that perhaps it wasn't security strategy that wasn't working, but drug prohibition. He released a plan to decriminalize drugs, and urged the US to do the same. Mexico's current "prohibitionist strategy is unsustainable," the plan said.

As the drug war chugged along, US-Mexico relations took a hit in October, when DEA agents arrested Mexico's former defense minister in Los Angeles on drug and money laundering charges. Loud protests from Mexico eventually resulted in his release, but in December, Mexican lawmakers chafing at US heavy-handedness voted to restrict the activities of foreign agents in the country.

Even as the drug wars rage, there is significant progress on another drug policy track. As the year comes to an end, Mexico is one vote in the Chamber of Deputies away from legalizing marijuana. The government-supported legalization bill, crafted in response to a ruling from the country's Supreme Court that said marijuana prohibition must end, passed the Senate in November after delays caused by political infighting and shutdowns due to the coronavirus.

Under an order from the Supreme Court, the Congress had until December 15 to act, but the Chamber of Deputies delayed the vote, saying it needed more time to study the bill, and the Supreme Court agreed to grant one more extension, giving the Chamber of Deputies until the end of the next legislative session in April to get the job done. President Lopez Obrador downplayed the delay, calling it a matter of "form not substance." And Mexico is waiting to inhale.

Bolivia display at the 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs
Bolivia Returns the Coca-Friendly Movement to Socialism to Power

Long-time Bolivian leader Evo Morales, a former coca growers union leader who won the presidency in 2005 and was reelected twice, was forced from office and fled the country after extended protests in the wake of disputed elections in November 2019. The self-appointed interim right-wing government worked to suppress Morales' Movement to Socialism and harassed harassed coca producers in the name of the war on drugs.

The coca growers stood firm, however mobilizing to blockade roads to protest delays in promised elections. When those elections finally came in October, voters returned the MAS to power, electing Morales' former economics minister, Luis Arce, without the need for a runoff election.

Arce said that while he has no problem with the United States, he will maintain Morales' coca policy, under which legal coca cultivation was allowed, and that he wants to expand the country's industrial coca production.

Colombia, Coca, Cocaine, and Conflict

Four years after the truce between the Colombian government and the leftist rebels of the FARC was supposed to bring peace to the country, peace remains elusive as the rightist government of President Ivan Duque continues to wage war against other leftist rebels, drug traffickers, and coca-growing peasants.

Under pressure from the US, the Duque government began the year by moving to resume the aerial spraying of coca fields. This plan was rejected by state governors, who said they supported alternative development and voluntary crop substitution and wanted President Duque to actually implement the 2016 peace accords.

Instead, the government attempted to pull out of a crop substitution monitoring program with the UN, preventing a pending evaluation of the effectiveness of planned forced coca eradication, although it later backtracked. That prompted coca farmers to call "bullshit" on Duque's duplicity, not only around crop substitution and eradication, but on the government's efforts to downplay a campaign of assassination against coca substitution leaders.

Indeed, human rights remained a major concern throughout the year, as a UN peace mission condemned a spike in massacres in August, and a month later, the International Crisis Group demanded the government stop the killing of activists. The group said the government must prioritize communities' safety over military operations against armed groups and coca eradication efforts. Human rights were no concern for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, who promised Colombia more anti-drug aid the following month.

On another track, efforts to reform the country's drug laws continue. Bills to legalize marijuana were defeated late in the year, as right-wing factions aligned with Duque killed them. A bill to legalize cocaine was introduced in December, with cosponsor Senator Ivan Marulanda saying the bill would allow a legal cocaine supply for Colombian cocaine users -- use and possession is legal in Colombia -- and that the government could buy up the entire coca crop.

The year ended as it began, with the government still talking about plans to restart aerial fumigation even it claimed it would meet its coca eradication goal. Meanwhile, coca and cocaine production remain at world-leading levels.

Progress in Africa

Attitudes towards drugs and drug users are changing in Africa, and 2020 saw significant advances. It was in July 2019 that health, drug control and population ministers from member states of the African Union met in Cairo to forge a continental action plan for adopting more balanced policies toward drug use.

At that meeting, the Union's Department for Social Affairs called on member states to adopt master plans for drug policy by 2023. Such plans create a national framework for deciding which agencies should deal with illicit drug use in a way that deals with both drug supplies and demand reduction and ensure that not just law enforcement but also treatment and rehabilitation issues are addressed.

Zimbabwe had begun work on its own master plan years earlier -- back in 1999 -- but that effort had stalled until 2016 when, thanks to a civil society group, the Zimbabwean Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN), the effort was reignited. The country hasn't passed a reformist master plan yet, but thanks to years of organizing and alliance-building, reform is coming.

In July, ZCLDN and regional ally groups worked with the Ministry of Health and Child Care to draft treatment and rehabilitation guidelines that formally incorporated harm reduction practices, a big step forward. In September, the group brought together civil society groups and the government's inter-ministerial committee charged with creating the master plan, helping to lay the groundwork for the plan to be adopted early in 2021. But first, it has to be approved by the cabinet, the attorney general's office, and then parliament. The work was not finished in 2020, but it is well underway.

Meanwhile in West Africa, Ghana actually passed a major drug reform law, the Narcotics Control Commission bill, in March. It only took five years from the time the bill was first introduced. Drafted with the intent of treating drug use as a public health issue, the law effectively decriminalizes drug possession, replacing prison terms of up to ten years with fines of roughly US $250 to $1,000. The new law also clears the way for the implementation of harm reduction services, which had previously been outlawed. And it allows for the production of low-THC cannabis products, such as industrial hemp and CBD.

The colonial legacy weighs heavy on Africa, but when it comes to drug policy, African nations are beginning to forge their own, more humane paths.

Thanks to a Plant, Afghanistan Becomes a Meth Producer

For years now, Afghanistan has been the world's number one supplier of opium poppies and the heroin derived from it, accounting for about 90% of global production. Now the war-torn country is diversifying, becoming a big-time player in the methamphetamine trade thanks to a plant common in the country and low-tech techniques for using it to make meth.

That plant is ephedra, from which meth's key ingredient -- ephedrine -- is created, and in a November report, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warned that while its findings were provisional, "the data reported here on the potential scale of ephedrine and methamphetamine production emanating from this remote corner of Afghanistan, the income it generates and the speed at which it has emerged are both surprising and worrying." The report cited seizures of Afghan meth in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Australia, and tax revenues in the millions for the Taliban.

New Zealand Narrowly Rejects Marijuana Legalization

New Zealand had a chance to become the next country to legalize marijuana but rejected it. Early on, polling suggested that a referendum to legalize marijuana faced an uphill battle, and as early election results came in in October, the polls proved accurate, with the referendum faltering with only 46% of the vote. In the final tally, the margin narrowed, but the referendum still lost narrowly, garnering 48% of votes.

Kiwis were not ready to become the second commonwealth country to legalize marijuana, after Canada, On the other hand, voters approved a referendum to allow voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill by a margin of two-to-one.

