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Chronicle Book Review: American Cartel

American Cartel: Inside the Battle to Bring Down the Opioid Industry, by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz (2022, Twelve Press, 400 pp., $30.00 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, with contributions from David Borden

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/americancartel.jpg
Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz have been on the opioid beat for years, teaming up (with others) on the Post's "The Opioid Files" series, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2020. Now, with American Cartel, the pair provide a deeply-sourced account of how opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies waged an all-out campaign to fend off DEA efforts to stanch the flow of billions of opioid pain pills, and to evade any culpability, even as the overdose death toll mounted year by year.

The picture Higham and Horwitz paint of corporate and political malfeasance is damning. But the laser sharp focus with which they paint it, omits much of the context in which the opioid crisis has unfolded. And that context is also very important.

An article in yesterday's Guardian shows one of the reasons why. In much of the world, very few pain patients are able to access opioids at all. Much suffering results, sometimes leading to suicide attempts. Dr. MR Rajagopal, chair of Pallium India, told the Guardian, "Pain is not visible. It happens in hospital beds or patients' rooms and is not visible to the world. Addiction, on the other hand, is very visible in headlines which quote the US epidemic and overdose deaths. No one talks about the western European success over decades; all the news is about the opioid crisis in the USA. This means that when we try to have discussions, our work becomes harder because many minds are primed against opioids."

In other words, by speaking too solely to one side of an issue, one risks adversely impacting the other sides. Whether "opiophobia" is real or significant in the US is another question. Higham and Horwitz don't venture a view on this, at least not in American Cartel.

One entity that has warned about opiophobia (without using the term) is the US Centers for Disease Control. In a 2019 memo, CDC writes that a 2016 guidance the agency issued on prescribing opioids for chronic pain had seen "misapplication[s]" by some physicians that put patients at risk. The memo cites a New England Journal of Medicine commentary by the authors of the 2016 guidance. It warns against "hard limits" on opioid dosages or cutting patients off; abrupt tapering of prescriptions; applying the guidance to acute pain situations patients face in situations like active treatment for cancer or sickle cell anemia or post-operative care; and applying it to medication-assisted treatment prescriptions for addiction.

Technically the CDC memo addressed a period of a few years beginning in 2016. But the dynamics it describes are inherent risks in a situation where providers are charged with supplying a substance that's useful but also addictive and potentially deadly if misused, and for which they can be sanctioned professionally or even prosecuted and imprisoned if things go wrong or someone disagrees. Pharma-driven promotion of their new opioid products was a factor in driving up prescribing rates to where they reached. But a part of the increase was also the medical community reacting to a real problem of under-treatment or non-treatment of pain for some patients, a problem that coexists with over-prescribing to some other patients. That increase in turn came with a learning curve.

The authors also give short shrift to the impact of today's woes and inequalities in driving the so-called deaths of despair -- a concept coined by Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton -- alienation and anomie, helplessness and hopelessness afflicting many Americans who have been left behind in the modern economy, especially in the opioid use heartlands of the Midwest and Appalachia. The Midwest deindustrialized beginning in the 1970s, and both regions largely missed out on the tech boom of the '90s and '00s. Then came even more pain with the Great Recession, followed by COVID and more economic and social disruption. People there (and elsewhere) are dying not just of opioids, but of smoking, drinking, and suicide. Big Pharma is easily (and oh so deservingly) demonized, but the laser focus on the companies allows us not to have to look in the mirror about the pain our society produces.

That factors like these should play a role in the opioid crisis, though, doesn't exonerate Big Pharma. Rather, the misleading promotions of their products carried out by pharma, took an even greater toll due to the vulnerabilities those other factors had brought to the fore.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to mount -- over 100,000 per year, and with a new record high every year. Prescription opioids still figure prominently in overdoses. But the greatest part of the problem by far is black-market fentanyl, used deliberately by some high tolerance heavy users of opioids, but primariy causing overdose as an adulterant in heroin, counterfeit prescription pills, and other street drugs, essentially a poisoning crisis. But as Higham and Horwitz note, that is part of a wave of opioid use that began with pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue Pharma taking Oxycontin onto the market in the late 1990s. The first decade of this century also saw other prescription opioids -- oxycodone, hydrocodone, Vicodin, Percocet, Opana, et al. -- hit the market.

Higham and Horwitz are fond of tossing around astounding numbers of pills produced by manufacturers or sold by certain pharmacies, such as Mallinckrodt producing 3.5 billion 30 milligram hydrocodone pills in one year, and critics could protest that those numbers need context, too. A prescription for a medication doesn't just have a number of pills to take. It specifies how large a dosage there is inside each pill. A smaller number of pills that each contain a higher dose might mean more than a larger number that each contain a smaller dose. And a higher dose prescription sometimes reflects a patient's tolerance to opioids built up through past medical (or non-medical) use. Maybe West Virginia didn't really need 81 million pain pills during a five-year span. But maybe it did. Without more information, it's just not clear what these numbers mean.

They do provide some context, though, for example by comparing pain pill sales across all drug stores in a region and pointing out anomalies not easily explainable by, say, differing rates of cancer or other serious illness. And they demonstrate that plenty of businesses -- from Big Pharma to the drug store chains and individual pharmacies -- were either in it for the money or at best screwed up, both through detailed analysis and telling anecdote. For example, there was the guileless Florida pharmacist who explains to investigators that she fills pain pill prescriptions all day long, but always keeps a certain number of pills on reserve "for my real pain patients."

When the DEA cracked down first on Wild West internet sales of opioids and then on the "pill mills," medical practices with perfunctory examinations and huge numbers of opioid prescriptions whose entire business model seemed to be writing opioid prescriptions, it succeeded in reducing access to those drugs. But the people using opioids didn't stop; they went to black market drugs, fueling first a resurgence in heroin use and now an opioid crisis driven by fentanyl.

