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SF Supes Approve Safe Injection Site Measure, OK Pot Init Can Start Collecting Signatures, More... (6/24/20)

The Kansas City and Los Angeles city councils advance marijuana measures, San Francisco supervisors approve a measure to allow safe injection sites, marijuana legalization is advancing in the Isreali Knesset, and more.

Safe injection sites could be coming to San Francisco--if the state and federal governments clear the way. (CC)
Marijuana Policy

Oklahoma Supreme Court Clears Marijuana Legalization Initiative for Signature-Gathering. The state's high court has ruled that the initiative, State Question 807 to legalize marijuana may proceed to the signature-gathering stage. The initiative would legalize marijuana for adults over 21 and impose a 15% marijuana sales tax. Supporters would have to gather about 178,000 signatures of registered voters in 90 days to qualify the question for the ballot.

Kansas City Ordinance Removing Marijuana Prosecutions and Penalties Wins Committee Vote. An ordinance that would remove marijuana prosecutions and penalties from the city code was passed out of the Finance, Governance and Public Safety Committee Wednesday on a 4-2 vote and now heads for a full city council vote on July 9.

Los Angeles Ordinance to Reset Legal Marijuana Market Wins Committee Vote. The city council's Rules Committee voted Tuesday to approve a series of changes to help the city's struggling legal marijuana market, including strengthening programs aimed at helping operators from communities that suffered most from the nation's war on drugs. One proposed change would limit delivery licenses only to businesses that meet social equity benchmarks until 2025. The committee also approved allowing businesses to relocate while being licensed, clarify what employees are required to have background checks and streamline the application process.

Harm Reduction

San Francisco Board of Supervisors Approves Bill to Allow Safe Injection Sites. The Board on Tuesday approved a bill that would allow nonprofits to operate safe injection sites in the city. The legislation, backed by Mayor London Breed, passed the Board unanimously. It creates a system for issuing permits to nonprofits who want to undertake such activities. There are still obstacles to overcome, though. A state bill, Assembly Bill 362, which would authorize the city to open a safe injection site, has yet to pass the Senate, and the Trump administration remains opposed to any such moves.

Sentencing Reform

California's Prop 47 Reduced Racial Disparities in Arrests and Jailings, Study Finds. A study by the Public Policy Institute of California has found that Prop 47,  the 2014 ballot measure that lowered penalties for many property and drug crimes in California, has reduced but not eliminated the gap between African Americans and whites in arrests and jailings. In the first two years after Prop 47 went into effect, racial disparities in arrests for crimes covered by the initiative dropped 24.4%, while disparities in booking dropped 36.2%. But for drug crimes, the decline in racial disparity was even more stark, about 55%.

International

Israeli Knesset Gives First Approval to Marijuana Legalization Bills. The full Knesset voted Wednesday to advance a pair of bills that would legalize marijuana. That's only the first step in a legislative process that could take months to reach fruition. Under the bills, possession of up to 50 grams and up to two marijuana plants in a private place would not be a crime. Possessing more than the legal limit would result in a large fine, and public use would be prohibited.

US Deploys Air Force Planes to Curacao in Anti-Drug Effort, Israel Moves Closer to Pot Legalization, More... (6/22/20)

Georgia Senate Democrats have filed a police reform bill that includes marijuana decriminalization, the US is ramping up anti-drug operations near Venezuela, Israel takes a step toward marijuana legalization, and more.

With a Knesset committee vote, Israel takes another step toward marijuana legalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Georgia Police Reform Bill Includes Marijuana Decriminalization. Georgia Senate Democrats have filed the Georgia Justice Act, which covers a wide range of issues such as police body cameras, no-knock warrants, racial profiling, demilitarizing law enforcement and cannabis policy reform. It also includes a plank calling for marijuana decriminalization, under which possession of up to a half ounce would be a misdemeanor punishable by only a $300 fine. Under current state law, possession is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Bill Would Require Police to Prove Actual Impairment Before Charging Medical Marijuana Patients With DUI. A Republican state senator, Camera Bartolotta, has filed a bill aimed at protecting medical marijuana patients from being prosecuted for driving under the influence. The bill does so by exempting patients from the state's DUI law, which requires only the presence of marijuana metabolites to garner a DUI ticket. Instead, police would have to prove that the patient driver is actually impaired.

Foreign Policy

US Air Force Deploying Planes to Curacao in Ramped Up Anti-Drug Operation. The US Southern Command announced last Friday that four US Air Force planes will be deployed to Curacao, a Caribbean island nation just 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, for counter-narcotics operations. An E-3 Sentry surveillance plane and an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System plane, supported by two KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft, will fly detection and monitoring missions in international airspace, Pentagon officials said. The move is meant to "help U.S. and international law enforcement authorities disrupt and defeat transnational criminal organizations trafficking illegal narcotics in the region," the Southern Command said. The deployment will involve about 200 US personnel at the Cooperative Security Location, a complex used for regional training in counterterrorism and drug interdiction, in Williamstad, Curacao. The move comes several weeks after the Trump administration accused the Venezuelan government of being involved in drug trafficking.

International

Israel Knesset Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Bills. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday approved a pair of marijuana legalization bills that would legalize marijuana possession and consumption by adults 21 and over. This is only the first step on a process in which the bills must be discussed in committee and then approved at least three times by the full Knesset.