We Just Won an Old Fight

Dear reformer,

One never knows when something good is going to happen. Last night, with the signing of the budget and stimulus bill, the drug conviction question on the federal college aid form was finally done away with -- students will no longer lose financial aid because of drug convictions, at least not automatically or in many cases. Congress also restored Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

Barney Frank led the fight in Congress for many years. He and nine other congresspersons spoke at our 2002 press conference.
Our fight to repeal that law -- section 1091(r) of the Higher Education Act -- began in 1998, after the law passed and before it took effect. The effort was multifaceted and long-term. We circulated a resolution adopted by student governments. We founded the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), which worked actively through most of the '00s. Through this campaign, we founded the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an independent organization that plays an important role in drug policy reform. We even created a scholarship fund for students losing financial aid because of drug convictions.

All of these efforts drew attention from the media and from Congress. News stories appeared in all the major US outlets, through a campaign we carried out in partnership with SSDP. Most of the news inquiries, by design, were steered to our student partners. But we did some too -- here's a New York Times story I was quoted in. The voices of people affected by the law were key to driving public attention and to gaining more allies. Our first student spokesperson was Marisa Garcia, whose story appeared publicly for the first time in Rolling Stone magazine. Rolling Stone went on to donate advertising space for the campaign.

Now former US Rep. Barney Frank led the fight in Congress for many years, sponsoring the Removing Impediments to Students' Education (RISE) Act. He and his office energetically recruited other members of Congress to cosponsor the bill. We worked with them on several press conferences, including one in 2002 at the "Triangle" area of the US Capitol where ten members of Congress spoke, as well as representatives of leading civil rights and higher education groups. We also held a series of forums and fundraisers for the John W. Perry Fund, with members of Congress and other notable personalities. The Perry Fund supported about twenty students who'd lost their federal aid, and was covered by news outlets including BET.

Marisa Garcia in Rolling Stone magazine, 2001
In 2006, Congress scaled back the law, limiting its reach to drug law violations committed while a student was in school and receiving federal financial aid. Then in 2009, a further reform limiting it to sales convictions passed the House of Representatives. That was included in a Senate higher education bill too. The section of that bill that included the reform got stripped from the final legislation, after Democrats combined their student aid bill with the health care reform bill as part of their strategy to pass both in 2010.

What's interesting about what almost happened in 2009/2010 was that by that time, our work had already put the provision solidly on the radar of members of Congress. It was congressional staffers who contacted lobbyists who were active with the coalition that time, not the other way around, to tell them they were already planning to take it up and had figured out what they could do. We'd also been successful in communicating our message that partial changes to the law were good but not enough.

Changes in Congress made it less clear after that, when the next chance to repeal the law would be. It had also become clear to us that further work had to be done by groups with full-time legislative staff who could lobby on other issues too. We continued to contribute as we could to the effort, but we mostly left the lead to groups in education and drug policy and criminal justice who are funded in that way. I'm thankful that some of them did so and that this was able to happen.

I'm also grateful to people who supported our campaign, and to the many past staff of our own organization who poured themselves into it through the years. One of them called the news of the law's repeal "a random ray of light." But the unexpected usually isn't random -- it was made possible in part through work done by him and others. I'm especially grateful to the students and would-be students who agreed to our publicizing their stories. More of the history can be found on the web site for the campaign, RaiseYourVoice.com.

the language eliminating the drug conviction question
We have continued to do our work in much the same way as we did on our Higher Education Act campaign. We pick issues that are important but where there are important roles not already being played by other organizations. We organize coalitions. We do targeted work like media-worthy events and lobbying selected members of Congress. We find the pressure points where the smaller resources can make a larger impact. We support and build up our partners and allies, so their strength can be brought to bear on these efforts too. And we reach out for new allies, as the new issues we take on present those opportunities.

The last few years a lot of this work has been on the international policy front. We've organized nine events at official international meetings. The latest, on the International Criminal Court and the murderous drug war in the Philippines, was covered in that country's media last week. Our work before a major UN drug meeting was covered by the Washington Post and other media.

Click here, here and here to read about our work on human rights in the drug war, democracy and rule of law, the issue of marijuana legalization within the UN drug treaties, and other drug policy issues at the UN.

We continue to raise funds for our end-year $10,000 matching grant, on which we have $4,000 left to go. I hope if you haven't contributed recently that you might do so over the next few days. A donation to our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, DRCNet Foundation is tax-deductible, and can be done online here by credit card, PayPal or ACH. Note that even if you don't itemize your taxes, under pandemic rules you can deduct up to $300 total above-the-line for charitable gifts in 2020.

A non-deductible contribution to our 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Drug Reform Coordination Network would also count toward the matching grant, and can be made here. This would support our congressional outreach, legislative action alerts, and the technical publishing costs for our newsletter.

You can also send a check or money order, if you prefer, to us at P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016. Please make sure to indicate whether it's tax-deductible for DRCNet Foundation, or non-deductible for Drug Reform Coordination Network. There's also info on how to donate stock shares on our web site here.

Thank you for your support, and the work continues.

Sincerely,

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org
P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016
https://stopthedrugwar.org

For First Time, CDC Recommends Pill-Testing; NH Supreme Court Psilocybin Religious Freedom Ruling, More... (12/24/20)

One Maryland lawmaker already has a marijuana legalization bill ready to go, the CDC recommends harm reduction programs use pill-testing (drug checking), and more.

Psilocbyin mushrooms. The New Hampshire Supreme Court okayed their possession for religious use. (Greenoid/Flickr)
Marijuana Policy

Maryland Lawmaker Pre-Files Marijuana Legalization Bill. Delegate Jazz Lewis (D) has pre-filed a marijuana legalization bill, HB 0032, that would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of pot and up to 15 grams of concentrates. It appears to have no provision for home cultivation, but does envisage a legal, regulated marijuana market, a social equity program, and expungement of past convictions.

Psychedelics

New Hampshire Supreme Rules for Religious Freedom to Use Psychedelic Mushrooms. The state Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned the conviction of a New Hampshire man for possession of psilocybin mushrooms after he argued that his arrest conflicted with the Native American-based religion he practices. Jeremy D. Mack was a card-carrying member of the Oratory of Mystical Sacraments branch of the Oklevueha Native American Church. Mack was a minister in the church. "We have long recognized that in Part I, Article 5 [of the state constitution], there is a broad, a general, a universal statement and declaration of the ‘natural and unalienable right’ of ‘every individual,’ of every human being, in the state, to make such religious profession, to entertain such religious sentiments, or to belong to such religious persuasion as he chooses, and to worship God privately and publicly in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience and reason,’" wrote Supreme Court Justice James Bassett.

Harm Reduction

CDC Recommends Pill-Testing. For the first time in its history, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended using services to check people's drugs for potency and contaminants. The recommendation came in a December 17 health advisory in which the CDC approved of harm reduction groups establishing drug-checking (or pill-testing) programs "[i]mprove detection of overdose outbreaks" involving drugs often adulterated by the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Congressional Progressive Caucus Calls for Quick Legal Weed, Trump Pardons Weldon Angelos, More... (12/23/20)

Idaho activists are already eyeing 2022, President Trump and Michigan Governor Whitmer pardon drug offenders, and more.