A key figure in the tale is Joe Rannazzisi, who as head of DEA's Office of Diversion Control from 2006 to 2015 oversaw the agency's endless effort to ensure that prescribed opioids are only prescribed for legitimate medical purposes and not leaking into the black market. We are inclined to think of the DEA as a prohibitionist agency, but in this case, it is acting as a regulatory agency. And what Higham and Horwitz uncover is a case of regulatory capture -- when the industry being regulated manages to set the terms under which it is regulated, for its own benefit, not that of the public.

Rannazzisi and his team of DEA lawyers spent years going after opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy chains who were repeatedly (administratively) busted for failing to do due diligence about just who was buying their products. The companies would pay huge fines, promise not to do it again, and then continue to pump massive amounts of opioids through the supply chain.

The companies mobilized against Rannazzissi and his campaign, forming industry front groups, undertaking lobbying efforts, hiring legions of high-priced law firms, and crafting legislation that would rein in what they saw as an out-of-control agency. As Higham and Horwitz document in great detail, it worked.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), both of whom received substantial contributions from the industry, but written by industry lobbyists, the nicely named Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act removed from the DEA tools that Ranizzisi had been using to try to force drug distributors to monitor and report suspicious orders, such as the 1.2 million oxycodone tablets one distributor bought from Mallinckrodt in one day, only to order another 1.2 million the next day.

The bill passed, only to be drastically revised amidst scandal after an earlier Post report on the opioid bill derailed then-President Trump's effort to name Marino drug czar. But Higham and Horwitz also detail rot inside the DEA, where the industry managed to get to high-ranking officials who sidelined Rannazzisi, forcing him into retirement and forcing many of his team members into bureaucratic Siberia. It's an ugly little story of money and power, the sort that is all too common in Washington.

If the first part of American Cartel reads like a detective novel, the second part is more like a legal thriller, It covers the massive wave of civil lawsuits filed against the drug companies, and it is not particularly edifying reading. You see hundreds of high-powered attorneys from the country's top litigating firms -- including dozens of former DEA attorneys working now working for the industry they regulated -- facing off against armies of lawyers for the thousands of states, cities, and counties. You see massive settlements from the companies and massive damages wrested from companies that went to court and lost. While it is unclear just how the moneys won or negotiated by the various plaintiffs is actually being used to help people who suffered from the opioid crisis, what is clear is that it has been a bonanza for the legal profession, with winnings -- excuse me, earnings -- by attorneys reaching well over a billion dollars.

They weren't all in it for the money, though. Some, like West Virginia attorney Paul Farrell, whose state was one of the epicenters of the pain pill epidemic, were sickened by the toll of addiction they saw all around them. Not willing to settle for the pittance the town and county he represented would receive under a massive settlement agreed to by most of the suing entities, he gambled on going it alone against the drug distributors. As this book went to print in April, he was still waiting for a decision. Earlier this month, he lost, with a federal judge ruling that drug distributors were not responsible for the area's opioid crisis.

The litigation goes on, and the dying goes on. Sometimes the drug companies settle, sometimes they lose and have to pay even more. But sometimes they win.

The profit-driven wave of opioids that engulfed the country in the last couple of decades is not an anomaly. The pharmaceutical companies have a historical pattern of creating and marketing drugs that later wreak havoc. That's what they did with amphetamines, that's what they did with barbiturates, that's what they did with benzodiazepines. It's almost enough to make one wonder if profit-driven capitalist enterprises should be in charge of the nation's drug supply.

Read Higham and Horwitz's book. But read Case and Deaton's too. And when you see the next "pill mill" story, don't assume that it is, or isn't, what it seems.

Russian Court Sentences American Basketball Star Brittney Griner to Nine Years in Prison

A Russian judge sentenced American basketball star Brittney Griner Thursday to nine years in a Russian penal colony after earlier being found of bringing cannabis oil into the country in her luggage. The guilty verdict was virtually a foregone conclusion in a criminal justice system that wins convictions in 99 percent of cases.

This is what got Brittney Griner a nine year sentence.
Russian authorities detained Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, and she is widely viewed as having become a pawn in the conflict between Washington and Moscow over the war. Griner's attorneys say they will appeal the verdict.

President Biden, who has been under pressure to win her release from her wife and the athletic community and whose administration is attempting to negotiate a prisoner swap for Griner, called her sentence "unacceptable," and vowed to continue to make every effort to free her.

The US has offered a prisoner swap of Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, in return for Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in the US for conspiring to sell arms to Colombia's leftist rebels, the FARC. But the Russians have so far demurred, first saying that Griner's trial had to finish and, more recently, showing littler interest in the matter.

While Griner's sentence seems stiff to Western sensibilities, it is in line with Russia's draconian, zero-tolerance drug laws. Drug offenders make up a quarter of the country's prison population. As Penn State University law professor William Butler noted: "To many in the US, nine years' imprisonment may seem like a harsh penalty for cannabis possession. But in Russia, it is par for the course for this crime."

Another American citizen, 61-year old Marc Fogel, is currently serving a 14-year sentence in Russia for marijuana possession. Fogel and his wife were returning to Russia for the last year of a ten year teaching stint, when he was caught. According to family, Fogel uses marijuana to treat chronic back pain.

AR Legalization Init Has Enough Signatures, UN Experts Criticize Singapore Drug Executions, More... (7/29/22)

Marijuana seizures at the US-Mexican border are down again, Colombia's Gulf Clan is escalating its attacks on police as it jockeys for position in upcoming negotations, and more.

San Francisco could become the largest US city to decriminalize psychedelics. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Feds Report Significant Year-Over-Year Decline in Marijuana Seizures at the US Border. The amount of marijuana seized at the US-Mexico border has dropped dramatically this fiscal year, with seizures averaging 408 pounds a day, down from an average of 874 pounds a day during FY 2021, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Other drug seizures at the border are up, but the decline in marijuana seizures is part of a consistent downward trend in recent year. As the DEA has noted, "In US markets, Mexican marijuana has largely been supplanted by domestic-produced marijuana."

Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Initiative Set to Qualify for Ballot. State officials have confirmed that a marijuana legalization initiative from Responsible Growth Arkansas has submitted enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. But the state Board of Election Commissioners must first approve the popular name and ballot title of the measure. It would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by people 21 and over, but not home cultivation. It would also set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce.

