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Pell Grants for Prisoners Are Coming Back Next Year, OK Legal Pot Initiative Signature-Gathering Begins, More... (5/3/22)

Signature-gathering for a marijuana legalization inititiave is underway in Oklahoma, the courts block a San Francisco effort to enact broad bans on alleged drug dealers in the Tenderloin, and more.

San Francisco. The courts are blocking the city's effort to ban alleged drug dealers from the Tenderloin. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Files Preemptive Lawsuit Over Whether It Will Appear on November Ballot. Anticipating an effort by Republican lawmakers to keep their marijuana legalization initiative off the November ballot, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol filed a lawsuit last Friday to block the expected move. Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) submitted petitions to the legislature on January 28, giving it until May 28 to approve the petitions calling for legalization, after which, the coalition could then do another round of signature-gathering to put the question directly before voters in November. But Republican legislative staffers have argued that because the petitions were not submitted to the legislature 10 days before the start of the session, as required by the state constitution. But the preemptive lawsuit argues there is state Supreme Court precedent for allowing a November vote.

Oklahoma Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Begins Signature-Gathering. Marijuana legalization advocates have begun signature gathering for State Question 820, which would legalize adult use marijuana and levy a 15 percent excise tax on retail purchases to fund the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. Campaigners will need 95,911 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot and have until August 1 to do so. Another pair of initiatives could also appear on the ballot. State Question 818 would create a State Cannabis Commission that would replace the OMMA and guarantee patients' medical cannabis access in the Oklahoma Constitution, while State Question 819 would legalize adult-use marijuana and guarantee medical and adult-use marijuana access in the Constitution. Because these two questions would change the state constitution, they face a higher signature-gathering threshold than State Question 820, which would only make statutory changes. The threshold for constitutional questions is 177,958 valid voter signatures.

Drug Policy

California Appeals Court Blocks San Francisco Bid to Ban Drug Dealers from Tenderloin, SOMA. In a case that began when the city sued 28 alleged drug dealers in the Tenderloin and South of Market (SOMA) neighborhoods and banned them from a 50-square-block area in those neighborhoods, which are rife with open drug dealing and drug use, a state appeals court has upheld a lower court decision last year blocking the bans from taking effect. In its ruling last Friday, the 1st District Court of Appeals held that while local governments may be entitled to narrowly target ban orders in some limited circumstances, but not such a broad one. The lower court decision held that the ban was so broad it would violate the constitutional right to travel, and that state law did not appear to authorize it.

The appeals court largely agreed: "We are mindful of, and sympathetic to, the challenges faced by the city in addressing the issues of illegal drug sales, drug use, and the drug-related health crisis and its effects on the people who live and work in the neighborhood," Justice Marla Miller wrote in Friday's 3-0 ruling. But, she continued, "although the city contends these defendants have no reason to ever even be in the 50-square-block Tenderloin neighborhood except to sell drugs there was evidence that many community resources and government agencies are located in the Tenderloin." The lower court judge was entitled to believe statements from the four people "that they were interested in taking advantage of the employment, treatment, housing, and health services available in the 50-square-block neighborhood," the appeals court added. The city said it was "disappointed" with the ruling, but had yet to decide whether to appeal.

Education

Pell Grants Will Be Available for Prisoners Again Beginning Next Year. Once upon a time, incarcerated Americans were able to try to advance themselves by using Pell Grants to pay for college tuition and textbook costs -- just like other students -- but when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, it barred prisoners from accessing that financial aid. In 2020, though, Congress restored the eligibility for both state and federal prisoners. In the fall of 2021, the Department of Education begin developing rules for the expansion of Pell Grants to prisoners and has now announced that application forms for imprisoned students will be available on October 1 for the 2023 academic year.

