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The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2019 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2019 feature here.)

We're looking at 2019 through the rearview mirror now, but before we turn our sights to 2020, it's worth taking a few moments to look back at the last year in international drug policy. From marijuana law reform to the push for drug decriminalization, from the coca fields of Colombia to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, and from the killing fields of Mexico and the Philippines, there was a lot going on. Here are ten of the biggest international drug policy stories of 2019, in no particular order.

Medical marijuana was on the move in 2019 -- sort of -- at the UN's Vienna headquarters.
1. Marijuana Legalization and Decriminalization Advances

The wall of marijuana prohibition continued to crumble in 2019, albeit at an achingly slow pace.

A lot of the activity was in Europe. In March, Switzerland announced plans to let up to 5,000 people legally smoke marijuana in pilot studies aimed at shaping rules for recreational use of the drug.

In the Netherlands, the government finally moved in August to address the longstanding "backdoor problem," where marijuana is allowed to be sold but there is no legal source of supply. It announced a pilot program to begin in 2021 in which cannabis cafes in ten Dutch cities will be supplied with legally grown marijuana. The big cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam opted out because of worries that problems could arise if they all abandoned their illicit suppliers simultaneously.

In Denmark, the city council in Copenhagen, the country's capital and largest city, voted overwhelmingly in August to support a pilot program that would see marijuana sold legally across the city. The council has long pushed for this, but now there is a new left-wing government, so perhaps it will be allowed to happen.

Also in August, Luxembourg looked set to become the first European country to free the weed, as the government confirmed plans to legalize it, saying that residents 18 and over should be able to use and purchase it within two years. In December, though, the government said it will still be at least two years, citing "delays in working on policy related to the legislation."

And just at year's end, in Italy, the Supreme Court ruled that the small-scale personal cultivation of marijuana is legal, triggering calls for further legalization. The court declared that laws against growing drug crops should not apply to "small amounts grown domestically for the exclusive use of the grower."

And Israel decriminalized marijuana possession as of April 1. Possession of small amounts of marijuana in private homes is no longer to be treated as an offense, criminal or otherwise, while public possession will generate a fine of around $275, with that fine doubling for a second offense within five years. Only people who commit a third public possession offense within seven years will face the possibility of criminal prosecution.

In Australia, Canberra, the national capital, became the first city in the country to legalize marijuana personal use and cultivation. The law legalizes up to 50 grams and two plants per person, but not sales. It is set to go into effect on January 31, 2020, but conflicts with national marijuana prohibition, so stay tuned. And in nearby New Zealand, the governing coalition announced in May it would hold a binding referendum on marijuana legalization during the 2020 elections. In December, it unveiled a government web site with information on the proposed legalization bill that will be put before the voters.

In the Western hemisphere, Uruguay and Canada have led the way on marijuana legalization, but Mexico looks set to be the next over the line. After legislators there failed to pass legalization by a Supreme Court-imposed deadline at the end of October, the court gave them an extension until June 1 to get it done. Lawmakers got very close late in 2019 but were unable to close the deal because of disputes among competing business interests. There was action in Colombia, too, where an opposition senator filed a legalization bill in August. That bill is reportedly backed by former President Juan Manuel Santos, but it is the votes of the Liberal Party that will determine whether it advances.

There was progress in the Caribbean, too. In Trinidad & Tobago, non-commercial marijuana legalization went into effect in December, allowing people to possess up to 30 grams and grow four plants. A regulated marijuana marketplace is likely coming in 2020. In St. Kitts and Nevis,the government in midsummer filed a bill to legalize marijuana for "medicinal and scientific, religious, and recreational purposes." It remains pending at year's end. A similar effort is underway in the British Virgin Islands, where a draft bill to legalize marijuana is being reviewed by government officials.

2. Medical Marijuana on the Move

Acceptance of medical marijuana on the global stage continued to increase in 2019, and the year got off to a good start in January when the Israeli Cabinet gave final approval to exports, making it the third country, after Canada and the Netherlands, to do so. The following month, the European Parliament approved a resolution to advance medical marijuana in countries that form the European Union.

Meanwhile, Thailand formally embraced medical marijuana when King Maha Vajirlongkorn signed a decree legalizing it and kratom; and later in the year, a member of the country's ruling coalition government filed a bill that would allow people to grow up to six plants for personal medicinal use. And in the Philippines, a bill to legalize medical marijuana was reintroduced in 2019. Similar bills have been filed each year since 2014. Last year, the bill passed the lower house but failed to get out of the Senate.

In Latin America, Peru joined the ranks of medical marijuana countries more than a year after it became law when the government finally approved regulations to cover its production and use. In Mexico, the Supreme Court in August gave the federal health ministry until January to issue regulations on medical marijuana.

In the Caribbean, in August, Barbados introduced legislation to establish the legal foundation for a local medical marijuana industry, joining Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines as well as Antigua and Barbuda in approving marijuana cultivation.

Medical marijuana was sort of on the move at the United Nations too. In late January, the World Health Organization recommended the removal of marijuana from Schedule IV of the global drug treaties, the most restrictive category, along with other related reclassifications of substances involving marijuana's components or synthetic substitutes for them. This would stop short of the kind of full stamp of approval WHO gives to many drugs -- marijuana would not become an "essential medicine" -- but it would eliminate a designation that some governments might find constraining in terms of allowing medical use in their own countries. Most importantly, it would be widely seen as recognition by the UN of marijuana as a medicine (though international law does not ban medical use of marijuana now).

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs -- the subset of UN member states that sets drug policy for the UN -- was supposed to vote on the WHO recommendations during its March meeting, but that didn't happen because the recommendations were delayed at the end of 2018, leaving several countries to complain that they needed more time to study them.

"You can't arrest your way out of a drug problem." So why not try decriminalization? (Creative Commons)
3. Drug Decriminalization on the Move

Beyond marijuana legalization, the decriminalization of drug use and possession is probably the most significant means within current political striking range for reducing the criminal justice harms of drug prohibition. Portugal, which decriminalized in 2001, remains a shining example to emulate.

In Canada, in May, the House of Commons Health Committee called on the federal government to study Portugal's drug decriminalization and see how the model could be "positively applied in Canada." The following month, British Columbia nurses called urgently for decriminalization, but in September, as he campaigned for reelection, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said decriminalization was not on the agenda, even though the national Liberal Party caucus in 2018 passed a resolution calling to "reclassify low-level drug possession and consumption as administrative violations" rather than criminal ones. The conversation is advancing north of the border.

The conversation is also advancing in the United Kingdom, where the Scottish National Party formally endorsed drug decriminalization, as did the British Parliament's Health and Social Care Committee and Parliament's Scottish Affairs Committee. Britain's leading medical journal, The Lancet, came out hard for decriminalization in a special drugs issue released in October. The following month, Britain's largest drug treatment providers called for radical drug policy reforms, including decrim. But the ruling Conservative Party with Boris Johnson freshly installed as prime minister, remains opposed -- for now.

It's not just Canada and Great Britain, either. In Mexico, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in May submitted a decriminalization plan to Congress, while in Malaysia, the government announced in June that it planned to drop criminal penalties for drug use and possession. The following month, in Colombia, the legislative opposition and the center-right block filed a bill to decriminalize there.

In Australia, the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry into Ice (methamphetamine) released recommendations in October calling for harm reduction approaches and decriminalization. In the United States, an effort to put a decrim initiative on the 2020 Oregon ballot got underway in the fall, and a national movement to decriminalize psychedelics got underway.