Psychedelics

San Francisco Psychedelic Decriminalization Resolution Filed. Supervisors Dean Preston (D) and Hillary Ronen (D) have filed a resolution to decriminalize psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. The resolution also calls for broader statewide reform. If the resolution is passed, San Francisco would be the most populous city in the country to decriminalize psychedelics.

International

Colombia's Gulf Clan Trafficking Group Stepping Up Attacks on Police. The Gulf Clan, the country's most powerful drug trafficking organization, is stepping up a campaign of violence against police that began in May, when its leader, Dario Antonio Usuga, known as "Otoniel," was extradited to the United States to face trafficking charges. But now, as the country approaches the transfer of power from conservative President Ivan Duque to leftist former guerrilla Gustavo Petro, is ratcheting up the violence, apparently in a bid to bolster its prospects in potential negotiations with the new government. At least 25 police officers have been killed by the Gulf Clan, 12 of them in the last month, and three in just the past week.

UN Experts Call for Immediate Moratorium on Singapore Executions for Drug Offenses. UN experts have condemned the execution of Nazeri Bin Lajim, a 64-year-old Malay Singaporean national convicted of drug offenses and urged the Government of Singapore to halt plans to execute individuals on death row for drug-related charges. There has been a sharp rise in execution notices issued in Singapore this year.

Nazeri Bin Lajim was arrested in April 2012 and convicted for trafficking 33.39 grams of diamorphine under the 1973 Misuse of Drugs Act in September 2019. The mandatory death penalty was subsequently imposed in his case and enforced on 22 July 2022. "Under international law, States that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose it for the 'most serious crimes', involving intentional killing," the experts said. "Drug offences clearly do not meet this threshold."

The experts reiterated that, as per the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention's report on arbitrary detention relating to drug policies andits subsequent jurisprudence, imposing the death penalty for drug-related offenses is incompatible with international standards on the use of the death penalty.

Senate Democrats File Marijuana Legalization Bill, Bipartisan Psychedelics for Terminally Ill Bill Filed, More... (7/21/22)

Singapore is set to hang a drug offender today, Sensators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) filed a bill to allow the terminally ill to use certain psychedelics, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Senate Leadership Introduces Legislation to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), along with Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), today introduced the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA). The legislation repeals the federal criminal prohibition of marijuana, provides deference to states' cannabis policies, and establishes mechanisms to help repair the harms associated with the racially and economically disparate enforcement of prohibition. The CAOA removes marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act schedule entirely, ending the threat of federal prosecution for possession and licensed commercial activity, and allows states to implement their own cannabis policies free of federal interference. It also eliminates many problems facing regulated state cannabis markets, including lack of access to financial services, the inability to deduct standard business expenses when filing federal taxes, and the lack of uniform national regulatory standards and guidelines. The legislation also directs funding to reinvest in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition and helps improve diversity and inclusion in regulated cannabis markets. The bill's prospects in the evenly-divided Senate are unclear, at best.

Psychedelics

Senators Cory Booker, Rand Paul Introduce Bipartisan Legislation to Amend the Right to Try Act to Assist Terminally Ill Patients. US Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced legislation Thursday to clarify that the Right to Try Act should allow terminally ill patients to have access to Schedule I drugs for which a Phase 1 clinical trial has been completed. Specifically, the Right to Try Clarification Act would remove any obstacle presented by the Controlled Substances Act with respect to Schedule I substances when they are used by doctors and patients in accordance with the federal Right to Try law. Companion legislation will be introduced in the House by Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Nancy Mace (R-SC).

The federal Right to Try law permits patients who have been diagnosed with life-threatening diseases or conditions, and who have exhausted all approved treatment options, access to certain treatments that have not yet received final FDA approval. In general, a drug is eligible for Right to Try use after a Phase 1 clinical trial has been completed for that drug but prior to the drug being approved or licensed by the FDA for any use. In other words, in limited conditions involving life threatening illness and for drugs that have been proven to be safe, the federal Right to Try law removes the FDA out of doctor-patient decisions and reverts regulation back to the states. Under the terms of the federal Right to Try law, states remain free to permit or prohibit Right to Try use under their own laws.

International

Singapore Set to Hang Drug Offender Today. The city-state is set to hang 64-year-old Singaporean citizen Nazeri Lajim for drug trafficking today. This would be the fifth execution since March after a long pause in hangings during the coronavirus pandemic. He was handed the death sentence in 2017, some five years after being arrested during an anti-narcotics operation. Nazeri was found with two bundles of what was analyzed to be 35.41 grams of heroin, exceeding the 15 gram legal threshold for the imposition of the death penalty.

The country is increasingly out of step with its neighbors on drug policy. Thailand legalized most forms of marijuana last month, and Indonesia and Malaysia are discussing medical marijuana. The government defended its hardline approach: "It really is incumbent upon us to present the choices in very vivid terms and persuade our people, including young people, that we have to make the right choices for them and for society," said Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam.

Sudan Defense Lawyers Charge Political Detainees Forced to Undergo Drug Tests. The legal group Sudan's Emergency Lawyers, which defends people seeking to protest against rule by the military-dominated government, is charging that people being arrested at protests are now being subjected to unlawful drug tests. Detainees including at least 15 minors and six women were released after being beaten, assaulted and subjected to drug tests, the group said.

The lawyers said "what is really disturbing is that these people are now subjected to a drugs test," which they stressed "is completely contrary to the law". The lawyers say that those detained were not in possession of drugs and were not found in any suspicious situation that necessitates this procedure or would give authorities common cause. They pointed to the fact that any referral for examination must be made by the prosecution. "This procedure is purely criminal, it violates the rights of the detained, and it is against the principle of assumption of the accused's innocence, and completely contrary to the law. It degrades dignity and has a profound psychological impact," the lawyers added.

Rumors have been circulating that young protesters are using drugs, meth in particular, because they don't seem to show hunger or fatigue, but there has been no evidence to back up the rumors.