Mexican President Says He Ordered Freeing of El Chapo's Son to Prevent Bloodshed. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador acknowledged last Friday that he personally ordered the release of one of imprisoned Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's sons after he was captured by the military last fall in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. "I ordered that this operation be stopped and that this presumed criminal be freed," he said, adding that he acted to prevent a slaughter. The capture of Ovidio Guzman Lopez resulted in hours-long gun battles and cartel roadblocks in Culiacan, leaving at least 14 people dead. The violence didn't end until the son was released. “If we hadn’t suspended [the operation] more than 200 innocent people … would have lost their lives,” the president said.

Fixing the Federal Criminal Justice System: The Establishment Weighs In [FEATURE]

In a just issued report on reforming the federal criminal justice system, a blue-ribbon task force of the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice calls for sweeping changes in the system from its approach to drug offenses to significant sentencing changes, support for getting ex-inmates successfully reintegrated into society, and more.

To make things better in the federal criminal justice system, Congress has some work to do. (Creative Commons)
Formed in July 2019, the Council on Criminal Justice is relatively new on the scene but contains some real heavy hitters. The co-chairs of its advisory board of directors are former US Assistant Attorney General Sally Yates and Koch Industries Senior Vice President Mark Holden, while its founding president is criminal justice expert Adam Gelb and the chair of its board is former head of the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs Laurie Robinson.

The members of the task force that issued the report, Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety and Justice, are also prominent figures from across the political spectrum. They include former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, former Washington, DC and Philadelphia police chief Gordon Ramsey, American Conservative Union general counsel David Savakian, former director of the Open Society Foundation's Addiction Program's Dr. Kima Taylor, as well as Yates and Holden.

Noting in the report's executive summary that both crime and incarceration rates have receded -- although with a considerable lag between the two -- and that the federal prison population finally peaked in 2013, they write that "[y]et there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that more must be done to make communities safe and guarantee justice -- not just by states and localities, where the majority of the criminal justice system operates, but also by the federal government, which runs the country's largest correctional system and helps set the tone of the national conversation."

The task force sought "to craft a consensus view of the actionable, politically viable steps that the federal government can take now and in the near future to produce the greatest improvements in public safety and the administration of justice." With a nod to the ongoing pandemic, the task force noted that although it "concluded its deliberations before the outbreak of COVID-19, several of the recommendations are highly relevant to the federal response, in the short term and beyond."

So, what does this consensus view on federal criminal justice reforms look like?

The task force came up with 15 policy recommendations for actions by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, along with detailed rationales for each and equally detailed plans for implementing them. Here are some of the highlights:

Marijuana Policy

Reflecting the task force consensus but not quite catching up with public opinion, which now consistently favors legalization in opinion polls, the task force calls not for federal marijuana legalization but for instead allowing states to set their own marijuana policies through a system of waivers. It finds the status quo where "states are, in effect, licensing individuals and businesses to commit federal felonies" as untenable as "states and the industry continue to operate under an illusion of sovereignty where circumstances can change at any moment."

Instead, they recommend formalizing the status quo, acknowledging that states can enact legalization without fear of federal interference, unless and until marijuana is rescheduled or legalized at the federal level.

Sentencing Policy

The task force makes a number of pointed recommendations when it comes to sentencing policies that have made the land of the free the home of the world's largest prison population. They note that the US Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for setting guidelines for federal prison sentences, is currently paralyzed and "has been unable to modify sentencing guidelines to reflect current law, including the bipartisan reforms of the FIRST STEP Act of 2018," because the Trump administration has failed to fill vacancies on it.

The task force's recommendation here is: "The President and the Senate should fully reconstitute the US Sentencing Commission so it can fulfill its statutory duties to make necessary and timely adjustments to the sentencing guidelines, make recommendations to Congress for needed changes to federal criminal and sentencing statutes, and conduct research on the policies and operations of the federal sentencing and corrections systems."

One of the main drivers of the mushrooming federal prison population -- it grew from 24,000 in 1980 to nearly 220,000 before peaking in 2013 -- is mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, leaving federal prisons stuffed "not just with major traffickers but also with thousands of lower-level players in the drug distribution chain, a disproportionate number of whom are minorities," the task force notes.

While, over the years as the incarceration fever began to break, various efforts to mitigate the pernicious effects of mandatory minimums were implemented (and have helped reduce the number of federal prisoners), the task force is ready to be done with them. "Congress should eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws for all drug crimes and consider eliminating non-drug mandatory minimums while refraining from enacting any new mandatory minimums pending study," it recommends.

Also on sentencing, the task force notes that neither Congress nor the courts have acted to restrict judges from sentencing someone based on conduct for which they have been acquitted in court, a practice that mainly occurs in drug conspiracy cases. The task force calls on the US Sentencing Commission to amend federal sentencing guidelines to prohibit such sentencing.

And the task force is calling for federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences approved by "tough on crime" legislation in the 1980s and 1990s to be able to appeal to have their sentences reconsidered after serving at least 15 years, with a chance for review every 10 years after that.

Reentry

Giving federal offenders a chance of actually succeeding on the outside upon their release from prison is another main focus of the task force. It starts with recommending that Congress ensure the Bureau of Prisons is working as it should by creating "an independent performance, oversight, and accountability board (Board) to oversee and advise the Bureau of Prisons (BOP)."