The push to decriminalize is also working its way through the global drug control bureaucracy, as was evident in March when a key UN organization called for global drug decriminalization. The UN Chief Executives Board (CEB), representing 31 UN agencies including the Office on Drugs and Crime, adopted a position calling on member states to adopt science-based, health-oriented approaches to drug policy -- namely decriminalization. The policy shift -- or rather, recognition of what the policies of UN agencies on this already were -- came in January but was not publicly announced.

4. Harm Reduction and Human Rights

Along with decriminalization, harm reduction and concern about human rights gained momentum in 2019.

In March, a coalition of UN Member States, UN entities and leading human rights experts meeting at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna launched a landmark set of international legal standards around drug policy: the International Guidelines on Human Rights and Drug Policy. The following month, more than 300 NGOs called for harm reduction and drug decriminalization at the 26th International Harm Reduction Conference in Lisbon.

In the United Kingdom, both the British Labour Party and Parliament's Scottish Affairs Committee called for safe injection sites, while in Ireland, a Dublin safe injection site was moving closer to reality at year's end.

In Australia, the New South Wales Special Commission of Inquiry into Ice (methamphetamine) recommended harm reduction approaches in October, and the New Zealand government in December announced a pilot program to examine pill-testing at festivals, marking the first time such a study will have been done in the country.

5. Mexico Ravaged by Prohibition-Related Violence for Another Year

In January, Mexican authorities reported that the number of murders in 2018 hit an all-time high with more than 33,000, many of them directly linked to violence among competing drug cartels and between cartels and the state. A lot happened between then and now, but at the end of 2019, this year's death toll was at just under 32,000. At least it didn't get worse, but those numbers are still horrifying, and the year-old administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hasn't been able to turn the corner yet. It's not for lack of trying or willingness to embrace new ideas.

In February, the Mexican Senate approved a plan for a new National Guard to fight crime and drug trafficking, but only after amending it to ensure that the new security force is headed by civilians, not the military, which has been linked to numerous human rights violations.

In May, Lopez Obrador called for an end to Plan Merida, under which the US provided security assistance to fight the drug war, with the president saying he wants the US to end the anti-drug Merida Initiative and instead invest in economic development in southern Mexico and Central America. Saying the plan "hasn't worked," Lopez Obrador added that, "We don't want cooperation on the use of force, we want cooperation on economic development. We don't want the so-called Merida Initiative."

In June, the murder rate topped 2,000 a month for this first time, a toll linked to the rise of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, which is seeking to supplant the Sinaloa cartel formerly headed by Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who is now serving a sentence in the US. In north-central Guanajuato state, the JNGC has been duking it out with yet another faction, the Santa Rose de Lima cartel, leaving more than 3,200 dead in that state alone by year's end.

By August, a Catholic bishop issued a call for dialogue between the government and armed groups, including drug cartels. That was Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza of Chilpancingo-Chilapa (Guerrero state), a key opium-growing region. Responding to the government's announcement that it was in talks with so-called community police groups and self-defense militias, but not the cartels, the bishop chided the government, saying, "To get peace you have to dialogue, even with Satan, with whomever it might be to get peace."

As cartel clashes raged through the summer and fall, the government tentatively explored alternatives to continuing drug war. In September, Lopez Obrador said he was considering a referendum on drug legalization, and in October, the ruling MORENA Party's leader in the Chamber of Deputies, Mario Delgado Carrillo, proposed legalizing all drugs to combat cartel violence. His comments were in response to one of the more brazen cartel actions in 2019, when Sinaloa Cartel gunmen forced the release of El Chapo's son after he was captured by security forces in the cartel heartland city of Culiacan and they turned the city into a war zone until Ovidio Guzman was freed, greatly embarrassing the government.

That same month, in another brazen attack, gun men from the JNGC ambushed police in Michoacan, killing more than a dozen and leaving signed placards on their bodies warning police not to support rival crime groups, such as Los Viagras.

In yet another act of gruesome violence -- and one that caught the attention of Americans long bored with the violence south of the border -- in November, cartel gun men killed nine women and children with dual US-Mexico citizenship, prompting President Trump to suggest he could use the US military to "wage war" against the cartels. Lopez Obrador declined that offer [Ed: wisely, for them and for us].

6. Coca, Cocaine and Chaos in Colombia

According to both the UN and the US, Colombia accounted for around 70% of global cocaine production in 2017, when the country produced 1,275 tons of cocaine, the most ever. In 2018, production declined by a tiny percentage, but remained near record high levels. There are no figures available yet for 2019, but there is no reason to suspect much has changed.

The high levels of coca cultivation and cocaine production have made a return to aerial spraying of coca crops a key goal of the rightist government of President Ivan Duque, who in March asked the Constitutional Court to ease restrictions on spraying, which President Juan Manuel Santos banned after the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a likely carcinogen. That position won the support of US Secretary of State Pompeo in June, when, ignoring the global criticism of glyphosate and any other strategies for reducing cultivation, he called spraying "an important tool they need" to reduce coca production.

But in July, the Constitutional Court upheld the ban, although it also said spraying could resume if the government met certain conditions. At the end of December, the government announced plans to resume spraying, publishing a draft law that would allow fumigation flights under supervision of the national police. The proposal also calls for the creation of an independent agency that would oversee complaints related to aerial spraying including any potential impacts on rural communities.

Meanwhile three years after a peace deal between former President Santos and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC was signed, violence and chaos in the countryside are increasing. In March, coca farmers clashed with police in Cordoba, saying they were returning to coca after two years of waiting for economic and security assistance that never arrived. In April, a UN report found massacres on the increase, reflecting new criminal dynamics in key areas of the country.

In June, the government reported a jump in murders, driven largely by battles for control over coca-growing areas that had previously been controlled by the leftist the FARC, leaving FARC dissidents, other guerrilla groups, and criminal drug trafficking groups fighting over who will control the fields. And in August, a new report from Human Rights Watch found that renewed fighting over control of the cocaine trade in the Catatumbo region had forced some 40,000 people to flee their homes. Human Rights Watch accused the Colombian government of "not meeting its obligations" to protect civilians in the area.

And speaking of the FARC, they're back. In June, a military intelligence report said as many as a third of FARC fighters had picked up their guns again. They were joining dissident FARC groups operating in coca-growing regions. Disarmed FARC rebels were supposed to have been reintegrated into society, but that has been stymied by violence and discrimination. At least 139 former FARC members have been killed since disarming.

A couple of month later, FARC dissidents made it official. In August, dissident FARC leaders announced they were rejoining the path of armed struggle. Three years after an historic peace agreement between the leftist guerrillas of the FARC and the Colombian state, the dissidents said that the rightist government of President Ivan Duque had betrayed the peace accord. Led Ivan Marquez (Luciano Marin), they said they were ready for a "new stage of fightingm," citing the murders of more than a hundred former FARC members and labor activists, as well as the government's failure to provide sustainable development assistance to areas formerly under their control. "The state has not fulfilled its most important obligation, which is to guarantee the life of its citizens and especially avoid assassinations for political reasons," said Marquez. The number of dissidents affiliated with Marquez is estimated at around 2,000-3,000. The civil war with the FARC that began in 1964 left more than 220,000 people dead.