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans: The 200-Year History of the War on Drugs by P.E. Caquet (2022, Reaktion Books, 400 pp., $35.00 HB)

The history of drug prohibition is increasingly well-trodden territory, but with Opium's Orphans, British historian P.E. Caquet brings a fascinating new perspective embedded in a sweeping narrative and fortified with an erudite grasp of the broad global historical context. Although Asian bans on opium pre-dated 19th Century China (the Thai monarchy announced a ban in the 1400s), for Caquet, the critical moment in what became a linear trajectory toward global drug prohibition a century later came when the Qing emperor banned opium in 1813 and imposed severe penalties on anything to do with it, including possessing it. Precisely 100 years later, after two Opium Wars imposed opium on the empire followed by decades of diplomatic wrangling over how to suppress the trade (and for moralizing Americans, how to win favor with China), the 1913 Hague Opium Convention ushered in the modern war on drugs with its targeting not just of opium (and coca) producers or sellers but also of mere users for criminal prosecution. It urged countries to enact such laws, and they did.

What began at the Hague would eventually grow into an international anti-drug bureaucracy, first in the League of Nations and then in United Nations bodies such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board. But it is a global prohibition regime that has, Caquet writes, straight-jacketed itself with an opium-based perspective that has proven unable or unwilling to recognize the differences among the substances over which it seeks dominion, reflexively resorting to opium and its addiction model. Drugs such as amphetamines, psychedelics, and marijuana don't really fit that model -- they are the orphans of the book's title -- and in a different world would be differently regulated.

But Opium's Orphans isn't just dry diplomatic history. Caquet delves deep into the social, cultural, and political forces driving drug use and drug policies. His description of the spread of opium smoking among Chinese elites before it spread into the masses and became declasse is both finely detailed and strangely evocative of the trajectory of cocaine use in the United States in the 1970s, when it was the stuff of rock musicians and Hollywood stars before going middle class and then spreading among the urban poor in the form of crack.

Along the way, we encounter opium merchants and colonial opium monopolies, crusading missionary moralists, and early Western proponents of recreational drug use, such as Confessions of an English Opium Eater author Thomas De Quincey and the French habitues of mid-19th Century hashish clubs. More contemporaneously, we also meet the men who achieved international notoriety in the trade in prohibited drugs, "drug lords" such as Khun Sa in the Golden Triangle, Pablo Escobar in Colombia and El Chapo Guzman in Mexico, as well as the people whose job it is to hunt them down. Caquet notes that no matter how often a drug lord is removed -- jailed or killed, in most cases -- the impact on the trade is negligible.

For Caquet, drug prohibition as a global phenomenon peaked with the adoption of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Coming as it did amidst a post-World War II decline in drug use around the world, the treaty criminalizing coca, cocaine, opium and opioids, and marijuana seemed to ratify a successful global prohibitionist effort. (In the US, in the 1950s, when domestic drug use was at low ebb, Congress passed tough new drug laws.) But before the decade was over, drug prohibition was under flamboyant challenge from the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a horde of hippie pot smokers. The prohibitionist consensus was seeing its first cracks.

And the prohibitionist response was to crack down even harder, which in turn begat its own backlash. Drug use of all sorts began rising around the world in the 1960s and hasn't let up yet, and the increasingly omnivorous drug war machine grew right along with it, as did the wealth and power of the illicit groups that provided the drugs the world demanded. As the negative impacts of the global drug war -- from the current opioid overdose crisis in the US to the prisons filled with drug offenders to the bloody killing fields of Colombia and Mexico -- grew ever more undeniable, the critiques grew ever sharper.

In recent years, the UN anti-drug bureaucrats have been forced to grudgingly accept the notion of harm reduction, although they protest bitterly over such interventions as safe injection sites. For them, harm reduction is less of an erosion of the drug war consensus than all that talk of drug legalization. As Caquet notes, perhaps a tad unfairly, harm reduction doesn't seek to confront drug prohibition head-on, but to mitigate its harms.

The man is a historian, not a policymaker, and his response to questions about what to do now is "I wouldn't start from here." Still, at the end of it all, he has a trio of observations: First, supply reduction ("suppression" is his word) does not work. Sure, you can successfully wipe out poppies in Thailand or Turkey, but they just pop up somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle or Afghanistan. That's the infamous balloon effect. Second, "criminalization of the drug user has been a huge historical blunder." It has no impact on drug use levels, is cruel and inhumane, and it didn't have to be that way. A century ago, countries could have agreed to regulate the drug trade; instead, they tried to eradicate it in an ever-escalating, never-ending crusade. Third, illicit drugs as a group should be seen "as a historical category, not a scientific one." Different substances demand different approaches.

Opium's Orphans is a fascinating, provocative, and nuanced account of the mess we've gotten ourselves into. Now, we continue the work of trying to get out of that mess.

AZ Churches Sue Feds Over Ayahuasca Seizures, Schumer's Legalization Bill Coming Within Days, More... (7/20/22)

Indonesia's Constitutional Court rejects medical marijuana but calls for "immediate" study, DC Mayor signs bill providing workplace protections for marijuana users, more.

Weed will be on the Senate's mind next week. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Senate Hearing on Marijuana as Filing of Legalization Bill Looms. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday on "Decriminalizing Cannabis at the Federal Level: Necessary Steps to Address Past Harms." The hearing, led by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a strong proponent of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's pending legalization bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, comes amid word that the bill will drop any day now. Schumer has blocked incremental marijuana reforms, such as the SAFE Banking Act, saying he wants a full-blown legalization bill.

Kentucky Democrats Announce Plan for Legalization Bill. Frustrated by the failure of the Republican-controlled state legislature to act even on medical marijuana, state Democrats announced Thursday they will be filing legislation to legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational use. They said they would fill "LETT's Grow" bills in both house. LETT is short for Legalizing sales, Expunging crimes, Treating medical needs, and Taxing sales. "Our legislation is the comprehensive plan that Kentuckians deserve, and it builds on what's worked in other states while avoiding their mistakes," said Rep. Roberts of Newport. "This would be a boon for our economy and farmers alike, plus give state and local governments a major new source of revenue."

