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Leftist Former Guerrilla and Drug War Critic Gustavo Petro Wins Colombian Presidency [FEATURE]

In an election that has overturned a decades-long status quo in Colombian politics, former leftist guerrilla and Bogota mayor Gustavo Petro won the presidency on Sunday. He beat his competitor, Trumpian businessman Rodolfo Hernández, by a margin of 50.44% to 47.03%, with 100 percent of the votes counted.

Colombia's next president, Gustavo Petro (Creative Commons)
Petro's victory is the latest win in a Latin American "pink tide," with leftists recently winning presidential elections in Bolivia, Chile, Honduras and Peru, and poised to take power once again in Brazil.

What to do about the country's booming coca and cocaine trade and the violence that surrounds it was a central theme in the campaign -- with both candidates critical of a war on drugs intertwined with a ferocious counterinsurgency financed by the United States to the tune of $20 billion since the days of Plan Colombia and paid for with the blood of hundreds of thousands of Colombians.

Even the conservative Hernández, a wealthy real estate developer, suggested giving drugs to addicts as a means of ending drug trade violence. "If we give drug addicts free drugs, be it intravenous, aspiration, or oral, then the demand is over. Nobody buys again," Hernández said in a campaign speech last week. "And if they don't buy [drugs] because we give them to users, the sale is over and the drug is over."

Petro, for his part, has called for legalizing marijuana. "The issue of marijuana seems stupid to me to keep it underground," he said in a recent interview. "Ex-presidents' relatives do the business of exporting legal marijuana and, on the other hand, they throw bombs at the peasants and their children who produce marijuana in [the southwestern province of] Cauca. The possibility of legal exportation of marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes through licenses from the national government has friends with political power in Colombia. If Colombia does not get its act together, we're going to lose that business."

But he has also been harshly critical of broader drug prohibition. Last month, he asked whether "the million dead Latin Americans -- the majority Colombians and Mexicans -- has been worth it. Drugs are so demonized that it's politically correct to say 'let's ban them and start a war,' but we never consider the consequences."

Colombia "doesn't need more violence" to stop the drug war, he said. "The drug war is fought with capitalism. It is not with lead or with more violence."

He advocates for voluntary crop substitution instead of forced eradication for coca farmers and has promised to use marijuana as a substitute crop.

His position on coca and cocaine legalization was artfully unclear during the campaign, but there is a bill that would authorize a pilot project to directly buy coca from farmers in areas hardest hit by drug trafficking and state violence and allow the government to set a legal coca market price. While the bill gained some backing since in was introduced in 2020, it has languished in limbo under the anti-reformist outgoing President Ivan Duque. Whether the bill will now move under Petro will be an early indicator of his policy positions.

Sanho Tree is director of the Drug Policy Project at the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies, and has been studying and traveling to Colombia for years. He was nearly at a loss for words.

"I'm still processing this," he told the Chronicle. "I didn't expect him to live this long, much less win. But they fear the vice president [the country's first female Afro-Colombian to hold the office, Francia Márquez] even more, so that's sort of an insurance policy. It's been 20 years of disappointment, horrors, and setbacks, so this is just a moment of unbridled joy," he said.

"This is a step forward for drug policy, human rights, and civil society, and you have Chile and Brazil -- if Lula wins as it looks he will, there will be a powerful triangular bloc in South America that could eclipse even US influence," Tree said.

And that's not the only potential new alignment Tree foresees. "With Bolivia and Peru, and now Colombia, we could see a regional coca bloc," he said.

And unlike his predecessor, said Tree, Petro will take the 2016 peace accords with the FARC seriously and actually try to implement them. The accords were supposed to bring peace to the countryside, but were opposed by Duque, and once the FARC demobilized, violent rightist paramilitaries and leftist guerrilla factions filled the vacuum as the state failed to provide promised alternative development assistance.

"Duque is an Uribista [ally of former ultra-conservative President Alvaro Uribe, who has been linked to the rightist paramilitaries] and hated the guerrillas," Tree said. "He never wanted peace and he sure wasn't going to help any of them. It was a huge opportunity lost and there was a huge sense of betrayal. In many ways, it is as dangerous as ever for NGOs and human rights defenders, and the state has done nothing. They should have seized the opportunity in 2016, but it was all about Trumpian vengeance instead."

Petro will "take the peace treaties seriously," Tree said. "He will invest in rural communities, and that will make a big difference in daily life for people. Right now, it makes a lot of sense for farmers to grow coca because it is such a valuable crop, but it is also very violent and dangerous. Many farmers would rather not be in that business, and if they don't have to participate in that economy, that could be really helpful."

Tree pointed to the positive experience of Bolivia under Evo Morales.

"With Morales in Bolivia, instead of forced eradication and violence, they stopped that and went a regulated supply -- 40 square meters per family -- and that allowed them to have food security and a predictable income stream, and that allows people to diversify local economies. You can do these kinds of economic experiments once you have a little food security."

Also, said Tree, "fumigation will be off the table."

There is an opportunity for positive change in Colombia, especially around drug policy. Now, it is time for Petro to prove himself.

State Banking Regulators Call for Passage of SAFE Banking Act, Colombia Could Elect a Drug War Critic as President, More... (5/27/22)

A congressman calls on the Transportation Department to adjust its drug testing policies for truck drivers to account for broad marijuana legalization, Michigan enacts a new asset forfeiture law for airports, and more.

