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The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2021 [FEATURE]

With 2021 now receding in the rear view mirror, we look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the arena of drug policy around the world.

1. The International Criminal Court Eyes Philippines Drug War Killings

Protestors denounce Duterte's bloody drug war. (hrw.org)
Rodrigo Duterte's term as Filipino president may be coming to an end, but his bloody legacy of drug war murders is going to haunt him. For us, last year actually begins in December 2020, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced its preliminary examination of the Filipino drug war showed evidence of crimes against humanity, clearing the path toward a formal investigation into what are estimated to be more than 30,000 killings. At that point, the ICC had to determine whether the Philippine justice system has is responding to the killings in a legitimate way. If the Philippines couldn't or wouldn't hold perpetrators accountable, the court could take the case.

ICC attention was only one piece of the mounting international pressure over the Duterte killings. For example, in February, US Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), top Democrat on the East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called for the full exoneration and release of Philippines drug war critic Senator Leila De Lima, who had then been detained on bogus, politically-motivated charges for four years. Now, it's been nearly five years, and she is still behind bars.

In May, a blustering Duterte vowed he would not open up police records about the killings and warned drug dealers that: "If I am there, I will really kill you. I don't care if there's TV around. I will really kill you."

In June, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor concluded its preliminary investigation and announced there was sufficient evidence to request authorization to proceed with an official investigation, which prompted the Duterte administration to say it would not cooperate with the ICC investigation.

In August, Duterte again resorted to bluster, this time taunting the ICC during his last State of the Nation address and daring the court to record his threats against those who would "destroy" the country, saying: "I never denied -- and the ICC can record it -- those who destroy my country, I will kill you. And those who destroy the young people of my country, I will kill you, because I love my country."

But while Duterte blustered, his Justice Department was attempting to blunt the ICC investigation by announcing it had finished a review of 52 drug war killing cases. It was a weak effort though: The cases represented only a tiny fraction of the more than 6,000 killings for which the Philippines National Police took responsibility. And it wasn't enough to stop the ICC, which announced in September that it would open an official investigation into the killings, setting the stage for summonses and possible arrests warrants if requested by Prosecutor Karim Khan.

In October, once again moving to blunt the investigation, the Justice Department announced that 154 police could be liable for drug war misconduct and then announced it would review thousands of drug war killings. The government also invoked a provision of the ICC's Rome Treaty to suspend the investigation while its request to defer it got considered. The following month, the ICC temporarily did suspend its official investigation, as per the treaty. "The prosecution has temporarily suspended its investigative activities while it assesses the scope and effect of the deferral request," ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan wrote.

The year ended with human rights groups urging the ICC to get back to investigating Duterte: "We ask the ICC not to allow itself to be swayed by the claims now being made by the Duterte administration," said the National Union of People's Lawyers, which represents some victims' families. The national justice system is "extremely slow and unavailing to the majority of poor and unrepresented victims", the statement said. The Duterte government's claim that existing legal mechanisms could bring justice to Duterte's victims was "absurd," said Human Rights Watch. "Let's hope the ICC sees through the ruse that it is," said Brad Adam, HRW Asia director.

2. Afghanistan's Government Falls, Opium Remains

Afghanistan has been the world's largest producer of opium since the 1990s, except for one year when the Taliban banned it the first time they held power. Opium never went away during the nearly two-decade long occupation by the US and NATO forces, and despite Taliban declarations to the contrary, it does not look like the trade is going anywhere.

When the Taliban completed their conquest of the country by seizing Kabul in August, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid vowed that their new government would not let Afghanistan become a full-fledged narco-state: "We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community that we will not have any narcotics produced," Mujahid said. "From now on, nobody's going to get involved (in the heroin trade), nobody can be involved in drug smuggling."

By October, the price of opium was rising in local markets, having tripled since the Taliban took power as buyers anticipated an opium shortage because of the possible ban, but the ban has yet to materialize.

And a UN Office on Drugs and Crime report that same month made it clear why the ban is unlikely to materialize. In a country now in economic crisis because the foreign spending that propped up the previous regime has vanished, UNODC reported that the spring opium crop had generated between $1.8 and $2.7 billion for the Afghan economy, also noting that "much larger sums are accrued along illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan."

The 2021 crop was some 6,800 tons, up 8% over 2020. Given the devastation of the Afghan economy and the unlikelihood that the Taliban will move against a crop that supports hundreds of thousands of Afghan families, it's entirely possible that the crop next spring will be even larger. As one farmer told the UNODC, "There is no work, all the families are in debt, and everyone's hope is opium."

3, Mexican Drug War Violence Just Keeps Going

Sixteen years after then-President Felipe Calderon called out the military to combat rising violence, Mexico's drug prohibition-related violence continued unabated in 2021, with more than 25,000 killed by the end of November.

Amidst the quotidian violence, some notable incidents stand out: in March, an attack on a police convoy in Mexico state left 13 officers dead; in May, presumed cartel gunmen ambushed Joel Ernesto Soto, director of the Sinaloa State Police, on Monday, killing him on the outskirts of Culiacan, the state capital; in June, gunmen in SUVs representing warring factions of the Gulf Cartel ranged across the border town of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande River from McAllen, Texas, leaving a toll of at least 14 and as many as 18 dead; in August, masked men claiming to represent the Jalisco New Generation Cartel released a video where they threaten to kill Milenio TV anchor Azucena Uresti over what they called "unfair" coverage. And on and on.

The west central state of Michoacan was particularly plagued by cartel violence in 2021, beginning with an April massacre by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) of rival gang members in the municipality of Aguililla. In May, warring cartels blocked highways and burned vehiclesin Aguililla and neighboring municipalities.

As violent clashes and blockades continued through the year, residents of those municipalities took to the streets in September took to the streets in Septemberto excoriate the military for staying in its barracks and demand military intervention to fight the cartels. It didn't work. That same month, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel beheaded five men manning a checkpoint on the edge of Tepalcatepec designed to keep the drug gangs out. And in November, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel struck again, killing five men and six boys near the town of Tarecuato in the north of the state near the border with the state of Jalisco as it pursued its war with local criminal gangs.

When it comes to US-Mexico cooperation in the war on drugs, 2021 was not a good year. It began with a huge diplomatic spat around the DEA's arrest in late 2020 of former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who was subsequently released after loud protests from Mexico, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who personally accusing the DEA of making up the case against Cienfuegos. The US retorted with the Justice Department sharply rebuking Mexico for releasing a massive trove of evidence in the aborted drug trafficking case against Cienfuegos. Mexico then countered with a call for a DEA internal probe of the "fabricated" case.

Amidst the controversy, US investigations into the cartels were paralyzed as a law enacted in December requiring US officials to report their law enforcement contacts in the country to Mexican officials, whom they view as largely corrupt, went into effect. In May, US and Mexican officials told Reuters the fight against Mexican drug trafficker had "ground to a halt"because of strained relations between the two counties.

But in October, there was a glimmer of hope for fans of continued anti-drug coordination between the two countries. Leading Biden administration officials including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Attorney General Merrick Garland met with their Mexican counterparts to try to create a new framework for cooperation on drugs, crime, and border issues. The high-profile meeting came after months of quiet talks to rebuild relations.

4. Mexico Didn't Get Marijuana Legalization Done (Again)

Two years after the Mexican Supreme Court found marijuana prohibition unconstitutional and ordered the government to legalize it, the Senate finally passed a legalization bill in late 2020. The measure appeared to have momentum on its side, especially after the Chamber of Deputies approved it in March. Under the bill, people 18 and up would be able to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants (although one controversial change in the Chamber of Deputies would require home growers to register with the state). The bill also created a system of taxed and regulated legal marijuana commerce.

The momentum appeared to hold through April, when the bill won two Senate committee votes in as many days but then hit a last-minute snag when it ran into opposition from unhappy with the revised version of the bill. With that, the bill was dead in the water until the congress returned to work in September.