DC Mayor Signs Bill Providing Workplace Protections for Marijuana Users, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) has signed into law a bill that most employers from firing or refusing to hire workers because they use marijuana. The bill would "prohibit employers from firing, failing to hire, or taking other personnel actions against an individual for use of cannabis, participating in the medical cannabis program, or failure to pass an employer-required or requested cannabis drug test, unless the position is designated safety sensitive or for other enumerated reasons." There are exceptions for police, safety-sensitive construction workers, people whose jobs require a commercial drivers' license, and people who work with children or medical patients. The new law must still be approved by Congress before it can go into effect.

Psychedelics

Arizona Churches Sue Over Seizure of Sacramental Ayahuasca. Two Arizona churches, the Arizona Yagé Assembly and the Church of the Eagle and the Condor, have filed suit in federal court over the seizure of ayahuasca, a key element in their religious practice, by federal agencies. In separate lawsuits, the two churches charge that the federal government has violated the constitutional right to the free exercise of religion, citing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law bars the government from burdening the exercise of religion unless there is a compelling government interest and only if that action if the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

The Church of the Eagle and the Condor says that US Customs and Border Protection has been seizing and destroying its ayahuasca since 2020. The churches say drinking ayahuasca is "an essential mode of worship" for members, but federal agencies say any possession of ayahuasca, a Schedule I substance, violates the Controlled Substances Act. "The church and its members are aware that their sacrament is proscribed by law, but they have partaken in their sacrament both before and after the United States made a credible threat of enforcement of the CSA against them," the suit says. "Plaintiffs are violating and intend to continue to violate applicable law, rather than compromise or terminate their sincerely held religious beliefs and practices."

International

Indonesia High Court Rejects Medical Marijuana But Calls for Immediate Study. The Constitutional Court on Wednesday nixed a judicial review of the country's drug law that could have opened the door for medical marijuana. Three mothers of children with cerebral palsy backed by civil society groups had sought the review, arguing that marijuana could be used medicinally to treat medical conditions. The court held there was insufficient research to rule in favor of the plaintiffs, but called on the government to "immediately" conduct research on the medicinal use of the herb… The results of which can be used to determine policies, including in this case the possibility of changing the law," said judge Suhartoyo.

Big Increase in Injection Drug Use, House Passes Another Spending Bill with SAFE Banking, More... (7/18/22)

British Tories audition a new scheme for punishing drug users that effectively decriminalizes somebody's first two drug busts, a new study finds racial disparities in Pennsylvania marijuana arrests are increasing, and more.

The number of Americans injecting drugs increased five-fold in the past decade. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Passes Defense Spending Bill with Marijuana Amendments. The House last Thursday approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which includes nine amendments pertaining to marijuana and other drug policies. Included in the House version of the bill is language from the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, language allowing Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to allow medical marijuana recommendations, and two psychedelic research amendments. The SAFE language, which the legal marijuana industry is clamoring for, has been passed in the House as part of several earlier omnibus spending bills, only to be killed in the Senate by Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) and his allies, who have been holding out for passage of a full-blown marijuana legalization bill. We shall see if it turns out any differently this time.

Black Pennsylvanians See More Racial Bias in Marijuana Arrests. A new study from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) finds that racial disparities in marijuana arrests jumped upward in 2020, even though overall pot arrests declined. Black Pennsylvanians were five times more likely to be arrested for marijuana statewide. The largest disparity was in Cumberland County, where Blacks were 18 times more likely to be arrested for pot than Whites. "I will say that the numbers moving in the wrong direction is certainly a concern," said Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Cannabis Coalition Meredith Buettner. "This is all the more reason that we really need to dig into adult use policy here in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvanians." The Republican-controlled state legislature has so far blocked any moves toward legalization.

Drug Policy

CDC Finds Huge Increase in Number of People Injecting Drugs. A new study from the Coalition for Applied Modeling for Prevention (CAMP) and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a rapid increase in the number of people shooting up drugs in the past decade. The most recent data, from 2018, put the number of injection drug users at about 4 million, five times the number in 2011, the last previous estimate. The study also found that overdoses -- both fatal and non-fatal -- had also increased dramatically, with deaths related to injection drug use rising threefold during that period, which was before the current spike in overdose deaths, now around 100,000 a year. For every fatal injection drug overdose, there were 40 non-fatal ones, the study found. The CDC estimates that a third of people who inject drugs share syringes, needles or other drug injection equipment.

International

British Tories Plan to Punish Drug Users, Could Seize Their Drivers' Licenses, Passports. The Home Office has announced a scheme to punish drug users in a bid to "tackle the scourge of drug abuse in society." Under the "three-strikes" proposal, first-time illicit drug offenders, including marijuana offenders, would have to pay for and attend a drug awareness course. A second offense would merit a formal warning, another drug awareness course, and up to three months of mandatory random drug testing. For a third offense, people would be criminally charged and, upon conviction, could be banned from nightclubs and other entertainment venues and could have their drivers' licenses and passports confiscated. But, hey, that is effectively decriminalization for the first two offenses. The proposal will now undergo a three-month consultation period before being amended or implemented as is.

What Comes Next in the Philippine Drug War and Will Duterte Pay for His Crimes? [FEATURE]

As the month of June came to an end, so did the term in office of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for presiding over a bloody and still-continuing "war on drugs" that has left more than 30,000 dead at the hands of police and shadowy vigilantes, according to Filipino and international human rights organizations. Duterte's human rights violations sparked the interest of the International Criminal Court (ICC), whose Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) opened an investigation into the matter last year.

ICC headquarters, The Hague, Netherlands
Following a formal request by the Duterte administration in November, OTP paused the investigation in order to reevaluate whether government's accountability efforts touted by the administration were sufficient and credible. Late last month OTP requested court authorization to resume it.

Replacing Duterte is Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., known as "Bongbong." Marcos comes with his own baggage; he is the son of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda, infamous for her shoe collection. And his vice president is none other than Duterte's daughter, Sara Duterte. Between them, the pair provide a double dose of strongman genes for a population that has proven eager to embrace them.