Former marijuana prisoner Weldon Angelos, who was pardoned by President Trump on Tuesday. (FAMM.org)
Marijuana Policy

Congressional Progressive Caucus Calls for Marijuana Legalization in First Six Months of 2021. In its platform, unveiled Monday, the Congressional Progressive Caucus called for marijuana to be legalized in the first half of next year. The call for legalization, as well as other criminal justice reforms, comes as part of the platform's racial justice plank. Congress must "reduce criminalization and incarceration through sentencing reform, legalizing cannabis, expunging records, and providing restorative justice" in order to address racial inequities, the platform says.

Idaho Activists Eye Marijuana Legalization as Well as Medical Marijuana in 2022. State activists are preparing a twofer for 2022, preparing to try to place marijuana legalization as well as medical marijuana on the ballot then. The campaign for the newly proposed Idaho Marijuana Legalization Act will be led by veteran activist Russ Belville, who was the campaign spokesman for the medical marijuana effort that was abandoned this year because of complications from social distancing measures necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sentencing Policy

President Trump Pardons Drug Sentencing Poster Boy. It wasn't just war criminals and felonious political flunkies that the president pardoned Tuesday. Among the 15 people getting presidential pardons was Weldon Angelos, who became a cause celebré when he was sentenced in 2004 to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana. He got the extreme sentence because he carried a pistol in an ankle holster during some of his weed transactions. Even the judge who sentenced him pleaded for a sentence commutation. Angelos was released from prison in 2016 after serving 13 years. Angelos has been a criminal justice reform advocate since his release. "His story has been cited as an inspiration for sentencing reform, including the First Step Act, and he participated in a Prison Reform Summit at the White House in 2018," White House staff wrote in announcing the pardon. "In his own words, Mr. Angelos wants 'to become whole again and put the bad choices in the past and continue changing the world for the better.'"

Michigan Governor Commutes Sentences for Four, Including Three Drug Offenders. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has commuted the sentences of four men imprisoned for decades, including three drug offenders. Lawrence Cadroy had been serving a life sentence for drug possession since 1999, Lorenzo Garret had been serving a sentence of between 29 and 170 years for drug dealing since 1999, and Larry McGhee had been serving a 20 to 30-year sentence for drug dealing since 2004. "As a former prosecutor, I recognize how critical it is to take steps toward a smarter and more equitable justice system," Whitmer said. "Over the last two years, we’ve worked with leaders on both sides of the aisle to make tremendous progress to give people a second chance, from reforming civil asset forfeiture to becoming a national leader on expungement."

EVENT: International Responses to Extrajudicial Drug War Killings -- Leverage and Limitations

UPDATE:
News article about our event online here.
Full footage of event now online here
.

Fhillip Sawali slides online -- Powerpoint and PDF.

 

International Criminal Court, The Hague
International Responses to Extrajudicial Drug War Killings -- Leverage and Limitations

side event at the online margins of the Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Treaty (ICC)

Wednesday Dec. 23 2020
8:30-10:00am New York / 2:30-4:00pm The Hague / 9:30-11:00pm Manila

organized by DRCNet Foundation AKA StoptheDrugWar.org

speakers:

Fhillip Sawali, Chief of Staff, Office of Senator Leila de Lima, Republic of the Philippines
Elizabeth Evenson, Associate Director, International Justice Program, Human Rights Watch
Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, Asian Legal Resource Centre

co-moderators:

David Borden, Executive Director, StoptheDrugWar.org
Marco Perduca, former Senator, Italy, 2008-2013

Link for registration: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIkdOGrrj8pE9Tyj4AgGeO25tiXDgUdZiAs

Drugs and the Year from Hell: The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2020 [FEATURE]

What a year! Pandemic, civic unrest, national elections -- 2020 has been a year of tumult that can't be done with soon enough. But when it comes to drug policy, it wasn't all bad; in fact, a lot of it was pretty darned good. Some of it however was quite tragic Here's our year-end round up of the biggest drug policy stories of the year.

Update: The 2020 top ten list now goes to eleven, with Congress removing the drug conviction question from the federal financial aid for college form. See below.

The Pandemic

Just as it has infiltrated just about every aspect of American life, the coronavirus pandemic has been felt in the world of drugs and drug policy. Social distancing requirements early in the pandemic, precisely at the time drug reform initiative campaigns were typically in the midst of signature-gathering drives proved particularly lethal to marijuana legalization efforts in the Heartland as initiative campaigns in Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma all succumbed. It also helped fell a Washington state drug decriminalization campaign, with organizers there opting instead to go the legislative route.

It has also infiltrated jails and prisons. One in five prisoners in the US has had COVID-19, according to The Marshall Project. 1,700 of them have died from it. Prison wardens have worsened the situation by blocking congressionally legislated compassionate releases for prisoners. Second waves are now hitting the nation's penal institutions. And most vaccinations in the prisons have been for staff, not prisoners. With drugs directly accounting for about one-in-four prisoners, COVID-19 in the prisons is partly a drug war story.

Amidst the layoffs, shutdowns, and social distancing imposed by the pandemic, drug use jumped. In July, the specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported that its analysis of more than half a million urine drug test results and found large increases in the use of four illicit drugs during the coronavirus pandemic. The lab found a 32.0% increase for non-prescribed fentanyl over the same period last year, a 20.0% increase for methamphetamine, a 10.1% increase for cocaine, and a 12.5% increase for heroin.

In September, a study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Network found that drug test positivity rates for cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine ha increased nationwide during the pandemic. That same month, in a new study, Millennium Health reported that urine samples from across the US came back positive at a rate 20% higher in the early weeks of the pandemic compared to the same period before the pandemic began ratcheting up in early March. The pandemic almost certainly also has had an impact on fatal drug overdoses (see below).

One of the most striking impacts of the pandemic has been on policing. Early on, big cities began to forego drug arrests and prosecutions as a discretionary luxury they could no longer afford as they struggled with the coronavirus. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, police or prosecutors announced they would not arrest or would not prosecute small-time drug possession cases. In March, prosecutors from more than 30 cities, including Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and St. Louis signed on to an open letter urging local governments to make change in the face of COVID-19. They called for police to adopt "cite and release policies for offenses which pose no immediate physical threat to the community, including simple possession of controlled substances." They also called for the release of people being held solely because they can't come up with cash bail and for reducing jail and prison populations "to promote the health safety, staff, those incarcerated, and visitors." These were not intended as permanent moves, but perhaps politicians, police and prosecutors will take the opportunity to break their addiction to punishing drug users and sellers by going cold turkey amidst the pandemic. That would be a silver lining to the current crisis.

Advocates for marijuana legalization folded the pandemic into their arguments for ending federal marijuana prohibition. More than 30 state attorneys general cited the pandemic in calling for Congress to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to gain access to banking and financial services. The House HEROES Act coronavirus relief bill, passed in May, included a handful of criminal justice and drug policy reforms, mostly aimed at reducing the prison population during the pandemic, but also included that marijuana banking language.