International

British Virgin Islands Premier Asserts Immunity in Cocaine Case, Demands Immediate Release. British Virgin Islands (BVI) Premier Andrew Fahie, who was arrested last week in a US government sting in Miami, argued in court Monday that as the elected head of government, he is immune from prosecution and should be released immediately. No word yet on when a federal judge will decide that question, and in the meantime, Fahie remains in custody. Fahie and his ports director, Oleanvine Maynard, were busted at the Miami airport where they met what they thought were Mexican drug traffickers but were actually DEA agents seducing them into a scheme to import cocaine from South America through the BVI. Back home, Fahie already faced allegations of deep corruption, and his arrest may help propel a push to temporarily suspend the constitution and return to rule from London in an effort to clean up the government. Busting a head of state is a big deal and would have required approval at the highest levels of the Justice and State departments.

J&J and Drug Distributors Settle Opioid Lawsuits, SD Gov Cool to MJ Legalization Bill, More... (2/25/22)

An Idaho legislator worried that substitute teachers are selling drugs to kids gets a teacher testing bill out of committee, Tennessee is the latest state to see a fentanyl test strip legalization bill, and more.

Marijuana Policy

South Dakota Governor Suggests Possible Veto of Marijuana Legalization Bill. Gov. Kristi Noem (R) sounded skeptical of a marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 3, which has just passed the Senate, at a Wednesday press conference. Noem did not give a direct answer when asked about the issue, saying "it's hard to talk in hypotheticals," and she's "not in favor of recreational marijuana." She added that, "I still believe I haven't seen anybody get smarter from smoking dope." Voters approved marijuana legalization in 2020, only to see their decision overturned by the state Supreme Court. The activists behind the 2020 campaign are now signature gathering for a new initiative, but say they will desist if a workable legalization bill becomes law.

Opiates and Opioids

Johnson & Johnson, Drug Distributors Reach Settlement Over Opioid Lawsuits. Three of the country's largest drug distributors -- McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen -- and drug maker Johnson & Johnson announced Friday that they had reached a settlement with the vast majority of states and localities that had sued them over their role in the nation's early-century opioid crisis. The companies have agreed to pay out $26 billion to settle those thousands of claims, with the first checks set to go out in April with at least 85 percent of the payments dedicated to addiction treatment and prevention services. The distributors and Johnson & Johnson released statements Friday morning, noting that the deal is not an admission of wrongdoing and that they strongly dispute the allegations. The distributors said in a joint statement that they believed that "the implementation of this settlement is a key milestone toward achieving broad resolution of governmental opioid claims and delivering meaningful relief to communities across the United States that have been impacted by the epidemic."

Drug Testing

Idaho House Committee Advances Bill Requiring Drug Testing for Substitute Teachers. Ignoring the objections of state school officials, the House Education Committee voted 8-7 Thursday to approve a bill requiring mandatory pre-employment drug testing of all substitute teachers, at a time when school districts are scrambling for substitute teachers. School officials called the proposed law unworkable and noted that districts already have their own drug testing policies. "It is unnecessary, and further, we have a policy at the local level," Karen Pyron, superintendent of the Butte County School District, told the committee. "It adds cost and inconvenience and an additional burden to our rural schools," she said. But bill sponsor, Rep. Judy Boyle (R-Midvale) retorted that she had "tremendous concerns." Substitute teaching "is a very easy way to access children and sell drugs to them," she claimed. Her reasoning prevailed in the narrowly divided committee, and House Bill 651 now heads for a House floor vote.

Harm Reduction

Tennessee Fentanyl Test Strip Bill Filed State Sen. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville) has filed a bill to legalize fentanyl testing strips, Senate Bill 2427. They are currently considered drug paraphernalia under state law. "SB 2427 is very important for Tennessee, especially East Tennesse, where we've had a very large number of deaths from drug overdoses," said Briggs. "This bill legalizes a tool that can help save lives from drug overdoses in our state." The bill would sunset after three years unless it was renewed. The House Criminal Justice Committee is set to discuss the bill on March 2.

