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Drugs and the Year from Hell: The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2020 [FEATURE]

What a year! Pandemic, civic unrest, national elections -- 2020 has been a year of tumult that can't be done with soon enough. But when it comes to drug policy, it wasn't all bad; in fact, a lot of it was pretty darned good. Some of it however was quite tragic Here's our year-end round up of the biggest drug policy stories of the year.

Update: The 2020 top ten list now goes to eleven, with Congress removing the drug conviction question from the federal financial aid for college form. See below.

The Pandemic

Just as it has infiltrated just about every aspect of American life, the coronavirus pandemic has been felt in the world of drugs and drug policy. Social distancing requirements early in the pandemic, precisely at the time drug reform initiative campaigns were typically in the midst of signature-gathering drives proved particularly lethal to marijuana legalization efforts in the Heartland as initiative campaigns in Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma all succumbed. It also helped fell a Washington state drug decriminalization campaign, with organizers there opting instead to go the legislative route.

It has also infiltrated jails and prisons. One in five prisoners in the US has had COVID-19, according to The Marshall Project. 1,700 of them have died from it. Prison wardens have worsened the situation by blocking congressionally legislated compassionate releases for prisoners. Second waves are now hitting the nation's penal institutions. And most vaccinations in the prisons have been for staff, not prisoners. With drugs directly accounting for about one-in-four prisoners, COVID-19 in the prisons is partly a drug war story.

Amidst the layoffs, shutdowns, and social distancing imposed by the pandemic, drug use jumped. In July, the specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported that its analysis of more than half a million urine drug test results and found large increases in the use of four illicit drugs during the coronavirus pandemic. The lab found a 32.0% increase for non-prescribed fentanyl over the same period last year, a 20.0% increase for methamphetamine, a 10.1% increase for cocaine, and a 12.5% increase for heroin.

In September, a study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Network found that drug test positivity rates for cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine ha increased nationwide during the pandemic. That same month, in a new study, Millennium Health reported that urine samples from across the US came back positive at a rate 20% higher in the early weeks of the pandemic compared to the same period before the pandemic began ratcheting up in early March. The pandemic almost certainly also has had an impact on fatal drug overdoses (see below).

One of the most striking impacts of the pandemic has been on policing. Early on, big cities began to forego drug arrests and prosecutions as a discretionary luxury they could no longer afford as they struggled with the coronavirus. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, police or prosecutors announced they would not arrest or would not prosecute small-time drug possession cases. In March, prosecutors from more than 30 cities, including Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and St. Louis signed on to an open letter urging local governments to make change in the face of COVID-19. They called for police to adopt "cite and release policies for offenses which pose no immediate physical threat to the community, including simple possession of controlled substances." They also called for the release of people being held solely because they can't come up with cash bail and for reducing jail and prison populations "to promote the health safety, staff, those incarcerated, and visitors." These were not intended as permanent moves, but perhaps politicians, police and prosecutors will take the opportunity to break their addiction to punishing drug users and sellers by going cold turkey amidst the pandemic. That would be a silver lining to the current crisis.

Advocates for marijuana legalization folded the pandemic into their arguments for ending federal marijuana prohibition. More than 30 state attorneys general cited the pandemic in calling for Congress to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to gain access to banking and financial services. The House HEROES Act coronavirus relief bill, passed in May, included a handful of criminal justice and drug policy reforms, mostly aimed at reducing the prison population during the pandemic, but also included that marijuana banking language.

COVID was also cited as making it even more imperative to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3884). Over the summer, as the pandemic simmered, a coalition of justice and drug reform groups called on Congress to pass the bill, arguing that legalization was especially urgent in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over police brutality. Given the current situation, "marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the war on drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before," they wrote in a letter to Congress.

That was followed by an even broader assemblage of 125 religious, human rights, and drug reform groups calling for passage of the bill. "[T]he circumstances of 2020 have made the failed War on Drugs even more untenable and amplified the voices of those demanding transformation in our criminal legal system. In the face of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and a growing national dialogue on unjust law enforcement practices, marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the War on Drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before. The MORE Act remains the most effective and equitable way forward," the groups said. The MORE Act passed in December.

The Long, Hot Summer Uprising Against Police Violence and Racism

It all started with that horrid video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer over an alleged miniscule offense, but as people took to the streets all over the country, the name Breonna Taylor also loomed large. The totally innocent 26-year-old black EMT was gunned down by Louisville police in a misbegotten "no-knock" drug raid (it might be more accurate to call them "home invasion raids") in March, and her killing not only powered months of street demonstrations in her hometown, it also engendered howls of outrage and promises of reform from politicians around the land. And it brought heightened scrutiny to business as usual in the war on drugs.