Progress remained slow when lawmakers returned. It was only in November that a draft legalization bill was being circulated among senators, and while there were hints that a vote could happen in December, it didn't. Maybe in 2022.

5. Bangladesh Drug War Killings Draw Pushback

In May, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina approved an anti-drugs campaign aimed at methamphetamines, and by mid-month police had killed 86 people and arrested 7,000. About the killings, police claimed they were only defending themselves in confrontations with drug traffickers, but family members and activists claimed they were executions. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) also said the anti-drug campaign was part of an effort to target and intimidate it.

By the end of May, the toll had risen to 115, with more signs of extrajudicial killings and complaints from the BNP that some party workers had been killed during the campaign despite no connection to the drug trade. Authorities continued to claim that dead dealers had died in crossfire or in gunfights with police, but more families complained that their relatives had been arrested and then killed in custody. Most of the raids were carried out by the RAB (Rapid Action Battalion), a controversial force that human rights groups have repeatedly accused of abuses, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

By June, the United Nations was responding, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein saying the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers must be "immediately halted" and the perpetrators brought to justice. "Every person has the right to life and they do not lose their human rights because they sell drugs," he added. At that time, the toll stood at 130 dead and 13,000 arrested.

After that, the campaign quieted down, but there is no sign of any Bangladeshi investigations into the killings and human rights abuses in in the late spring. The United States, however, was paying attention, and in December, imposed sanctions on the RAB for human rights abuses, abductions, and hundreds of extrajudicial killings going back to 2018, targeting not only drug dealers, but also opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists.

6. Pushing the Boundaries in Canada

Canadian cities, provinces, and activists pressed the Liberal federal government on drug reform issues throughout the year, with important struggles being waged around drug decriminalization and the vanguard issue of a safe drug supply, as well as a noteworthy milestone reached in opioid maintenance therapy.

The Liberals started the year off by introducing a sweeping criminal justice reform billthat would make arrests for drug possession only one option for police, end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, end some other mandatory minimums, and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But critics who demanded deeper reforms scoffed that it was too little, too late.

In April, British Columbia showed what deeper reforms might look like when it formally requested permission from the federal government for provincial drug decriminalization. That same month, saying the Liberal's reform bill didn't go far enough, the New Democratic Party's health critic, MP Don Davies filed a federal drug decriminalization bill.

VANDU is the vanguard.
The city of Vancouver also sought an exemption from federal drug laws to enact decriminalization.The city recommended the decriminalization of one gram or 10 rocks for crack cocaine, 1.5 grams for amphetamines, two grams for opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, and three grams for cocaine. That did not sit well with the city's vanguard drug user activists, who harshly criticized the possession limits. At that point, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) announced that it is withdrawing from talks with the city, and it and other drug policy advocates complained that drug users were largely excluded from the decriminalization process and that police have too large a role.

The push for decriminalization continued throughout the year. In October, nearly 70 organizations across the country, including the HIV Legal Network, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and the National Association of Women and the Law, urged Prime Minister Trudeau to decriminalize drug possession. And in November, Toronto moved toward decriminalizationas the city's top health officer, Dr. Eilenn de Villa, recommended that the board of health approve a request to the federal government to exempt city residents from criminal charges for small-time drug possession.

But even though decriminalization is in the Liberals' platform, the party under Justin Trudeau is not ready to go there yet. After calling elections in August, necessitating a restart on January criminal justice reform bill, and despite the rising clamor for decriminalization, the Liberal government refiled the bill anyway.

In the summer, an even more direct challenge to drug prohibition was underway as British Columbia moved toward providing a "safe supply" of illicit drugs to street users.A provincial policy directive in British Columbia requires all local health authorities to develop programs to provide pharmaceutical quality opioids and stimulants to street drug users in a bid to reduce overdose deaths.

A Vancouver elected official and local activists got in on the action, too, when Councilwoman Jean Swanson and a pair of drug user advocacy groups, Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) handed out free cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to drug users in the Downtown Eastside in a bid to dramatize the need for a safe drug supply. They also wanted to "raise awareness of the deeply flawed aspects of the Vancouver Model of decriminalization, including disproportionate influence of the Vancouver Police Department, unreasonably low drug thresholds, and lack of provisions for safe supply."

The following month, they were at it again, handing out a "safe supply" of drugs to mark International Overdose Awareness Dayto show the "life-saving potential of a community-led response to the crisis of prohibition in Canada" as an alternative to Vancouver's proposed model of decriminalization. And in September, DULF and VANDU formally asked the federal government to allow buyers' clubs for hard drugs. They requested a formal exemption from federal criminal drug laws so that no one is prosecuted for operating a "compassion club" to distribute those drugs.

And in October, the province of Alberta expressed interest in a safe drug supply. The prairie province's United Conservative government proposed that a committee of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) look into the pluses and minuses of offering pharmaceutical versions of opioids and other addictive substances to people dependent on them.

Meanwhile, magic mushroom shops were sprouting in Vancouver. A handful of shops selling magic mushrooms and other psychedelic substances are operating in in the city even though selling magic mushrooms remains illegal in Canada. One such shop, the Coca Leaf Café & Mushroom Dispensary on East Hastings Street, is owned by long-time drug activist Dana Larsen. "We're sitting in a place that is unique in the world. There's nowhere else where you can get the same range of substances and things that we do right here," Larsen said.

And last but not least, in September, a Vancouver clinic began providing take-home prescription heroin,a North American first. The program began as an emergency response to the COVID epidemic, when the provincial health authority allowed clinic staff to deliver syringes filled with heroin to patients so they could stay isolated for 10 to 14 days, but now the patients can take it home themselves.

7. Malta Becomes First European Union County to Legalize Marijuana -- Germany, Luxembourg Next?

The Maltese parliament approved a bill legalizing marijuanaon December 14, and President George Vella signed it into law four days later, making the country the first member state of the European Union to do so. The law allows citizens 18 and over to possess up to seven grams of marijuana and cultivate up to four plants at home, harvesting up to 50 grams from them. The law does not envision commercial sales but allows nonprofit cooperatives to produce marijuana to be sold to members, with an upper limit on membership per coop of 500.

Either Germany or Luxembourg could be next. In October, the government of Luxembourg unveiled its marijuana legalization proposal, which would allow people 18 and over to grow up to four plants and possess up to three grams in public. Like Malta, the Luxembourg law does not envision commercial sales, but people would be allowed to buy and trade marijuana seeds for their home gardens. The proposal still has to be approved by parliament.

And in November, the three parties who have formed Germany's new governing coalition -- the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats -- agreed to legalize marijuana and its sale. The coalition is prepared to "introduce the regulated sale of cannabis to adults for consumption purposes in licensed stores," according to the coalition's health group's findings paper. It is not clear, however, whether home cultivation will be allowed.

8. Italy's Pending Referendum on Marijuana and Plant Psychedelics

Italy is on the cusp of a bold drug reform move. A number of pro-reform activist groups and political parties including the Radicals launched a ballot campaignin for a referendum to legalize the cultivation of marijuana and other psychoactive plants and fungi, such as psilocybin mushrooms. They faced several challenges: First, they had to obtain half a million valid voter signatures by month's end and have the signatures validated by the Supreme Court of Cassation, then the Constitutional Court would have to rule that the measure is in line with the constitution, and only then, President Sergio Mattarella would set the date for the referendum, which would ask whether that portion of the country's drug law criminalizing the cultivation of marijuana and psychoactive plants should be stricken.

In October, activists met their first challenge, turning in some 630,000 raw signatures. They were able to meet their signature-gathering goals so quickly because a pandemic-related policy change allowed them to collect signatures online instead of only in person.