President Duque also faces challenges to his hardline approach to drug policy in both the courts and the congress. The Constitutional Court threw out his ban on public pot smoking and drinking, meaning police can no longer confiscate drugs considered to be for personal consumption, and people are again allowed to smoke marijuana and drink beer in public. But it's unclear whether Duque will abide by the ruling.

And in June, the legislative opposition and a center-right bloc filed a package of four bills that seek to decriminalize drug use and ban glyphosate, the chemical the government wants to use to fumigate coca. What opposition lawmakers want is to curb drug abuse by strengthening health care and to fight drug trafficking via voluntary crop substitution and rural development.

Bolivia's coca grower president, Evo Morales, was forced from office late in 2019. (Creative Commons)
7. Farewell to Bolivia's Coca Grower President

Long-time Bolivian leader Evo Morales, a former coca growers union leader who won the presidency in 2005 and was reelected twice was forced from office and fled the country after extended protests in the wake of disputed elections in November. Morales resigned after he lost the support of the military, which called on him to quit after weeks of sometimes violent protests.

As president, Morales broke with US drug policy in the region and legalized the production of coca in the country. He also lifted millions of Bolivians out of poverty, through heavy investments in public works projects. He began to lose support after ignoring a referendum calling on him not to run again, which had followed a series of controversies and scandals. Chaos escalated after an unexplained 24-hour delay in vote-counting before he was declared the victor. The country is now ruled by an interim hard right regime, but elections are supposed to happen in the next three months.

8. Philippines Drug War Faces International Pushback

The international community turned up the heat on Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and his bloody drug war in 2019, but Duterte was undeterred.

In 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a preliminary examination into human rights abuses in the drug war, and that March, Duterte responded by quitting the ICC. But the ICC said its preliminary investigation into Filipino drug war abuses would continue. In December 2019 the ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that the examination was in the "very late stages," and that a decision on whether to open an investigation would be made during 2020.

In April, human rights advocates and harm reductionists rallied against the Philippine drug war at the 26th Harm Reduction International Conference in Porto, Portugal. "The Philippine government's barbaric campaign against the drug trade is severely harming the health and security of its communities. The evidence that punitive drug policies don't work is irrefutable. People around the world have sent a clear message to the government today -- stop the killings and invest in the health and human rights of your people," Naomi Burke-Shyne, Harm Reduction International executive director, said.

In June, the Philippines National Police put the drug war's official death toll at 6,600, up from just under 5,000 seven months earlier. Human rights groups put the toll much higher, some as high as 30,000, with killings divided between police and shadowy vigilante groups.

That same month, UN experts called for a human rights probe of the Philippines drug war. A group of 11 United Nations human rights experts called or the UN's Human Rights Council to start an independent probe into rights violations in the Philippines, including illegal killings in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody crackdown on drugs. The call gained momentum when a group of two dozen countries called for a UN investigation of drug war killings. A draft resolution submitted by Iceland and supported mainly by West European countries urged the government to halt extrajudicial executions and called on the UN Human Rights Council to address the crisis. And a major report from Amnesty International on drug war atrocities added fuel to the fire.

In July, the full UN Human Rights Council voted to begin an investigation into the mass killings. The Duterte government responded by refusing to grant the UN access to the country to investigate the killings and other human rights abuses. And Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin called the UN experts "bastards."

In November, representatives from 51 countries called for the Philippines to "STOP THE KILLINGS" at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Drug Policy Reform Conference in St. Louis. "With the world watching, we felt compelled to use our platform to draw attention to the horrendous crimes taking place every day in the Philippines, with the full-throated support of that country's president," said Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The Philippines is a stark example of how the drug war can so easily serve as an excuse for targeting vulnerable people, and harassing critics, and punishing opponents."

Also in November, Duterte engaged in some political flim-flam when he named strong drug war critic Vice President Leni Robredo as drug czar, then fired her less than three weeks later. Duterte accused Robredo of embarrassing the country by drawing international attention to his bloody war on drugs. But Robredo vowed to carry on the fight. "When I took this job, I asked you, are you ready for me? My question to you now is what are you afraid of? Are you afraid of what I might discover? Are you afraid of what the public might discover?," Robredo said at a news conference. "If they think I will stop here, then they don't know me, I am just starting," Robredo said.

"They cannot remove my determination to stop the killings and hold those responsible to account and win the fight against illegal drugs."

Meanwhile, another prominent political figure and drug war critic, Senator Leila de Lima remains behind bars, where she has been since arrested on bogus drug charges in February 2017. But she got some support from the US Congress late this year. In two separate moves in December, the Senate approved a Free Leila resolution (Senate Resolution 42) and approved a State Department spending bill that includes a provision barring entry "to foreign government officials about whom the Secretary has credible information have been involved in the wrongful imprisonment of Senator Leila de Lima."

The Duterte government has responded in typical fashion: It has now denied entry to three US senators, Ed Markey (D-MA), who authored the de Lima resolution, and Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT).

9. Sri Lanka and the Death Penalty for Drugs

Under the baleful influence of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, now former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena early in the year announced plans to end a 43-year moratorium on the death penalty so drug offenders could be executed, kicking off his campaign with an advertisement announcing job vacancies for executioners. In April, Sirisena announced the first executions would be coming soon as he presided over the burning of seized cocaine.

"To curb the illegal drug menace, it is necessary to implement the death penalty," he said. "The death penalty will be implemented in the coming days. The list has been prepared and we have decided on the date too."

But with the country in shock after the Easter Islamic terror attacks that left more than 200 people dead, Sirisena had other issues on his mind -- although in July, Sirisena falsely blamed drug gangs for the attacks, saying they were designed to discredit his anti-drug drive.

Sirisena's blood lust has so far been thwarted by the courts. In June, the Supreme Court delayed the execution of four people set to be hanged in October for drug offenses.

In October, as Sirisena's term was running out, his plans to make the executions his last act of state was again thwarted, with the Supreme Court again staying the executions until March 20, 2020. Now it will be up to newly elected President Gotabaya Rajapaska to decide whether to continue Sirsena's aberration.

10. The Extent of the US's Drug War Fiasco in Afghanistan Becomes Achingly Apparent

In late October, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued its latest report on the seemingly endless US occupation of Afghanistan, and its analysis of American anti-opium efforts was particularly devastating. SIGAR found that although we've spent nearly $9 billion trying to suppress the opium poppy, Afghanistan remained far and away the world's largest opium producer throughout the US occupation.

The country produced a record high nine tons of opium in 2017, and although drought reduced last year's crop, SIGAR noted that "it remained at the second-highest level since the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) began monitoring it in 1994."

When it comes to suppressing illicit drug crops, there are three main approaches: eradication, interdiction and alternative development. According to the new SIGAR report, all three have proven ineffectual in Afghanistan. Interdiction activities -- drug busts -- have "minimal impact on the country's opium cultivation and production," SIGAR found, while eradication efforts "have had minimal impact on curbing opium-poppy cultivation." Alternative development was funded at low levels, and SIGAR found it "ineffectual at curbing opium cultivation."

Whew, that's pretty bad, but it gets worse. This month, the Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, an extensive piece of investigative reporting that showed US officials consistently lied about making progress in the war even though they knew they weren't. The papers contain a section on opium, "Overwhelmed by Opium," that makes a thoroughly depressing read as it documents the myriad ways US anti-drug policy imploded. "Of all the failures in Afghanistan, the war on drugs has been perhaps the most feckless," the Post noted. That's saying something.