As the streets overflowed in May, nearly four dozen members of Congress called for an independent investigation of the raid, calling Taylor's death "an unspeakable tragedy that requires immediate answers and accountability." That was followed by a bevy of bills in Congress, including the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases. House Democrats pushed the bill through in three weeks in June. Republicans in the Senate responded with Sen. Tim Scott's Justice Act, which wouldn't ban no-knock raids, but would increase federal reporting requirements for no-knock raids and use of force. But the GOP bill never moved in Sen. Mitch McConnell's Senate. As with so many measures passed by the House, McConnell's domain was where a congressional response to the crisis went to die.

But some states and localities actually enacted laws or ordinances aimed at reining in no-knocks. The Louisville Metro Council banned no-knock search warrants by unanimously passing "Breonna's Law" in June. Other cities, including Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis, San Antonio and Santa Fe moved to either restrict or ban no-knocks. And while several states saw efforts to ban no-knocks, the only state where it's come to fruition so far is Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law House Bill 5099, which bars police from breaking into a home or business to conduct a raid without first announcing their presence.

In Historic Move, House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

Breaking almost but not entirely along party lines, the House voted on December 4 to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 (HR 3884). The MORE Act would effectively end federal pot prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act's list of scheduled substances and eliminating federal criminal penalties for its possession, cultivation and sale.

The bill would not affect state laws that criminalize marijuana, but it would end the conflict between states that have already legalized marijuana and federal law. The bill also includes strong social equity provisions, including the creation of a fund to support programs and services for communities devastated by the war on drugs, a provision for expungement of past federal marijuana offenses, and a provision that bars the federal government from discriminating against people for marijuana use. The latter would protect immigrants from being deported for past marijuana convictions and would ensure that earned benefits are not denied to marijuana users.

The historic vote marks the first time either chamber of Congress has voted for legalization. But there is virtually no chance that the Republican-led Senate will take up -- let alone approve -- the measure in the remaining days of this session, meaning this is a battle that will continue in the next Congress.

Here Comes Psychedelic Drug Law Reform

Denver made history in May 2019 by becoming the first locality in the US to effectively decriminalize a psychedelic drug -- psilocybin-bearing magic mushrooms -- and as a psychedelic reform movement has spread across the land, this year saw more important advances. As the year went on, three more cities -- Ann Arbor, Oakland, and Santa Cruz -- passed similar ordinances.

Then on Election Day, voters in Oregon approved the groundbreaking Measure 109, the Psilocybin Services Act, with 56 percent of the vote. It will create a program to allow the administration of psilocybin products, such as magic mushrooms, to adults 21 and over for therapeutic purposes. People will be allowed to buy, possess, and consume psilocybin at a psilocybin services center, but only after undergoing a preparation session and under the supervision of a psilocybin service facilitator.

On the East Coast, Washington, DC, voters approved Initiative 81, the Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Policy Act of 2020, with 74 percent of the vote. The measure will have police treat natural plant medicines (entheogens) as their lowest law enforcement priority. The measure also asks the city's top prosecutor and its US Attorney to not prosecute such cases.

This string of psychedelic reform victories has generated momentum that is likely to result in more pushes in more places next year and beyond. Since Election Day, activists in San Francisco and Washington state have announced plans for decriminalization, a New Jersey state senator has filed a bill to downgrade the offense of magic mushroom possession, and a California state senator has announced he plans to file a bill. that would decriminalize the possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics. And that's before the new year even begins.

Oregon Decriminalizes Drugs

With the passage by voters of Measure 110, the Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative, Oregon broke new ground by becoming the first state to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The quantities decriminalized are up to one gram of heroin, up to one gram of or five pills of MDMA, up to two gram of meth, up to 40 units of LSD, up to 12 grams of psilocybin, up to 40 units of methadone, up to 40 pills of oxycodone, and up to two grams of cocaine. That's thousands of drug arrests that now will not occur in Oregon -- and now Oregon can set an example for other states to follow.

Red State or Blue State, Voters Choose Legal Marijuana When Given the Chance

The November election saw marijuana legalization on the ballot in four states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two states. They all won. Evenly-divided Arizona saw Proposition 207: The Smart & Safe Arizona Act, cruise to victory with 60 percent of the vote, while in blue New Jersey, Public Question 1 garnered a resounding 67 percent.

The really surprising results were in two red states: In Montana, Constitutional Initiative 118 and its companion Initiative 190 won with 58 percent and 57 percent of the vote, respectively, while in South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won with 54 percent of the vote. Both those states are Trump country, with the president taking 57 percent in the former and 62 percent in the latter.

It was the same story with medical marijuana too, as Mississippi approved Initiative 65 with 74 percent of the vote, while South Dakota's Measure 26 won with 70 percent. Marijuana for adult use in now legal in 15 states and medical marijuana is now legal in 38.