COVID was also cited as making it even more imperative to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3884). Over the summer, as the pandemic simmered, a coalition of justice and drug reform groups called on Congress to pass the bill, arguing that legalization was especially urgent in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over police brutality. Given the current situation, "marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the war on drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before," they wrote in a letter to Congress.

That was followed by an even broader assemblage of 125 religious, human rights, and drug reform groups calling for passage of the bill. "[T]he circumstances of 2020 have made the failed War on Drugs even more untenable and amplified the voices of those demanding transformation in our criminal legal system. In the face of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and a growing national dialogue on unjust law enforcement practices, marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the War on Drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before. The MORE Act remains the most effective and equitable way forward," the groups said. The MORE Act passed in December.

The Long, Hot Summer Uprising Against Police Violence and Racism

It all started with that horrid video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer over an alleged miniscule offense, but as people took to the streets all over the country, the name Breonna Taylor also loomed large. The totally innocent 26-year-old black EMT was gunned down by Louisville police in a misbegotten "no-knock" drug raid (it might be more accurate to call them "home invasion raids") in March, and her killing not only powered months of street demonstrations in her hometown, it also engendered howls of outrage and promises of reform from politicians around the land. And it brought heightened scrutiny to business as usual in the war on drugs.

As the streets overflowed in May, nearly four dozen members of Congress called for an independent investigation of the raid, calling Taylor's death "an unspeakable tragedy that requires immediate answers and accountability." That was followed by a bevy of bills in Congress, including the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases. House Democrats pushed the bill through in three weeks in June. Republicans in the Senate responded with Sen. Tim Scott's Justice Act, which wouldn't ban no-knock raids, but would increase federal reporting requirements for no-knock raids and use of force. But the GOP bill never moved in Sen. Mitch McConnell's Senate. As with so many measures passed by the House, McConnell's domain was where a congressional response to the crisis went to die.

But some states and localities actually enacted laws or ordinances aimed at reining in no-knocks. The Louisville Metro Council banned no-knock search warrants by unanimously passing "Breonna's Law" in June. Other cities, including Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis, San Antonio and Santa Fe moved to either restrict or ban no-knocks. And while several states saw efforts to ban no-knocks, the only state where it's come to fruition so far is Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law House Bill 5099, which bars police from breaking into a home or business to conduct a raid without first announcing their presence.

In Historic Move, House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

Breaking almost but not entirely along party lines, the House voted on December 4 to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 (HR 3884). The MORE Act would effectively end federal pot prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act's list of scheduled substances and eliminating federal criminal penalties for its possession, cultivation and sale.

The bill would not affect state laws that criminalize marijuana, but it would end the conflict between states that have already legalized marijuana and federal law. The bill also includes strong social equity provisions, including the creation of a fund to support programs and services for communities devastated by the war on drugs, a provision for expungement of past federal marijuana offenses, and a provision that bars the federal government from discriminating against people for marijuana use. The latter would protect immigrants from being deported for past marijuana convictions and would ensure that earned benefits are not denied to marijuana users.

The historic vote marks the first time either chamber of Congress has voted for legalization. But there is virtually no chance that the Republican-led Senate will take up -- let alone approve -- the measure in the remaining days of this session, meaning this is a battle that will continue in the next Congress.

Here Comes Psychedelic Drug Law Reform

Denver made history in May 2019 by becoming the first locality in the US to effectively decriminalize a psychedelic drug -- psilocybin-bearing magic mushrooms -- and as a psychedelic reform movement has spread across the land, this year saw more important advances. As the year went on, three more cities -- Ann Arbor, Oakland, and Santa Cruz -- passed similar ordinances.

Then on Election Day, voters in Oregon approved the groundbreaking Measure 109, the Psilocybin Services Act, with 56 percent of the vote. It will create a program to allow the administration of psilocybin products, such as magic mushrooms, to adults 21 and over for therapeutic purposes. People will be allowed to buy, possess, and consume psilocybin at a psilocybin services center, but only after undergoing a preparation session and under the supervision of a psilocybin service facilitator.

On the East Coast, Washington, DC, voters approved Initiative 81, the Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Policy Act of 2020, with 74 percent of the vote. The measure will have police treat natural plant medicines (entheogens) as their lowest law enforcement priority. The measure also asks the city's top prosecutor and its US Attorney to not prosecute such cases.

This string of psychedelic reform victories has generated momentum that is likely to result in more pushes in more places next year and beyond. Since Election Day, activists in San Francisco and Washington state have announced plans for decriminalization, a New Jersey state senator has filed a bill to downgrade the offense of magic mushroom possession, and a California state senator has announced he plans to file a bill. that would decriminalize the possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics. And that's before the new year even begins.

Oregon Decriminalizes Drugs

With the passage by voters of Measure 110, the Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative, Oregon broke new ground by becoming the first state to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The quantities decriminalized are up to one gram of heroin, up to one gram of or five pills of MDMA, up to two gram of meth, up to 40 units of LSD, up to 12 grams of psilocybin, up to 40 units of methadone, up to 40 pills of oxycodone, and up to two grams of cocaine. That's thousands of drug arrests that now will not occur in Oregon -- and now Oregon can set an example for other states to follow.

Red State or Blue State, Voters Choose Legal Marijuana When Given the Chance

The November election saw marijuana legalization on the ballot in four states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two states. They all won. Evenly-divided Arizona saw Proposition 207: The Smart & Safe Arizona Act, cruise to victory with 60 percent of the vote, while in blue New Jersey, Public Question 1 garnered a resounding 67 percent.

The really surprising results were in two red states: In Montana, Constitutional Initiative 118 and its companion Initiative 190 won with 58 percent and 57 percent of the vote, respectively, while in South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won with 54 percent of the vote. Both those states are Trump country, with the president taking 57 percent in the former and 62 percent in the latter.

It was the same story with medical marijuana too, as Mississippi approved Initiative 65 with 74 percent of the vote, while South Dakota's Measure 26 won with 70 percent. Marijuana for adult use in now legal in 15 states and medical marijuana is now legal in 38.

Attack of the Progressive Prosecutors

The November elections didn't just end the reign of Donald Trump and bring drug reform victories at the state level, they also ushered in a new crop of progressive prosecutors who will have the ability to affect the conduct of the war on drugs at the local level. Led by George Gascon, who was elected prosecutor of the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles, and running on progressive platforms that included confronting police misconduct, ramping down the war on drugs, and shrinking prison populations, progressives won prosecutor races in Detroit (Oakland County), Orlando, and two large Colorado districts that had been held for decades by Republicans. Progressives didn't win everywhere they ran, but the shift from "law and order" district attorneys toward progressives that began with Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia really gathered momentum this year.