Now, after having staved off an attempt by rightist parties to block it, the fate of the referendum is before the courts. If it wins final approval from the Constitutional Court, which will determine whether it conflicts with the constitution, international treaties, or the country's fiscal system, voters could go to the polls on the issue sometime between April 15 and June 15.

There's tons of cocaine around these days. (Pixabay)
9. Cocaine Production Has Doubled in the Course of a Decade

In June, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its annual estimate of coca cultivation and potential cocaine production in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, the three perennial coca and cocaine producing nations. What is at first glance most striking in the current report is that for the first time, one nation -- Colombia -- produced more than 1,000 metric tons of cocaine.

But a closer reading of the report, which details coca cultivation and cocaine production going back to 2010, produces an even more striking finding: Over the decade that the report covers, the total amount of potential cocaine production in the three countries has more than doubled, from 914 tons in 2010 to a whopping 2,132 tons in 2020. In other words, Colombia alone produced more cocaine in 2020 than the whole region did a decade earlier.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) does its own annual estimates of global potential cocaine production, and while they differ from those of the United Status, they outline the same massive expansion of cocaine. According to UNODC numbers compiled at Statista, beginning in 2004, 1,000 tons or more (slightly more in most years) was produced every year except 2012, 2013, and 2014, when it dipped down into the 900s. That series, which ended in 2019, has cocaine production topping out at 1,976 tons in 2017.

In the most recent edition of the UNODC's World Drug Report, that organization also reported that cocaine production had doubled, but put the period of doubling from 2014 to 2019, when it registered 1,784 tons.

Take your pick of the numbers. Either way, there is a lot more cocaine being produced these days than just a decade ago, tons more of it.

10. World Health Organization Declines Move Toward Labeling Kratom a Controlled Substance

The World Health Organization's (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recommended in November that kratom not be subjected to a "critical review," which could have been a first step toward labeling it a controlled substance subject to international and national controls. The ECDD did a "pre-review" of kratom at its October meeting and found there was inadequate evidence to recommend a critical review.

WHO had begun the "pre-review" based in part on a "country-level report indicating the potential for abuse, dependence and harm to public health from" the chemical compounds in kratom. But it found concerns about fatalities associated with kratom to be overstated: "Kratom can produce serious toxicity in people who use high doses, but the number of cases is probably low as a proportion of the total number of people who use kratom," WHO stated in the document. "Although mitragynine [the active alkaloid in kratom] has been analytically confirmed in a number of deaths, almost all involve use of other substances, so the degree to which kratom use has been a contributory factor to fatalities is unclear."

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2021 [FEATURE]

Whew! Another year to put in the rear view mirror, but not before we reflect on the year that was. It was a year of tragic overdose death numbers and groundbreaking responses; it was a year of advances on marijuana reform in the states but statemate in Congress; it was a year of psychedelic advance in the states and cities -- but not enough political will to reform policing, at least not federally.

As always, there was a lot going on in the realm of domestic drug policy, and here are ten of the year's most important stories. Check back next week for our Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2021.

1. Fentanyl, Pandemic Drive Drug Overdose Deaths to Record High

The nation either neared or surpassed the one millionth drug overdose death since 1999 in 2021. Driven largely by two factors -- pandemic-related isolation and lack of access to treatment services, and the increasing presence of the highly potent opioid fentanyl in the unregulated drug supply -- overdose deaths hit an all-time high in the year ending in March 2021, with 96,779 overdose deaths reported.

That's an increase of nearly 30 percent over the previous 12-month period, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report in October. And as if that were not bad enough, CDC reported in November provisional estimates that drug overdose deaths had topped 100,300 in the period from May 2020 to April 2021 -- the highest one-year overdose death toll ever.

As for that million overall dead figure, the CDC reported that through 2019 the toll had reached 841,000. We are now two years past that, and while that figure hasn't been officially recorded, just adding up the numbers makes it likely that we have already reached that horrific benchmark.

2. Nation's First Official Safe Injection Site Opens in New York City

The legality of safe injection sites -- where drug users can consume their substances in a clean, well-lit place under medical supervision -- remains unsettled under federal law, but officials in New York City decided they couldn't wait. In November, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who began calling for them in 2018, and the city Health Department announced that "the first publicly recognized Overdose Prevention Center [safe injection site] services in the nation have commenced."

The move was quickly lauded by editorials in leading newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and by Christmas Eve, the city reported that 59 overdoses had already been reversed amid 2,000 visits to the facilities. Meanwhile, a safe injection site in Philadelphia whose opening was blocked in January by a federal appeals court after the Trump administration Justice Department moved against it, is awaiting a March filing by the Biden administration to see if it will take a more positive position allowing the facility to open.

Bills to allow safe injection sites were introduced in a number of states, including California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Utah, although only the Rhode Island bill passed and was signed into law. Still, the opening of the New York City facilities is a historic harm reduction first for the United States, and a likely harbinger of more to come.

3. Marijuana Reform Progress in the States

Nearly half the population now lives in legal marijuana states after five states this year joined the 13 others that had previously done so, mostly at the ballot box. But the states that legalized it this year all did so via the legislative process. Those are Connecticut (Senate Bill 1201), New Jersey (Assembly Bill 21/Senate Bill 21 and Assembly Bill 897), New Mexico (House Bill 2), New York (Senate Bill S854A), and Virginia (House Bill 2312/Senate Bill 1406).

This movement comes as marijuana legalization continues to garner strong public support, with a November Gallup poll reporting "a new high" of 68 per cent report. There was other marijuana-friendly legislative action in the states as well: Louisiana decriminalized it, four states (Colorado, Delaware, New Mexico, Virginia) passed expungement laws, Alabama approved medical marijuana (although not in smokeable form), and 17 states approved medical marijuana expansion laws. Weed is on a roll.

4. Democrats Haven't Got Federal Marijuana Legalization Done, and It's Not Looking So Great for Next Year, Either

With Democrats in control of Congress after the November 2020 elections, hopes were high that this could be the year federal marijuana prohibition would be ended. The House had already passed a legalization bill at the end of the last Congress, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) was pushing for it, and even if President Biden opposed full legalization and would only go as far as supporting decriminalization, that was a bridge that could be crossed when we came to it.

Now, at the end of 2021, that bridge is still a ways down the road. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617), sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), passed the House of Representatives a year ago. But that was a different Congress, meaning it has to pass the House again. In this Congress it's only passed the Judiciary Committee, in late September, and hasn't moved since. On the Senate side, Schumer and Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) rolled out an initial draft of their legalization bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act in mid-July, but have yet to formally file legislation.

One big reason for the impasse is that Democrats are at odds among themselves, tussling over whether to hold out for full legalization replete with social equity measures, or to go for incremental measures in the meanwhile, such as banking access for state-legal cannabusinesses through the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996). That bill passed the House and was inserted into the annual defense funding bill, only to be removed at the insistence of Senate leadership in the former camp, including Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY).

The fight over how to approach marijuana reform federally has split not only the Democrats, but also the drug reform movement, with groups like the Drug Policy Alliance calling for not passing banking except as part of a full legalization bill, while NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project lobbied hard for the SAFE Act.

As the year came to an end, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) told the Congressional Cannabis Caucus that Congress would take up marijuana reform in the spring. But with an election year looming, Congress evenly divided, and not even all Democratic senators sure votes on marijuana legalization, Congress looks more likely to be nibbling at the edges of federal pot prohibition rather than ending it -- or perhaps to do nothing. There are dozens of marijuana-related bills filed, from expungement to veterans' access to easing research barriers and more. In 2021, nibbling at the edges may be the best we can do.