Book Review: Three Takes on the Opioid Crisis [FEATURE]

RX Appalachia: Stories of Treatment and Survival in Rural Kentucky, by Lesly-Marie Buer (2020, Haymarket Books, 264 pp., $22.95 PB)

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic, by Eric Eyre (2020, Scribner, 289 pp., $28.00 HB)

White Market Drugs: Big Pharma and the Hidden History of Addiction in America, by David Herzberg (2020, University of Chicago Press, 365 pp., $27.50 HB)

America remains in the grip of what is arguably its third great opioid addiction and overdose crisis. It began in the late 1990s as doctors tried to address an historic problem of under-prescribing and unavailability of opioids for chronic pain treatment that affected many patients. But mistakes were made along the way, and a massive tide of not always well targeted prescription opioids swamped the country. As regulators and law enforcement cracked down on pain pills, that morphed into a deadly wave of heroin addiction. And then we got fentanyl, which quickly took first place as a cause for overdose deaths. Produced mostly in China and Mexico, fentanyl is used by some hardcore addicts with high tolerance, but mainly appears as an adulterant added to heroin or in counterfeit prescription pills.

The authors of the three books reviewed here take on various aspects of the phenomenon, from the granular nitty-gritty of the lives of poor, white, female drug users ensnared in the treatment and rehab system in present-day Appalachia, to a state-level look at how drug distribution companies flooded West Virginia with literally billions of prescription opioids, to a long-term overview of the effort to regulate drugs and the subsequent -- and enduring -- historic division of drug use and users into markets black and white. (And by white markets, we are referring not only to legality but also, sadly yet unsurprisingly, skin color.)

Taken together, the three books weave a damning indictment of pharmaceutical companies, the people and entities that are supposed to regulate them, and the moral crusaders who -- too often, successfully -- use the issue of drug use to call for repressive policies, especially aimed at people who aren't "good people;" that is, poor and/or non-white people.

There are also some things the books don't do more than tangentially. They don't touch on the issue of access to pain medications for chronic pain patients. These are people who often suffer not from too-easy access to prescription opioids, but from obstacles to access, and who have suffered even more as politicians and regulators moved to rein in what they argue is massive overprescribing of such medications.

Whether it's being prosecuted for seeking their medicine in the black market or being forced to jump through hoops to obtain their medicine or being refused it altogether in the white market, these are people whose access to the medicines they need is encumbered. Their story is an important part of the debate over opioids (and drug policy more generally), but it gets only a side mention in one of these three works. But over-prescribing of opioids and under-prescribing of them continue to coexist.

The books also don't attempt to disentangle supply-driven opioid abuse, from the so-called "deaths of despair." The same social and economic factors that have driven up the suicide rate in recent decades, and which arguably helped to elect Donald Trump, increase the rates at which drugs are used and abused, including opioids. That in turn leads to more overdose deaths, and some apparent overdoses actually are suicides.

And the authors don't ask their readers to question whether any given "pill mill" or seemingly too large prescription, is really what it looks like. If we accept that abuses in the supply system have played a role in the opioid crisis, that doesn't mean that any given doctor or pharmacist or distributor is guilty as charged. A medical practice with patients treating patients from hundreds of miles away, could be a "pill mill," but it could also have the one doctor who understands pain treatment and is willing to work with poor people whom other doctors view as too risky. A prescription that seems huge because of the number of pills, could represent diversion to the underground market – or it could mean that a long-term pain patient who needs a large dosage because of tolerance built up over time, and who doesn't use technology like a medically-inserted morphine pump, is reliant on pills and their standard-sized dosages that are designed for less tolerant patients. Without considering those contexts, pill numbers can be a misleading metric, at least some of the time.

The books do discuss some options for making effective opioid addiction treatments more easy for more patients to obtain, or for reducing the likelihood of a user coming to serious harm. But the most effective treatment for this type of addiction is the use of other opioids, in what's known as Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). Through controlled use of methadone or buprenorphine supplied by clinics, people with opioid addictions are able to stabilize their lives and avoid catastrophic physical harms, while maintaining responsibilities like work and family needs. Making MAT available through a doctor's office, while training doctors in their use, would reduce the harm of opioid addiction by providing a legal alternative that works -- in this case a quality-controlled opioid. Offering HAT, too -- heroin assisted treatment, or heroin maintenance, as Canada and some European countries do for people who have tried methadone or buprenorphine without succeeding -- would do more.

