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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."

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.

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.

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."

In Historic Move, House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition [FEATURE]

Breaking almost entirely along party lines, the House on Friday voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 or the MORE Act of 2019 (HR 3884). The vote was 228 to 164, with only a handful of Republicans voting "aye" and a handful of Democrats voting "nay."

Friday was an historic day on Capitol Hill. (Creative Commons)
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.

Still, drug policy reformers were quick to celebrate the victory.

"Today's vote marks a historic victory for the marijuana policy reform movement. It indicates that federal lawmakers are finally listening to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are in favor of ending prohibition and comes at a critical time as this important measure addresses two key challenges we currently face," Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins said in a statement moments after the vote ended.

"Serious criminal justice reform cannot begin in our country without ending the war on cannabis," Hawkins continued. "The MORE Act would set federal marijuana policy on a path toward correcting an unfair system and help restore justice to those who have been victimized by prohibition. This legislation would also help address our country's fiscal and economic challenges by empowering states to implement programs that can stimulate economic growth and generate new tax revenue at a time when both are desperately needed. We call on the Senate to listen to the American people and pass the MORE Act without delay."

"This is HUGE!" said the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in a blog post announcing the vote. "This is an historic day for marijuana policy in the United States. This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years -- when California became the first state to defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition -- that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies."

"The criminalization of marijuana is a cornerstone of the racist war on drugs. Even after a decade of reform victories, one person was arrested nearly every minute last year for simply possessing marijuana," Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said in a statement. "Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy. But the MORE Act as passed is imperfect, and we will continue to demand more until our communities have the world they deserve."

DPA is particularly irked by the insertion of language during the legislative process that limits expungement and resentencing provisions to people with nonviolent marijuana offenses and language that blocks people with marijuana felony convictions from fully participating in the industry. The group said in the statement that it would work with Congress next session "to remove these additions and pass a bill that fully aligns with our principles."

"Getting to this point definitely gives us hope, but the fight is far from over. We will continue to build support for an even stronger, and more inclusive bill in the next session," Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for DPA's Office of National Affairs, said in the statement. "We are grateful that members of Congress have rightly come to the realization that the drug war has exacerbated the racial injustices in this country and ending marijuana prohibition is a concrete tangible action they can take to benefit our communities now."

Not everyone was happy, though. America's leading anti-pot activist, Kevin Sabet, president and co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana lashed out at the vote and the House leadership in a statement that called it "a useless show vote."

"The pot industry has won a post-season exhibition game, but they're treating it like Game 7 of the World Series," he snarked. "The bill is a smokescreen for Altria Phillip Morris and their Big Tobacco gang of investors. As we have seen in state after state, marijuana commercialization does not lead to any tangible benefit for disadvantaged communities and social equity programs continue to be manipulated. Legalization simply results in rich, overwhelmingly white men getting richer while using predatory marketing tactics to expand substance abuse in the communities that were somehow supposed to benefit. Big Pot doesn't care about social justice or equity, its only concern is profit."

But while Sabet goes on about his mythical "Big Pot," he neglects to mention who actually supports the bill: the American people. In the latest Gallup poll, released less than a month ago, 68% said they wanted legal marijuana. They may have to wait for NORHWWE Congress to get in done at the federal level, but passage of the MORE Act is in line with what the public wants, even if prohibitionists don't wish to acknowledge that.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug War Chronicle.

Washington, DC
United States

California Effort to Roll Back Sentencing Reforms Defeated on Election Day

A ballot measure that would roll back changes to California's sentencing laws, changing certain misdemeanor crimes, including some drug offenses to felony crimes, was roundly defeated at the ballot box on Election Day. Proposition 20 which "Restricts Parole for Non-Violent Offenders. Authorizes Felony Sentences for Certain Offenses Currently Treated Only as Misdemeanors," went down 68% to 32%, according to the Associated Press.

It was an effort to undo sentencing reforms by both the legislature (AB 109 in 2011) and two voter-passed initiatives, Proposition 47 (2014), and Proposition 57 (2016). All of those measures were designed to reduce the state's prison population; this one would have increased it at a cost of tens of millions of dollars a year.

