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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.

Colombian Cocaine Production Jumps, VA Pot Decrim Bill Heads to Governor, More... (3/9/20)

Colombian cocaine production is way up, the US says as it pushes for forced and aerial eradication, NJ pot legalization supporters organize for victory, WVA is moving to increase meth sentences, and more.

Cocaine production in Colombia is at record levels, the US says. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Legalization Supporters form Coalition to Push for November Victory. Advocates and stakeholders in the state's marijuana industry have formed a campaign coalition, NJ CAN 2020, to fight for marijuana legalization that includes a racial and social justice approach. The group includes members of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, including the ACLU of New Jersey, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation, the Latino Action Network, the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp, Law Enforcement Action Partnership, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference and the NJ CannaBusiness Association.

Oklahoma Sees Another Legalization Initiative Filed. Stakeholders in the state's medical marijuana industry have filed a legalization initiative, SQ 811, in response to an earlier filed legalization initiative that they say would not fully protect the state's existing medical marijuana industry. The initiative would tax marijuana at 25% but says medical marijuana would be "exempt from all taxes." The same group also filed a decriminalization initiative, SQ 812, the same day.

Virginia Legislature Approves Decriminalization Bill. The state Senate on Sunday approved a decriminalization bill, SB 2. The bill has already passed the House, so it now heads to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Under the bill, possession of up to an ounce will now merit a fine of no more than $50.  

Sentencing

West Virginia Legislature Approves Bill Raising Meth Sentences. The state Senate on Sunday approved HB 4852, which would double mandatory minimum and maximum sentences for possession with intent to manufacture or deliver methamphetamine. What is currently a one-to-five-year sentence would become a two-to-10-year sentence. The bill has already passed the House but has to go back for a concurrence vote to approve changes made in the Senate.

Foreign Policy

United States and Colombian Officials Set Bilateral Agenda to Reduce Cocaine Supply. Last Friday, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and the United States Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) led a counternarcotics dialogue with the Government of Colombia to set forth a bilateral, whole-of-government joint action plan to reduce the high levels of coca cultivation and cocaine production by 50 percent by the end of 2023.The dialogue focused on increasing coca eradication and cocaine interdiction, improving security and economic opportunities in the rural areas most afflicted by narcotics trafficking, and targeting narcotics-related money laundering and illicit finances. A focus of the discussion was expanding the results of Colombia’s integrated coca eradication program by ensuring full use of all available tools, including manual eradication, alternative development, and a Colombian-led aerial eradication component, supported by rural development and rural security programs.

International

Canadian Drug Decriminalization Bill Filed. Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith has recently tabled a drug decriminalization bill, C-235, which would remove simple drug possession from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. "The international evidence is pretty clear that the way we have dealt with drug use, the war on drugs and throwing police resources to reduce drug use, has failed and has undermined public-health efforts," Erskine-Smith said. "And the overwhelming evidence today is that we should treat drug use as a health issue and we should be removing barriers to seeking treatment, and decriminalization of simple possession would do just that." Private bills rarely pass, but this is a start.

Colombia Cocaine Production Hit Record High Last Year Despite Forced Eradication, US Says. Cocaine production increased 8% last year, reaching an all-time high, according to figures released by the US government. The increase came even as the US and Colombian governments have been promoting forced eradication of coca crops and refusing to support crop substitution and rural development programs that are broadly considered more effective.

Mexico Legal Marijuana Bill Advancing, OR Drug Decriminalization Init Moving, More... (3/6/20)

Boston's first pot shop is set to open Monday, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs again postpones a vote on classifying marijuana, and more.

Viva Mexico! (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Court Rules Smell of Marijuana in Vehicle by Itself Not Grounds for Search. A California appellate panel has ruled that now that marijuana is legal, the smell of marijuana in a car stopped for other reasons isn't enough to justify a full-blown search of the vehicle. "Marijuana and alcohol now receive similar treatment under the law," said the Appellate Division of Alameda County Superior Court in a ruling barring evidence of a loaded handgun that police found during the search in question. The ruling was issued in December and was published by the state courts this week as a precedent for future cases.

Boston's First Pot Shop Set to Open Monday. Three and a half years after voters approved marijuana legalization, Boston is about to get its first marijuana retail outlet. Pure Oasis will open Monday in Dorchester. It is the first shop to be approved by the state's Cannabis Control Commission.