Chronicle AM: CA Racial Profiling Study, VA Governor Pushes for Marijuana Decrim, More... (1/6/20)

Virginia's Democratic governor is ready to push for marijuana decriminalization as part of a broader criminal justice reform package, federal opioid funds will soon be available to address meth and cocaine as well, the Philippines' vice-president rips Duterte's bloody drug war, and more.

Gee, guess who gets harassed most often by the cops in California? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Kansas Governor Says She Would Sign a Marijuana Legalization Bill. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) said in an interview last week she would likely sign a bill legalizing marijuana if it arrived at her desk. But she added that legalization isn't her main focus; medical marijuana is. "I do believe medical marijuana needs to be legalized," she said. As for legalization: "I don't have a personal ideology regarding it. If the folks want it and the legislature passes it, would I sign it? Probably."

Virginia Governor Says He Will Push for Marijuana Decriminalization This Year. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) said Friday that he would push for the decriminalization of marijuana in Virginia this year but wants to study full legalization before going further. He announced legislation that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana a civil offense carrying a $50 penalty, instead of a criminal misdemeanor. The proposal is part of a broader criminal justice reform agenda that includes parole reforms, raising the age youthful offenders could be tried as adults, and a higher threshold for making theft a felony.

Drug Treatment

Federal Opioid Funds Will Soon Be Able to Be Used for Addressing Methamphetamine and Cocaine. States will soon be able to use opioid funding from the federal government to address rising methamphetamine and cocaine use. That's because a 2020 funding bill passed by Congress last month incorporates Ohio Sen. Rob Portman's (R) Combating Meth and Cocaine Act, which expands the use of the State Opioid Response Grant funding to address rising use and overdose deaths attributed to the abuse of methamphetamine and cocaine. Those grants totaled a billion dollars each in fiscal years 2017 and 2018 and $500 million in fiscal year 2019.

Racial Profiling

Major California Study Finds Black People Stopped Far More Often by Police. Black people were more likely to be stopped by police and more likely to have force used against them by police, a study of statistics from eight large law enforcement agencies in the state has found. In Los Angeles, black people account for 9% of the population, but 28% of all people stopped in the last six months of 2018. In San Francisco, the numbers were 5% and 26%. According to the new data, black people are much more likely to have firearms pointed at them by police officers. They also are more likely to be detained, handcuffed and searched. At the same time, when the police search black, Latino and Native American people, they are less likely to find drugs, weapons or other contraband compared to when they search white people.

International

Philippines Vice President Rips Duterte's Policies as Deadly But Failing. Vice-President Leni Robredo, a harsh critic of President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drugs whom Duterte briefly hired as co-chair of the Interagency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs and then fired, said Monday that her brief tenure there allowed her to find that the government has only been going after small-time drug pushers, and that treatment and rehabilitation programs are inadequate. She called on the government to end the deadly Oplan Tokhang ("Operation Knock and Plead"), bring proceedings against high-value targets and improve its collection and interpretation of drug-related data.

Thailand Launches First Full-Time Clinics for Dispensing Medical Marijuana Products. Two full-time clinics for dispensing cannabis oil opened in Thailand Monday. It is an early step in the government's policy of promoting the licensed use of marijuana products to relieve the symptoms of a range of ailments. About 400 patients, many of them suffering from cancer, were provided with free cannabis oil at the clinic at the Public Health Ministry in suburban Bangkok. About two-dozen other clinics have been operating part-time since the legislature amended the country's drug laws in 2018 to allow for medical marijuana.

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2019 [FEATURE]

As the clock ticks down toward 2020, it's worth taking a moment to look back and reflect on what has gone on in the world of drug policy this year. From marijuana to psychedelics to the lingering overdose crisis to the emergence of a new vaping-related illness, a lot happened. Here are ten of the biggest highs and lows of 2019, in no particular order:

It was a big year for marijuana in Congress. Less so in the states.
1, For the First Time, Marijuana Legalization Wins a Congressional Vote

In November, the House Judiciary Committee made history when it approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3384). The bill would effectively legalize marijuana at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substance Act's drug schedules. It would also require federal courts to expunge prior convictions and conduct resentencing hearings for those still doing federal marijuana time. And it would assess a five percent tax on marijuana sales to create a fund to aid to people and communities most impacted by prohibition.

There's a good chance the MORE Act will get a House floor vote before the end of this Congress, but even if it does, its prospects in Sen. Mitch McConnell's Senate are dim at best. Still, step by step, Congress by Congress, the end of federal marijuana prohibition is drawing nearer.

2. Marijuana Banking Bill Passes the House

In September, the House passed the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to get access to banking and other financial services. The vote was 321-103, with near unanimous support from Democrats, as well as nearly half of Republicans.

The vote came although some civil rights and drug reform groups had called for it to be put off until more comprehensive marijuana or criminal justice reform, such as the MORE Act (see above) could be enacted. They argued that passage of a narrowly targeted financial services bill could erode momentum toward broader reforms. The MORE Act did win a House Judiciary Committee vote, but has yet to get a House floor vote.

And while SAFE passed the House, it must still get through the Senate, where it is not clear whether it will be allowed to a vote, much less whether it can pass. A companion version of SAFE, S.1200, was introduced in April by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and a bipartisan group of 21 original cosponsors. It currently has 33 total cosponsors. In September, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said his committee would take up the cannabis banking issue this year and is working on preparing a new bill, but now it's December and little has happened.

3. Legalization in the States Didn't Have a Great Year

At the beginning of 2019, prospects looked good for as many as a half-dozen states to get legalization bills passed, but the year turned out to largely be a dud. Hopes were especially high in New Jersey and New York, where Democratic governors supported legalization, but it didn't come to pass this year in either state. In Albany, they'll be back at it next year, but in Trenton, it looks like the legislature is going to punt, opting instead to put the issue directly to the voters next year in a legislative referendum.

One state did make it all the way to the finish line: Illinois. After a legalization bill sailed through the legislature in the spring, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it into law in late June. With that signature, Illinois became the first state to create a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce through the legislative process, rather than through a voter initiative. (Vermont's legislature legalized possession and cultivation but not sales in early 2018.)

Getting bills through a state legislature is hard work, and it sometimes takes years. Still, that hard work that didn't quite make it over the top this year, is laying the groundwork for legalization in places like New Jersey and New York -- and maybe more -- next year. And next year is an election year, which means initiative campaigns that can bypass legislative logjams will be in play. There are already active campaigns in Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota and South Dakota, although none have yet qualified for the ballot. Look for 2020 to be a better year when it comes to freeing the weed.

4. Pot Prohibition Isn't Dead Yet: Despite Legalization, Marijuana Arrests Up in Latest FBI Crime Report

In late September, the FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2018, and once again, marijuana arrests were on the rise -- despite legalization in 11 states and DC, and decriminalization in 15 more states. There were some 663,367 marijuana arrests in 2018, up from 659,700 in 2017 and 653,249 in 2017. In all three years, simple possession cases accounted for about nine out of ten pot busts. Before 2016, marijuana arrests had been going down for more than a decade. Clearly, there is still work to do here.

5. US Supreme Court Unanimously Reins in Asset Forfeiture

In a February victory for proponents of civil libertarians, the US Supreme Court ruled in Timbs v. Indiana that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to states, thereby prohibiting state and local governments from collecting excessive fines, fees and forfeitures. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. "The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government's punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority," Ginsburg wrote. The case involved the seizure of a $42,000 Land Rover over a drug sale of $225.