To help prisoners prepare for post-carceral careers while still behind bars, the task force calls for the restoration of Pell grants and other expanded educational opportunities, and it recommends several measures to increase their chances once they're back on the street. Among them are sealing low-level criminal records from public view to help employment prospects, expanding public housing access for people with convictions, and providing guidance on closing Medicaid reentry gaps.

The task force also calls for Congress "to support and incentive increased access to residential and community-based treatment services that are evidence-based, including access to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) in order to strengthen reentry programs, prevent recidivism, and promote better health outcomes."

The Council on Criminal Justice is about as establishment and mainstream as it gets. When people like this are shouting for the federal criminal justice system to be fixed, you know it needs to be fixed (if you didn't already). The task force has shown us what needs to be done; now it's up to Congress, the courts, and the administration to act. We shall see.

OR Psilocybin and Decrim Initiatives Hand in Signatures, MA Pot Shops Reopen, More... (5/26/20)

Massachusetts marijuana stores see long lines as they do a limited reopening, two Oregon initiative campaigns handed in signatures last Friday, the Harris County DA throws out nearly a hundred drug convictions linked to a disgraced Houston police officer, and more.

An Oregon campaign to legalize the therapeutic use of psilocbyin mushrooms has handed in signatures. (Greenoid/Flickr)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Marijuana Stores Reopen with Curbside Service, Long Lines Form. After a two-month forced shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, state marijuana retailers faced long lines of customers Monday as they reopened for curbside pickup of phoned in orders. While most legal marijuana states allowed pot shops to stay open as essential businesses, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) refused, saying that because Massachusetts was the only state in the region to have recreational retail sales, it was likely to draw customers from other states, endangering the public health of the commonwealth.

Psychedelics

Poll Show Growing Support for Access to Magic Mushrooms. A new poll from the marijuana research firm Green Horizons has 13% saying psychedelic psilocybin mushrooms should be outright legalized, with another 25% saying they should be legal under limited circumstances, such as for medical or spiritual reasons. Among people who said they had some knowledge of psychedelics, those figures jump to 18% and 35%, respectively. The poll was conducted by online surveys with a nationally representative sample of a thousand people.

Oregon Therapeutic Psilocbyin Initiative Campaign Hands in Signatures. The campaign to put a therapeutic psilocybin initiative, Initiative Petition 34, submitted signature petitions last Friday. The group handed in 133,000 raw signatures, 18% more than the 112,000 valid voter signatures required to qualify for the ballot. The group still has until July 2 to come up with the additional needed to ensure there are enough valid signatures..

Asset Forfeiture

Arizona Legislature Kills Move to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. A bill that would have ended civil asset forfeiture in the state died in the House last Thursday. SB 1556 had passed the Senate in March on a unanimous vote, but all 29 House Democrats and eight Republicans voted to kill it. Democrats who might have been expected to vote for the reform cited budgetary concerns amidst the coronavirus crisis, with one saying she couldn't support it without also ensuring counties would still have the money they need at a time of reduced state revenues due to the pandemic.

Drug Policy

Oregon Drug Decriminalization and Treatment Initiative Hands in Signatures. The campaign behind the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, Initiative Petition 44, handed in more than 147,000 raw voter signatures last Friday. It needs 112,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The initiative would decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs and fund drug treatment with marijuana tax revenues. The campaign still has until July 2 to gather more signatures.

Law Enforcement

Houston Overturns More Drug Convictions Linked to Officer Who Led Fatal Botched Raid. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced last Thursday that nearly a hundred more defendants convicted as part of cases made by former Houston Police Officer Gerald Goines will see their cases cleared. Goines now faces murder and records tampering charges over a raid that left two innocent homeowners dead, and investigations of Goines in the aftermath of the raid led to earlier and these latest dismissals. "We will continue to work to clear people convicted solely on the word of a police officer who we can no longer trust," Ogg said. "We are committed to making sure the criminal justice is fair and just for everyone."

Federal Marijuana Prisoner Killed by COVID-19, AL Mayoral Candidate Wants to Hang Drug Dealers, More... (5/22/20)

Ohio local decriminalization initiative campaigns can do electronic signature-gathering, an Alabama mayoral candidate draws attention with a call to hang drug dealers, and more.

At least 59 federal prisoners have died of the coronavirus. The latest was a man doing time for weed. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Most Recent Federal Inmate Death Was Man 18 Years into a Marijuana Sentence. A man serving a 20-year sentence for marijuana trafficking has become the latest federal prisoner to die of the coronavirus. Fidel Torres was sentenced in 2006 on charges of conspiracy to distribute more than a thousand pounds of pot. The same judge who sentenced him, Judge George Kazen of the Southern District of Texas, later denied him a sentencing reduction he would have qualified for under revised 2014 sentencing guidelines because of minor behavioral issues during the course of his imprisonment. "After the commission reduced the drug guideline retroactively in 2014, nearly 32,000 people got shorter, fairer sentences," said Kevin Ring, who heads the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Some 19,000 people were denied relief, Ring added. Less than 2% of those denials were due to prison misconduct, "and Mr. Torres appears to have been part of that very small and unfortunate minority," he said. Torres is the 59th federal prisoner to die of the coronavirus.