Drug Policy

Oregon Drug Decriminalization Measure Rapidly Gathers Signatures for November Ballot.  A campaign to put a drug treatment and drug decriminalization initiative, the "Drug Treatment and Recovery Act" ( IP 44), on the November ballot has already collected 125,000 raw signatures, the Drug Policy Alliance, which is financing the campaign, announced Thursday. The measure needs 112,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. It has until May to turn in more signatures.

International

UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Once Again Postpones Key Marijuana Vote. The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has decided to delay until December a vote due to take place this week on the potential global rescheduling of cannabis. The CND, whose meeting in Vienna ended today, was due to vote on a set of recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) to loosen restrictions on marijuana and related substances like CBD and THC. This is the second time the CND has refused to vote on the recommendations, which the WHO first presented in January 2019.

Mexico Marijuana Legalization Bill Advances. Three Senate committees on Thursday approved a draft legalization bill, bringing it one step closer to passage. Ajoint meeting of the Justice, Health and Legislative Studies committees approved the bill "in general," meaning that individual articles within it remain open for debate and amendment. The bill would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and allow medical marijuana patients to grow their own. It would also establish a legal market for marijuana that would see 40% of production licenses go to people in communities affected by drug trafficking. Bill specifics will be debated by those same committees and then in a plenary session of the Senate, which could see a final vote as soon as next week. The measure would then go to the Chamber of Deputies. The Supreme Court has issued an April 30 deadline to end marijuana prohibition.

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

Chronicle AM: Drug Policy Alliance Names New Leader, HI House Passes Drug Defelonization Bill, More... (3/4/20)

The Drug Policy Alliance has a new executive director, Mexico's effort to legalize marijuana stalls in the Senate, the Oklahoma House moves to regulate kratom, and more. 

Kassandra Frederique is the new executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. (DPA)
Kratom

Oklahoma House Passes Bill to Regulate—Not Ban--Kratom. The House on Monday passed House Bill 2846, which would regulate kratom. The measure now heads to the Senate.

Drug Policy

Drug Policy Alliance Names Kassandra Frederique as New Executive Director. Ten-year Drug Policy Alliance veteran Kassandra Frederique has been named executive director of the group following the resignation of Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno earlier this year. Frederique was managing director of policy, advocacy, and campaigns before being named executive director. "Kassandra is well suited to lead DPA," the group said in a press release. "Kassandra started at DPA a decade ago as an intern. Her exemplary work propelled her meteoric rise through the organization... In New York, she ran the campaign that reduced marijuana arrests in NYC by 84%. Through strategic advocacy, she shifted the politics around the issue, even bringing skeptic Gov. Cuomo around to the point that New York is now poised to legalize. Kassandra is the architect of innovative campaigns to roll back mass criminalization and expand the debate around overdose. Her voice leads national conversations about the complex interplay between race and the overdose crisis."

Hawaii Senate Approves Drug Defelonization Bill. The Senate on Tuesday approved a bill that turns low-level drug possession felonies into misdemeanors. House Bill 2581 would create a new fourth degree misdemeanor category for people caught with less than two grams of a controlled substance. Currently, possession of any amount of drugs except marijuana is a felony. The bill now heads to the House for consideration.

Idaho House Passes Bill Relaxing Mandatory Minimums for Heroin, Enacting Them for Fentanyl. The House on Monday passed House Bill 469, which relaxes mandatory minimum sentences for heroin, but added them for fentanyl. In the last two legislative sessions, the House voted to end mandatory minimums, but those bills never moved in the Senate. Now, we'll see if this one does.

International

Mexico Marijuana Legalization Stalled in Senate. With less than two months to meet a Supreme Court deadline to legalize marijuana, legislation to get it done has stalled in the Senate. That's according to opposition Senator Miguel Angel Mancera, who said there is no consensus between the parties. “[Legislation for] recreational use is not moving. It’s more difficult than outsourcing,” the former Mexico City mayor said, referring to a congressional battle over outsourcing last year.

Fentanyl Trade Fuels Cartel Battle in Central Mexico. Five competing drug trafficking groups are fighting over control of the fentanyl trade in the north-central state of Zacatecas, and it's leaving a toll of dead. The number of killings in the state reached 666 last year, more than double the figure from a decade ago. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Sinaloa Cartel dominate the trade, but three other groups are trying to muscle in. They are the Gulf Cartel and two offshoots of the Zetas, known as the Talibanes and the Northeastern Cartel.