With the Duterte government now in the rear view mirror, the question now are what happens next in the Philippine drug war and will there ever be justice for the crimes of the past six years?

In a parallel event to the UN High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development on Thursday, "Building Back with Justice? Marcos, Duterte, the ICC, and the Philippine Drug War," took on those issues. Sponsored by DRCNet Foundation (also known as StoptheDrugWar.org -- publisher of this newsletter), a US-based NGO in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council, and the Italy-based Associazone Luca Coscioni, the event was moderated by StoptheDrugWar.org executive director David Borden and Italian former senator Marco Perduca of the Associazone. The event focused on Goal 16 of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, "Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions."

In the virtual event conducted via Zoom, participants heard from three Filipino experts: human rights activist Justine Balane, Ruben Carranza of the International Center for Transitional Justice, and Dr. Aurora Parong of the Philippine Coalition for the ICC and the Philippines branch of Amnesty International.

"One of the goals is #16, is peace, justice, and strong institutions. Issues like human rights, accountability and so forth fall within that topic," said Borden, who noted, "Our first event held in March 2017 at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, where we were privileged to present a video from then Vice President Leni Robredo, a video which became controversial in the Philippines due to attacks being made on her for it by political opponents. Robredo was in the first year of her term as vice president, having narrowly defeated Bongbong Marcos to win that post."

"I will lastly note it's nearly 5 ½ years since then Senator Leila de Lima was jailed [on bogus charges for criticizing Duterte's drug war], and we share the widespread hopes in the international community that she will be released soon, particularly since... three of her key initial accusers have recanted their accusations and stated that they were made under pressure."

Perduca followed with a short history of the ICC, explaining that the core crimes with which it is concerned are war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity, with the crime of aggression added later.

"The court has jurisdiction over countries that have signed and ratified or have acceded to the treaty, and have... put in place all the necessary measures to... allow the court to take action if local authorities are unwilling or unable to pursue alleged criminals, at any level of the state hierarchy," he explained. "[W]e have made the case before competent authorities at the ICC... that the way in which the war on drugs in the Philippines had been waged amounted to crimes against humanity. It was massive and systematic, and it was the result of a specific order given by someone in charge... The Philippines was party to the treaty until a few years ago [when Duterte withdrew from it], so some of those heinous actions still fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC."

The new boss looks too much like the old boss, according to Balane, who in his day job serves as Secretary General of the organization Akbayan Youth.

"In the first half of the year, during the campaign season, the streets were blaring with the jingle of the new president and vice president, which started with the lines "Bagong Pilipinas, Bagong Mukha." It roughly translates as new Philippines and new faces," he said. "But in reality, it's not. In the first half month under Marcos and Duterte, we're been shown the same drug war tactics and the same level of government oppression... The killings haven't stopped with Duterte leaving... and how the killings have remained largely uninvestigated, and the killers let loose under Duterte and possibly Marcos."

"Data from the University of the Philippines (UP) Third World Study Center show that there have been 155 deaths for the first half of the year," Balane noted. "Even in Duterte's final year in office, the killing of children in the drug war continued... [including] two children in the last month of Duterte in Malacanang (the Philippines' executive branch headquarters)." In UP's research, from January to July 2022, 68 of the deaths were carried out by state agents... I'm relying on this UP data because there is a huge underreporting crisis on drug war numbers... This year, before Duterte left office, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency reported that there have been a total 6,248 drug war deaths since Duterte took office. This is a figure that is at least 24,000 lower than the estimates of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and other human rights groups... [I]t's even lower than the figure provided by the office of Duterte... [I]n 2017... the presidential office... admitted... that the drug war killed 20,000 people and listed in its annual accomplishments report, under the section 'fighting illegal drugs in 2017.' This... report became the basis of the Supreme Court order to the Duterte government to explain and release data on the 20,000 deaths which could be state sponsored," Balane said.

Balane was critical of the Duterte government's claim that it would investigate the killings, obviating the need for the ICC to step back in.

"Last year... the Philippine Department of Justice vowed to the international community that they are able and willing to conduct a domestic review of the drug war cases, just to show that the justice system is still working... But this year, the Department of Justice announced to the United Nations that only four cases have led to actual new prosecutions. Imagine that!" he exclaimed. "Four cases out of more than 30,000 reported or suspected cases under the drug war... [T]hat's showing this government has been noncommittal and not... serious about its obligations to the international community, not upholding its human rights obligations."

The Duterte government clearly failed to pursue the police and shadowy vigilante groups behind the killings, Balane said.

"To date, there remains only one case that has led to a guilty verdict against killer cops, and that was in 2018... That's because the norm is of acquitting and letting killer cops go scot-free... Seriously, the prospects of investigation bringing to justice the cases and the killings that happened under the Duterte admnistration remain bleak."

Balane was not optimistic about the prospects under the new Marcos administration.

"As we enter Bongbong Marcos's presidency, one person a day is killed, approximately. This is according to [UP data]... An official of the Marcos government also vowed that the drug war will be as intensive as before. Even President Marcos himself during the campaign trail said that he would continue the drug war with the same vigor but a different approach. But we continue to question the government's seriousness to put into law any program that is an alternative to what the law enforcement agencies have already been accustomed to under Duterte, because they have already been so comfortable with getting away with their crimes," he charged.

As early as 2017, Senator Risa Hontiveros of Akbayan already filed a bill in the Senate providing a framework for a public health approach on the drug problem. But until now there has been no push from others in the Senate or anyone else in the legislative chamber or the executive to pass it or adopt elements of it highlighting harm reduction instead of the punitive, violent and largely failed approach of the Duterte administration."

Balane concluded by noting, "Marcos Jr., who sits in the office of the president, refuses to be accountable for the extrajudicial killings that happened under his family's regime in the '70s.

"It's important to note that the drug war is not over," said Carranza of the International Center for Transitional Justice. "There's this famous quote from The Wire, that TV show about drug wars, that 'drug wars are not actual wars, because drug wars never end.'