And that begs the question about prohibition itself. Though some may find it counterintuitive to talk about legalization as a solution to a problem driven by increased drug availability, it is the case that this opioid crisis in its entirety has transpired under the current system – a system in which all drugs of this type are illegal unless one has a prescription, and in which most people are usually not supposed to be given prescriptions. Fentanyl, which today accounts for 2/3 of US opioid deaths and has room to spread geographically and increase further, is a textbook example of the consequences of prohibition -- most people taking it, and nearly all of those who die from it, thought they were taking something else. If people who developed addiction problems had access to predictable, (relatively) safe, easy to access and financially affordable options, that might be better even than a less heavy-handed system but still prohibition-based system.

All that said, there is an opioid crisis. These three books provide an eye-opening and important look at some critical sides of the phenomenon.

Lesly-Marie Buer is a Knoxville-based harm reductionist and medical anthropologist whose RX Appalachia is a compelling examination of the socially constructed suffering of mainly poor, white women who use drugs in a cluster of eastern Kentucky counties. She spent months living in the area, followed the women to court, to drug treatment, and opioid maintenance programs, and interviewed them extensively over time.

The result is a nuanced portrayal of these women's lives and struggles as they contend with the demands of institutions of social control even as they have to deal with poverty, child custody issues, and their stigmatization as drug users and therefore bad mothers. In that very important sense, RX Appalachia gives voice to the voiceless.

It also voices an unrelenting critique of a social and political system that provides unequal access to resources, chronically underfunds services to the poor and needy -- including but not limited to drug treatment and mental health services -- and is more willing to impose social controls on these women than to help them deal with the complexities of their lives. Appalachia RX is an important contribution to our understanding of the way drug policies, as well as broader social and economic trends, play out on the bodies of these multiply oppressed women.

How some of those women got strung out in the first place is the subject matter of Death in Mud Lick, still in Appalachia and just across the West Virginia line from those Kentucky women. Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre won a Pulitzer Prize for his years of doggedly chasing down the story of how drug distribution companies pumped billions of opioid pain pills into the state in just a few years, and here, he puts that reporting in book form. It's quite a tale.

Eyre starts with a single drug overdose death, and by the time he's done, has unraveled a tangled tale of negligence, indifference, and profit-driven decision-making that left 1,728 West Virginians dead of drug overdoses in a six-year period. Thanks to Eyre's journalistic persistence and to a legal team determined to get to the bottom of the flood of pain pills that overwhelmed the state (and the region and the nation), we now know that drug companies dumped some 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone tablets into the state during that same period.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Pharmaceutical corporations such as Purdue aggressively promoted their opioid products, doctors turned medical practices into pill-prescribing machines, pharmacies blithely filled numberless prescriptions, and drug distribution companies such as Cardinal and McKesson just as blithely delivered all those pills to the pharmacies, despite warning signs.

And regulators failed to regulate. Whether it was the state Board of Pharmacy or the DEA, regulators were asleep at the switch as an opioid epidemic grew right in front of them. And state officials were compromised by ties with the pharmaceutical industry and the distributors.

Eyre tells his tale with journalistic panache, taking the reader with him as he and his struggling newspaper take on the state political establishment and the distributors in the court battles that ultimately forced the companies and the DEA to release the records that documented the deluge of opioids. Death in Mud Lick is a real eye-opener.

But for David Hertzberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Buffalo and author of White Market Drugs, Eyre's story is just the latest chapter in the long history of America's effort to control drugs. Hertzberg begins with the opioid crisis of the late 19th Century and ably describes how the competing forces seeking to deal with it -- therapeutic reformers, repressive moral entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical companies, the medical profession -- created a class- and race-based bifurcation of the world of psychoactive substances into "medicines" and "drugs."