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

Two Takes on the Global Drug War and Global Drug Cultures [FEATURE]

America shows signs of emerging from the century-long shadow of drug prohibition, with marijuana leading the way and a psychedelic decriminalization movement rapidly gaining steam. It also seems as if the mass incarceration fever driven by the war on drugs has finally broken, although tens if not hundreds of thousands remain behind bars on drug charges.

As Americans, we are remarkably parochial. We are, we still like to tell ourselves, "the world's only superpower," and we can go about our affairs without overly concerning ourselves about what's going on beyond our borders. But what America does, what America wants and what America demands has impacts far beyond our borders, and the American prohibitionist impulse is no different.

Thanks largely (but not entirely) to a century of American diplomatic pressure, the entire planet has been subsumed by our prohibitionist impulse. A series of United Nations conventions, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, pushed by the US, have put the whole world on lockdown.

We here in the drug war homeland remain largely oblivious to the consequences of our drug policies overseas, whether it's murderous drug cartels in Mexico, murderous cops in the Philippines, barbarous forced drug treatment regimes in Russia and Southeast Asia, exemplary executions in China, or corrupted cops and politicians everywhere. But now, a couple of non-American journalists working independently have produced a pair of volumes that focus on the global drug war like a US Customs X-ray peering deep inside a cargo container. Taken together, the results are illuminating, and the light they shed reveals some very disturbing facts.

Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov and Pills, Powder, and Smoke by Antony Loewenstein both attempt the same feat -- a global portrait of the war on drugs -- and both reach the same conclusion -- that drug prohibition benefits only drug traffickers, fearmongering politicians, and state security apparatuses -- but are miles apart attitudinally and literarily. This makes for two very different, but complementary, books on the same topic.

Loewenstein, an Australian who previously authored Disaster Capitalism and Profits of Doom, is -- duh -- a critic of capitalism who situates the global drug war within an American project of neo-imperial subjugation globally and control over minority populations domestically. His work is solid investigative reporting, leavened with the passion he feels for his subject.

In Pills, Powder, and Smoke, he visits places that rarely make the news but are deeply and negatively impacted by the US-led war on drugs, such as Honduras. Loewenstein opens that chapter with the murder of environmental activist Berta Caceres, which was not directly related to the drug war, but which illustrates the thuggish nature of the Honduran regime -- a regime that emerged after a 2009 coup overthrew the leftist president, a coup justified by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and which has received millions in US anti-drug assistance, mainly in the form of weapons and military equipment.

Honduras doesn't produce any drugs; it's only an accident of geography and the American war on drugs that we even mention the country in the context of global drug prohibition. Back in the 1980s, the administration of Bush the Elder cracked down on cocaine smuggling in the Caribbean, and as traffickers sought to evade that threat, Honduras was perfectly placed to act as a trampoline for cocaine shipments taking an alternative route through Mexico, which incidentally fueled the rise of today's deadly and uber-wealthy Mexican drug cartels.

The drug trade, combined with grinding poverty, huge income inequalities, and few opportunities, has helped turn Honduras into one of the deadliest places on earth, where the police and military kill with impunity, and so do the country's teeming criminal gangs. Loewenstein walks those mean streets -- except for a few neighborhoods even his local fixers deem too dangerous -- talking to activists, human rights workers, the family members of victims, community members, and local journalists to paint a chilling picture. (This is why Hondurans make up a large proportion of those human caravans streaming north to the US border. But unlike Venezuela, where mass flight in the face of violence and economic collapse is routinely condemned as a failure of socialism, you rarely hear any commentators calling the Honduran exodus a failure of capitalism.)

He reexamines one of the DEA's most deadly recent incidents, where four poor, innocent Hondurans were killed by Honduran troops working under DEA supervision in a raid whose parameters were covered up for years by the agency. Loewenstein engaged in extended communication with the DEA agent in charge, as well as with survivors and family members of those killed. Those people report they have never received an apology, not to mention compensation, from the Honduran military -- or from the United States. While the Honduran military fights the drug war with US dollars, Loewenstein shows it and other organs of the Honduran government are also deeply implicated in managing the drug traffic. And news headlines bring his story up to date: Just this month, the current, rightist president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, of meeting with and taking a bribe from a drug trafficker. This comes after his brother, former Honduran Senator Juan Antonio Hernández, was convicted of running tons of cocaine into the United States in a trial that laid bare the bribery, corruption, and complicity of high-level Hondurans in the drug trade, including the president.

Loewenstein also takes us to Guinea-Bissau, a West African country where 70 percent of the population subsists on less than $2 a day and whose biggest export is cashews. Or at least it was cashews. Since the early years of this century, the country has emerged as a leading destination for South American cocaine, which is then re-exported to the insatiable European market.