Attack of the Progressive Prosecutors

The November elections didn't just end the reign of Donald Trump and bring drug reform victories at the state level, they also ushered in a new crop of progressive prosecutors who will have the ability to affect the conduct of the war on drugs at the local level. Led by George Gascon, who was elected prosecutor of the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles, and running on progressive platforms that included confronting police misconduct, ramping down the war on drugs, and shrinking prison populations, progressives won prosecutor races in Detroit (Oakland County), Orlando, and two large Colorado districts that had been held for decades by Republicans. Progressives didn't win everywhere they ran, but the shift from "law and order" district attorneys toward progressives that began with Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia really gathered momentum this year.

A Tough Year for Safe Injection Sites

Safe injection sites -- or supervised injection sites or safe consumption sites, take your pick -- are a proven harm reduction intervention with 120 in operation in 10 countries around the world, but no legal ones operating in the US. It looked like that would change in 2020, but it didn't. A proposed site in Philadelphia got the final go-ahead from a federal judge in February, but the local US Attorney then won a stay blocking it, with a hearing on that stay held in October and the decision from the bench still pending. Things were also looking good in San Francisco after the Board of Supervisors okayed a three-site pilot program in June, but the state-level bill that would have allowed the city to proceed, Assembly Bill 362, died in the Senate after passing the Assembly. A similar fate befell a Massachusetts safe injection site bill, House Bill 4723, which managed to win a committee vote but then stalled. Maybe next year.

Asset Forfeiture Reforms

Asset forfeiture, especially civil asset forfeiture (without a criminal conviction), is increasingly unpopular, with 35 states and the District of Columbia approving reforms between 2014 and 2019. A November poll found that only 26% support allowing police to seize cash or property from someone without a criminal conviction. Some 59% of respondents oppose "allowing law enforcement agencies to use forfeited property or its proceeds for their own use." Opposition to equitable sharing, a federal program that allows state and local police to evade state laws against civil asset forfeiture, was even higher, with 70% against the program.

Here are some reasons why: In March, in Georgia,the Department of Revenue got caught spending millions of dollars in seized cash on "engraved firearms, pricey gym equipment, clothing, personal items, even $130 sunglasses." That same month, in Michigan, the Macomb County prosecutor was hit with a slew of criminal charges for allegedly taking funds seized from drug and other suspects for his own personal use, including a personal security system for his house, country club parties, campaign expenses and to buy flowers and make-up for his secretaries. In July, in Chicago, the city agreed to a $5 million payout to settle a class action lawsuit filed by two people whose vehicle was seized after a passenger was arrested for marijuana possession. The settlement will apply to hundreds of other cases where drivers had their vehicles impounded as part of drug cases. Also in Michigan, the Wayne County Sheriff's Office faces a similar lawsuit for seizing thousands of cars and other property belonging to residents without criminal convictions.

Such abuses helped New Jersey become the 36th asset forfeiture reform state when Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday (D) signed into law a bill mandating comprehensive disclosure and transparency requirements for the system of civil asset forfeiture. Unfortunately, the few remaining non-reform states are tough nuts to crack, as we saw with reform bills killed in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But, hey, at least Tyson Timbs, the Indiana man whose seized Land Rover resulted in a 2019 Supreme Court decision scaling back civil asset forfeiture, finally got his Land Rover back -- six years after it was seized over a drug bust.

America Keeps ODing

Amidst all the death in the pandemic, the ongoing epidemic of drug overdose deaths got short shrift this shift, but Americans are continuing to die by the tens of thousands. In July, the CDC reported preliminary data showing that after declining for the first time in decades in 2018, fatal ODs rose 4.6% in 2019. There's a lag in data for this year, but initial reports suggest bad news ahead. In July, the specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported that its analysis of more than half a million urine drug found large increases in the use fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. That same month, the Washington Post reportedthat fatal ODs have jumped and keep jumping during the pandemic. The Post's data showed overdose deaths up 18% in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May. The Post pointed to continued isolation, economic devastation, and disruptions in the drug trade as contributing factors.

Update 12/22: This year the top ten domestic stories goes to eleven, with the infamous "Aid Elimination Penalty" of the Higher Education Act set for repeal, as part of the massive spending bill sent to the president on the night of Monday the 21st. The provision barred students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for college, for varying lengths of time. The spending bill also restores Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

Our own organization campaigned for many years for the law's repeal, through the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform and the John W. Perry scholarship fund. Extensive media coverage made the law controversial, and in 2006 it was scaled back to be limited to drug offenses committed while a student was in school and receiving federal aid. In 2010 legislation to limit its reach further passed the House of Representatives.The provision stayed on the radar for members of Congress and their staffs, and yesterday it got done.

Patrick Kennedy Wants to Be Drug Czar, NJ MJ Implementation Bill Heard, More... (12/14/20)

Jostling over who will be named Joe Biden's drug czar has begun, Arizona gets working on rules for the nascent legal marijuana industry, more cartel conflict in Mexico, and more.