If it was prescribed by a physician, it was medicine. If not, not. The world of legal, regulated drugs became Hertzberg's white market. The world of repressed, prohibited drugs is the familiar black market. One serves middle-class white people and is concerned with consumer safety. The other serves the poor, the unconnected, the immigrant, the people of color, whose drug use and sales are considered crimes.

The history of drugs in America is well-trodden ground, but Hertzberg brings both new revelations and a new perspective to the subject. The drug reform movement's archvillain, Harry Anslinger, the master of Reefer Madness propaganda, becomes more than one-dimensional as Hertzberg tells the story of his strict scientific approach to opioids. As head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger enlisted a Committee on Drug Addiction to closely study opioids, and those scientists even developed their own new opioids (they were market flops), as well as closely measuring the addictive potential of other potential new opioid products. Here, Anslinger was acting not as the heavy-handed lawman, but as the protector of white market consumers.

And as he tells the story of pharmaceutical companies continually coming up with new psychoactive products, patterns begin to occur. After the original drug prohibition laws a century ago effectively suppressed opioid use for decades, the pharmaceutical companies came up with barbiturates in the 1930s, amphetamines in the 1940s and 1950s, benzodiazepines in the 1970s and 1980s, before hitting it big again with opioids in the OxyContin-led bonanza beginning in the 1990s and lingering like a bad hangover to the present day. In all those cases, the profit motives of the drug makers overwhelmed regulatory structures designed to protect those good, deserving consumers of the white market -- even as the drug companies demonized black market drug users for causing the problems.

Given this history of pharmaceutical and regulatory fecklessness, Hertzberg comes to a shocking, but not really surprising conclusion: Left to their own devices, profit-drive drug companies peddling addictive products will function in ways that are incompatible with the public health. In Hertzberg's words:

"Profit-driven drug markets follow a predicably damaging cycle. Companies hype new medicines as safe and beneficial and sell with insufficient regard for consumer safety; a health crisis ensues as consumers are left ill-equipped to make informed decisions; authorities respond with consumer protections and destructive drug wars; the pharmaceutical industry devises strategies to circumvent the new restrictions and start the cycle again. After umpteen repetitions of this cat and mouse game, it may be time to acknowledge the impossibility of establishing a safe, for-profit market for addictive drugs. Alternatives exist: state monopolies, for example, or public utility models. We need to consider these and other creative ideas for dramatically minimizing or even eliminating profit from psychoactive capitalism."

Whether a shift to models of that type is what's needed, or just better regulation, is a question for debate. But it's clear that ending drug prohibition isn't enough. Reimagining the white market is necessary, too.

We Just Won an Old Fight

Dear reformer,

One never knows when something good is going to happen. Last night, with the signing of the budget and stimulus bill, the drug conviction question on the federal college aid form was finally done away with -- students will no longer lose financial aid because of drug convictions, at least not automatically or in many cases. Congress also restored Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

Barney Frank led the fight in Congress for many years. He and nine other congresspersons spoke at our 2002 press conference.
Our fight to repeal that law -- section 1091(r) of the Higher Education Act -- began in 1998, after the law passed and before it took effect. The effort was multifaceted and long-term. We circulated a resolution adopted by student governments. We founded the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), which worked actively through most of the '00s. Through this campaign, we founded the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an independent organization that plays an important role in drug policy reform. We even created a scholarship fund for students losing financial aid because of drug convictions.

All of these efforts drew attention from the media and from Congress. News stories appeared in all the major US outlets, through a campaign we carried out in partnership with SSDP. Most of the news inquiries, by design, were steered to our student partners. But we did some too -- here's a New York Times story I was quoted in. The voices of people affected by the law were key to driving public attention and to gaining more allies. Our first student spokesperson was Marisa Garcia, whose story appeared publicly for the first time in Rolling Stone magazine. Rolling Stone went on to donate advertising space for the campaign.