There was more progress on the asset forfeiture front on the state level, too: Bills to either end civil asset forfeiture entirely or to restrict it passed this year in Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, and North Dakota, and in September, a South Carolina circuit court judge ruled civil asset forfeiture unconstitutional, setting up a fight in state appeals courts there.

6. Thousands of Federal Drug Prisoners Go Free Under First Step Act

President Trump signed the First Step Act into law at the end of last year, but the sentencing reform measure's true impact was felt in July, when the Bureau of Prisons released more than 3,000 prisoners and reduced the sentences of nearly 1,700 more. Almost all of those released were drug offenders. The First Step Act was aimed at redressing harsh sentences for federal prisoners excluded from the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the infamous crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, but which did not include prisoners sentenced before its passage. Three states -- Florida, South Carolina and Virginia -- accounted for a whopping 25 percent of sentence reductions, and more than 90 percent went to African-American men.

A movement to decriminalize natural psychedelics emerged this year. (Greenoid/Flickr)
7. Psychedelic Decriminalization Becomes a Movement

After emerging in 2018, the movement to decriminalize natural psychedelics mushroomed this year. In May, voters in Denver narrowly approved the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Decriminalization Initiative, making clear that they wanted to "deprioritize, to the greatest extent possible, the imposition of criminal penalties on persons 21 years of age and older for the personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms." The measure also "prohibits the city and county of Denver from spending resources on imposing criminal penalties on persons 21 years of age and older for the personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms."

That surprise victory sparked interest across the country, and the following month Oakland followed suit, only this time it was the city council -- not the voters -- who decriminalized magic mushrooms and other natural psychedelics. In September, Chicago became the next city to get on board, with the city council unanimously passing an advisory resolution expressing support for research on the potential use of psychoactive plants and pledging support for adult use of the substances. Meanwhile, activists in three more major cities -- Berkeley, Dallas, and Portland -- were pushing psychedelic decriminalization measures, either through ballot initiatives or city council actions. By December, Decriminalize Nature, the group behind the movement, reported that more than 100 cities across the country are now seeing efforts to open up to psychedelics.

And it's not just cities. In two states, psychedelic reformers have filed initiatives aimed at the November 2020 ballot. In the Golden State, the California Psilocybin Mushroom Initiative, which would decriminalize the possession, use, and gifting of magic mushrooms and the chemical compounds -- psilocybin and psilocin -- has been cleared for signature gathering. It has until April 21 to come up with 623,212 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. Just across the border to the north, the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin, is in the midst of signature gathering. It needs 112,020 valid voter signatures by July 2 to make the ballot. The Oregon measure in October got a nice $150,000 donation from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps.

8. Overdose Deaths Decline Slightly, But Are Still Way Too High

In July, the CDC reported 2018 drug overdose death numbers and found that they had declined from 2017's record high of more than 70,000 to just under 68,000, a five percent decrease. The latest data from CDC, which measured drug deaths in the 12-month period ending in April 2019 showed deaths at 67,000, suggesting that the decline continues, but at a glacial pace. Still, the number of overdose deaths is about seven times higher than it was in 1995, at the start of the prescription opioid epidemic.

The recent decline has been driven by a decrease in heroin and prescription opioid overdoses, although overdoses involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl increased, as did those involving the stimulant drugs cocaine and methamphetamine. Many overdoses involved more than one drug, with benzodiazepines often implicated.

If some researchers are right, fentanyl overdoses could balloon to an even higher level, if distribution of the highly potent substance takes hold in the western US. Most users take fentanyl unknowingly, after it's been used to cut street heroin or counterfeit pills.

9. Vaping-Linked Illness Emerges, Sparking Broad Anti-Vaping Backlash

In the summer, reports of vaping or e-cig users being struck down by a mysterious, lung-damaging condition began to emerge. By the end of October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 1,600 cases of lung-damaged vapors, with the death toll rising to 34. (That number has since risen to 47.) The CDC also gave the condition a name: e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI).

A likely culprit soon emerged: black market THC vaping cartridges contaminated with new additives, particularly thinners including propylene glycol (PG) and polyethylene glycol (PEG), vitamin E acetate, and medium chain triglycerides (MCT oil). The FDA has begun investigating vitamin E acetate, while public health officials in New York have found the substance in a majority of seized vape cartridges there. The FDA also announced in August that it is proposing adding propylene glycol as a "respiratory toxicant" in its list of harmful tobacco product ingredients.

While the CDC and the FDA responded to the outbreak with recommendations targeting the suspect products, elected and public health officials in a number of states responded by going after not black market marijuana vaping cartridges but legal flavored tobacco vaping products.

Massachusetts banned all vaping products, Michigan banned flavored nicotine products, New York banned flavored e-cigarettes, Oregon banned all flavored vaping products for six months, as did Rhode Island, while Washingtonissued a four-month ban on flavored vaping products. President Trump threatened to move toward a national ban on flavored vaping products, but has since changed course, even making an anti-prohibitionist argument to do so.

In its latest update, the CDC reports the number of EVALI cases has risen to nearly 2,300 and the death toll has climbed to 47. But unlike those state governments that reacted with flavored vaping bans, the CDC takes a different approach: It points the finger strongly at vitamin E acetate, recommends that people not use THC vaping products at this point -- especially if obtained informally or in the black market -- and also warns people not to add any products to vaping cartridges that are not intended by the manufacturer.

10. Safe Injection Sites Win an Important Preliminary Legal Battle

In a case involving a proposed safe injection site in Philadelphia, a federal judge ruled that it would not violate federal law. With the backing of city officials and former Gov. Ed Rendell (D), the nonprofit group Safehouse pressed forward with plans for the facility even though the Justice Department had warned that it would not allow any safe injection sites to move forward. The Justice Department sued in February to halt the project, arguing that it violated the federal "crack house law."

But US District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that the "crack house" provision of the Controlled Substances Act does not apply to the group's bid to assist opioid users. "No credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress" when that body wrote the law in 1986 or amended it in 2003, McHugh wrote. "I cannot conclude that Safehouse [the safe injection site] has, as a significant purpose, the objective of facilitating drug use. Safehouse plans to make a place available for the purposes of reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment and connecting participants with social services."

While the Justice Department has appealed the ruling, it is a good omen, and the case is being carefully watched in cities such as Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, all of which are pursuing similar plans.

Chronicle AM: NJ MJ Referendum Set to Advance, Dirty Detroit Narcs, MA Pot Vaping Resumes, More... (12/13/19)

Italy legalizes hemp and CBD products, Trinidad and Tobago moves toward marijuana decrim, New Jersey legislators are busy on two fronts, and more.

New Jersey legislators are making progress on two different fronts this week. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Senators Demand Update from DEA On Marijuana Growing Applications. A group of Democratic senators led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have sent a letter to the DEA, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) demanding that they provide an update on efforts to expand the number of authorized marijuana grows for research purposes. The letter notes that DEA announced more than three years ago that it would begin approving additional research grows, but has yet to issue any new licenses. The agency says the volume of new applications requires that it develop alternate rules before issuing any new licenses.