Filipino President Says Hold Him Responsible for Drug War Killings; NM Pot, Decriminalization Poll, More... (10/20/20)

New York should be advancing marijuana legalization early next year, Mexico's Senate should be voting on marijuana legalization by month's end, and more.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte says to hold him responsible for drug war killings. Talk is cheap. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New York Governor's Advisor Says State Will Legalize Marijuana by April. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's top advisor on marijuana, David Culver, said that marijuana legalization legislation will be included in the state budget in January and that the goal was to get it passed by April. The moves will come as neighboring New Jersey votes on legalization in two weeks. "We’re watching New Jersey closely. We’ve always been confident that we get to this before New Jersey, so if they pass the referendum they still have to have agreement between the governor the Senate over there," Culver said, referring to necessary implementing legislation that will need to be approved if voters pass the ballot question. "We’re working on this. We’re going to reintroduce this in our budget in January. We think we can get it done by April 1."

Drug Policy

New Mexico Poll Has Strong Support for Marijuana Legalization, Near Majority Support for Drug Decriminalization. A poll sponsored by Drug Policy Action, the political and lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, has support for marijuana legalization with social equity provisions at 72%, support for drug defelonization at 62%, and support for drug decriminalization at 49%. Gov. Michelle Luhan Grisham (D) has called for marijuana legalization, but it has yet to get through the legislature.

International

Mexican Senate Will Vote on Marijuana Legalization by Month's End, Majority Leader Says. Ricardo Monreal, Senate leader of the ruling MORENA Party, has said the Senate will vote to approve the bill before the end of October. The legislature is operating under the pressure of a twice-extended Supreme Court deadline since the court declared marijuana prohibition unconstitutional in 2018. Once the Senate passes the bill, it will still have to be approved by the Chamber of Deputies. Different stakeholders are still at odds over the precise nature of the bill, though.

Philippine President Says He Accepts Responsibility for Drug War Killings. President Rodrigo Duterte has brashly said he accepts responsibility for the thousands of people killed in the bloody anti-drug campaign he unleashed after his election in 2016. "If there's killing there, I'm saying I'm the one ... you can hold me responsible for anything, any death that has occurred in the execution of the drug war," Duterte said. "If you get killed, it's because I'm enraged by drugs," said the president known for his coarse and boastful rhetoric. "If I serve my country by going to jail, gladly." He did, however, reject responsibility for the thousands of people killed not by police but by so-called vigilantes.

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

Former Mexican Defense Minister Busted at LAX, MT Legal Pot Initiative Faces Late Legal Challenge, More... (10/19/20)

Missouri and Virginia both saw their first legal medical marijuana sales this past weekend, the US Sentencing Commission reports more than 3,000 federal prisoners have secured sentence reductions under the First Step Act, and more. 

Former Mexican Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda busted on US drug charges. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Marijuana Legalization Initiative Faces Last-Minute Legal Challenge in State Supreme Court. Opponents of the state's twinned marijuana legalization initiatives (one would legalize it; the other would allow a change in the state constitution to allow setting the legal age at 21) are preparing a last-minute legal challenge designed to knock the measures off the ballot. The opposition group Wrong for Montana said it is preparing to file a lawsuit arguing that the initiatives violate the state constitution by specifying where revenues generated by legal marijuana would go. Voting is already underway in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Missouri Sees First Medical Marijuana Sales. Legal medical marijuana went on sale for the first time in the state over the weekend. The first dispensaries opened in St. Louis county, one in Ellisville and one in Manchester. The state has already approved 65,000 patients to use medical marijuana.

Virginia Sees First Medical Marijuana Sales. Legal medical marijuana went on sale for the first time in the state over the weekend. Dharma Pharmaceuticals opened its doors to registered patients on Saturday morning. The shop was seeing patients by appointment only as a coronavirus precaution.

Sentencing Policy

More Than 3,000 Federal Prisoners Have Received First Step Act Sentencing Reductions. The US Sentencing Commission reports that 3,363 drug offenders have been granted sentencing reductions under the 2018 First Step Act. Those granted reductions saw their sentences decreased by an average of 71 months, a nearly 25% reduction. More than 90% of those receiving sentence reductions were Black.