Plagued by decades of military coups and political instability, the country has never developed, and an Atlantic shoreline suited for mass tourism now serves mainly as a convenient destination for boatloads and planeloads of cocaine. Loewenstein visits hotels whose only clients are drug traffickers and remote fishing villages where the trade is an open secret and a source of jobs. He talks with security officials who frankly admit they have almost no resources to combat the trade, and he traces the route onward to Europe, sometimes carried by Islamic militants.

He also tells the tale of one exemplary drug bust carried out by a DEA SWAT team arguably in Guinean territorial waters that snapped up the country's former Navy minister. The DEA said he was involved in a "narco-terrorist" plot to handle cocaine shipments for Colombia's leftist FARC guerillas, who were designated as "terrorists" by the administration of Bush the Junior in a politically convenient melding of the wars on drugs and terror.

It turns out, though, there were no coke loads, and there was no FARC; there was only a DEA sting operation, with the conspiracy created out of whole cloth. While the case made for some nice headlines and showed the US hard at work fighting drugs, it had no demonstrable impact on the use of West Africa as a cocaine conduit, and it raised serious questions about the degree to which the US can impose its drug war anywhere it chooses.

Loewenstein also writes about Australia, England, and the United States, in each case setting the historical and political context, talking to all kinds of people, and laying bare the hideous cruelties of drug policies that exert their most terrible tolls on the poor and racial minorities. But he also sees glimmers of hope in things such as the movement toward marijuana legalization here and the spread of harm reduction measures in England and Australia.

He gets one niggling thing wrong, though, in his chapter on the US. He converses with Washington, DC, pot activists Alan Amsterdam and Adam Eidinger, the main movers behind DC's successful legalization initiative, but in his reporting on it, he repeatedly refers to DC as a state and once even mistakenly cites a legal marijuana sales figure from Washington state. (There are no legal sales in DC.) Yes, this is a tiny matter, but c'mon, Loewenstein is Australian, and he should know a political entity similar to Canberra, the Australian Capital Territory.

That quibble aside, Loewenstein has made a hardheaded but openhearted contribution to our understanding of the multifaceted malevolence of the never-ending war on drugs. And I didn't even mention his chapter on the Philippines. It's in there, it's as gruesome as you might expect, and it's very chilling reading.

Vorobyov, on the other hand, was born in Russia and emigrated to England as a child. He reached adulthood as a recreational drug user and seller -- until he was arrested on the London Underground and got a two-year sentence for carrying enough Ecstasy to merit a charge of possession with intent to distribute. After that interval, which he says inspired him to write his book, he got his university degree and moved back to Russia, where he picked up a gig at Russia Today before turning his talents to Dopeworld.

Dopeworld is not staid journalism. Instead, it is a twitchy mish-mash, jumping from topic to topic and continent to continent with the flip of a page, tracing the history of alcohol prohibition in the US at one turn, chatting up Japanese drug gangsters at the next, and getting hammered by ayahuasca in yet another. Vorobyov himself describes Dopeworld as "true crime, gonzo, social, historical memoir meets fucked up travel book."

Indeed. He relates his college-boy drug-dealing career with considerable panache. He parties with nihilistic middle-class young people and an opium-smoking cop in Tehran, he cops $7 grams of cocaine in Colombia and tours Pablo Escobar's house with the dead kingpin's brother as a tour guide, he has dinner with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's family in Mexico's Sinaloa state and pronounces them nice people ("really chill"), and he meets up with a vigilante killer in Manila.

Vorobyov openly says the unsayable when it comes to writing about the drug war and drug prohibition: Drugs can be fun! While Loewenstein is pretty much all about the victims, Vorobyov inhabits the global drug culture. You know: Dopeworld. Loewenstein would bemoan the utter futility of a record-breaking seizure of a 12-ton load of cocaine; Vorobyov laments, "that's 12 tons of cocaine that will never be snorted."

Vorobyov is entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and he brings a former dope dealer's perspective to bear. He's brash and breezy, but like Loewenstein, he's done his homework as well as his journalistic fieldwork, and the result is fascinating. To begin to understand what the war on drugs has done to people and countries around the planet, this pair of books makes an essential introduction. And two gripping reads.

Dopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug Trade by Niko Vorobyov (August 2020, St. Martin's Press, hardcover, 432 pp., $29.99)

Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs by Antony Loewenstein (November 2019, Scribe, paperback, 368 pp., $19.00)

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