Massachusetts Pot Shops Okayed to Resume Sales of Some Vaping Products. The state's Cannabis Control Commission has amended a November ban on marijuana vaping products, now allowing stores to sell them but only if they are manufactured after this date and have been tested for contaminants.

New Jersey Legislature Holds Hearing on Marijuana Referendum. Legalization supporters outnumbered foes Thursday as the legislature held hearings in both chambers on whether to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2020 ballot letting voters decide on whether to free the weed. Votes on the measure are expected in both houses on Monday.

Expungement

New Jersey Drug Expungement Bill Headed for Monday Vote. After an Assembly committee passed a bill, A-5981, Thursday without hearing any testimony, the measure heads for floor votes in both houses on Monday. The bill would make it easier for people to rid their records of minor drug and other offenses. Under its "clean slate" provision, all prior non-serious crimes could be sealed after a decade, while those involving smalltime marijuana or hashish possession could be expunged immediately. For minor drug offenses that occur after the bill is passed, a judge would immediately remove them from a person's record.

Foreign Policy

Senate Committee Passes Resolution for Sanctions Against Philippine Officials Involved in Imprisonment of Drug War Critic Sen. Leila de Lima. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved the Free Leila resolution (Senate Resolution 142), which calls for the applications of sanctions under the Magnitsky Act against Philippines officials responsible for "orchestrating the arrest and prolonged detention" of Filipina drug war critic Sen. Leila de Lima. The resolution also calls for sanctions against members of the security forces and Philippine officials responsible for extrajudicial killings during President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody drug war. The resolution is non-binding but signals strong revulsion toward the behavior of the Duterte government.

Law Enforcement

Detroit Narcs Accused of Corrupt Policing. A raid on the Detroit Police Department's narcotics unit in August has uncovered dirty dealing there. Investigators have found a half-dozen instances of narcs stealing money from alleged drug dealers and two where drugs were planted on suspects. One former narc was arrested the day of the raid on federal charges he took bribes from a drug dealer, and Chief James Craig said he's looking at the unit that the officer was assigned to. "Sadly, as we continue our probe, we think it's going to grow in terms of magnitude," Craig said.

International

Italy Legalizes Hemp, CBD Products. Parliament this week legalized the production and sale of cannabis products containing less than 0.5% THC. The law will go into effect January 1. Former rightist Interior Minister Matteo Salvini had vowed to shut down shops selling what the Italians call "cannabis light," but now parliament has thwarted that effort.

Trinidad and Tobago Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Decriminalization Bill. The House of Representatives on Wednesday approved a bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana. People caught with more than 30 but less than 60 grams would pay a fixed fine. The bill would also allow for the personal cultivation of up to four plants and provide a pathway for expungement of previous small-time marijuana offenses. The bill now heads for a Senate vote later this month. But it also contains provisions that would impose new penalties against possession and distribution of other substances, such as LSD, MDMA and ketamine.

Is This the Worst State in America on Drug Policy? [FEATURE]

With endless miles of farmland shading into ever higher and drier terrain as one moves West, then on to the Badlands and then the Black Hills, South Dakota has a certain austere beauty. Not so in its approach to drugs. When it comes to drug policy, it is one of the ugliest places in the country.

South Dakota's Badlands. The state is a pretty bad land for drug users, too. (Creative Commons)
The staunchly conservative state holds the dubious distinction of being the only state to twice defeat a medical marijuana initiative (although activists are giving it another shot this year, and a more wishful legalization initiative, too). And it is being sued by the state ACLU over the forced drug testing of toddlers and arrestees alike.

South Dakota also boasts the nation's only law making ingestion -- not possession -- of a controlled substance a felony, which helps explains the reflex resort to drug testing arrestees: A positive drug test becomes a prosecutable offense. While 10 other states have ingestion laws on the books, none of them make it a felony.

And now, a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative finds that South Dakota jails more people per capita than any other state, that almost half of all arrests are drug- or alcohol-related (compared to 29 percent nationally), and that people of color -- in this case, primarily Native Americans -- are disproportionately arrested at a rate far above the national average.

According to the report, South Dakota jailed 2,888 people per 100,000, nearly twice the national average of 1,506, and narrowly edging out Mississippi, which had 2,814 per 100,000. (Other states that jailed more than one out of 50 of their residents were Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.)

But jail is just the gateway to the incarceration complex, and when it comes to long-term stays behind bars, South Dakota displays the same sort of worrying numbers. According to the ACLU of South Dakota, the state's prison population has increased more than five-fold since the beginning of the drug war era 50 years ago. And despite 2013 reforms designed to reduce the prison population, it stubbornly stays near an all-time high reached in 2017.

In fact, new prison admissions spiked upward by 49 percent between 2015 and 2018. These numbers are largely attributable to drug prosecutions, with nearly one in three prisoners doing time for drugs in 2015, up from one in four the year before.

As the ACLU noted, "This increase was driven almost entirely by a rise in the number of people whose most serious offense was unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance."

That's right -- South Dakota is spending millions of dollars to incarcerate people not for drug dealing, not for drug possession, but for having used drugs and still having traces of them in their system.

And it's doing so in a stunningly racially disproportionate manner. Native Americans make up only 7 percent of the state's population but constitute nearly one-third (31 percent) of the state prison population. Similarly, the state has a tiny African American population (2 percent), but black South Dakotans made up 8 percent of the prison population. The imprisonment rate for both African Americans and Native Americans was seven times that of the state's overwhelmingly white population. For the state's Latino population, the imprisonment rate was three times that of whites.

In a press release in October, the state ACLU reported that it's just as bad in the state's jails, with Native Americans making up roughly half of all jail admissions and accounting for the majority of all drug- and alcohol-related arrests in the state. The group noted that Native Americans between ages 15 and 64 are jailed at 10 times the rate of white people in South Dakota.

"It's time to come to terms with the significant racial disparities that are so ingrained in our criminal legal system," said said Libby Skarin, ACLU of South Dakota policy director. "This is not something that can be mitigated by solely reducing the number of arrests in South Dakota. Our elected officials need to acknowledge the realities of these racial disparities and commit to tackling them head-on."

State leaders grasp that there is a problem here. The state legislature has set up an interim study group to examine the state's approach to drug offenses, which met for the first time in August. The group includes legislators, law enforcement, court administrators, the South Dakota attorney general and the secretary of the Department of Corrections, but not public health officials or actual drug users.

The panel heard even more disturbing numbers about drug prosecutions. There were 2,104 people convicted of drug possession statewide last year, a more than five-fold increase from 2009, even though drug use levels have remained relatively stable over that period. That is leading panel members to wonder about the role of local prosecutors in generating such large increases in prosecutions.

"Though drug use is undoubtedly a serious issue, we can't incarcerate our way out of addiction," said the ACLU's Skarin, "The enormous amount of money South Dakota spends on jailing people for drug-related offenses is disproportionate and causes more harm than good to individuals struggling with addiction, their families and their communities."

That's why the ACLU is supporting initiatives such as reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor.

"Reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor and investing the resulting savings of state funds in diversion and treatment programs designed to combat addiction would go a long way in helping to solve the underlying problems leading to drug abuse," Skarin said.

Pennington County (Rapid City) public defender Eric Whitcher is on the same page as the state ACLU. He told the interim panel that 73 of his last 100 drug possession cases involved only trace amounts of not enough of the drug to be able to be weighed and that if such cases were not charged as felonies, his office could operate with significantly fewer felony prosecutors.