A Tough Year for Safe Injection Sites

Safe injection sites -- or supervised injection sites or safe consumption sites, take your pick -- are a proven harm reduction intervention with 120 in operation in 10 countries around the world, but no legal ones operating in the US. It looked like that would change in 2020, but it didn't. A proposed site in Philadelphia got the final go-ahead from a federal judge in February, but the local US Attorney then won a stay blocking it, with a hearing on that stay held in October and the decision from the bench still pending. Things were also looking good in San Francisco after the Board of Supervisors okayed a three-site pilot program in June, but the state-level bill that would have allowed the city to proceed, Assembly Bill 362, died in the Senate after passing the Assembly. A similar fate befell a Massachusetts safe injection site bill, House Bill 4723, which managed to win a committee vote but then stalled. Maybe next year.

Asset Forfeiture Reforms

Asset forfeiture, especially civil asset forfeiture (without a criminal conviction), is increasingly unpopular, with 35 states and the District of Columbia approving reforms between 2014 and 2019. A November poll found that only 26% support allowing police to seize cash or property from someone without a criminal conviction. Some 59% of respondents oppose "allowing law enforcement agencies to use forfeited property or its proceeds for their own use." Opposition to equitable sharing, a federal program that allows state and local police to evade state laws against civil asset forfeiture, was even higher, with 70% against the program.

Here are some reasons why: In March, in Georgia,the Department of Revenue got caught spending millions of dollars in seized cash on "engraved firearms, pricey gym equipment, clothing, personal items, even $130 sunglasses." That same month, in Michigan, the Macomb County prosecutor was hit with a slew of criminal charges for allegedly taking funds seized from drug and other suspects for his own personal use, including a personal security system for his house, country club parties, campaign expenses and to buy flowers and make-up for his secretaries. In July, in Chicago, the city agreed to a $5 million payout to settle a class action lawsuit filed by two people whose vehicle was seized after a passenger was arrested for marijuana possession. The settlement will apply to hundreds of other cases where drivers had their vehicles impounded as part of drug cases. Also in Michigan, the Wayne County Sheriff's Office faces a similar lawsuit for seizing thousands of cars and other property belonging to residents without criminal convictions.

Such abuses helped New Jersey become the 36th asset forfeiture reform state when Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday (D) signed into law a bill mandating comprehensive disclosure and transparency requirements for the system of civil asset forfeiture. Unfortunately, the few remaining non-reform states are tough nuts to crack, as we saw with reform bills killed in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But, hey, at least Tyson Timbs, the Indiana man whose seized Land Rover resulted in a 2019 Supreme Court decision scaling back civil asset forfeiture, finally got his Land Rover back -- six years after it was seized over a drug bust.

America Keeps ODing

Amidst all the death in the pandemic, the ongoing epidemic of drug overdose deaths got short shrift this shift, but Americans are continuing to die by the tens of thousands. In July, the CDC reported preliminary data showing that after declining for the first time in decades in 2018, fatal ODs rose 4.6% in 2019. There's a lag in data for this year, but initial reports suggest bad news ahead. In July, the specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported that its analysis of more than half a million urine drug found large increases in the use fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. That same month, the Washington Post reportedthat fatal ODs have jumped and keep jumping during the pandemic. The Post's data showed overdose deaths up 18% in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May. The Post pointed to continued isolation, economic devastation, and disruptions in the drug trade as contributing factors.

Update 12/22: This year the top ten domestic stories goes to eleven, with the infamous "Aid Elimination Penalty" of the Higher Education Act set for repeal, as part of the massive spending bill sent to the president on the night of Monday the 21st. The provision barred students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for college, for varying lengths of time. The spending bill also restores Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

Our own organization campaigned for many years for the law's repeal, through the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform and the John W. Perry scholarship fund. Extensive media coverage made the law controversial, and in 2006 it was scaled back to be limited to drug offenses committed while a student was in school and receiving federal aid. In 2010 legislation to limit its reach further passed the House of Representatives.The provision stayed on the radar for members of Congress and their staffs, and yesterday it got done.

Congress Restores Financial Aid for Students with Drug Convictions, CA Fentanyl Task Force Bill Filed, More... (12/22/20)

Cook County's new State's Attorney is talking the progressive talk.
Heroin and Prescription Opioids

California Bill to Create Law Enforcement Fentanyl Task Force Filed. State Senator Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) has reintroduced a bill, Senate Bill 75, that would establish a "Southern California Fentanyl Task Force" chaired by the attorney general to heighten law enforcement agency coordination, recommend changes to state laws and bring a state-wide caliber of expertise to the issue. The task force would focus on Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Cosponsors include one Democrat and two Republicans. The bill is also supported by Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.

Psychedelics

Sheri Eckert, Co-Petitioner for Oregon Psilocybin Therapy Initiative, Dies Suddenly. One of the architects of the pioneering Oregon psilocybin therapy initiative, Measure 109, which was approved by voters last month, has died. Sheri Eckert and her husband Tom were the impetus behind the measure. She died last Thursday night of an apparent heart attack. She was 59.

Drug Policy

Illinois' Cook County State's Attorney Wants to Expunge Marijuana Dealing, Heroin & Cocaine Possession Convictions. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Cook County (Chicago) State's Attorney Kim Foxx advocated for the automatic expungement of pot dealing convictions and, going a step further, for expunging heroin and cocaine possession convictions, too. Her office has already automatically wiped out the records of more than 2,200 pot possession convictions, and she said she wants to use that bureaucratic infrastructure to find and expunge pot dealing convictions. "No, they didn't have a license. And no, it wasn't legal. But it was the only economy that they had," she said, noting that legal marijuana firms are now "doing the exact same thing and making a ton of money." She also said she would advocate for expunging heroin and cocaine possession convictions as part of a progressive approach to handling problematic drug use. "If we recognize substance abuse disorder as a health condition, then we must modify our justice system to treat it as such," Foxx said. "Criminalizing health is not in the interest of public safety."

Higher Education

Congressional Spending Bill Restores Financial Aid for Students with Drug Convictions. The massive spending bill approved by both the House and Senate Monday would eliminate the provision that disqualifies some students from obtaining federal financial aid because of past drug convictions. It does so not with any new language, but simply by eliminating the clause in the law that created the drug provision and accompanying question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The bill also restores Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

CDC Says Drug ODs Hit Record High Amid Pandemic, NJ Legalization Lacks Home Grow Provision, More... (12/21/20)

Another Mexican politican gets gunned down, the Scottish public health minister has been fired over record overdose deaths, and more.

This could still get you up to five years in prison even after legalization in New Jersey. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey's Marijuana Decriminalization and Legalization Bills Have No Provision for Home Cultivation, Which Remains a Serious Felony. The bills to implement voter-approved marijuana legalization and to decriminalize possession in the meantime have no provisions allowing for the home cultivation of the plant. Under current state law, growing one plant is punishable by up to five years in prison, while growing 10 plants could earn up to 20 years behind bars. That strikes long-time Garden State activist Ed "NJ Weedman" Forchion as unjust, to say the least. "Big guys, corporations, they can violate federal law in the state of New Jersey and grow tons of marijuana," Forchion argued. "But a little housewife down in South Jersey wants to grow 10 plants in her backyard, she'll be treated as a first-degree felon."