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy is openly lobbying to be named drug czar in the Biden administration. (nationalcouncil.org)
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Begins Working on Draft Rules for Recreational Marijuana Sales. State health officials have commenced the rulemaking process for legal marijuana commerce. Since election results were certified on November 30, adults can legally possess up to an ounce and grow up to six plants, but legal sales can't start until the rules are set. State officials anticipate sales could begin in the spring. The initiative that legalized marijuana mandates that the state begin accepting applications from medical marijuana dispensaries that want to become recreational shops beginning January 19 and that licenses be issued to more than 60 days after applications are received.

New Jersey Senate Committee Considering Marijuana Legalization Plan Today. The Senate Judiciary Committee is meeting Monday to consider S21, the bill to implement marijuana legalization after voters approved it in November. It is also considering a number of other bills, including S3256, which would downgrade the crime of possession of psilocybin mushrooms to a "disorderly person offense."

Drug Policy

Patrick Kennedy Launches Public Bid to Be Named Biden's Drug Czar. Former congressman and mental health and addiction treatment advocate Patrick Kennedy has begun a well-publicized bid to be named head of the White House Office of National Drug Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) in the Biden administration. Kennedy is an opponent of marijuana legalization. There are other contenders, including former board president for the American Society of Addiction Medicine Kelly Clark, former Obama era addiction policy official Westley Clark, and March of Dimes chief medical officer Rahul Gupta, who heads the Biden administration's ONDCP transition team. Notably, all of these contenders come from the public health sphere, not the law enforcement sphere as has typically been the case with past drug czars.

International

Australian Capital Territory to See Drug Decriminalization Bill. A backbench member of the Australian Capital Territory's (Canberra) governing Labor Party will introduce a bill to decriminalize drug possession in the ACT Legislative Assembly next year. The opposition has not rejected the idea outright, but says it needs further review. If passed, it would make the ACT the first place in the country to enact drug decriminalization. An early draft of the bill sets possession limits at half a gram of MDMA and two grams of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

Mexican Cartel Battle in Michoacan Now in Second Week. Fighting over control of 13 municipalities in the state of Michoacan between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and Cartels United, which consists of the Sinaloa Cartel and other criminal groups, has gone on for more than a week now. Most recently, 13 people were killed in attacks last week in the towns of Chinicuila and Tepalcatepec, where residents dug trenches across roads to try to prevent gunmen from entering, as well as in Morelia, Zamora, and Uruapan. Multi-sided gun battles pitched cartel hitmen against each other, as well as police, soldiers, and armed residents. At least three civilians were among the dead.

Philippines Says Despite UN CND Vote, Marijuana Is Still a Dangerous Drug. Responding to the recent vote at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) removing marijuana from the most dangerous drug schedule, the Philippines is holding firm. The undersecretary of the Dangerous Drugs Board, Benjamin Reyes, said that doesn't mean marijuana is no longer a dangerous drug. "It is still included. It's just that marijuana (may now) have possible medical use, but still dangerous just like cocaine and opium," he said.

CA Psychedelic Decrim Bill Coming, British Heroin-Assisted Treatment Pilot Gets Results, More... (11/11/20)

The odor of marijuana will no longer be the sole grounds for police searches in Virginia after March 1, a bid to legalize marijuana in Colombia has failed, but another remains alive, and more.

Peyote and other psychedelics could be decriminalized under a bill soon to be filed in California. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Law Ending Searches Based on Marijuana Order Goes into Effect on March 1. After lawmakers passed Senate Bill 5029 during a special session, police will no longer be able to conduct searches based solely on the odor of marijuana. The law will go into effect on March 1.

Psychedelics

California Will See Bill to Decriminalize Psychedelics. State Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) said Tuesday he plans to introduce a bill that would decriminalize the possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics. Weiner is also pushing a broader drug policy agenda that includes legalizing safe injection sites and ending mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. "The war on drugs has been a disaster, in terms of bloating law enforcement, tearing apart communities, criminalizing addiction and spending enormous amounts of money on prisons," Wiener said. "We need to end the war on drugs. Possession of drugs should just not be a crime."

International

British Pilot Heroin Maintenance Program Celebrates First Year. A heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) program in Middlebrough marked its first anniversary this week and is reporting good results. Half of the 14 people who began the program remain on it and the result has been "low re-offending rates, improved physical and mental well-being, and repaired relationships with family and friends," according to the program's director. The people remaining on the program had committed 541 detected criminal offenses before entering the program, but only three since joining. Participants come twice a day to a clinic to inject pharmaceutical heroin in a supervised setting.

Colombia Shelves Congressional Bill on Marijuana Legalization. A bill that would have legalized marijuana has been defeated in the Chamber of Representatives on a vote of 102-52. Right-wing factions allied with President Ivan Duque defeated the bill. But a second marijuana legalization bill is still alive in the Senate and will be debated by mid-month. To become law, that bill must be fully approved by year's end.