"We are an outlier," Whitcher said of South Dakota. "We are creating more felonies for the same conduct than our neighboring states. What impact does that have on their lives?"

Dropping ingestion from a felony to a misdemeanor would be a step in the right direction, but it's an awfully small step. South Dakota has a long, long way to go to get on the right side of drug policy, and no natural beauty can hide that.

Chronicle AM: House Resolution Condemns Racist Drug War, Prison Racial Disparities Shrink, More.... (12/10/19)

Michigan legal pot sales are off to a hot start, a House resolution demands Congress apologize for racist drug war, a new report finds declining racial disparities in incarceration, and more. 

The Wolverine state is embracing legal marijuana if early sales figures are any indication. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Major League Baseball on Verge on Okaying Marijuana Use. The league has already abandoned testing for marijuana for the major leagues, but now it and the players' union have reportedly agreed to remove it from the list of banned substances for minor leaguers as well as part of a wider deal involving opioid use in baseball. Until now, minor league players had been subject to a 25-game suspension for the first positive pot test, 50 games for the second, 100 games for the third, and a lifetime ban for a fourth offense. This isn't a done deal yet, but both sides said they hoped it would be by year's end.

Michigan Legal Marijuana Sales Off to Roaring Start. After only eight days of legal marijuana sales, Michiganders have bought more than $1.6 million worth of weed. And that's in only five retail shops already open in the state. Three of those shops either sold out their inventory or had only limited supplies of marijuana products. That $1.6 million in sales brought in more than $270,000 for the state in the form of marijuana excise and sales taxes. The state House Fiscal Agency estimates that once the legal marijuana market is fully established, sales will approach $950 million annually, with the state taking in $152 million in pot taxes each year.

Drug Policy

Lawmakers File Resolution Demanding Congress Apologize for Racist War on Drugs. House members led by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) introduced a House resolution on Friday calling on Congress to admit that the war on drugs has been a racially biased failure, provide justice to those negatively impacted by it and apologize to communities most impacted under prohibition. The resolution says "the House of Representatives should immediately halt any and all actions that would allow the War on Drugs to continue." It has 20 sponsors, including Karen Bass (D-CA), who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus.

Sentencing Policy

Racial Disparities in Incarceration Narrow, But Black People Still More Likely to Be Imprisoned, Study Finds. A new report from the Council on Criminal Justice finds that racial disparities in incarceration rates shrank between 2000 and 2016, but that blacks were still five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. The black-white imprisonment ratio dropped from 8.3-to-1 in 2000 to 5.1-to-1 in 2016. On a less positive note, black defendants are getting longer state prison sentences even as the number of arrests or incarcerations among black people steadily decreases.

Chronicle AM: Chicago Mayor to End Pot Car Seizure Strategy, Fed Court Upholds Life Sentence in Drug Death, More... (11/13/19)

While Chicago's mayor is trying to ease post-legalization pot penalties, the city's housing authority is warning public housing residents can be evicted for smoking at home; a federal court upholds a life sentence for a drug-related death; and more.

Chicago is getting ready to grapple with legal marijuana. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Legalization Campaign Raised More Than $1 Million Last Month. The Make It Legal Florida campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the November 2020 ballot is benefiting from a large cash injection last month. The campaign raised nearly $1.1 million, almost entirely from two medical marijuana companies who stand to benefit from legalization. Surterra Holdings kicked in $544,000, while MedMen gave $540,000. The campaign spent $1.6 million in October, mostly on paid signature gathering. It needs 766,200 valid voter signatures by February to qualify for the ballot, and because it's a constitutional amendment, would require 60% of the vote to be approved.

Massachusetts Regulators "Quarantine" All Marijuana Vaping Products Except Medicinal Use Buds. The state's Cannabis Control Commission moved on Tuesday to "quarantine" all marijuana vaping products except those that contain only buds and are intended for medical marijuana patients. The commission cited a CDC report that pointed a finger at Vitamin E acetate as the culprit in the recent wave of vaping-related illness and injury and said it was acting "in order to protect the public health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of Massachusetts." The quarantine will stay in place until the commission develops regulations for the use of vaping products. according to a press release from the CCC.

Chicago Mayor Moves to Stop Impounding Cars Found with Marijuana. With marijuana legalization looming, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is drafting an ordinance to end the city’s practice of impounding vehicles found with marijuana inside and dramatically reduce fines for those caught using pot in public. "For far too long, unjust and outdated cannabis enforcement laws have adversely and disproportionately affected Chicago’s black and brown neighborhoods," she said. The ordinance would drop fines for public consumption from $250 to $500 down to $50 and end a "zero tolerance" rule requiring the seizure of vehicles with marijuana.  Lightfoot said in a news release.

Chicago Housing Authority Warns No Pot in Public Housing. The Chicago Housing Authority has warned residents of public housing they would be evicted if they use marijuana at home. "While federal law prohibits marijuana use and possession in federally subsidized housing, the Chicago Housing Authority is working to educate and inform residents so they understand all applicable laws related to cannabis and federally funded housing," CHA spokeswoman Molly Sullivan said.

Sentencing Policy

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Life Sentence for Drug-Related Death. A federal appeals court in Michigan has upheld the life sentence of a man blamed for the drug-related death of another man. Steven Whyte was convicted of providing heroin to a man who overdosed and died. The court said the sentence was "severe and perhaps even misguided as a matter of criminal justice policy" but still constitutional.

Chronicle AM: Push on Psychedelics Expands, Mexico Misses Marijuana Legalization Deadline, More... (10/31/19)

We're starting to see pot bills getting filed for next year, a push to ease laws on natural psychedelics is expanding into more cities, Mexico's marijuana legalization push hits a bump, and more.

magic mushrooms (Greenoid/Flickr)
Marijuana Policy

Texas Marijuana Legalization Bill Prefiled. State Rep. Rolando Gutierrez has prefiled the "REAL Cannabis Legalization Act" ahead of the legislature's 2021 session. The bill aims to establish a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce as well as personal growing.

Wisconsin Decriminalization Bill Filed. A group of Democratic lawmakers has filed a bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Lawmakers said the move would attack racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement, as well as eliminating the smell of marijuana as probable cause for law enforcement to undertake searches and allowing for expungement of past pot busts.

Medical Marijuana

Kansas Lawmakers Recommend Studying How to Legalize Medical Marijuana. An interim legislative committee recommended Wednesday that the legislature advance medical marijuana legislation. The committee recommended that the legislature look to Ohio as a guide.

Psychedelics

Four More Major Cities Take Steps to Decriminalize Psychedelics. Activists in Berkeley, Chicago, Dallas, and Portland are all pushing psychedelic decriminalization measures , either through ballot initiatives or city council actions. They hope to capitalize on the momentum created by the successful campaigns to deprioritize enforcement of laws against natural psychedelics in Denver and Oakland earlier this year.

Sentencing Policy

Florida Bill to End Mandatory Minimums for Nonviolent Drug Offenses Filed. State Rep. Alex Andrade (D-Pensacola) has introduced a bill to remove mandatory minimums for drug offenses and allow a judge to decide the appropriate sentence for the individual defendant. State Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) has filed a companion bill in the Senate. The bill would remove mandatory minimums if there was no violence involved and if the defendant had no prior felony convictions. It also increases the amount of drugs a person must be found with for that person to be charged with drug trafficking rather than just possession and allows people currently serving mandatory minimums to ask a court to reconsider their original sentences.