Meanwhile, in November, a GOP legislator, Sourth Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace filed her own bill, the States Reform Act, which would legalize marijuana at the federal level. It would do so by removing marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, leaving it up to the states to set their own marijuana policies. The bill would also set a three percent federal excise tax, and release and expunge the records of those convicted of federal marijuana offenses. Mace said her bill represented a compromise that could gain support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Last year's mass mobilization around George Floyd's death has yet to translate to new laws restraining police misbehavior. (CC)
5. Even in the Wake of George Floyd, Police Reform Can't Move in the Senate

Following the death of George Floyd while being arrested by Minneapolis police and the massive mobilizations it generated, the impetus grew to reexamine and reform police practices. The spirit of reform in response to the crisis took root in both houses and both parties, with Republican South Carolina Senator Tim Scott filing a tepid Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act last year. But that bill lacked key provisions demanded by Democrats, such as an end to qualified immunity for police officers in civil lawsuits, and it died at the end of the last session.

That spirit of reform was embodied in February, when the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (HR 1280), sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). That bill would make it easier to convict a police officer for misconduct in a federal prosecution and limit qualified immunity as a defense against liability in a private civil action against an officer. It also restricts the use of no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and carotid holds and creates a National Police Misconduct Registry, among other provisions.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) envisioned something similar in the Senate when in June he announced his framework for comprehensive police reform legislation. Like the House bill, it too reformed qualified immunity so that people could actually recover damages from police who violate their constitutional rights. It too would make it easier to federally prosecute police misconduct. And it too would create a National Police Misconduct Registry, as well as banning racial profiling and providing incentives for states to adopt policies banning no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and other airway-restrictive holds in their use-of-force policies.

Booker and Scott would become the point men in a month's long effort to craft a police reform bill with bipartisan support over the course of the summer. But by September, the negotiations had hit a dead end, with Booker telling reporters: "We weren't making progress -- any more meaningful progress on establishing really substantive reform to America's policing," he said. And with that, federal police reform was dead for the year.

One of the irresolvable issues was qualified immunity, on which Scott and the Republicans refused to budge. Instead, in a statement noting the end of negotiations, Scott claimed "Democrats said no because they could not let go of their push to defund our law enforcement" and then, with a complete unawareness of irony, complained about using "a partisan approach to score political points."

So far in the Congress, it has been justice delayed. Will it end up being justice denied? There is still a year left in the session, so stay tuned.

6. The Biden Administration's Partial Embrace of Harm Reduction

From the outset, the Biden administration is proving to be the friendliest ever toward harm reduction, even though it has yet to acknowledge one of the most effective harm reduction interventions: safe injection sites (or "supervised consumption sites" or "overdose prevention centers"). The first signal came in March, when the administration included nearly $4 billion for substance abuse disorder and mental health, including funding for harm reduction activities such as needle exchange services in the coronavirus relief bill. The bill allocated $30 million in community-based funding for local substance use disorder services like syringe services programs and other harm reduction interventions.

Then, on April 1, the administration gave us the first big hint of what its drug policy will look like as it released the congressionally-mandated Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One. That document contains a heavy dose of drug prevention, treatment, and recovery, but also prioritizes "enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts." The same month, it allowed federal funds to be used to buy rapid fentanyl test strips.

After a quiet summer, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra made news in October when he announced the department's overdose prevention strategy and committed to more federal support for harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges, increased access to naloxone, and test strips to check drugs for the presence of fentanyl. He even suggested the agency might be open to safe injection sites, but in a sign of the delicacy of the subject in this administration, HHS quickly walked back the comments: "HHS does not have a position on supervised consumption sites," the statement read. "The issue is a matter of ongoing litigation. The Secretary was simply stressing that HHS supports various forms of harm reduction for people who use drugs."

In November, the administration released model naloxone legislation. The administration on Wednesday released model legislation to help states improve access to naloxone treatment for opioid overdoses. The model bill encourages people to obtain naloxone, protects them from prosecution when administering it, requires health insurance to cover it, and provides increased access to it in schools and correctional facilities.

Also in November, that $30 million from the coronavirus relief bill got real when SAMHSA announced it had launched $30 million harm reduction grant funding opportunity to "help increase access to a range of community harm reduction services and support harm reduction service providers as they work to help prevent overdose deaths and reduce health risks often associated with drug use."

The Biden administration is clearly moving in the direction of harm reduction, but where it comes down on safe injection sites is still muddy. The Justice Department is preparing a brief in the case of Safehouse, a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site that was blocked from opening after the Trump administration Justice Department persuaded the 3rd US Circuit Court of appeals that it violated the Controlled Substance Act's "crack house" provision. That brief will be a key indicator of whether the administration is prepared to fully embrace harm reduction, but we are going to have to wait until next year to find out.

7. Oregon Leads the Way on Drug Decriminalization, Others Are Vying to Follow

With the November 2020 passage of Measure 110 with 59 percent of the vote, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize drug possession, and by year's end, the initial results were looking pretty good. Because the measure tapped into marijuana tax revenues to fund treatment and harm reduction services, those programs are getting a hefty $302 million in much needed funding over the next two years.

While the numbers are not in yet for this first year of decriminalization, there were roughly 9,000 drug arrests a year prior to passage of Measure 110, and thousands of Oregonians who would have been arrested for drug possession this year have instead faced only their choice of a $100 fine or a health assessment. It won't be 9,000 fewer drug arrests, though, because some felony drug possession arrests (possession of more than the specified personal use amounts) have been downgraded to still arrestable misdemeanors. Still, it will be thousands fewer people subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system and all the negative consequences that brings.

In the wake of the Oregon vote, a number of other states saw decriminalization bills introduced -- Florida, Kansas, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia and Washington -- and so did Congress, when Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO in June filed the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), whose most striking provision is drug decrim. DPRA is the first time decriminalization bill to be introduced in Congress.

Also on the decrim front this year, efforts are underway in Washington, DC and Washington state to put initiatives on the ballot next year. The public seems to be ready: A summer poll from Data for Progress and The Lab found that 71 percent of respondents said federal anti-drug policies aren't working and reform is needed and 59 percent supported decriminalizing drug possession. A slightly earlier ACLU/Drug Policy Alliance poll around the same time had even stronger results, with 83% saying the war on drugs had failed and 66% supporting decrim. Decriminalization is starting to look like an idea whose time has come.

8. Conservative State Supreme Courts Negate the Will of the Voters

The November 2020 elections resulted in a clean sweep for drug reform initiatives, with marijuana legalization being approved in four states and medical marijuana in two states. But in two cases, marijuana legalization in South Dakota and medical marijuana in Mississippi, Republican-dominated state Supreme Courts moved to effectively negate the will of the voters.

In South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won with 54 percent of the vote, but acting at the behest of South Dakota anti-marijuana Republican Governor Kristi Noem, a county sheriff and the head of the Highway Patrol sued to block the measure. They won in circuit court and won again when the state Supreme Court threw out Amendment A, ruling it unconstitutional because it violated a provision limiting constitutional amendments to one subject. Noem's victory may prove ephemeral, though: The activists behind Amendment A are already collecting signatures for a 2022 initiative, and the state legislature didn't even wait for the Supreme Court decision to decide it is ready to legalize marijuana in the next session.

In Mississippi, Initiative 65 won with 74 percent of the vote, but a Republican local official successfully challenged it, and in May, the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court threw it out -- managing to wipe out the state's initiative process as it did so. Under the state constitution, initiative campaigns are required to get one-fifth of signatures from each of five congressional districts, which seems straightforward enough. The only problem is that since congressional reapportionment after the 2000 census, the state only has four districts, making it impossible for any initiative to comply with the constitutional language.

The state has seen numerous initiatives since 2000, with none of them challenged. When faced with the conundrum, the Supreme Court could have found that constitutional language "unworkable and inoperable on its face," but instead pronounced itself bound to find Amendment 65 "insufficient" because it cannot meet the five-district requirement.

The legislature has been working to craft a medical marijuana bill, but Republican Governor Tate Reeves is not happy with the legislative language and has refused to call a special session on medical marijuana. Mississippians will have to wait for 2022.