Carranza explained, "On the first day of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. as president... there were drug war killings in the University of the Philippines... involving two brothers who were... from a very poor family... The brothers were invited by a supposed friend to help fix a car, but instead they were taken by plainclothes armed men in a car that was unmarked, taken from the university, and then their bodies were found two days later," he noted.

"I mention this because... part of what Duterte unleashed has been the creation of a national death squad that has now come to exist apart from Duterte himself... [So] I don't think we can reckon with accountability in the drug war based on who the president of the Philippines is. It's important to look at the institutions that enforce the drug war, both the formal state institutions, the Philippine National Police, and the non-institutional and yet much more powerful creations that the drug war has led to. A death squad that used to be local -- Davao City -- has become national under Duterte, and this national death squad continues." "Vicente Danao, the current police chief, was Duterte's former police chief in Davao City. Vicente Danao has a record, not just of being involved in the drug wars in Davao, but also domestic abuse, for which he was exposed by his wife and had to take a leave from his police duties in Davao -- until Duterte, of course, forgave him and said that he will back him up," Carranza explained.

"Vicente Danao is likely to be one of those that, if the prosecutor goes ahead with the investigation that has already been authorized previously by the pre-trial chamber of the ICC.. [will] be investigated," he continued. "It's difficult to say at this point whether Vicente Danao, or anyone else for that matter, will be charged. But obviously those who have been linked to the death squad in Davao, and now operate on a national scale, are likely to be those who will be investigated and potentially charged. This isn't only because of their links to the death squads in Davao and then nationwide. This is also because the ICC prosecutor, with the approval of the pre-trial chamber, has actually extended the coverage of the investigation of the Philippines drug war to the period when Duterte was mayor of Davao, in other words after the ICC treaty took effect for the Philippines in 2011, and years before Rodrigo Duterte became president... During this period, Rodrigo Duterte was mayor, but there were periods when his daughter was mayor of Davao because they took turns being mayor."

It's important to remember... that the International Criminal Court is not the only institution that can pursue accountability for the drug war. It's important to remember that prosecution is not the only measure by which extrajudicial killings, crimes against humanity committed in the drug war, can be pursued and those behind them be held accountable. Justice doesn't only equate with courts; justice can be pursued elsewhere, outside of courts," Carranza argued.

"There are two ways in which I think accountability and justice for the drug war can be pursued even outside of the International Criminal Court process. One is through a truth-telling process that can be organized at the local level, perhaps at the community level in the Philippines among the urban poor communities that have been targeted by the drug war," he said. "Part of that work is being done now by priests like my friend Father Flavie Villanueva and the exhumations and the reburials and cremations of those whose bodies were buried in cemeteries whose families cannot afford to... pay for the burial plots. That process of removing remains and then having -- my friend as well, one of the forensic pathologists in the Philippines, Dr. Raquel Fortun -- exhume and examine the bodies, conduct autopsies -- is a truth-telling process. It's important for the international community to support that, because this not only empowers communities, empowers families of the victims into acting on their demands for justice, but gives them some hope that even if there's no formal state process that seeks accountability within the Philippines, even if the ICC prosecutor will take longer to actually conduct the investigation, and even if... the ICC as a court cannot proceed because the Philippines does not cooperate... that there are local processes going on that are outside of court processes," he said.

"The second approach to justice for the drug war involves reparations for families of the drug war victims. Reparations isn't new in the Philippines; the Philippines actually passed a law in 2013... to provide reparations for victims of the Marcos dictatorship."

Carranza pondered, "It is possible to give reparations to be given to victims of the drug war, but it is possible under Marcos? ... The sister of Ferdinand Marcos Jr., a senator, Imee Marcos, actually supported a bill that became a law... that gave reparations for those who were victimized and displaced in the siege in Marawi City involving a conflict between a violent extremist group in the Philippine south and the government," Carranza continued.

"But will Marcos Jr. pursue the killings, pursue accountability of those involved in the killings in Duterte's drug war? That is a question that will be fully answered over time, but two things we need to take into account: Marcos Jr. is no stranger to maintaining impunity. He and his family have an interest in maintaining the impunity of Duterte, because any action that might open accountability of presidents past, and even further in the past, will obviously reopen questions around the accountability of the Marcos family," he argued. And "The Marcoses will defend their ill-gotten wealth for as long as they can."

Finally, Carranza argued, "Marcos Jr. will say what the global north's elites will want to hear, what the west, particularly the Europeans in the western part of Europe want to hear, that he will pursue accountability for human rights violations. He has said this... That he will pursue preventive health-related policies for drug users... This is, of course, appealing to Westerners, but does not deal with the root causes of drug use in urban poor communities in the first place, and the economic and social rights violations that then lead to drug use in the Philippines."

Parong and the Philippine Coalition for the ICC are not giving up on the international community.

"The [coalition] is calling on the UN to review and assess the effectiveness of its technical assistance, and review its decision not to probe into the war on drugs. Given the findings of Dr. Raquel Fortun, and of course also the statement of Prosecutor Khan of the ICC that there is no effective investigation, and looking into the systematic nature of the crimes... and therefore have called for the UN Human Rights Council to review its decision..." she said.

"There should be key result areas, or impact assessment of its assistance to the Philippines. Perhaps one would be effective prosecution of perpetrators of the killings in the war on drugs, and then a result that should be achieved. Because there should be changes in the behavior and values of those who are trained during this technical assistance. And then of course there should be the effort to really look at the enablers, those who made it possible that there are >massive killings in the tens of thousands," the humanitarian law expert suggested.

"We also believe that if President Marcos Jr. is really committed to high accountability and to pursue the control on drugs within the rule of law, they should develop a program against drug abuse that integrates a human rights and public health perspective," she continued. "And of course, the Philippine government has to really give complete results of what it says it will pursue the fight against drugs within the rule of law and make high accountability possible, then it should now come out with a very, very complete plan... There has to be specific, there has to be terms of reference, items on the plan, and concrete results in key result areas that can be measured, and not just those general commitments to the rule of law or accountability."