Opioid Settlement Looms, NJ Legislature Moves on Voter-Authorized MJ Legalization, More... (11/6/20)

State elected officials react in different ways to marijuana legalization votes, a major settlement looms over prescription opioids, and more.

An opioid manufacturer and three distributors are nearly a major settlement on thousands of opioid lawsuits. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Governor Appoints Top Marijuana Regulator Following Legalization Vote. Moving quickly to implement the will of the voters, Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has named the people who will administer the implementation of legalization as the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. He named former policy counsel to the state ACLU and current administration staffer Dianna Houenou to head the commission. She is emphasizing social equity. "Cannabis legalization and regulation is just one illustration of much larger work that is needed to reform our drug policies wholesale. We really are looking to make sure that equity is built into a regulated structure at the onset," she said. The legislature is also quickly swinging into gear.

South Dakota Republican Legislators Look for Ways to Undo the Will of the Voters. After the resounding victory of the state's medical marijuana initiative and the clear victory of its legalization initiative, the state's Republican governor and legislature are now pondering how to try to undo what the voters chose. Gov. Kristi Noem (R) said voters made "the wrong choice" in approving the initiatives. The legislature is limited in its ability to mess with the legalization initiative because it was a constitutional amendment, but the medical marijuana initiative is a statutory one, which the legislature can nullify, repeal, or gut such measures, as it did with a voter-approve campaign finance reform initiative in 2016. And lawmakers could vote to propose a future amendment to nullify marijuana legalization. Stay tuned.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

$26 Billion Settlement Offer in Opioid Lawsuits Gains Wide Support. A large pharmaceutical drug maker and three distributors are nearing a $26 billion deal with state and local governments to settle thousands of lawsuits over the companies' role in the opioid epidemic that began in the late 1990s. The four companies are McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and Johnson & Johnson. A settlement would mean those companies would face no risk of further lawsuits from those state and local governments. The bulk of the money would go to help pay for treatment and prevention programs in areas hard-hit by the epidemic.

International

Final Results Confirm New Zealand Marijuana Legalization Referendum Failed. Vote totals tightened after initial results had the country's marijuana legalization referendum failing with only 46% of the vote, but not enough to overcome the vote deficit. The final tally ended with the referendum getting 48%, 51% opposed.

Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty to Criminal Charges Over Oxycontin, Another NJ Pot Poll Looking Good, More... (10/21/20)

The Trump campaign demands a Mississippi medical marijuana initiative campaign cease and desist from saying he supports it, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation releases a book on how to regulate stimulants, and more.

Purdue Pharma will pay more than $8 billion in a criminal case around Oxycontin. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Another New Jersey Poll Has Marijuana Legalization Cruising Toward Victory. ABrach Eichler Cannabis Poll released Tuesday has support for the marijuana legalization initiative at 65%, with 29% opposed and 6% undecided. This is the fourth Brach Eichler poll to show support at around two-thirds, while a Fairleigh Dickinson poll released earlier this month had support at 61%. It looks like the Garden State will free the weed next month.

Medical Marijuana

Trump Campaign Demands Mississippi Activists Quit Saying He Supports Medical Marijuana Initiative. Although President Trump has repeatedly said he supports medical marijuana, his campaign has mailed a cease and desist letter to Mississippians for Compassionate Care after it used his name, image, or likeness in support of Initiative 65. "President Trump has never expressed support for Initiative 65, and his campaign demands that you immediately cease and desist all activities using the President’s name, image, or likeness in support of the legalization of medical marijuana in Mississippi,"the letter stated. The campaign had recently sent out mailers urging voters to "Join President Trump" in supporting medical marijuana in the state. The campaign responded thusly: "President Trump has clearly stated on multiple occasions that he supports medical marijuana. That is all that we’ve shared – the truth,"said Mississippians for Compassionate Care Communications Director Jamie Grantham.

Drug Treatment

Massachusetts Attorney General Sues Drug Treatment Center Chain for Medicare Fraud. The state attorney general's office filed suit last Friday against Total Wellness Centers LLC, CleanSlate Centers Inc., and CleanSlate Centers LLC (collectively "CleanSlate) for allegedly submitting millions of dollars in false claims to the state Medicaid program. The complaint alleges CleanSlate submitted millions of dollars in false claims for urine drug screens that were medically unnecessary and violated state and federal self-referral laws because the tests were done at their own lab. "This company’s business model was to illegally profit by cheating our state Medicaid program, which provides vital health care resources to some of our most vulnerable residents," Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. "We will take legal action against this kind of misconduct in order to recover funds for our state and protect the integrity of MassHealth."