Pennsylvania Report Recommends Reducing Incarceration for Probationers with Drug Violations. The state Commission on Sentencing has issued a report calling for less jailing and more access to drug treatment for people on probation who get caught using drugs. The report found that about one third of all probation revocations are for drug use. "This report shows that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on providing evidence-based drug treatment for those sentenced to community supervision in order to provide better outcomes for offenders and to avoid costly incarceration," Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) and the chairman of the commission, wrote in a release.

International

Mexico's Former Defense Minister Arrested in US on Drug and Money Laundering Charges. Former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested last Friday at Los Angeles International Airport by US authorities and is charged with taking bribes to allow a violent drug cartel to operate with impunity in Mexico. Cienfuegos was secretary of national defense from 2012 to 2018. He is charged with four counts: international heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana manufacture and distribution conspiracy, importation and distribution conspiracies, and conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds, according to the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.

OR Drug Decrim Init Gets Chan/Zuckerberg Donation, DC Dems Endorse Psychedelic Initiative, More... (10/6/20)

Facebook's founder kicks in half a million dollars for Oregon drug decriminalization, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition launches a national dialog on the overdose crisis and COVID, a group of French MPs show their reactionary side, and more.

Peyote buttons and other natural psychedelics would be effectively decriminalized by a DC initiative. (Creative Commons)
Drug Policy

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Backs Drug Decriminalization in Oregon With $500K, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have donated $500,000 in support of Oregon's Measure 110, the drug treatment and decriminalization initiative. That makes them the second largest donors to the effort, behind Drug Policy Action, the political and lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has kicked in $850,000.

Psychedelics

DC Democrats Endorse Psychedelic Decriminalization Initiative. The Democratic Party of the District of Columbia has formally endorsed Initiative 81, which would effectively decriminalize a range of natural psychedelics, such as psilocybin, ayahuasca, and peyote. After a presentation from Decriminalize Nature DC last week, party delegates approved the endorsement by a vote of 23-10.

International

Canadian Drug Policy Coalition Launches National Dialogue Series on the Overdose Crisis and COVID-19. In response to the country's ongoing overdose crisis amid the pandemic, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition at Simon Fraser University, in partnership with the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, is launching Getting to Tomorrow: Ending the Overdose Crisis -- 18 public health dialogues across Canada over the next two years aimed at identifying and moving towards solutions to the overdose crisis, in the context of COVID-19, by building consensus and shared meaning. "The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the illegal drug toxicity death crisis as a catastrophic failure of Canada's current approach to drugs. Governments have moved mountains in response to the COVID-19 pandemic while a coherent pan-Canadian approach to over 15,000 overdose deaths in the past four and a half years has failed to materialize," said Donald MacPherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. "We hope the Getting to Tomorrow dialogue series will inform, engage, and inspire Canadians to become more involved in building a new approach to drugs based on principles of public health and human rights, and lead to improved health and safety for all in our communities."

French MPs Hit Out Against Proposed Marijuana Legalization. Some 80 members of parliament have written an open letter against marijuana legalization after renewed debate on the topic started last week. "There is no 'soft drug'. Drugs are a poison, a plague that we must fight," they wrote. Some MPs had called for legalization as a means of undercutting drug dealers, but this group was having none of it: "Legalizing the sale of cannabis will make current dealers turn towards other, even more dangerous substances. Just because law enforcement struggles to keep up with dealers, doesn't mean that we should legalize the practice," they wrote. They see marijuana and other drugs as the cause of "psychosis, schizophrenia, depression, school failure, dropping out of school, dropping out of society." It concluded by quoting Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who said "drugs are shit."

Mexico Cartel Hitmen Gun Down Six Police Officers in Durango. Gunmen believed to be with the Sinaloa Cartel ambushed a policy convoy in Durango state last Thursday near the town of El Mezquital, killing six officers and leaving seven wounded. Vehicles abandoned by the attackers contained bloodstains, suggesting that some of them had been injured as well.

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

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