International

Mexico Misses Deadline for Marijuana Legalization. Mexico will not legalize marijuana by today's Supreme Court-imposed deadline, legislative leaders said earlier this week. Sen. Ricardo Monreal, head of the ruling MORENA Party's congressional delegation cited "unprecedented" lobbying pressure by companies seeking to get rich off legalization. "It was the intention to approve it on Tuesday," he continued, "but that's not going to happen." Instead, he said the bill will be discussed in "the first weeks of November."

Chronicle AM: Support for MJ Legalization Steady at 2/3, Chicago Psychedelic Resolution, More... (10/23/19)

Support for marijuana legalization holds steady at 66% in the latest Gallup poll, the Chicago city council approves a resolution on natural psychedelics, British MPs call for drug decriminalization, and more.

Support for marijuana legalization remains high, but has leveled off in this new Gallup poll.
Marijuana Policy

Gallup Poll Has Support for Legalization Steady at Two-Thirds. A new Gallup poll has support for marijuana legalization nationwide at 66%, unchanged from last year. This marks the first time in several years that support has not increased. Support for legalization has more than doubled since 2000, and had increased each year since 2013 until plateauing last year at 66%.

Medical Marijuana

Kansas Lawmakers Discuss Legalizing Medical Marijuana. Legislators met in Topeka Wednesday to discuss how to advance medical marijuana in the state. The hearing is in front of the Special Committee on Federal and State Affairs and was scheduled to go all day long. Past efforts in the legislature have gone nowhere.

Connecticut Lawmakers Approve New Qualifying Conditions. The General Assembly's Regulations Review Committee voted Tuesday to add five qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use by adults, including Tourette syndrome and intractable neuropathic pain. The legislators also approved medical marijuana as a treatment for patients under age 18 with those same two conditions. The regulations now go to the Secretary of State's office, which will post them online, making them final.

Rhode Island Governor Files Lawsuit to Block Lawmakers from Regulating Medical Cannabis, Hemp. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has filed a lawsuit against the General Assembly arguing that lawmakers unconstitutionally awarded themselves new powers to regulate the industry earlier this year. In the state budget, the Assembly mandated that it approve all new marijuana regulations. That's what Raimondo is objecting to.

Psychedelics

Chicago City Council Approves Resolution on Psychedelics. The city council last Wednesday unanimously passed a resolution expressing support for research on the potential use of psychoactive plants and pledging support for adult use of the substances. The measure is only a resolution -- not an ordinance -- and is thus only advisory, but aldermen may propose a future ordinance to decriminalize such plants.

Drug Treatment

New York Activists Decry Delay in Addiction Treatment Bill. Demonstrators rallied outside Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) New York City office Tuesday to demand that he sign a bill that would expand low-income New Yorkers' access to drug treatment. The bill passed the legislature in June. Protestors held signs saying "Governor, while you wait, New Yorkers die." The bill would remove prior authorization requirements for people on Medicaid seeking medication-assisted treatment, which has shown to be effective at preventing overdose.

International

British MPs Say UK Should Consider Decriminalizing Drugs. Members of Parliament's Health and Social Care Committee said Tuesday that the government should investigate decriminalizing drug possession in a bid to reduce the rising number of overdose deaths. The committee found that UK drug policy was "clearly failing," that the level of such deaths was an "emergency," and that a "radical new approach" to drug policy was needed.

Chronicle AM: Support for Drug Decrim at Dem Debate, PA Legalization Bill Filed, More... (10/16/19)

A pair of Pennsylvania state senators have filed a marijuana legalization bill, the Mexican Senate prepares to vote on marijuana legalization, Amnesty International rips the Philippine drug war, and more.

Andrew Yang and Beto O'Rourke both came out in support of drug decriminalization at Tuesday night's debate. (CNN screen grab)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Officials Move to Ban Three Marijuana Vaping Additives. The Marijuana Enforcement Division held a public hearing Tuesday as its moves to finalize a ban on three additives in marijuana vaping products that have been linked to the outbreak of lung illnesses among vapers. Those additives are Polyethylene glycol (PEG), Vitamin E Acetate, and Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT Oil). The proposed rules will be sent to the State Licensing Authority for approval and signature. Provided the changes are approved, they would go into effect on January 1.

Pennsylvania Senators File Marijuana Legalization Bill. State Sens. Daylin Leach (D) and Sharif Street (D) have filed SB 350 to legalize marijuana. Under the bill, anyone 21 or over could consume the substance, consumption lounges would be allowed, and people would be allowed to grow up to 10 plants at home as long as they register and pay a $50 annual fee. Similar legalization legislation has already been introduced in the House.

Drug Policy

Two Presidential Candidates Voice Support for Drug Decriminalization at Democratic Debate. Democratic presidential contenders Andrew Yang and Beto O'Rourke both came out in favor of decriminalizing opioids during the Democratic debate Tuesday night. "We need to decriminalize opioids for personal use. We need to let this country know this is not a personal failing, this was a systemic government failing," Yang said in response to a panelist's question. "Then we need to open up safe consumption and safe injection sites around the country because they save lives." When O'Rourke was asked whether decriminalization is part of the solution to the opioid crisis, he responded: "Yes it is. For many of the reasons that Mr. Yang just described."

Foreign Policy

White House Extends Long-Lived National Emergency on Colombia Drug Trafficking. President Trump has continued a 1995 executive order declaring a national emergency regarding Colombian drug trafficking for another year. "The actions of significant narcotics traffickers centered in Colombia continue to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States and cause an extreme level of violence, corruption, and harm in the United States and abroad," he wrote in his notice. "Therefore, in accordance with section 202(d) of the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1622(d)), I am continuing for 1 year the national emergency with respect to significant narcotics traffickers centered in Colombia declared in Executive Order 12978."

International

Mexico Senate Could Vote on Marijuana Legalization in Next Few Days. A key lawmaker has told Reuters the Senate will vote on a bill to legalize marijuana in the next few days. Sen. Ricardo Monreal, the Senate leader for the ruling MORENA Party, said the bill would regulate personal use and marijuana sales, as well as research into the plant. The bill also contemplates the creation of marijuana growing cooperatives. "The end of the prohibitionist policy is good for the country," Monreal said. Under a Mexican Supreme Court ruling, the government has until October 24 to legalize marijuana. If and when the measure passes the Senate, it then goes to the House, which is also controlled by the MORENA Party.

Philippine Drug War Should End Following Police Chief's Resignation, Amnesty International Says. Philippines National Police head Gen. Oscar Albayalde was forced to resign over corruption in the National Police, the lead agency prosecuting the country's bloody drug war, and now Amnesty International is calling for that campaign to end. Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International's Regional Director for East and Southeast Asia, said: "General Albayalde's resignation is the last blow to the credibility of the so-called 'war on drugs'. The Philippines authorities must ensure that justice is done and that this lawless and murderous campaign ends now. President Duterte has said that due process of law will be afforded to Albayalde -- the very rights that his government has denied to thousands of people suspected of using or selling drugs, who have been unlawfully killed by the police acting as judge, jury and executioner. This scandal shows that impunity is entrenched in the institutions supposed to uphold human rights and the rule of law. The authorities must urgently expand their probe into General Albayalde to cover the wide-ranging police abuses that continue up to this day."

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's 501(c)(4) lobbying nonprofit, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this website. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

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