Now former US Rep. Barney Frank led the fight in Congress for many years, sponsoring the Removing Impediments to Students' Education (RISE) Act. He and his office energetically recruited other members of Congress to cosponsor the bill. We worked with them on several press conferences, including one in 2002 at the "Triangle" area of the US Capitol where ten members of Congress spoke, as well as representatives of leading civil rights and higher education groups. We also held a series of forums and fundraisers for the John W. Perry Fund, with members of Congress and other notable personalities. The Perry Fund supported about twenty students who'd lost their federal aid, and was covered by news outlets including BET.

Marisa Garcia in Rolling Stone magazine, 2001
In 2006, Congress scaled back the law, limiting its reach to drug law violations committed while a student was in school and receiving federal financial aid. Then in 2009, a further reform limiting it to sales convictions passed the House of Representatives. That was included in a Senate higher education bill too. The section of that bill that included the reform got stripped from the final legislation, after Democrats combined their student aid bill with the health care reform bill as part of their strategy to pass both in 2010.

What's interesting about what almost happened in 2009/2010 was that by that time, our work had already put the provision solidly on the radar of members of Congress. It was congressional staffers who contacted lobbyists who were active with the coalition that time, not the other way around, to tell them they were already planning to take it up and had figured out what they could do. We'd also been successful in communicating our message that partial changes to the law were good but not enough.

Changes in Congress made it less clear after that, when the next chance to repeal the law would be. It had also become clear to us that further work had to be done by groups with full-time legislative staff who could lobby on other issues too. We continued to contribute as we could to the effort, but we mostly left the lead to groups in education and drug policy and criminal justice who are funded in that way. I'm thankful that some of them did so and that this was able to happen.

I'm also grateful to people who supported our campaign, and to the many past staff of our own organization who poured themselves into it through the years. One of them called the news of the law's repeal "a random ray of light." But the unexpected usually isn't random -- it was made possible in part through work done by him and others. I'm especially grateful to the students and would-be students who agreed to our publicizing their stories. More of the history can be found on the web site for the campaign, RaiseYourVoice.com.

the language eliminating the drug conviction question
We have continued to do our work in much the same way as we did on our Higher Education Act campaign. We pick issues that are important but where there are important roles not already being played by other organizations. We organize coalitions. We do targeted work like media-worthy events and lobbying selected members of Congress. We find the pressure points where the smaller resources can make a larger impact. We support and build up our partners and allies, so their strength can be brought to bear on these efforts too. And we reach out for new allies, as the new issues we take on present those opportunities.

The last few years a lot of this work has been on the international policy front. We've organized nine events at official international meetings. The latest, on the International Criminal Court and the murderous drug war in the Philippines, was covered in that country's media last week. Our work before a major UN drug meeting was covered by the Washington Post and other media.

Click here, here and here to read about our work on human rights in the drug war, democracy and rule of law, the issue of marijuana legalization within the UN drug treaties, and other drug policy issues at the UN.

We continue to raise funds for our end-year $10,000 matching grant, on which we have $4,000 left to go. I hope if you haven't contributed recently that you might do so over the next few days. A donation to our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, DRCNet Foundation is tax-deductible, and can be done online here by credit card, PayPal or ACH. Note that even if you don't itemize your taxes, under pandemic rules you can deduct up to $300 total above-the-line for charitable gifts in 2020.

A non-deductible contribution to our 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Drug Reform Coordination Network would also count toward the matching grant, and can be made here. This would support our congressional outreach, legislative action alerts, and the technical publishing costs for our newsletter.

You can also send a check or money order, if you prefer, to us at P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016. Please make sure to indicate whether it's tax-deductible for DRCNet Foundation, or non-deductible for Drug Reform Coordination Network. There's also info on how to donate stock shares on our web site here.

Thank you for your support, and the work continues.