Opioids

Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty to Criminal Charges for Opioid Sales. The Justice Department has announced that Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, has agreed to plead guilty to charges of defrauding federal health agencies and violating anti-kickback laws and will pay penalties of $8.3 billion, including $225 million coming from individual members of the Sackler family, which owned Purdue Pharma. The rollout and aggressive marketing of Oxycontin in the late 1990s helped set the stage for the country's opioid epidemic of the early 21st Century.

International

Bolivia's MAS Wins Presidential Election, Will Maintain Evo's Coca Policy. A year after long-time president Evo Morales was forced from office after disputed elections, his former economics minister, Luis Arce, cruised to an electoral victory, winning 52% of the vote in a multi-party election and avoiding the need for a runoff election. Arce said that while he has no problem with the United States, he will maintain Morales' coca policy, under which legal coca cultivation was allowed.

British Drug Reformers Call for the Government to Sell Cocaine and Ecstasy in Pharmacies. In a book just published, the Transform Drug Policy Foundation has created a "how to" for allowing legal sales of stimulant drugs such as cocaine, Ecstasy, and amphetamines. The group recommends selling the drugs in individual doses at state-run special pharmacies as an alternative to the "unwinnable war on drugs."The book is How to Regulate Stimulants: A Practical Guide. Look for a Chronicle review once my copy arrives.

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

Former Mexican Defense Minister Busted at LAX, MT Legal Pot Initiative Faces Late Legal Challenge, More... (10/19/20)

Missouri and Virginia both saw their first legal medical marijuana sales this past weekend, the US Sentencing Commission reports more than 3,000 federal prisoners have secured sentence reductions under the First Step Act, and more. 

Former Mexican Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda busted on US drug charges. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Marijuana Legalization Initiative Faces Last-Minute Legal Challenge in State Supreme Court. Opponents of the state's twinned marijuana legalization initiatives (one would legalize it; the other would allow a change in the state constitution to allow setting the legal age at 21) are preparing a last-minute legal challenge designed to knock the measures off the ballot. The opposition group Wrong for Montana said it is preparing to file a lawsuit arguing that the initiatives violate the state constitution by specifying where revenues generated by legal marijuana would go. Voting is already underway in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Missouri Sees First Medical Marijuana Sales. Legal medical marijuana went on sale for the first time in the state over the weekend. The first dispensaries opened in St. Louis county, one in Ellisville and one in Manchester. The state has already approved 65,000 patients to use medical marijuana.

Virginia Sees First Medical Marijuana Sales. Legal medical marijuana went on sale for the first time in the state over the weekend. Dharma Pharmaceuticals opened its doors to registered patients on Saturday morning. The shop was seeing patients by appointment only as a coronavirus precaution.

Sentencing Policy

More Than 3,000 Federal Prisoners Have Received First Step Act Sentencing Reductions. The US Sentencing Commission reports that 3,363 drug offenders have been granted sentencing reductions under the 2018 First Step Act. Those granted reductions saw their sentences decreased by an average of 71 months, a nearly 25% reduction. More than 90% of those receiving sentence reductions were Black.

Pennsylvania Report Recommends Reducing Incarceration for Probationers with Drug Violations. The state Commission on Sentencing has issued a report calling for less jailing and more access to drug treatment for people on probation who get caught using drugs. The report found that about one third of all probation revocations are for drug use. "This report shows that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on providing evidence-based drug treatment for those sentenced to community supervision in order to provide better outcomes for offenders and to avoid costly incarceration," Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) and the chairman of the commission, wrote in a release.

International

Mexico's Former Defense Minister Arrested in US on Drug and Money Laundering Charges. Former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested last Friday at Los Angeles International Airport by US authorities and is charged with taking bribes to allow a violent drug cartel to operate with impunity in Mexico. Cienfuegos was secretary of national defense from 2012 to 2018. He is charged with four counts: international heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana manufacture and distribution conspiracy, importation and distribution conspiracies, and conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds, according to the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.

Biden Calls for Mandatory Treatment for Drug Law Violators, VT Lawmakers Closer to Legalizing MJ Sales, More... (9/8/20)

Joe Biden's approach to drug policy appears still rooted in the last century, the Trump administration releases mandatory guidelines for hair follicle testing for truck drivers, and more.

Joe Biden wants treatment not jail for drug offenders, but he wants to make treatment mandatory. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Lawmakers Get Closer to Deal on Legal Marijuana Sales. The House and Senate are drawing nearer to a final agreement on legislation that would allow for legal marijuana sales in the state. The main sticking point now appears to be how towns will earn revenues from the trade. The Senate wants to impose a 2% tax on towns that host dispensaries, but the House wants to give towns money from marijuana licensing fees. Negotiators will meet later this week where they'll continue to hammer out the details of the bill.