Ohio Local Decriminalization Initiatives Can Gather Signatures Electronically, Federal Judge Rules. A federal judge ruled Tuesday that campaigns to put marijuana decriminalization initiatives on local ballots across the state can turn to electronic signature-gathering after they were forced to suspend in-person campaigns because of the coronavirus pandemic. The court also ordered the state to push back the deadline for submitting signatures from July 1 to July 31.

Drug Policy

Alabama Mayoral Candidate Calls for Public Hanging of Drug Dealers. A man running for mayor in the small town of Sylacauga is calling for the public hanging of drug dealers as part of his campaign. Michael R. James posted his proposal on Facebook, where it has been shared and commented on hundreds of times. "Yes, I'm very aware public hanging is extreme and totally not possible without Federal Approvals and not from city or state officials. Extreme yes, but definitely brings attention to this scourge on Sylacauga, Alabama and the United States of America," he wrote in the Facebook post. His campaign materials say the hangings would only happen to third-time offenders.

House HEROES Act COVID Relief Bill Calls for Prisoner Releases, Marijuana Banking [FEATURE]

When, in mid-May, House Democrats rolled out the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, H.R. 6800, the latest congressional response to the coronavirus pandemic, they also included a handful of criminal justice and drug policy reforms in the broad-ranging, 90-page, $3 trillion bill. Most of those reforms are aimed at shrinking the prison population in this time of public health crisis, but also on the list is language that would finally allow state-legal marijuana businesses to gain access to banking and other financial services.

The bill passed the House on Friday, but faces clouded prospects in the Senate.

The spread of the coronavirus within the federal prison system is a real concern. The story of the first female federal prisoner to die of the coronavirus, South Dakota Native American Andrea Circle Bear, brought media attention to the plight of federal prisoners. Sent into the federal system on a two-year drug charge in March, the pregnant Circle Bear came down with coronavirus symptoms within a week, gave birth to a premature baby via c-section while on a ventilator, then died three days later on April 4.

But by then, 31 other federal prisoners had died of the disease. And as of May 14, the federal prisoner death toll had risen to 51, with more than 3,600 inmates infected across the system.

Facing the carceral coronavirus crisis, the Justice Roundtable, a broad-based coalition of more than 100 organizations working to reform federal criminal justice laws and policies, released a set of recommendations for supporting prisoner releases as a public safety response to the pandemic. Those included spending $12 billion on supporting access to housing for released prisoners and another $1 billion incentivizing states and localities to release prisoners and support critical reentry services, as well as ending federal bans on various forms of assistance for people with criminal records, making Medicaid available before prisoners hit the streets, ensuring that people impacted by the criminal justice system get access to federal relief funds, and spending another $650 million to expand federal workforce and educational programs for former prisoners.

The HEROES Act does not do all that, but in Title II it does provide $250 million for reentry programs and another half-billion for efforts to reduce the spread of the virus among arrestees and prisoners at all levels. There is also another $200 million for the Bureau of Prisons to response to the crisis, with funding for medical testing and services and necessary protective supplies.

And there is more. Incorporating various already existing pieces of legislation, Title XI of the act (Prisons and Jails) is the Emergency Community Supervision Act, which during a declared emergency related to communicable diseases "mandates the release into community supervision of federal prisoners and pretrial detainees who are non-violent and, for instance, pregnant women, older prisoners and detainees, and those with certain medical conditions."

Title XI also modifies probation and supervised release policies to reduce unnecessary in-person contact with probation officers, mandates pretrial release of non-violent defendants without cash bail, and gives federal courts more authority to reduce sentences and order compassionate release for prisoners, with a special provision for elderly prisoners.

On another important drug policy front, the HEROES Act incorporates wholesale the SAFE Banking Act, which provides much needed access to the banking and financial services sector for the state-legal marijuana industry. Republicans are already sniping at that, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell complaining about a provision that would fund studies about diversity and inclusion in the industry.

"There's a lot in this bill," said Kara Gotsch, who heads up federal advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based criminal justice reform group and member . "What's critical is to address the inability to do social distancing within correctional facilities," she said.

"We've had a huge spread of the virus in prisons -- not just federal, but state and local, too. Letting those people out into home confinement is critical not just to their health, but also for the health of the people who might stay behind. It creates space, an opportunity to follow the guidelines," Gotsch continued.

The HEROES Act is the work of House Democrats, and while it passed the House, that's only half the battle. In what is certain to be a titanic political struggle, Senate Republicans are pondering their own version of yet another massive coronavirus relief package. In such a huge -- and hugely important -- struggle, the fate of some federal prisoners and legal marijuana entrepreneurs may not loom large, but it hangs in the balance.

"It's clear that McConnell doesn't have the same sense of urgency to move another stimulus package, but I think the pressure is going to increase on the Senate to take some action," said Gotsch. "This pandemic and its consequences are not going away, and the consequences are severe -- more and more people are likely to be infected and lose their lives."

And that means Gotsch and the other criminal justice reform advocates will be hard at work in the coming weeks to see that as many of the House-passed reform measures make it into the final bill as possible.