Sincerely,

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org
P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016
https://stopthedrugwar.org

Congress Restores Financial Aid for Students with Drug Convictions, CA Fentanyl Task Force Bill Filed, More... (12/22/20)

Cook County's new State's Attorney is talking the progressive talk.
Heroin and Prescription Opioids

California Bill to Create Law Enforcement Fentanyl Task Force Filed. State Senator Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) has reintroduced a bill, Senate Bill 75, that would establish a "Southern California Fentanyl Task Force" chaired by the attorney general to heighten law enforcement agency coordination, recommend changes to state laws and bring a state-wide caliber of expertise to the issue. The task force would focus on Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. Cosponsors include one Democrat and two Republicans. The bill is also supported by Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes.

Psychedelics

Sheri Eckert, Co-Petitioner for Oregon Psilocybin Therapy Initiative, Dies Suddenly. One of the architects of the pioneering Oregon psilocybin therapy initiative, Measure 109, which was approved by voters last month, has died. Sheri Eckert and her husband Tom were the impetus behind the measure. She died last Thursday night of an apparent heart attack. She was 59.

Drug Policy

Illinois' Cook County State's Attorney Wants to Expunge Marijuana Dealing, Heroin & Cocaine Possession Convictions. In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Cook County (Chicago) State's Attorney Kim Foxx advocated for the automatic expungement of pot dealing convictions and, going a step further, for expunging heroin and cocaine possession convictions, too. Her office has already automatically wiped out the records of more than 2,200 pot possession convictions, and she said she wants to use that bureaucratic infrastructure to find and expunge pot dealing convictions. "No, they didn't have a license. And no, it wasn't legal. But it was the only economy that they had," she said, noting that legal marijuana firms are now "doing the exact same thing and making a ton of money." She also said she would advocate for expunging heroin and cocaine possession convictions as part of a progressive approach to handling problematic drug use. "If we recognize substance abuse disorder as a health condition, then we must modify our justice system to treat it as such," Foxx said. "Criminalizing health is not in the interest of public safety."

Higher Education

Congressional Spending Bill Restores Financial Aid for Students with Drug Convictions. The massive spending bill approved by both the House and Senate Monday would eliminate the provision that disqualifies some students from obtaining federal financial aid because of past drug convictions. It does so not with any new language, but simply by eliminating the clause in the law that created the drug provision and accompanying question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The bill also restores Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marijuana Policy

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

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

Sentencing Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reentry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drug Policy

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

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

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

International

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

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

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

Chronicle AM: Study Says No Long-Term Crime Rise Post-Legalization, CA Approves MedMj in Schools, More... (10/11/19)

A new study deflates one of the leading worries of marijuana legalization foes, the state of Texas abruptly quits taking medical marijuana dispensary applications, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Study Finds No Significant Change in Post-Legalization Crime Rates. A new study published by Justice Quarterly suggests that recreational marijuana legalization did not have a statistically significant impact on violent and property crime rates in Colorado and Washington. Researchers from Washington and Colorado compared pre- and post- legalization crime rates in those two states with the crime rates in 21 states "that have not legalized marijuana use for recreational or medical purposes on a large scale." They found that there was an immediate increase in property crime rates in both states, and aggravated assault rates in Washington, but those changes did not persist.

Medical Marijuana

California Governor Signs Bill Allowing Medical Marijuana at School. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has signed into law a bill that will allow parents in some school districts to bring medical marijuana to school for their children who are medical marijuana patients. The bill only allows the in-school use of non-smokeable and non-vapable forms of marijuana. Former Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed a similar bill last year.

Texas Abruptly Halts Permitting Process for New Medical Marijuana Dispensaries. Only a week after opening the application process for medical marijuana dispensaries, the state Department of Public Safety has suddenly suspended it. "The Department's Compassionate Use Program is not accepting applications at this time," it says on the department web site. The sudden announcement comes nearly a month after the state said it would keep the application process open for a month, from Oct. 1 through Nov. 1. The department did not explain why it stopped accepting applications.