Drug Testing

Trump Administration Releases Mandatory Guidelines for Hair Testing for Drugs in Truck Drivers. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) last Friday released for comment long-awaited mandatory hair-testing guidelines to screen drivers for drugs. The proposed Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs using Hair (HMG) "will allow federal executive branch agencies to collect and test a hair specimen as part of their drug testing programs." Under the guidelines, federal agencies doing drug testing, such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) -- must collect at least one other specimen type, such as urine or oral fluid, authorized under the Mandatory Guidelines for Federal Workplace Drug Testing Programs. The agency also must provide procedures for use of an alternate specimen when a donor is unable to provide a sufficient amount of hair for faith-based or medical reasons, or due to an insufficient amount or length of hair, according to the proposal.

Drug Treatment

Joe Biden Calls for Mandatory Drug Treatment for Drug Offenders. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has called for mandatory drug treatment for drug offenders in return for not jailing them and clearing their records. "Anybody who gets convicted of a drug crime -- not one that is in terms of massive selling, but consumption -- they shouldn't go to prison. They should go to mandatory rehabilitation," Biden said at a campaign event in Kenosha, Wisconsin last week. "Instead of building more prisons, as I've been proposing for some time, we build rehabilitation centers." Drug reform advocates generally oppose coerced treatment.

International

Poll Has Support Dropping for New Zealand Marijuana Legalization Referendum as Election Day Nears. With a September 19 election day drawing near, a new poll has support for marijuana legalization declining. In March, 43% favored the referendum, with only 33% opposed. Now, a new poll has support at 39%, with 46% opposed. If voters approve the referendum on the Cannabis Legalization and Control Bill, the bill will then be introduced in Parliament.

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

One State is About to Vote on Radical Drug Policy Reform [FEATURE]

Oregon residents will have a chance in November to approve the most far-reaching drug reform measure ever to make the ballot in this country when they vote on Measure 110, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act. While the initiative indeed expands drug treatment, what makes it really revolutionary is that it would also decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs, from psychedelics to cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as heroin and other illicit opioids.

Possession of illicit drugs will no longer be a criminal offense under Oregon law if this measure passes. (DEA)
"Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more," Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign," said in a press release.

If Oregon voters approve the measure, the state will be in select company. At least 19 countries, mostly in Europe and Latin America, have drug decriminalization laws on the books, with the most well-known being Portugal, which pioneered the way, decriminalizing drug possession in 2001. Instead of being arrested and jailed, people caught with illicit drugs there are given a warning and a small fine or asked to voluntarily appear before a local commission whose aim is to determine whether the person needs drug treatment and if so, to offer it to them at no expense. (It helps that Portugal has universal health care.)

Decriminalization has worked for Portugal. According to a Drug Policy Alliance report after a delegation visited Lisbon in 2018, before drug decriminalization, the country suffered rapidly increasing drug overdose deaths, a high number of people who caught HIV through needle-sharing, and led the European Union in drug-related AIDS. Since decriminalization, though, "the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, while overdose deaths, HIV infections, problematic drug use, and incarceration for drug related offenses has plummeted." Not bad at all.

It was just three years ago that the Oregon legislature approved drug defelonization -- making possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony -- but now advocates are already prepared to push further down the Portuguese path. That's because while, according to the state Criminal Justice Commission (CJC), drug defelonization indeed resulted in felony drug convictions dropping by nearly two-thirds, it also included a near 10-fold increase in misdemeanor drug possession convictions. That translates into only a slight decline in overall drug arrests, from just over 10,000 in Fiscal Year 2016 to 8,903 in Fiscal Year 2018.

Under Measure 110, those misdemeanor drug arrests would vanish as drug possession gets reclassified as a mere violation punishable only by a $100 fine or by completing a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional. Those who are deemed to benefit from drug treatment could go to an addiction recovery center, one of which will be located in every organization service area in the state. Those centers, as well as additional funding for treatment, would be paid for with revenues from marijuana sales taxes.

The measure is backed by Drug Policy Action, the political and lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has put $2.5 million into the campaign already, DPA director of media relations Matt Sutton said in an email exchange. And that's just the beginning, he added.

"We'll continue to invest in terms of what it takes to win it," he said. "The campaign is starting a variety of different ads and raising awareness in the final push. We've invested a lot already and we're very committed to it financially. We think this is winnable."

So, why Oregon and why now?

"We have to start somewhere," said Sutton. "Oregon is a very progressive state and has really been the leader on a lot of drug policy reforms. It was one of the first to decriminalize marijuana, one of the first to legalize medical marijuana, one of the first to legalize marijuana, one of the first to defelonize drug possession. It's no surprise that Oregon would be an attractive state to do this in."

The special nature of this year, with its double whammy of enduring pandemic and its long, hot summer of street protests, makes drug decriminalization all the more relevant, Sutton said.

"Having a state like Oregon that has been a progressive leader take this on will signal to the rest of the country that this can be done and that it's not actually that radical of a proposition," said Sutton. "And just in terms of everything that's happened this year -- COVID and the awakening to racial injustice -- it just doesn't seem as such a radical proposition. With COVID we've seen the discrepancies in the health care system.