Drug Policy

US Drug Overdose Deaths Hit Record High During Coronavirus Pandemic, CDC Says. The year ending in May 2020 saw more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths, according to a new update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although drug overdose deaths were already rising after a blip downward in 2018, the CDC suggested the coronavirus was playing a role. "The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard," CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a statement. "As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it's important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences."

International

Former Governor of Mexico's Jalisco State Gunned Down in Puerta Vallarta. Former Jalisco Governor Aristoteles Sandoval was assassinated in the beach resort town of Puerta Vallarta last Thursday night as he ate in a restaurant. He was initially shot while in the restaurant restroom, and when his security team dragged him outside, they were ambushed. No one has claimed responsibility for the killing, but it comes amidst a rising tide of violent conflict among Mexican cartels and between the cartels and the police and military. "Sandoval's murder is one of several attacks and killings of Mexican government officials in recent years," said Maureen Meyer, the Mexico Director at the Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank. "This rising violence and insecurity speaks to the Mexican government's ongoing challenge to effectively combat organized criminal organizations that continue to expand their influence in the country."

Scottish Health Minister Fired as Overdose Deaths Hit Record High. Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick has been forced out of his job after the country recorded its highest ever number of drug overdose deaths. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon ousted him as opposition Labor and Liberal Democrats called for his resignation after drug deaths jumped to 1,264, twice the number in 2014. Sturgeon has appointed Angela Constance as a full-time minister for drugs to replace him.

Oregon's Largest County Ends Drug Possession Prosecutions, New Jersey MJ and Psilocybin Bills Pass, More... (12/16/20)

The DEA has published a rule that will finally allow for an end to the government monopoly on marijuana grown for research purposes, the Mexican congress slaps back at the US by limiting the activities of DEA agents inside the country, and more.

Meth arrest. You'll be seeing a lot less of this in Oregon as voter-approved decriminalization begins to bite. (Creative Commons
Marijuana Policy

DEA Issues Rule Allowing Expanded Number of Marijuana Research Grows. The DEA on Thursday made public a rule that will allow researchers to be able to obtain marijuana from more than the one currently sanctioned grower, a farm at the University of Mississippi. The DEA began soliciting applications from potential growers in 2016, and 41 applicants have submitted requests to grow research marijuana since then. Those applications went unanswered during the Trump administration.

New Jersey Lawmakers Pass Marijuana Legalization, Decriminalization, and Magic Mushroom Bills. The Assembly and the Senate on Thursday approved three bills on marijuana and magic mushrooms. Senate Bill 21 would create a new, legal marijuana industry, while a second bill decriminalizes the possession of up to six ounces of marijuana, and the third bill reduces penalties for magic mushroom possession from a felony to disorderly persons offense. The bills now go to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who is expected to sign them into law.

Washington State Bill Would Allow Personal Home Grows. A bill introduced last week, HB 1019, would let adults 21 and over grow up to six plants for personal use and possess the fruits of the harvest. Similar bills have been filed each year since 2015 but have yet to pass.

Drug Policy

Oregon's Most Populous County to Halt Drug Possession Prosecutions Ahead of Looming Decriminalization. The drug decriminalization measure approved by voters in November doesn't go into effect until February 1, but prosecutors in Multnomah County (Portland) the state's most populous, aren't waiting to stop drug possession arrests. DA Mike Schmidt announced Thursday that, effective immediately, it will quit prosecuting drug possession cases. "Past punitive drug policies and laws resulted in over-policing of diverse communities, heavy reliance on correctional facilities and a failure to promote public safety and health," Schmidt said in a statement. "It's time to move beyond these failed practices, expand access to treatment and focus our limited law enforcement resources to target high-level, commercial drug offenses."

Sentencing Reform

California State Senator Files Sentencing Reform Bill. State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) on Thursday introduced SB 73, a bill that gives judges more discretion to order probation and other alternatives to incarceration for certain drug offenses, as well as doing away with mandatory minimum sentencing provisions for some drug offenses.

International

Mexican Lawmakers Vote to Restrict Foreign Agents Despite US Pressure. The Chamber of Deputies of Mexico voted on Tuesday to approve a bill restricting the activities of foreign agents on national territory, despite the US voicing concerns that it could hamper cross-border drug investigations. The Senate already approved the measure last Wednesday. The bill came as a reaction to the arrest of former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos by DEA agents in Los Angeles in October. Bowing to pressure from Mexico, US prosecutors dropped the charges, but it appears the Mexicans are still not mollified.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

An Alabama cop gets arrested for meth dealing for the second time in two weeks, a former Virignia police detective is heading to prison for giving a snitch's name to drug dealers, and more. Let's get to it:

In Miami, a Miami-Dade jail guard was arrested last Saturday in a sting operation after he took a $3,000 bribe from an undercover officer to bring cocaine into the correctional facility. Guard Travis Thompson was arrested upon taking possession of the cocaine and cash. He is charged with one count of cocaine trafficking.

In Flomaton, Alabama, a Flomaton police officer was arrested last Monday on meth trafficking charges just a week after he was arrested on similar charges across the state line in Florida. Lt. Isaac Lopez, 36, went down a second time after taking possession of two ounces of meth from an undercover Florida officer. He's facing Alabama charges of trafficking methamphetamine and using a two-way communication device to facilitate a felony.

In Tuskegee, Alabama, a Macon County jail guard was arrested Tuesday for helping inmates smuggle contraband into the jail. Guard Jacorey Penn, 25, allegedly unlocked the jail's back door to let inmates receive contraband that included cellphones, marijuana, cocaine, pills, alcohol and tobacco. He is charged with promoting contraband.

In Newport News, Virginia, a former Hampton police detective was sentenced Monday to six years in prison for providing the name of an informant to a cocaine trafficking organization under investigation. DeAngelo Freeman, 32, worked for the Special Investigations Unit as he conspired with local dealers, naming the informant and providing other information about the investigation to the dealers. He earlier pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute more than 500 grams of cocaine.

Medical Marijuana Update

Both chambers of Congress have passed bills to ease barriers to medical marijuana research, the Mississippi Health Department joins a lawsuit trying to overturn the voter-approved medical marijuana initiative, and more.

National

House Passes Medical Marijuana Research Bill. The House last Wednesday approved the Medical Marijuana Research Act (HR 3797) on a voice vote, demonstrating strong support from Democrats and Republicans alike. The measure would remove limits on marijuana research by amending the Controlled Substances Act and would direct the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to provide licenses to more marijuana growers and manufacturers. Licensed researchers could then use that marijuana in research approved by the FDA.

Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Research Bill. With a favorable vote Tuesday night, the Senate has passed the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act (S.2302). It would ease the application process for marijuana researchers and would prod the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop medicines derived from marijuana. The House passed a separate marijuana research bill last week. The passage of bills in both chambers means there is still a chance that a marijuana research bill could still pass in the remaining days of the session.

Kentucky

Kentucky Lawmaker to Reintroduce Medical Marijuana Bill. State Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville) has said he will reintroduce a medical marijuana bill that passed the House this year but failed to get action in the Senate because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. "The support in the House will be even stronger than it was last year," Nemes said. "We have replaced a number of 'no' votes with 'yes' votes in the Republican caucus due to retirement and defeating Democrats, so we will be stronger in the House. The whole question is what the Senate will do."