9. House Votes to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity, But Senate Dallies

In September, in an effort to undo one the gravest examples of racially-biased drug war injustice, the House voted to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. HR 1693, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act of 2021, passed on a vote of 361-66, demonstrating bipartisan support, although all 66 "no" votes came from Republicans. Amidst racially-tinged and "tough on drugs" political posturing around crack use in the early 1980s, accompanied by significant media distortions and oversimplifications, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, cosponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Under that bill, people caught with as little as five grams of crack faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while people would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence.

While race neutral on its face, the law was disproportionately wielded as a weapon against African-Americans. Although similarly small percentages of both Blacks and Whites used crack, and there were more White crack users than Black ones, Blacks were seven times more likely to be imprisoned for crack offenses than Whites between 1991 and 2016. Between 1991 and 1995, in the depths of the drug war, Blacks were 13 times more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice meat grinder over crack. And even last year, the US Sentencing Commission reported that Black people made up 77 percent of federal crack prosecutions.

After years of effort by an increasingly broad alliance of drug reform, racial justice, human rights, religious and civic groups, passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act took a partial step toward reducing those disparities. The FSA increased the threshold quantity of crack cocaine that would trigger certain mandatory minimums -- instead of 100 times as much powder cocaine than crack cocaine needed, it changed to 18 times as much.

The 2018 FIRST STEP Act signed by President Trump allowed people convicted before the 2010 law was passed to seek resentencing. And now, finally, an end to the disparity is in sight. The Senate version of the bill is S. 79, introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and cosponsored by fellow Democrat Dick Durbin (IL) and GOP Senators Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), and Thomas Tillis (NC). After the vote, they prodded their Senate fellows to get moving. But the Senate bill has yet to move after being filed 11 months ago.

10. Psychedelic Reform Movement Broadens in States and Cities

The movement to ease or undo laws criminalizing psychedelic substances continued to broaden and deepen in 2021. Detroit and Seattle joined Denver and Oakland in the ranks of major cities that have embraced psychedelic reform, with the Seattle city council approving a psychedelic decrim measure in October and Detroit voters approving a psychedelic decrim measure in November.

A number of smaller towns and cities went down the same path this year too, including Cambridge, Massachusetts in February, Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September (joining Ann Arbor), Easthampton, Massachusetts in October (joining Cambridge, Northampton, and Somerville), and Port Townsend, Washington, in December.

Psychedelic reform bills are now making their way to statehouses around the country, with bills showing up in eight states by March and a handful more by year's end. Most of them have died or are languishing in committee, and a much-watched California psychedelic decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 519, has been pushed to next year after passing the state Senate only to run into obstacles in the Assembly. Two of them passed, though: New Jersey S3256, which lessens the penalty for the possession of any amount of psilocybin from a third degree misdemeanor to a disorderly persons offense punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, became law in February. Then Texas House Bill 1802, which would expand research on therapeutic psychedelics, became law in June.

Meanwhile, building on Denver's pioneering psilocybin decriminalization in 2019, a national advocacy group, New Approach PAC, has filed therapeutic psychedelic and full psilocbyin legalization initiatives aimed at 2022. Oakland activists have announced a "Go Local" initiative under which people could legally purchase entheogenic substances from community-based local producers. The move aims to build on the city's current psychedelic decriminalization ordinance, passed in 2019.

NYC Safe Injection Sites Already Saving Lives, Commutations for Drug Prisoners Could Be Coming, More... (12/23/21)

An Iowa Republican legislative leader shoots down Democrats' plan for a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, it's the time of year for presidential pardons and commutations, and more.

New York city safe injection sites have already reversed 59 overdoses. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Iowa Republican Leader Shoots Down Democrats' Plan for Marijuana Constitutional Amendment. Yesterday, we noted a call by a trio of Iowa Democratic state senators for a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. It didn't take long for a key Republican to shoot it down. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Brad Zaun of Urbandale said he had no intention of bringing the proposal for a vote and derided marijuana legalization as a "gimmick." Republicans control both the governor's office and the legislature.

Harm Reduction

New York City Safe Injection Sites Are Already Saving Lives. The NYC Health Department announced Tuesday that the nation's first sanctioned safe injection site has already been heavily utilized and saved dozens of lives. The department announced that 59 overdoses had been reversed at the sites, which have seen more than 2,000 visits from people seeking a safe, secure place to shoot up.

These initial results are "promising" and demonstrate how the sites "reduce needless suffering and avoidable deaths," said Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi. "The simple truth is that Overdose Prevention Centers save lives -- the lives of our neighbors, family and loved ones."

A day earlier, the New York City Board of Health unanimously approved a resolution that touts evidence supporting the efficacy of a harm reduction approach to drug use and endorses the city's move to authorize safe consumption sites. The resolution urges "the federal government and New York State provide authorization of such overdose prevention centers and continue to expand funding and support for harm reduction services and medications for opioid use disorder treatment."

The Trump administration moved to block a safe injection site from opening in Philadelphia. It is not yet clear what the position of the Biden administration will be, but advocates are waiting for a Justice Department response in the pending Philadelphia case for a hint of what is to come. The Philadelphia safe injection site, Safehouse, is waiting for the DOJ to submit its position to an appeals court, but in what advocates see as a positive sign, the date for DOJ to do that has been pushed back from November 5 to March 7, 2022.

Sentencing

White House Says Biden Has "Every Intention" of Commuting Sentences for Some Drug Prisoners. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that President Biden has "every intention of using his clemency power" this year but was non-specific about when that might happen. When asked at a press briefing if there were any plans for commutations, Psaki said: "I don't have anything to preview at this time. I would just reiterate that the president has every intention of using his clemency power," she said. "And there has been some reporting which is accurate out there about looking at nonviolent drug offenders, but I don't have anything to update you on at this point in time."

Federal Judge Throws Out Purdue Pharma Oxycontin Settlement, 90-Year-Old Pot Prisoner Freed, More... (12/17/21)

The Ohio Senate approves a medical marijuana expansion bill, Baltimore will end pre-employment drug and alcohol screening for potential city government hires, and more.

Horacio Estrada-Elias with family, 2014
Marijuana Policy

90-Year-Old Federal Prisoner Serving Life for Marijuana Offense Wins Compassionate Release. A seriously ill federal prison doing life in prison for a nonviolent marijuana trafficking offense has been freed after a judge granted him compassionate relief on Tuesday -- overruling his own previous order denying the release. Horacio Estrada-Ellis, 90, had served more than a dozen years in prison and suffers from congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation and chronic kidney disease, and also contracted the coronavirus while in prison. His warden had recommended compassionate release but federal District Court Judge Danny Reeves denied the motion in July, saying a life sentence is "the only sentence that would be appropriate." But a three-judge panel of the 6th US Circuit Court that Reeves had "abused (his) discretion" by ignoring the fact that Estrada-Ellis was unlikely to reoffend and by "overly emphasizing" his nonviolent crimes, and Reeves then issued a new opinion approving his compassionate release. Estrada-Ellis left prison on Friday.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Expansion. The state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would allow more dispensaries to sell medical marijuana, growers to grow more of it, and more patients to qualify for it by expanding the list of qualifying conditions to include any conditions for which a patients might "reasonably be expected" to find benefit or relief. The bill would also shift regulation of dispensaries from the pharmacy board to a new Division of Marijuana Control in the Commerce Department. The bill now heads to the House.