Parong had a specific suggestion for the Marcos-Duterte administration too: "If they really want unity as well as peace so that we can get out of this pandemic crisis... they should review the withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, and consider the possibility of getting back, if they really want higher accountability."

But given the workload of the ICC -- the Office of the Prosecutor is looking at abuses in 16 countries right now, it lacks the resources to do all it needs to be doing," she said.

"We think that the internationally community, especially the Assembly of States Parties of the Rome Statute, should in fact provide the resources which the court needs in order to be able to really act as a court of last resort and deliver justice. Faster also, rather than being at the back burner for investigation, and then it's only after some time that the court can act on them, because they have no resources that is adequate enough to pursue all these cases that they are either investigating, on preliminary investigations, or even those which are on trial. So there has to be more resources and support, not just from the state parties... because if other members of the UN really believe in international justice and support it, then they should support whatever is in the international court's purview to review and make decisions."

And it's not just funding but having the back of the ICC when it is attacked.

"The Philippine president has in the past attacked the ICC as an institution," she noted. "He also attacked UN officials and ICC personnel... During the campaign, the current presient said he would only allow the ICC personnel to come in as tourists, not as investigators... We think the UN members, as well as the Assembly of States Parties of the Rome Statute, should be giving political support to the ICC when there is an effort to attack them or diminish their capacities to do their work because they don't have access to the countries that need to be investigated."

For those seeking radical change away from Duterte's drug war, some of the early indicators -- especially the continuing killings -- are not good. And while Bongbong is talking about some limited reforms, it remains to be seen whether he will pursue even those modest goals. For those seeking justice and accountability for Duterte's crimes, the path remains arduous, but that has not stopped them.

House Approves SAFE Banking Again, Colombia Cocaine Production Down Slightly, More... (7/15/22)

The NYPD reverses course on testing cops for marijuana, Colorado's governor signs an executive order protecting marijuana-using workers from discrimination, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Coca and cocaine production remained relatively stable at high levels last year. (Pixabay)
House Approves More Marijuana Amendments as Part of Defense Spending Bill. The House on Thursday approved a half dozen marijuana amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, including amendments to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses and allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients. The banking amendment came from Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and contains the language of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which has been included in other omnibus spending bills only to be stripped out in conference committee by Senate leadership, which is still holding out for a full-fledged marijuana legalization bill.

Colorado Governor Issues Executive Order to Protect Marijuana Users from Workplace Discrimination. Gov. Jared Polis (D) has issued an executive order designed to protect workers from being punished or denied a professional license for using, possessing, or growing marijuana. The order includes people from other states. "The exclusion of people from the workforce because of marijuana-related activities that are lawful in Colorado, but still criminally penalized in other states, hinders our residents, economy and our State," said Polis. The order also directs the state Department of Regulatory Agencies to not provide information to aid in professional investigations related to legal marijuana-related activities in the state.

NYPD Says It Will Stop Testing Cops for Weed, Then Reverses Course. The NYPD on Wednesday announced it would quit drug testing officers for marijuana, only to reverse course within a matter of hours. "The New York City Law Department has directed the NYPD to cease all random, scheduled and pre-employment testing for marijuana," an NYPD spokeswoman said early Wednesday. "The Department will continue to administer marijuana screenings to personnel when there are indications of impairment and is reviewing its current policies in light of this directive." But later in the day, an NYPD spokesman said that the department was in discussions with the Law Department about possible conflicts with federal law and that in the meantime, it was back to the old policy. "While these discussions continue, there is no change in NYPD policies, procedures, or testing protocols regarding the use of Marijuana by uniformed members of the service," the spokesperson announced.

International

Colombian Coca, Cocaine Production Fell Slightly Last Year, Drug Czar's Office Says. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) reported Thursday that Colombia had seen slight reductions in coca cultivation and cocaine production in 2021. Estimated coca cultivation dropped from 600,000 acres to 578,000, while estimated cocaine production dropped from 994 tons in 2020 to 972 tons last year. Despite billions of dollars in US anti-drug and counter-insurgency funding over the past several decades, Colombia remains one of the world's top cocaine producer, with leftist rebel factions, former rightist paramilitaries, and criminal gangs competing earn black market profits from the trade. ONDCP also reported that Peruvian cocaine production and coca cultivation dropped slightly as well last year, but production was up slightly in Bolivia, leaving global cocaine production at near record levels.

Medical Marijuana Update

A Nebraska initiative campaign hands in signatures, no more medical marijuana sales tax in the Garden State, and more.

Nebraska

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign Turns in Signatures. Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana has handed in some 90,000 raw signatures to try to put its a pair of linked medical marijuana initiatives on the November ballot. It needs roughly 87,000 valid voter signatures to qualify, leaving the campaign with a very slim buffer to account for any invalidated signatures. But after a court ruling this week, the campaign may need to have the support of five percent of voters in 38 of the state's 93 counties. That issue is currently being litigated, but as things stand, the requirement is still in effect.

New Jersey

New Jersey Ends Sales Tax on Medical Marijuana Products. Beginning July 1, medical marijuana patients no longer have to pay a state sales tax on their purchases. New Jersey had been one of the few states that imposed the sales tax on medical marijuana but passed legislation in 2019 to begin phasing it out. Now it is gone. "Removing state sales tax on medicinal cannabis is consistent with Governor Murphy and the legislature's intent to prioritize patients and improve affordability," said Jeff Brown, Executive Director of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission. "As the sales tax has been phased out… patients have been able to spend less on their medicine, further ensuring patients are prioritized over recreational consumers."

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Marijuana Banking and Insurance Reform Bill into Law. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) on Monday signed into law House Bill 311, which includes provisions to protect banks and insurers who work with state-legal medical marijuana businesses. The measure does not protect banks and insurers from any federal repercussions but sends a signal to the financial services industry that it won't face repercussions under state law. The new law says that a "financial institution authorized to engage in business in this Commonwealth may provide financial services to or for the benefit of a legitimate cannabis-related business and the business associates of a legitimate cannabis-related business." And ditto for insurance companies.

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