Mississippi

Mississippi Health Department Joins Lawsuit Against Medical Marijuana Initiative. The state Department of Health filed a friend of the court brief Monday in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the will of voters who resounding approved a medical marijuana initiative in November. The agency argued that it shouldn't have to perform the "Herculean feat" of creating a medical marijuana program in just the seven months mandated by the initiative. But the brief goes further, also arguing that citizens have no inherent right to amend the state constitution. And it argues that the initiative violates the state constitution because it contains multiple subjects, including taxation, changing the criminal code, and zoning issues. No indication yet on when the court may rule.

South Carolina

South Carolina Lawmakers Pre-File Bills to Legalize Medical Cannabis. Lawmakers in both the state House and Senate have pre-filed medical marijuana legalization bills, H 3361 and S 150, respectively. The bills are both titled the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act. The bills are identical to legislation considered during the 2019 session, but not filed this year during a legislative session shortened by the pandemic.

Senate Approves Marijuana Research Bill, ICC Philippines Examination Progresses, More... (12/16/20)

A California bill would put an end to mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses, Toronto is moving to open safe injection sites in select homeless shelters, and more.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte may make it to the Hague yet. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Research Bill. With a favorable vote Tuesday night, the Senate has passed the Cannabidiol and Marihuana Research Expansion Act (S.2302). It would ease the application process for marijuana researchers and would prod the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop medicines derived from marijuana. The House passed a separate marijuana research bill last week. The passage of bills in both chambers means there is still a chance that a marijuana research bill could still pass in the remaining days of the session.

Sentencing

California Bill Would Repeal Mandatory Minimums for Nonviolent Drug Offenses. State Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) last week introduced Senate Bill 73, which would repeal mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenses. "We are living with the consequences of bad, racist policies enacted in the 1970s and 80s, which disproportionately criminalize and harm Black and brown communities," Wiener said in a statement. "Our drug laws are a stain on California, and we must stop hurting communities and wasting valuable resources jailing people who have committed nonviolent drug offenses." The bill would give judges discretion to sentence such offenders to probation when appropriate. Under current law, a number of nonviolent drug charges come with mandatory sentencing provisions.

International

Toronto Plans to Open Safe Injection Sites in Homeless Shelters. Canada's largest city is moving to set up overdose prevention centers that include safe injection facilities in homeless shelters. The city will spend almost $8 million on a new "multi-pronged strategy" known as the Integrated Prevention and Harm Reduction Initiative (iPHARE). More than $3 million of that money will go to expanded harm reduction services, including safe injection sites in selected shelters across the city. The sites will only be open to residents of the shelters. Between April 1 and September 30, at least 132 people died of drug overdoses in the city.

Mexico President Blames Small "Mistakes" for Delays in Marijuana Legalization Bill. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Tuesday that small errors in drafting the long-awaited marijuana legalization bill were the cause of the delay in passing the bill this month. He said legislators had requested a delay in the bill's Supreme Court-imposed Tuesday deadline to deal with it. "The period was practically over but they are matters of form and not substance," he said. "It is nothing more than a matter of mistakes that were made, lack of precision on quantities and there can be no contradictions in the law itself," Lopez Obrador said, referring to how much marijuana citizens can possess legally.

International Criminal Court Says Preliminary Examination of Filipino Drug War Shows Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity. In a report released this week, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) for the International Criminal Court (ICC) said a preliminary examination found there was "reasonable basis to believe" Filipino forces committed crimes against humanity in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody crackdown on drug users and sellers that has led to thousands of killings since 2016. While OTP noted that Philippines officials have claimed the deaths were justified, it said that "such narrative has been challenged by others, who have contended that the use of lethal force was unnecessary and disproportionate under the circumstances, as to render the resulting killings essentially arbitrary, or extrajudicial, executions."

The examination now moves to its final stage, admissibility, looking at whether the Philippine justice system has is responding to the killings in a legitimate way. If the Philippines can't or won't hold perpetrators accountable, the court can take the case. Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has promised a decision will be by mid-2021 over whether to seek authorization from the court to open a formal investigation. She has also pointedly warned that the court's resources fall badly short of what's needed to carry out their mission, which affect how cases are prioritized.

NJ Legal MJ Implementation Bill Advances, MS Health Dept Joins Lawsuit to Block MedMJ, More... (12/15/20)

Medical marijuana bills are coming in Kentucky and South Carolina, a bill to implement voter-approved marijuana legalization in New Jersey is advancing, and more.

Medical marijuana bills are coming next year in Kentucky and South Carolina. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Legal Marijuana Implementation Bill Advances. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved S21, a bill designed to set up the legal recreational marijuana market approved by voters in November, on Monday. The bill now heads for a Senate floor vote. Companion legislation in the Assembly is also expected to advance this week. The bill would send 70% of marijuana sales tax proceeds and 100% of proceeds from a new excise tax to communities most severely impacted by marijuana prohibition.

Medical Marijuana

Kentucky Lawmaker to Reintroduce Medical Marijuana Bill. State Rep. Jason Nemes (R-Louisville) has said he will reintroduce a medical marijuana bill that passed the House this year but failed to get action in the Senate because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. "The support in the House will be even stronger than it was last year," Nemes said. "We have replaced a number of 'no' votes with 'yes' votes in the Republican caucus due to retirement and defeating Democrats, so we will be stronger in the House. The whole question is what the Senate will do."

Mississippi Health Department Joins Lawsuit Against Medical Marijuana Initiative. The state Department of Health filed a friend of the court brief Monday in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the will of voters who resounding approved a medical marijuana initiative in November. The agency argued that it shouldn't have to perform the "Herculean feat" of creating a medical marijuana program in just the seven months mandated by the initiative. But the brief goes further, also arguing that citizens have no inherent right to amend the state constitution. And it argues that the initiative violates the state constitution because it contains multiple subjects, including taxation, changing the criminal code, and zoning issues. No indication yet on when the court may rule.

South Carolina Lawmakers Pre-File Bills to Legalize Medical Cannabis. Lawmakers in both the state House and Senate have pre-filed medical marijuana legalization bills, H 3361 and S 150, respectively. The bills are both titled the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act. The bills are identical to legislation considered during the 2019 session, but not filed this year during a legislative session shortened by the pandemic.

Drug Policy

Activists Call on President-Elect Biden to Abolish the Drug Czar's Office. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is calling on the incoming president to abolish the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office). "The ONDCP represents a bygone era," the group said in a blog post announcing a letter campaign to that end. "Today, most Americans now agree that the adult use of marijuana ought to be legal, and the majority of states have legalized the substance for either medical or recreational use. There is no longer any legitimate need for the Drug Czar's office or for a Drug Czar." NORML also called for the White House to not appoint former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-MA), a foe of marijuana legalization, as drug czar. There is a letter than you can sign at the link.