Opioids

Federal Judge Throws Out Purdue Pharma Opioid Settlement, Leaving Sackler Family Vulnerable to Civil Lawsuits. US District Court Judge Coleen McMahon on Thursday blew up a carefully negotiated settlement between Purdue Pharma and thousands of state, local, and tribal governments that had sued the company, which manufactured OxyContin, for its role in the rapid rise of opioid addiction beginning in the late 1990s. The agreement had shielded the Sackler family, which owned Purdue Pharma, from more civil lawsuits in return for a $4.5 billion payment. But McMahon ruled that the bankruptcy code does not allow such an agreement. Purdue has already said it will appeal, but lawyers for some government entities that had appealed the originally settlement were quite pleased: "This is a seismic victory for justice and accountability that will re-open the deeply flawed Purdue bankruptcy and force the Sackler family to confront the pain and devastation they have caused," said William Tong, the attorney general of Connecticut. The explosion of opioid use that began with OxyContin eventually resulted in a backlash, leading to restrictions on the availability of prescription opioid that left chronic pain patients in the lurch and prompted many opioid users to move to the black market, fueling a large increase in opioid overdose deaths in recent years.

Drug Testing

Baltimore to No Longer Require Pre-Employment Drug, Alcohol Screening for City Jobs. Mayor Brandon Scott announced Wednesday that the city government will no longer require pre-employment drug and alcohol screening for new hires. The new policy has exceptions for safety-sensitive positions, such as law enforcement, and positions that require driving or operating heavy equipment.

"We want the best and brightest candidates to help us provide efficient and effective City services to our residents," the mayor said. "Frankly, the outdated and costly pre-employment drug and alcohol screenings only served to block qualified and passionate residents from obtaining employment with the City. This policy disproportionately harmed the prospects of talented Black and Brown job candidates. I am grateful that we are making this change now so that we can continue to improve local government operations and better serve the people of Baltimore."

Washington Post Endorses Safe Injection Sites, NIDA to Look at Ibogaine Derivative, More... (12/8/21)

The Canadian federal government has again filed a bill to end mandatory minimums for drug offenses, WHO declines to recommend a "critical review" of kratom, and more.

kratom (Creative Commons)
Kratom

WHO Declines to Recommend "Critical Review" of Kratom. The World Health Organization's (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) has recommended that kratom not be subjected to a "critical review," which could have been a first step toward labeling it a controlled substance subject to international and national controls. The ECDD did a "pre-review" of kratom at its October meeting and found there was inadequate evidence to recommend a critical review. WHO had begun the "pre-review" based in part on a "country-level report indicating the potential for abuse, dependence and harm to public health from" the chemical compounds in kratom. But it found concerns about fatalities associated with kratom to be overstated: "Kratom can produce serious toxicity in people who use high doses, but the number of cases is probably low as a proportion of the total number of people who use kratom," WHO stated in the document. "Although mitragynine has been analytically confirmed in a number of deaths, almost all involve use of other substances, so the degree to which kratom use has been a contributory factor to fatalities is unclear."

Drug Treatment

US Government Will Test Ibogaine Derivative as An Addiction Treatment. A private startup will work with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to test its patented version of ibogaine as a potential treatment for drug addiction. "The therapeutic potential for ibogaine is huge," says David Olson, cofounder of the company, Delix. "There are some indications that a single dose can keep people with opioid use disorder drug-free for months." Derived from the iboga shrub in West Africa, ibogaine is a powerful psychedelic that has been found to help people get off heroin and other opioids, but the Delix version is non-psychedelic and does not cause cardiac arrhythmias.

"We started with the ibogaine structure because of its fantastic efficacy, and we whittled it down to its essential feature," says Olson, describing how he modified ibogaine to remove the psychedelic-inducing properties. "By cutting it down, we got rid of these undesired side effects." NIDA's Addiction Treatment Discovery Program is set to contract a lab to do preclinical tests on the Delix compouond. If the preclinical data finds the drug could be a safe and effective potential addiction treatment, the company will apply to the Food & Drug Administration to launch human clinical trials.

Harm Reduction

Washington Post Editorial Board Endorses Safe Injection Sites. Under the headline "Tough-on-drugs policies have failed. Supervised injection sites will save lives," the Washington Post editorial board has come down firmly in favor of the harm reduction intervention. Noting that New York City has just become the first in the US to officially allow safe injection sites, the Post notes that "this strategy may seem counterintuitive as US drug overdose deaths reach unprecedented levels. In fact, a smart and compassionate approach, which other countries have already tested, will save lives where tough-on-drug policies have failed."

After examining New York City's approach and noting questions about the legality of allowing supervised drug use, the Post editorial concludes thusly: "There is no magic bullet to combat drug addiction, but one thing is clear: A trained person on-site to respond to someone in the throes of an overdose can save that life. More US cities should embrace the opportunity to prevent needless death; the Biden administration should stay out of the way; and Congress should change federal law to clarify that local governments can authorize this lifesaving work. No more people should have to die before attitudes finally change."

International

Canada's Liberal Government Files Bill to Repeal Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses. The federal government filed a bill in the House of Commons Tuesday that would end mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, as well as some gun-related offenses. The bill would return sentencing discretion to judges and would also allow for the greater use of probationary sentences, as well as house arrest, counseling, or drug treatment. The bill revives legislation that was introduced in February but was not approved before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a federal election in August. Mandatory minimum sentences "simply did not work," Justice Minister David Lametti said as the bill was rolled out.

Groups Call on Congress to Reject Biden Fentanyl Scheduling Proposal, FL MedMJ Privacy Protection Bill Filed, More... (12/3/21)

A new bipartisan federal bill aims to help states and localities with marijuana expungement efforts, New York state adjusts its COVID quarantine policies for drug treatment facilities, and more.

Fentanyl and its analogs are the subject of a battle over draconian emergency scheduling. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Bipartisan Federal Bill to Incentive State-Level Expungements Filed. Reps. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) filed a bill Thursday that would provide incentives for state and local governments to expunge marijuana arrest and conviction records in their jurisdictions. The bill is the Harnessing Opportunities by Pursuing Expungement (HOPE) Act. It would create a State Expungement Opportunity Grant Program that would help fund administrative costs in identifying clearing eligible cases at the rate of $2 million a year through 2032.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Bill to Protect Patient Privacy Filed. A bill to protect patient privacy by blocking the scheduled repeal of an exemption from public records requirements for certain information held by the state Department of Health relating to patients, caregivers, & qualified physicians for medical use of marijuana was filed Thursday. HB 7005 was filed by the House Government Operations Subcommittee. A companion bill is pending in the Senate.

Drug Treatment

New York to Alter Covid-Related Policy That Hindered the Work of Drug Treatment Facilities. For months, the state's Office of Addiction Services and Support (OASAS) has had a policy requiring drug treatment admitting new patients for long-term care for 14 days after a COVID case was discovered on the property. Drug treatment providers say the rule has hindered their work, and OASAS has now responded to their complaints. Now, it is altering the policy to review COVID positives in those facilities on a "case by case" basis. "At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic this policy was issued consistent with CDC and DOH guidance. It is specific to OASAS congregate settings since the population we serve is high-risk because of high rates of co-morbidities, lower vaccination rates, and high turnover rates in these facilities. People with an SUD diagnosis are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, including hospitalization and death. We have since updated our policy to make these decisions on a case by case basis," OASAS said.

Sentencing

Groups Say Congress Should Reject Biden's Harmful Sentencing Proposal on Fentanyl-Related Drugs. A coalition of civil rights and drug reform advocacy groups called Thursday for Congress to reject the Biden administration's proposal to permanently reclassify fentanyl-related substances as Schedule I drugs, calling the approach toward the synthetic opioids a dangerous continuation of the so-called war on drugs that will do little to quell what is a public health issue. The Biden proposal would a Trump-era policy would continue by permanently placing fentanyl-related substances, or fentanyl analogues, into Schedule I -- a designation that currently covers substances including ecstasy and heroin, is aimed at drugs with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," and can lead to stiffer penalties. "Congress must chart a new course to save lives," said Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement noting the record number of drug overdose deaths, which have been driven in part by fentanyl. "The only way forward," she said, "is moving health-centered legislation that can provide lifesaving harm reduction services and evidence-based treatment for people who use drugs. Anything less is not a solution -- it's a cop-out for Congress."