"I'm hopeful we could see the Senate moving in June, and as far as our priorities are concerned, I'm hopeful we'll can get some of those provisions in the final package," said Gotsch. "We'll be taking the next few weeks to talk to and educate Senate offices. Federal judges are growing increasingly frustrated with the Justice Department's obstruction on compassionate release and its stinginess on home confinement, which is having a disastrous effect. Our goal is to get the word out to Senate staff to make them aware of how dire the situation really is."

She pointed to the sad story of Andrea Circle Bear.

"I think that galvanized a lot of people," said Gotsch. "She puts a human face on the concerns we've been trying to articulate about the tragic circumstances the prisons are facing. With more education and as these tragic stories come to light, I think we'll be able to get some change."

Push to Help Marijuana Businesses in Next COVID Bill, Coca and Conflict in Bolivia and Colombia, More... (5/11/20)

Advocacy groups are pushing for marijuana businesses to be included in the next coronavirus relief bill, a pair of Oregon drug reform initiatives are teaming up for signature-gathering, and more.

Colombian coca grower at work (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Groups Ask Congress to Include Banking Access in Next Coronavirus Bill. A coalition of marijuana advocacy groups sent a letter last Friday to the House leadership asking them to include language allowing the marijuana industry to gain access to banking services as part of pending coronavirus relief legislation. The groups argue that while lack of banking access has been a serious problem for the industry, it is now made worse because such businesses can only accept cash, which hampers recommended social distancing practices. "As recent reports show that viruses can live on cash for up to 17 days, the public safety concerns of this cash-only system compound,"the letter says. "The lack of access to financial institutions places industry workers, government employees, and the public at-large at risk as banknotes circulate from consumers and patients to businesses to government."

Drug Policy

Oregon Drug Decriminalization and Therapeutic Psilocybin Initiative Campaigns Team Up for Signature-Gathering. Activists behind the IP 34 therapeutic psilocybin initiative and the IP 44 drug decriminalization initiative campaigns are joining forces to collect enough signatures for each to qualify for the November ballot. Both campaigns sent out email blasts over the weekend encouraging their supporters to sign petitions for the other measure.

International

Albania Close to Legalizing Medical Marijuana. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama announced Monday that the government is preparing a draft law that would legalize the cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes. He said the government had been working for the past year with foreign and local advisors and that the draft bill would soon be made public.

Bolivia Escalates Anti-Drug Campaign in the Chapare, Escalating Tensions. The rightist interim government has stepped up operations against drug trafficking in the Chapare, but its focus on coca-producing communities around Cochabamba is creating intensifying tensions with law enforcement. Rural mobile police officers have been ambushed by traffickers attempting to protect their cocaine labs, and residents in nearby towns broke quarantine rules to find police officers and evict them from the area. Meanwhile, authorities have halted coca eradication efforts, although probably less because of the coronavirus than because Cochabamba coca growers are well organized and close to the deposed former president, Evo Morales, and his Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) Party, which is expected to win forthcoming presidential elections. Sending armed state agents into the countryside to destroy farmers' crops poses political risks for the interim government.

Colombia Steps Up Coca Eradication During Lockdown. Despite ordering a full lockdown of the country, the Colombian government is doubling down on the manual eradication of coca plants in remote parts of the country. Coca growers' representatives and human rights groups are demanding the government cease eradication during the lockdown for health reasons.

End Drug Prohibition to Fight Organized Crime, World Leaders Say [FEATURE]

For nearly a decade now, a collection of former heads of state, high political figures, businessmen, and cultural figures have been working to reform drug policy at the national and international levels. Known as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, this group of planetary elders has been busy issuing reports at the rate of one a year on how to reduce the harms of prohibitionist drug policies and what would be more effective and humane alternatives.

members of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (globalcommissionondrugs.org)
Now they've just released their latest report, Enforcement of Drug Laws: Refocusing on Organized Crime Elites, which takes on the perverse and insidious ways drug prohibition actually empowers and encourages criminal enterprises, and counsels nations and the global anti-drug bureaucracy to find a better way. That includes pondering the possibility of drug legalization and the taming of illicit markets through regulation -- not prohibition, which has demonstrably failed for decades.

The commission rolled out its report Thursday with a virtual presentation on YouTube.

"This report has a new perspective on the problem of organized crime," said commission member Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand and former head of the United Nations Development Program. "Organized crime is a challenge in every society, and if it gets into the political realm and starts corrupting political systems, that is a huge issue, and it has done that," she said.

"Where the commission comes from is that we're saying 'drugs are being caught up in this' because of the refusal of the international community to accept that drugs need to be responsibly regulated," Clark continued. The attempt to prohibit them has actually been a license for organized crime to build a half-trillion dollar a year industry peddling stuff. Could we take drugs out of that through responsible regulation?

As president of Colombia between 2010 and 2018, Juan Manuel Santos mediated a peace treaty with the leftist guerrillas of the FARC and won a Nobel prize for his efforts. He also presided over a country that is perennially in contention for being the world's largest cocaine producer. He knows about what drug prohibition can bring.

"I come from a country that has fought drug traffickers and drug trafficking for so long and has probably paid the highest price of any country in the world -- Colombia has lost its best leaders, best journalists, best judges, best policemen -- and we are still the number one exporter of cocaine to the world markets," Santos said. "Corruption and drug trafficking go hand in hand. The most dangerous and protected individuals often escape, while ordinary people who happen to use illicit drugs see their lives destroyed by the war on drugs," he argued.