Patrick Kennedy Wants to Be Drug Czar, NJ MJ Implementation Bill Heard, More... (12/14/20)

Jostling over who will be named Joe Biden's drug czar has begun, Arizona gets working on rules for the nascent legal marijuana industry, more cartel conflict in Mexico, and more.

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy is openly lobbying to be named drug czar in the Biden administration. (nationalcouncil.org)
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Begins Working on Draft Rules for Recreational Marijuana Sales. State health officials have commenced the rulemaking process for legal marijuana commerce. Since election results were certified on November 30, adults can legally possess up to an ounce and grow up to six plants, but legal sales can't start until the rules are set. State officials anticipate sales could begin in the spring. The initiative that legalized marijuana mandates that the state begin accepting applications from medical marijuana dispensaries that want to become recreational shops beginning January 19 and that licenses be issued to more than 60 days after applications are received.

New Jersey Senate Committee Considering Marijuana Legalization Plan Today. The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting Monday to consider S21, the bill to implement marijuana legalization after voters approved it in November. It is also considering a number of other bills, including S3256, which would downgrade the crime of possession of psilocybin mushrooms to a "disorderly person offense."

Drug Policy

Patrick Kennedy Launches Public Bid to Be Named Biden's Drug Czar. Former congressman and mental health and addiction treatment advocate Patrick Kennedy has begun a well-publicized bid to be named head of the White House Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) in the Biden administration. Kennedy is an opponent of marijuana legalization. There are other contenders, including former board president for the American Society of Addiction Medicine Kelly Clark, former Obama era addiction policy official Westley Clark, and March of Dimes chief medical officer Rahul Gupta, who heads the Biden administration's ONDCP transition team. Notably, all of these contenders come from the public health sphere, not the law enforcement sphere as has typically been the case with past drug czars.

International

Australian Capital Territory to See Drug Decriminalization Bill. A backbench member of the Australian Capital Territory's (Canberra) governing Labor Party will introduce a bill to decriminalize drug possession in the ACT Legislative Assembly next year. The opposition has not rejected the idea outright, but says it needs further review. If passed, it would make the ACT the first place in the country to enact drug decriminalization. An early draft of the bill sets possession limits at half a gram of MDMA and two grams of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

Mexican Cartel Battle in Michoacan Now in Second Week. Fighting over control of 13 municipalities in the state of Michoacan between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Cartels United, which consists of the Sinaloa Cartel and other criminal groups, has gone on for more than a week now. Most recently, 13 people were killed in attacks last week in the towns of Chinicuila and Tepalcatepec, where residents dug trenches across roads to try to prevent gunmen from entering, as well as in Morelia, Zamora, and Uruapan. Multi-sided gun battles pitched cartel hitmen against each other, as well as police, soldiers, and armed residents. At least three civilians were among the dead.

Philippines Says Despite UN CND Vote, Marijuana Is Still a Dangerous Drug. Responding to the recent vote at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) removing marijuana from the most dangerous drug schedule, the Philippines is holding firm. The undersecretary of the Dangerous Drugs Board, Benjamin Reyes, said that doesn't mean marijuana is no longer a dangerous drug. "It is still included. It's just that marijuana (may now) have possible medical use, but still dangerous just like cocaine and opium," he said.

Santa Cruz Needle Exchange Hit With NIMBY Lawsuit, Mexico Supreme Court Okays Legalization Vote Delay, More... (12/11/20)

The Mexican Supreme Court grants another extension on its deadline to end marijuana prohibition, the Oakland city council will next week take up a measure calling on the state to decriminalize psychedelics, and more.

The Oakland City Council has psychedelics on its mind. (Creative Commons)
Heroin and Prescription Opioids

South Carolina Lawmakers File Slew of Bills to Fight Opioid Epidemic. Lawmakers have filed a package of bills aimed at the opioid epidemic, including H. 3362, which would require Medicaid plans to pay for opioid treatment; H. 3363, which would treat criminal offenses involving synthetic opioids like those involving heroin; and H. 3364, which would allow authorities to charge the seller of a drug involved in a fatal overdose to be charged with manslaughter.

Psychedelics

Oakland City Council Will Vote Next Week on Resolution Calling on State to Decriminalize Psychedelics. The city council will take a resolution pushed by Decriminalize Nature that calls on the state to decriminalize psychedelics and let cities and counties allow "healing ceremonies" where people could use those drugs. Decriminalize Nature was inspired to look beyond local measures after state Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) announced plans to file a statewide psychedelic decrim bill.

Harm Reduction

Santa Cruz, California, Needle Exchange Program Sued by NIMBY Neighbors. The Harm Reduction Coalition of Santa Cruz County has now been hit with a lawsuit over its needle exchange program by unhappy neighbors. The group's needle exchange program "poses a serious threat to the health and safety of the citizens of Santa Cruz County," the plaintiffs argue, and have led to a "significant" number of discarded needles. The Harm Reduction Coalition has long refuted that charge, saying it has removed thousands of needles from the area.

International

Mexican Supreme Court Grants Another Extension to Marijuana Legalization Deadline, Allowing Final Vote to Take Place Next Year. After the Chamber of Deputies requested a delay in a looming vote on the marijuana legalization bill, citing the complexity of the bill, the Supreme Court on Thursday extended the deadline by which the government must act to end marijuana prohibition. The latest deadline was December 15; it has now been pushed back to the end of the spring legislative session in April.

House Passes MedMJ Marijuana Research Bill, Australia's NSW Ponders Drug "Depenalization," More... (12/10/20)

The House has passed the Medical Marijuana Research Act, America's longest-serving nonviolent marijuana prisoners is now a free man, and more.

Richard DeLisi, American's longest-serving nonviolent marijuana offender, is now a free man. (family photo)
Medical Marijuana

House Passes Medical Marijuana Research Bill. The House on Wednesday approved the Medical Marijuana Research Act (HR 3797) on a voice vote, demonstrating strong support from Democrats and Republicans alike. The measure would remove limits on marijuana research by amending the Controlled Substances Act and would direct the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services to establish a program to provide licenses to more marijuana growers and manufacturers. Licensed researchers could then use that marijuana in research approved by the FDA. The bill is an orphan, though; there is no equivalent measure in the Senate.

Sentencing

Marijuana Prisoner With 90-Year Sentence Freed. Richard DeLisi, 71, was released from a Florida prison Tuesday after serving 31 years of a 90-year sentence. He is believed to be the longest-serving nonviolent marijuana inmate in the country. His release was engineered by attorneys hired by the Last Prisoner Project, which championed his case.

International

Australia's New South Wales Considers Softening Drug Possession Laws. The cabinet of New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian is discussing a plan to replace most drug possession arrests with a system of warnings and fines. According to the plan, people caught with personal use amounts of drug would be issued a warning on the first offense and fines for a second and third offense. Only if someone were caught four times in one year would he face criminal drug possession charges. The plan is a response to the Special Commission of Inquiry into the Drug Ice, which recommended drug decriminalization. The Berejiklian administration has rejected decriminalization, but is dancing around the issue by calling the plan "depenalization."

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