MN MedMJ Patients to Get Access to Edibles, DEA Increases Research Quotas for Psychedelics, More... (12/2/21)

Georgia's parliament toughens that country's drug laws, the Rhode Island ACLU announces a settlement in a medical marijuana employment discrimination case, and more.

The DEA has set a whopping increase in research quotas for psilocybin, among other psychedelics. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Program to Add Edibles as New Option. The state Health Department announced Wednesday that its medical marijuana program is adding edibles as a new option for patients. The department said it is adding infused edibles in gummies and chews as approved delivery methods for marijuana. Other approved delivery methods are pills, vapor oil, liquids, topicals, powdered mixtures, and orally dissolvable products, like lozenges, but not smokeable flowers. Smokeable flowers will be allowed in March 2022, based on a law approved by the legislature this year.

Rhode Island ACLU Announces Settlement of Lawsuit Protecting Medical Marijuana Patients from Discrimination.The ACLU of Rhode Island on Thursday announced the settlement of a lawsuit dealing with the rights of medical marijuana patients in employment. The settlement comes four years after Rhode Island Superior Court Justice Richard Licht ruled in the case that a Westerly fabrics company discriminated against Christine Callaghan when consideration of a paid internship was rescinded because of her participation in the state's medical marijuana program and her acknowledgment that she therefore would not be able to pass a required pre-employment drug screen. In its decision, the court held that the state's medical marijuana law, which bars discrimination in employment against cardholders, applies to job applicants like Callaghan. Under the settlement agreement, the company has agreed to pay Callaghan $3,500 in back pay and compensatory damages, and to pay attorneys' fees. The company has also agreed to amend its drug use policy to consider applicants who are authorized medical marijuana cardholders.

Psychedelics

DEA Again Boosts 2022 Production Goals for Psychedelics Such as Psilocybin, MDMA, and DMT. In a notice in the Federal Register Thursday, the DEA has again increased the quota for the production for research purposes of illegal controlled substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, and DMT. The agency has repeatedly raised the quotas beginning with 2021 quotas in response to increasing scientific interest in psychedelics. In some cases, the increases are quite dramatic. With psilocybin, for instance, the DEA first set a 2021 quota of 30 grams. That quota is now set at 8,000 grams for next year -- a 26,567 percent increase.

International

Georgia Parliament Toughens Penalties for Illegal Drug Dealing. Parliament has adopted amendments to the criminal code, voting 84-1 to increase penalties for drug dealing. Sales of narcotic drugs will see penalties increase from a mandatory minimum of six years to 10 years, with the maximum penalty increasing from 11 years to 15 years. There a higher penalties for large quantities of narcotics. The penalty for selling psychotropic drugs (marijuana psychedelics) increases to a three-year mandatory minimum from what was a three-year maximum sentence. Again, there are more severe penalties for sales of larger quantities.

Drug ODs Top 100,000 in One Year, GOP Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed, More... (11/17/21)

A Czech marijuana magazine editor gets convicted of promoting "toxicomania," the DEA has to return money it stole from Americans in two separate cases, New Yorkers rally for sentencing reform, and more.

Another bumper crop of Afghan opium this year. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

GOP House Member Files Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) introduced the States Reform Act, which would legalize marijuana at the federal level. It would do so by removing marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, leaving it up to the states to set their own marijuana policies. The bill would also set a 3 percent federal excise tax and release and expunge the records of those convicted of federal marijuana offenses. Mace said her bill represented a compromise that could gain support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Wisconsin Bipartisan Bill Would Lighten (Most) Marijuana Penalties. Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) have filed a bill that would lessen penalties for marijuana possession in most of the state, but increase fines in some of the state's largest cities, including Madison and Milwaukee, where the fine for pot possession is $1 in the former and $0 in the latter. Under current state law, pot possession is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Under the new bill, the maximum penalty would be a $100 fine with no possibility of jail time. Marijuana reforms have so far gone nowhere in the Republican dominated legislature, which has refused to pass even medical marijuana.

Asset Forfeiture

DEA Forced to Return $100,000 Stolen from Two Victims. Twice in the past week, the DEA has been forced to return money it seized from travelers as they tried to board flights at domestic airports. Although it is not illegal to carry large sums of cash, in both cases, the DEA decided the cash had to have been illegally obtained and seized it. In one case, New Orleans resident Kermit Warren had $30,000 he was carrying to buy a tow truck seized by agents in Cincinnati. Only afte Warren's lawyers presented corroborating evidence to prosecutors back down, agree to return his seized money, and dismiss the case "with prejudice," being they cannot go after the money later. In the second case, with the same elements -- a US airport, a domestic flight, the presence of cash, and unsubstantiated claims about drug trafficking -- the DEA seized $69,000 from New York filmmaker Kedding Etienne. But Etienne, too, fought back and prevailed, but only after rejecting an offer to drop the case after the DEA skimmed 10% off the top.

Harm Reduction

US Overdose Deaths Topped 100,000 in One Year, CDC Says. An estimated 100,300 Americans died of drug overdoses in the period from May 2020 to April 2021, the highest one-year death toll ever, according to provisional estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's a jump of 30 percent over the previous year. Experts point to the prevalence of fentanyl in the unregulated drug supply and the social isolation of the coronavirus pandemic as major drivers of the increasing toll. "This is unacceptable and it requites an unprecedented response," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office). Fentanyl was implicated in nearly two-thirds of overdose deaths, other opioids in about 12 percent, and non-opioid drugs were implicated in about a quarter of the deaths.

Sentencing

New York Activists Rally for Sentencing Reforms. Activists rallied all across the state on Wednesday to demand sentencing reforms under the rubric Communities Not Cages. Arguing that current laws are unfair and disproportionately target communities of color. The campaign is also calling for the passage of a trio of reform bills, the Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act, the Second Look Act, and the Earned Time Act. The first would eliminate mandatory minimums and the state's three-strikes law, the second would allow imprisoned people to seek resentencing after serving either half of their sentence or 10 years, and the third would increase "good time" laws to allow prisoners to earn more time off their sentences.

International

Afghanistan's Opium Production Continues to Rise, UN Report Says. Even as the country's Western-backed government was crumbling in the face of a Taliban advance this past summer, Afghan opium production was on the increase, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday. The 2021 harvest was some 6,800 tons of opium, up 8 percent over 2020. That generated between $1.8 and $2.7 billion for the Afghan economy, but "much larger sums are accrued along illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan," it added. The Taliban has threatened to ban the crop, but faces the reality that opium -- which accounts for 10 percent of the national economy -- is a mainstay for thousands of families. "There is no work, all the families are in debt, and everyone's hope is opium," farmer Mohammad Wali explained.

Czech Marijuana Magazine Editor Convicting of Promoting "Toxicomania." Robert Veverka, the editor of the magazine Legalizace, and the magazine itself have been convicted in a district court in the town of Bruntal of inciting and promoting "toxicomania." Veverka was sentenced to 2 ½ years of probation, with a one-year jail sentence hanging over his head. Judge Marek Stach conceded that the magazine provided comprehensive information and expert opinion, as well as insight into medical marijuana, but ruled that some articles could "incite" readers to acquire the means to grow marijuana themselves.

OK Supreme Court Throws Out $465 Million J&J Opioid Settlement, Detroit Dope Squad Probe Ends More... (11/10/21)

Civil rights groups ask for expanded clemency options for federal prisones sent home during the pandemic emergency, an Ohio bill would greatly expand the state's medical marijuana program, and more.