"To fight organized crime, we must follow the money," Santos continued. "People are realizing that a war that has been fought for a half century and has not been won is a war that has been lost, and so you have to change your strategy and your tactics if you want to be successful. Corruption, violence, profits, and prohibition are very closely related. You do away with prohibition, you regulate, you bring down the profits, and immediately you will start to see an improvement in violence and corruption."

The commission's work centers around five pathways, explained commission chair and former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss.

"It is putting health first," she said. "Second, it is also giving priority to the use of some of these substances for their medical benefits. It is one of the dramatic situations also, mainly in poor countries, that the people have no access to scheduled pain killers. The third pathway, which we think is very important, is to end the criminalization of people who use drugs. The fourth chapter of our reform program is that we have to deal with the criminality related to drugs, and that is why we issued this report today. And the last point is that we have to take control. The state -- reasonable and responsible people -- have to take control of drug markets and not let them stay in criminal hands."

While the 52-page report provides a detailed, evidence-based examination of the challenges of grappling with criminal groups that thrive under prohibition, it summarizes its findings with five basic recommendations for national governments and at the United Nations, whose anti-drug treaties form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. These are:

  1. States must acknowledge the negative consequences of repressive law enforcement approaches to drug policies and recognize that prohibition forges and strengthens criminal organizations. Sharing such conclusions with the public must then feed national debates to support bold drug policy reform. (We all know the litany by now: From racially-biased and militarized policing and over-incarceration in the United States to bloody drug wars in Mexico and Colombia financed by prohibition profits, to the murderous and repressive anti-drug campaign in the Philippines, enforcing drug prohibition has dreadfully harmful consequences.)
  2. States must analyze the transnational and trans-sectorial nature of criminal organizations, to review and reform the current exclusive focus on law enforcement. (Drug trafficking organizations don't just traffic drugs; they tend to get their fingers in whatever illicit enterprises can turn a buck for them, from wildlife smuggling to counterfeiting to extortion. And maybe we'd be better off devoting more resources to treatment and prevention instead of trying to suppress and arrest our way out of the problem.)
  3. States must develop targeted and realistic deterrence strategies to counter organized crime and focus their response on the most dangerous and/or highest profiting elements in the criminal market. States must also reinforce interdepartmental cooperation to address criminal markets in a broad sense, not solely drugs, and develop effective transnational coordination against trans-border criminal groups and international money laundering. (It's both cruel and ineffective to target drug users and street-level dealers for arrest and prosecution. But the recent Mexican experience has shown that the alternative strategy of going after "kingpins" can lead to an increase in violence as gang lieutenants engage in murderous struggles to replace each capo killed or captured. It's a real dilemma -- unless you undercut them by ending prohbition.)
  4. States must consider the legal regulation of drugs as the responsible pathway to undermine organized crime. (This increasingly seems like a very reasonable approach.)
  5. UN member states must revisit the global governance of the international drug control regime in order to achieve better outcomes in public health, public safety, justice, and greater impact on transnational organized crime. (It's way past time to nullify or amend the anti-drug treaties that guide international drug policies.)

The Global Commission on Drug Policy has laid out a framework for radical reform. Now, it's up to the nations of the world and the international institutions that bind us together to act.

US Imprisonment At Lowest Rate Since 1996, Dr. Bronner's Kicks In $1 Million for OR Psilocybin Init, More... (4/30/20)

The former Honduran National Police chief just got indicted on drug charges in New York City, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps just bestowed a huge gift on the Oregon psilocybin initiative campaign, and more.

Dr. Bronner's Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) David Bronner. The company has just donated $1 million to the OR psilocybin init.
Marijuana Policy

California Coalition Pushes for Tax Breaks for State Pot Businesses. A coalition of advocacy groups, churches, and marijuana companies is asking Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for a temporary cut in the state's marijuana taxes. The groups warn that the coronavirus crisis and the faltering economy will take an especially hard toll on minority-run businesses. The coalition includes the California NAACP, Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches, the Southern California Coalition, an industry group.

Psychedelics

Dr. Bronner's Kicks in a Million Bucks for the Oregon Therapeutic Psilocybin Initiative. Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps has donated one million dollars to IP 34, the initiative that would create a framework for the use of psilocybin therapy by mental health practitioners in the state. The campaign is about 90% of the way to qualifying for the November ballot, but faces signature-gathering challenges in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. This massive donation should help get the campaign over the top.

Sentencing

US Imprisonment Rate at Its Lowest Since 1996. The federal Office of Justice Programs reported Thursday that the combined state and federal imprisonment rate was 431 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 US residents in 2018, which was the lowest rate since 1996, when there were 427 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced today. The imprisonment rate for black inmates dropped by 28%, reaching the lowest rate since 1989. Louisiana had the highest rate (695 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 state residents), followed by Oklahoma (693 per 100,000), Mississippi (626 per 100,000), Arkansas (589 per 100,000) and Arizona (559 per 100,000). Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont had the lowest imprisonment rates in the US, with each having fewer than 200 sentenced prisoners per 100,000 residents. During 2018, the total prison population in the US declined from 1.489 million to 1.465 million, a decline of 1.6% and the fourth consecutive annual decrease of at least 1%. Less than 15% of sentenced state prisoners were serving time for a drug offense at year-end 2017 (4% for possession), the most recent year for which offense-related data are available.