"It's the same communities that are being overpoliced and have been hit hardest by the war on drugs," he continued. "And people are realizing that the war on drugs is racist. The real reason behind the war on drugs was to criminalize and marginalize communities of color, and we've demonized drugs and the people who use them. The drug war hasn't made drugs less accessible to youth, but instead we get a lot more people incarcerated and dying of drug use. The more we criminalize it, the more dangerous it becomes."

In an August report, the state CJC made clear just what sort of impact drug decriminalization would have on racial inequities, and the results are impressive: Racial disparities in drug arrests, using an academically accepted comparison measure, would drop by an astounding 95%.

The report also found that decriminalization would radically reduce overall drug convictions, with projected convictions of Black and Indigenous people declining by an equally astounding 94%.

"This drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others," the report found.

"This report only scratches the surface," Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon said in a press release. "Drugs are too often used as an excuse to disproportionately target Black and Brown Oregonians and economically disadvantaged communities."

"This initiative addresses those racial disparities more than anything," said DPA's Sutton. "It will help those communities that have been down for far too long. A lot of the economic problems we see there are a result of decades of drug war, taking generations of people out of their homes and saddling them with felony convictions. This would be a huge win in taking drug reform to the next level. It doesn't solve all the problems of drug prohibition -- people would still be charged with distribution and drug induced homicide -- but it would still be a huge step forward."

And now, a broad coalition of change agents are uniting to push the initiative to victory in November. Endorsements range from national and international groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, AFSCME, the National Association of Social Workers, and Human Rights Watch, as well as dozens and dozens of state and local racial justice, human rights, and religious groups and groups representing health and social welfare professionals.

"We've received an incredible amount of support, and it's really broad," said Sutton. "And there is no organized opposition."

If things go well in November, DPA and its lobbying and campaign arm, Drug Policy Action, are already planning next moves.

"We just a few weeks ago released a national framework for drug decriminalization, the Drug Policy Reform Act," Sutton said. "This has been a goal of DPA all along and where our work is focused today, all drug decriminalization. We think that people are ready for that. We decided to release the framework right now just because of everything happening in the country especially around racial justice issues. People are seeing the direct impact of the war on drugs and the racial disparities."

"We're already looking ahead at other states where we could replicate this," Sutton revealed. "Some of the first states to legalize marijuana would likely be the first to consider drug decriminalization."

Once again, Oregon voters have a chance to burnish their drug reform credentials, only this time with the most dramatic attack yet on drug prohibition. If they approve Measure 110, they will truly be the drug reform vanguard -- and blaze a path others can follow.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of StoptheDrugWar.org, and we participated in the Lisbon delegation.

OR Drug Decrim Will Go to Voters, VA Marijuana Decrim Now in Effect, More... (7/1/20)

The Old Dominion decriminalizes pot possession, Oregon will vote on decriminalizing all drugs, drug overdoses are jumping during the pandemic, and more.

Virginia. Now not just for lovers, but for tokers, too. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Marijuana Decriminalization Now in Effect. As of July 1, marijuana decriminalization has gone into effect in Virginia. Now, people caught with an ounce or less will face a maximum penalty of a $25 fine. A celebration is planned for the state capital Wednesday. "Richmond hasn't burned this hard since 1865!" the event's anonymous organizers wrote. In 2018, the last year for which full data is available, 29,000 people were arrested on marijuana charges.

Medical Marijuana

Nebraska Petitioners Prepare to Hand in Signatures. With a deadline to hand in signatures for their initiative Thursday, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana has stepped up signature-gathering in recent weeks. The group needs 121,000 valid voter signatures and says they are very close. Stay tuned.

Drug Policy

Drug Overdoses Soar Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic. Based on data from ambulance teams, hospitals, and police, the Washington Post is reporting that drug overdose deaths have jumped and keep jumping during the coronavirus pandemic. The Post's data showed overdose deaths up 18% in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May. The Post points to continued isolation, economic devastation, and disruptions in the drug trade as contributing factors.

Ohio Senate Passes Drug Sentencing Reform Bill. On a vote of 25-4, the state Senate Tuesday approved Senate Bill 3, which would reclassify many low-level drug possession felonies as misdemeanors. The bill would also make it easier for people convicted of drug possession crimes to get their records sealed, and it would give judges the option of delaying and possibly dismissing cases if a defendant successfully completed a rehabilitation program. And it doubles the state's already generous limit for decriminalized marijuana possession from 100 grams to 200 grams -- nearly half a pound of pot.

Oregon Drug Decriminalization, Treatment Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot. The secretary of state's office has confirmed that the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act (IP44) has qualified for the November ballot by handing in more than 116,622 valid voter signatures. The initiative would decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of drugs and channel marijuana tax revenues into drug treatment.

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.

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