Drug Policy and Sustainable Development: Goals 4, 8 and 16 on Education, Work and Rule of Law

Drug Policy and Sustainable Development: Goals 4, 8 and 16 on Education, Work and Rule of Law


side event, UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development
Church Center of the United Nations, 777 UN Plaza (1st Avenue & 44th Street), 10th Floor
Thursday July 11, 2019, 4:15‐6:30pm ET

RSVP to [email protected] (requested but not required)
Snacks will be Provided

Panel 1: Challenges people recovering from criminal justice involvement face

accessing work and education (4:15‐5:15pm) 
  • Darrell Bennett, former IMPACT Leadership Program Director, Exodus Transitional Community
  • Megan French‐Marcelin, Fair Hiring Project Coordinator, JustLeadershipUSA
  • David Sheridan, Director of Financial Aid, Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs
Panel 2: International justice to counter disinformation and promote humanrights, in the Philippines and elsewhere (5:30‐6:30pm)
  • William Pace, Convener, Coalition for the International Criminal Court, 1995‐2019
  • video: Davey Alba for BuzzFeed, "How Duterte Used Facebook to Fuel the Philippine Drug War
  • video: Pamela Combinido, "Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines"
  • others speakers TBA

moderated by David Borden, Executive Director, StoptheDrugWar.org

PDF flyer here

Chronicle AM: CA Acts to Boost Struggling Cannabis Industry, WV Students Face Drug Tests, More... (6/17/09)

California officials are cutting legal operators some slack in a bid to boost the marijuana industry, Virginia's attorney general calls for marijuana decriminalization, West Virginia is demanding students seeking free community college tuition undergo drug testing, and more.

State officials are easing up on permitting to give the legal industry some breathing room. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

In Bid to Boost Legal Cannabis Industry, California Plans to Extend Provisional Permits for Growers and Sellers. State officials plan to extend the period that marijuana growers and sellers can operate with provisional licenses by five more years, giving them more time to get in compliance with stricter rules required for regular permits. The state's legal industry is having a hard time getting off the ground in the face of high taxes and stiff regulatory hurdles. Only 208 growers have obtained regular, annual licenses and another 1,532 are operating with provisional permits. That's a tiny fraction of all marijuana growers in the state. Similarly, only 39 marijuana retailers have regular licenses, with another 2,751 operating on provisional or temporary permits.

Virginia Attorney General Calls for Marijuana Decriminalization and Expungement, and Eventual Legalization. Attorney General Mark Herring has called for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana, as well as expungement for old marijuana offenses, with an eye toward eventual legalization. "The human and social costs are enormous, in addition to the millions of dollars it costs Virginia taxpayers," Herring wrote in an op-ed Saturday. "And the negative consequences of the current approach fall disproportionately on African Americans and people of color."

Medical Marijuana

Gallup Poll Finds Americans Want CBD OTC. Americans familiar with CBD want it sold over the counter without a prescription by a margin of 61% to 33%, according to a Gallup poll released last Friday. More than a third (36%) of respondents were not familiar with CBD. When they are included, the figure for support for OTC CBD declined to 39%.

Drug Policy

California's Santa Clara County Will Stop Prosecuting People for Minor Drug Offenses. The Santa Clara County (San Jose) District Attorney's Office announced last Friday it will stop prosecuting most minor drug offenses. Only people who already have two drug offenses will be prosecuted under the new policy. "We are drawing a line between public health and public safety," said Brian Buckelew, a Supervising Deputy District Attorney. "If there's no other criminality, if someone is arrested with a meth pipe, or personal use methamphetamine, that person needs treatment. But should that person get treatment in the criminal justice system at great expense to the taxpayers? We have concluded they should not."

Drug Testing

West Virginia Students Will Have to Pass Drug Test to Get Free Tuition at Community Colleges. Students who are expecting free college tuition under the West Virginia Invests program will be required to pass drug tests in order to be eligible. That's after the state Community and Technical College System's board approved the move at a meeting last Thursday. While the law creating the program demanded drug testing, it did not specify which drugs should be tested for. The board decided to test for THC, marijuana's high-inducing ingredient, alongside opiates, oxycodone, hydrocodone, cocaine, amphetamines and other drugs. The policy went through no public comment period, and even one board member questioned why marijuana was on the list.

Drug War Issues

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