International

Former Honduran National Police Chief Charged in US with Drug Trafficking and Weapons Offenses. Federal prosecutors in New York City announced Thursday that Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, the former chief of the Honduran National Police was charged in Manhattan federal court with conspiring to import cocaine into the US and related weapons charges. He allegedly abused his official position to protect cocaine shipments and murder a rival drug trafficker as part of a conspiracy involving high-ranking Honduran politicians and members of the National Police.

With Psychedelic Legalization on the Horizon, How Should We Get There from Here? [FEATURE]

At this point, it's almost a commonplace to say that a psychedelic renaissance is underway. Microdosing has been a thing for years now, scientists around the world are reporting exciting spiritual and therapeutic research results, and venture capitalists are beginning to edge their way into what they hope is the next lucrative drug commodity market.

magic mushrooms (Creative Commons)
But also bubbling up is a social and political movement to free psychedelics (and their users) from the fetters of drug prohibition. Beginning with Denver, a handful of cities across the country have passed what are in effect municipal decriminalization ordinances, with the Decriminalize Nature campaign promoting similar efforts in dozens more.

This year, Oregon and the District of Columbia have psychedelic reform initiatives still in the signature-gathering phase. While hobbled by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, both could still make the ballot this year. (A similar campaign in California recently bit the dust, citing said pandemic.)

The late April Psychedelic Liberty Summit sponsored by the Chacruna Institute for Plant Medicines, was yet another manifestation of the rising interest in psychedelics. "We provide public education and cultural understanding about psychedelic plant medicines and promote a bridge between the ceremonial use of sacred plants and psychedelic science," the institute says in its mission statement. It envisions "a world where plant medicines and other psychedelics are preserved, protected, and valued as part of our cultural identity and integrated into our social, legal and health care systems."

Originally set for San Francisco, the two-day series of wide-ranging panels and presentations instead went virtual in the face of pandemic social distancing requirements. "Attendees" viewed remotely as panelists covered topics ranging from "Sacred Peyote Conservation" to "Psychedelic Medicalization: Unpacking the Landscape of Drug Development and Commercialization" to " How Can We Ensure Respectful, Safe, Ethical, Inclusive and Sustainable Sourcing for Psychedelic Plants and Materials?" and beyond.

Numerous panels were devoted to advancing the cause of ending psychedelic prohibition, and weighing heavily on those involved were questions about just how to proceed. Should reform initiatives target a single psychedelic, as the Oregon therapeutic psilocybin initiative does, should they target all psychedelics or only natural ones (sorry LSD and MDMA), or should the target be broader drug decriminalization?

Similarly, what role should private investment capital play? Are there lessons to be learned from the commodification of cannabis under state-level legalization? And just how should legal or decriminalized psychedelics be made available to the public? Attempts to answer these questions were a central theme of the summit, and what was clear was that although reform thinkers share a common general goal, there's a breadth of opinion about the details.

For Dale Gieringer, long-time head of California NORML and one of the authors of the groundbreaking 1996 Prop 215 campaign that legalized medical marijuana in the state with bare-bones language, psychedelics are a different ball game.

"I don't think marijuana and psychedelics should be legalized on the same model," said Gieringer. "Marijuana is pretty safe even for novices, but psychedelics need to be treated with more respect. This is not something that should just be sold over the counter to adults from the very get go; first time users should be informed of certain cautions, and we need a new paradigm for distributing psychedelics, maybe something more like drug user clubs, with nonprofit organizations -- not commercial operations -- in charge of manufacturing, distributing, and educating users on the use of psychedelic drugs, as well as being responsible for any harmful effects of the drugs."

Gieringer pointed back to Prop 215 and the reefer revolution it unleashed as he urged initiative campaigns to keep it simple.

"I advise the movement to be cautious about overprescribing elaborate regulatory regimes. We didn't do that with marijuana; we just had a set of principles that people shouldn't be arrested for using or cultivating for personal use. We did that deliberately; we knew it was going to be very complicated in a federal system and we left it to government to fill in the details," he said.

"Prop 215 was a very short initiative," Gieringer reminded. "The Oregon initiative has 71 pages and you still can't have psilocybin mushrooms in your house or use them outside one of these organizations that gets set up under the initiative."

That's the wrong approach, he suggested: "We should go back to a broad initiative that embraces the notion that people should be able to use psychedelics for spiritual, medical, and personal illumination in general, and leave it to the state and federal government to fill in the details."

And not just do it one hallucinogen at a time.

"We ought to approach this more broadly and not just do one drug at a time," he argued. "If we do psilocybin, what about peyote? What about ayahuasca? What about everything else? I favor a broader approach making psychedelics available to people want them on a private use basis. Let's think globally and act locally and wait for our eggs to hatch here. Let's go for simple initiatives that give people direct access to psychedelics."

Any such movement for psychedelic legalization or decriminalization -- as opposed to broader drug legalization or decriminalization -- will need to be self-generating and self-supporting, argued Sean McAllister, a Denver-based attorney who was chairman of the board for Sensible Colorado when that group led the nation's first successful marijuana legalization initiative in 2012 and a consultant for Decriminalize Denver, the group behind the city's 2019 psilocybin initiative.