Medical Marijuana

OH Bill Would Allow Medical Marijuana for Any Patient Who Can "Reasonably Be Expected to Benefit" from It. State Sen. Stephen Huffman (R) has filed a bill that would expand qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use to include arthritis, migraines, autism spectrum disorder, spasticity or chronic muscle spasms, hospice care, opioid use disorder, and the open-ended any condition from which a patient could benefit or obtain relief. The measure is Senate Bill 261, and it would also allow curbside pickup and drive-through dispensing, as has been allowed during the coronavirus epidemic. But wait, there's more: The bill would also expand the number of dispensaries to one for every thousand registered patients, up to the first 300,000 patients. After that, additional dispensaries would be added on an as-needed basis. The bill would also triple the maximum size of medical marijuana cultivation sites from 25,000 square feet to 75,000 square feet for large growers and allow small-scale growers to grow up to 20,000 square feet, up from the current 3,000. Huffman said he expects his bill to be sent to the Senate Small Business and Economic Opportunity Committee, with a hearing next week.

Opioids

Oklahoma Supreme Court Throws Out $465 Million Opioid Ruling Against Johnson & Johnson. In a setback for those seeking to hold pharmaceutical manufactures accountable for their role in the opioid crisis, the state Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a 2019 lower court ruling that found Johnson & Johnson liable and ordered it to pay $465 million. That is the second time this month that a court has reversed decisions requiring drug companies to pay for their role in the opioid crisis. A California judge ruled similarly on November 1. In Tuesday's case, the high court rejected the state's contention that the company violated "public nuisance laws," and the two decisions together invalidate a key legal strategy used by plaintiffs in thousands of cases attempting to hold the drug companies responsible. But "public nuisance" laws vary from state to state, so it is not clear how much impact these decisions will have in other states. The state had argued that J & J created a "public nuisance" by aggressively overstating the benefits and downplaying the dangers of their prescription opioids.

Law Enforcement

Detroit Police Conclude Two-Year Probe into Crooked Dope Squad. Detroit Police Chief James White said Tuesday that a two-year internal affairs probe into corruption in the departments drug unit known as the Operation Clean Sweep Taskforce has ended and "we're confident we rooted out the problem." The probe found numerous examples of misconduct, including overtime fraud, forgery, false affidavits, and perjury, leading 12 members of the Narcotics Squad to leave the department under investigation. The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office is still evaluating whether to bring criminal charges against any squad members.

Sentencing

Civil Rights Groups Ask White House to Expand Pandemic Clemency. Some 29 civil rights and civil liberties groups have coalesced to ask the White House to broaden a plan to grant clemency to inmates released to home confinement during the coronavirus pandemic. They say the current policy wrongfully excludes people convicted of non-drug-related crimes and people serving long sentences. Some 4,800 federal prisoners were released early because of the pandemic but face a return to prison once the emergency ends if no clemency is granted. The attorney general is on board: "It would be a terrible policy to return these people to prison," Merrick Garland told lawmakers last month, but his Justice Department says it lacks the legal authority to let the prisoners stay at home. The Biden administration is only allowing released inmates to seek clemency if they are low-level non-violent drug offenders with less than four years to serve.

HUD to Continue Evicting Residents for Marijuana Use, Singapore Drug Execution Delayed, More... (11/9/21)

Another poll has a solid national majority for marijuana legalization, an Ohio judge gets punished for jailing a court spectator for refusing a drug test, and more.

You still can't do this in public housing--even in states where marijuana is legal. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Rasmussen Poll Has Solid Majority Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new Rasmussen poll has support for marijuana legalization at 62 percent, with only 23 percent opposed. The poll comes just days after a Gallup poll reported support for marijuana legalization holding steady at 68 percent. Even 54 percent of Republicans support legalization, along with 68 percent of Democrats and 62 percent among independents. When respondents were asked if legalization should be done at the local, state, or federal level, 47 percent said the federal government should be in charge, 32 favored the states, and 11 percent wanted local action.

Infrastructure Bill Includes Provision Allowing Research with Marijuana from Pot Shops. The massive infrastructure spending bill approved by the House last Friday includes a provision that will eventually allow researchers access to the marijuana actually being consumed by users instead of relying only on government-grown marijuana from its farm in Mississippi. That provision will require the transportation secretary to work with the attorney general and the secretary of Health and Human Services to create a report within two years with recommendations on allowing scientists access to storefront marijuana to study impaired driving.

Federal Housing Authority to Continue Taking Punitive Actions Against Marijuana Consumers. In response to a request for clarification from to Rep. Elizabeth Holmes-Norton (D-DC), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has reaffirmed its longstanding policy of banning marijuana users from federally-subsidized housing, even in states where it is legal. In a letter to Holmes-Norton, the agency says that it will continue to enforce policies that involve the "termination of the tenancy of any household" in instances where a tenant is found to have engaged in the use of a controlled substance while on the premises — "including [the use of] state legalized medical marijuana." Because marijuana remains classified under federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance, "HUD prohibits the admission of users of marijuana to HUD assisted housing, including those who use medical marijuana," the letter reads.

South Dakota Activists Miss Initiative Signature Deadline but Look to Federal Court Decision for More Time. South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws announced Sunday that they would not turn in signatures for a marijuana legalization initiative by a Monday deadline, but are hoping that a federal court ruling will give them until next May to qualify for the November 2022 ballot. In August, the federal district court in the state ruled that the state's election law requiring signatures be handed in a year before the election was unconstitutional, pushing the deadline to the May before the election and enjoined officials from enforcing that provision. The administration of Gov. Kristi Noem (R) is appealing the decision, but the activists argue that "the May 3 deadline is the law in South Dakota and we feel confident that we can rely on that extension." Voters in the state approved a marijuana legalization initiative in 2020, but it has been blocked by lower courts and a final decision is still pending at the state Supreme Court.

Drug Testing

Ohio Judge Suspended for Jailing Spectator over Drug Test Refusal. The state Supreme Court has suspended a Seneca County judge for a year without pay for ordering a courtroom spectator to undergo a drug test and then holding that person in contempt and jailing her for refusing to do so. In the unanimous opinion, the court held that Judge Mark Repp violated rules of professional conduct for judges in the state, including a failure to perform all his judicial duties fairly and impartially. The woman, who was the girlfriend of the defendant before the court "suffered great personal indignities and emotional distress as the result of the security and medical screenings she had to endure during her incarceration, on top of the anxiety regarding the care and well-being of her two young children." The boyfriend was a drug court participant, and the Supreme Court held tat Repp's behavior toward him and his girlfriend was "undignified, improper, and discourteous."

International

Malaysia Okays Use of Medical Marijuana. Heath Minister Khairy Jamaluddin has formally acknowledged that marijuana can be used for medicinal purposes. The acknowledgement came in response to a question from parliament. Jamaluddin said the medicinal use of marijuana complies with Malaysian drug laws, but that imports and the wholesale trade must be licensed. Medical marijuana should be sold by a registered medical practitioner or pharmacist. "Therefore, if there are parties who have sufficient scientific evidence to use cannabis (hemp) for any medicinal purpose by taking into account the aspects of quality, safety and effectiveness, then the application to register cannabis products for medicinal purposes can be submitted to DCA [Drug Control Authority]] to be evaluated and registered under the Control of Drugs and Cosmetics Regulation 1984 in order to be marketed in Malaysia," Khairy said in a written reply to the enquiry.

Singapore Delays Appeal Hearing on Man Set to Be Executed for 1.5 Ounces of Heroin. The nation's top court has postponed an appeal hearing for Malaysian national Nagenthran K. Dharmalingam, who was sentenced to death for trying to smuggle 1.5 grams of heroin into the country. Dharmalingam, who his attorneys say is intellectually disabled, was set to be executed Monday, but was delayed amidst an international campaign by human rights groups when the high court accepted an appeal. The hearing was originally set for Tuesday, with Dharmalingam set to be executed Wednesday if he lost on appeal. The appeals court noted that Dharmalingam had tested positive for COVID-19 and sent him away from the courtroom Tuesday, saying, "We have to issue a stay of the execution until all proceedings are concluded. That is the proper order of things."

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