"Unlike cannabis, psilocybin has only been used by an estimated two to five percent of the population, and only one tenth of one percent are current psychedelic users," he noted. "That's a much smaller pool, and any drug reform initiative requires the support of those who do not use. We're asking the majority to protect our rights, so we have to convince the majority our movement makes sense and won't endanger the public safety or health."

By including reporting requirements for psilocybin-related law enforcement encounters and other public safety and public health impacts via the mayor's psilocybin review panel, on which McAllister sits, the Denver initiative was helping lay the educational groundwork for doing that convincing, he argued.

"We'll write a report at the end of the year assessing the impacts of the initiative, but really nothing has changed," McAllister reported. "Law enforcement was concerned people would be dealing psilocybin on the streets and getting high on the streets, but our community is pretty self-regulating. There's been no explosion or public health or public safety problems. We hope that our report will be of great value to other cities looking to decriminalize psilocybin and to the movement as we attempt to change laws across the country."

But that movement won't be able to count on the largesse of traditional drug reform funders, McAllister warned, noting that statewide initiative campaigns cost millions of dollars.

"There is just not that much interest in psychedelics only," he said. "The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) believes in legalizing all drugs; it doesn't believe in drug exceptionalism. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is primarily focused on MDMA and PTSD. We don't have tens or hundreds of thousands of people in prison, so we don't have the same social justice issues around psychedelics. The ACLU isn't going to lead our movement. We have to step up and build our own organizations and come together as a movement."

"There are a lot of benefits to decriminalizing psychedelics that we need to study further, and it's fascinating to see all these movements for decriminalization popping up around the country, but at the same time I'm ambivalent about it because there's also simultaneously a movement to just decriminalize all drugs," said Jag Davies, who has long stints as a communications specialist for the DPA and MAPS under his belt.

"And I don't think drug decriminalization is as big a deal and as revolutionary as it's made out to be," Davies continued. "Right now, we have a national poll showing 55 percent support for decriminalizing all drugs."

Even though the argument that "marijuana is safer" was used to great benefit in the Colorado marijuana legalization campaign, Davies warned of its hazards.

"One of the mistakes made with marijuana reform messaging is framing it as a safe or safer drug," he argued. "All drugs are the same in that criminalization isn't an effective policy and is counterproductive to public health, but at the same time there will be some difference in how we think about policies. We need to think about who is benefitting and who is left behind. The benefits of decriminalizing more dangerous drugs are much greater," he added, pointing out that the other Oregon initiative would do just that.

In any case, psychedelic warriors should be part of a greater effort, Davies said.

"Drug decriminalization is perhaps a more effective strategy to reduce the harm in the long term," he said. "Even if you're a psychedelic exceptionalist, it's beneficial to join forces with the broader drug reform movement and the criminal justice movements and get the buy-in from those communities before you make your move."

David Bronner, the Cosmic Engagement Officer (CEO) of Dr. Bronner's natural soaps, straddles both worlds. He has long supported broad drug reform efforts and this year is putting a million dollars into the Oregon therapeutic psilocybin initiative.

"Having a well-structured therapeutic model makes it accessible to the average person who is not familiar with psychedelics," Bronner said. "The Oregon model is very much about accessing therapy and likewise making sure there is only minimal taxation -- enough to cover the cost of the program -- but keeping it limited in size and scope, so you can make a good livelihood but not have a hundred chain clinics."

"These are preventative measures so we don't see what happened with cannabis and with there being some kind of controls," he added. "The polling says people aren't familiar with mushrooms and want to see strict controls on access, that it can't be accessed outside the therapeutic model."

What Bronner was alluding to -- the undesirability of turning something ineffable like marijuana or psychedelics into just another capitalist commodity -- Steve DeAngelo addressed head on. And he's particularly well-positioned to: A long-time marijuana movement activist, he founded one of the first dispensaries in the nation, Harborside in Oakland, but also the Arcview Group, the first dedicated marijuana investment network, creating a Faustian bargain with profit-seeking capital.

"With Arcview, we hit on the energy of free enterprise to power the social change we wanted, and a lot of the progress we made is because we did invite the investor class in, but it came at a cost, a significant cost," he said. "Prior to Arcview inviting the investor class in, the movement was driven by people who loved cannabis, but we attracted a lot of people whose motivation was not love of cannabis but love of making money."

"I expected the energy to come but was a little taken aback at the urgency and ferocity of it," DeAngelo continued. "Cannabis lovers took investment money and then ceded control to investors. I saw a lot of people who had spent their lives representing the plant start to lose power, their livelihoods, and their influence over how to explain cannabis to the rest of the world. I fear we could see a lot of the same thing with psychedelics. If that happens, the way these substances are taught to the world is going to change. We could see a model for psychedelics more geared to return for investors than toward a meaningful experience for an individual or for positive social change."

"Psychedelics have always been part of my path and one lesson I learned is that intention drives result," DeAngelo said. The consciousness with which we approach something will have a profound influence on what happens. On a psychic level, on a cosmic level, a different vibration is created when psychedelics are evangelized for the aim of making more money than with a motive of love and sharing and bringing about social change. I'm much more comfortable with a message from people who love psychedelics than people who love money."

And so it goes as the nascent psychedelic liberation movement emerges. There is great debate over tactics and strategies, but a commonality of purpose linked to human liberation and social justice. The path forward is uncertain, but it is one we will make as we walk it.

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