Leftist Colombian presidential candidate Gustavo Petro is a harsh critic of the US drug war in Colombia. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

State Financial Regulators Urge Congress to Pass Marijuana Banking Protections as Part of Manufacturing Bill. The Conference of State Bank Supervisors (CSBS), which represents state financial regulators from across the country, sent a letter Wednesday to House and Senate leaders urging them to include marijuana banking reform in the COMPETES Act, a large-scale manufacturing bill. "By granting a safe harbor for financial institutions, Congress can bring regulatory clarity to the financial services industry, address public safety concerns and ensure access to financial services for state-compliant marijuana and marijuana-related businesses," CSBS Acting President James Cooper said.

The group is calling on congressional negotiators to include the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking act in the version of the bill that will go to President Biden. The House included it in its version of the bill, but the Senate removed the language. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) has consistently blocked passage of the SAFE Banking Act, arguing that outright federal legalization is the path to go down, but there is little sign that there is sufficient support in the Senate for a legalization bill to pass.

Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Bill to Let Airport Authorities Seize Suspected Drug Cash Signed into Law. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) has signed into law a pair of Republican-sponsored bills, House Bill 4631and House Bill 4632, that will allow airport authorities to seize suspected drug cash or property without first obtaining a conviction or guilty plea if the cash or property exceeds $20,000. The seizure would still have to be upheld in a civil judgement. "Drug trafficking will not be tolerated in Michigan," said bill sponsor Rep. Graham Filler (R-Clinton County). "The men and women who keep our airports secure need to have the proper authority to keep drugs and drug money out of our state -- and this reform gives them the tools they need to get the job done."

Drug Testing

Lawmaker Calls on Transportation Department to Amend "Outdated" Marijuana Testing Requirements. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) has sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg calling on the department to change its policies that punish commercial truck drivers for using marijuana while off the job. "To date, 48 states have enacted laws that, to varying degrees, relax their prohibitions against the use of marijuana," wrote Blumenauer. "Nevertheless, your department's zero-tolerance policy sweeps up drivers who were unimpaired, drivers who have not used cannabis for weeks or even months, and drivers who have used federally-legal CBD oils. Blanket disqualifications are unjust, unfair, and cause widespread economic and social damage. Thousands of driving positions are unfilled, compounding our supply chain woes. Penalizing safe drivers who comply with state cannabis laws harms both the drivers and the supply chains they support." Amidst supply chain challenges and a driver shortage, more than 36,000 truckers have had their licenses suspended for testing positive for marijuana metabolites in recent months.

International

Leftist Critic of US Drug War Poised to Win Colombian Presidency. Former leftist guerilla and Bogota mayor and current Senator Gustavo Petro is poised to win the first round of Colombia's presidential elections (although he may be forced into a run-off if he comes in with less than 50 percent of the vote). Petro is a staunch critic of the US's drug war in Colombia, frequently noting that despite spending billions on military and law enforcement and decades of US pressure to reduce drug production, the country remains a top supplier of cocaine and is awash in prohibition-related violence. He has also recently questioned the extradition last month of the head of the Gulf Clan Cartel, Dairo Antonio Usuga and is more broadly critical of extradition.

"Extradition: it merits a discussion -- a review of the figures -- to see if what’s been done for 40 years has worked or not; if a million dead Latin Americans -- the majority Colombians and Mexicans -- has been worth it," he said in an interview last month. Despite all the violence and security spending, Colombian cocaine production has tripled in the past decade, according to US government data.

DE House Passes Legal Pot Bill, US Reps Press DOJ on Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses, More... (5/6/22)

A South Carolina medical marijuana falls to opponents' House maneuvers, Venezuela is joining the ranks of coca and cocaine producers, and more.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) is calling on the Justice Department to explain civil asset forfeiture abuses. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Delaware House Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill. The House on Thursday voted to approve a measure that would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana for adults, House Bill 371. The bill would not set up a system of taxed and regulated sales but does allow for the unremunerated transfer of up to an ounce from one adult to another. The bill now heads to the Senate, which, like the House, is controlled by Democrats. But it faces a potential veto by Gov. John Carney (D), who has expressed doubts about marijuana legalization.

Medical Marijuana

South Carolina Medical Marijuana Bill Killed in House. A measure to legalize medical marijuana in the state, the Compassionate Use Act (Senate Bill 150) was killed on the House floor Wednesday after a debate over legislative process but without any discussion of the merits of the bill. The bill had already passed the Senate but faced long odds in the House, where opponents of reform filed more than a thousand amendments. One opponent, Rep. John McCravy (R), then created a constitutional challenge for the bill, claiming that it should have originated in the House because it involves a tax on medical marijuana. Under the state constitution, bills involving taxation must originate in the House. House Speaker Pro Tem Thomas Pope (R) then ruled to sustain McCravy's point of order and against an appeal from Rep. Todd Rutherford (D), who said he planned to later scrap the tax language via an amendment, effectively killing the bill. Sponsors said they would keep trying, though.

Asset Forfeiture

House Members Request Justice Department Briefing on Abuses of Federal Civil Asset Forfeiture Program. Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Nancy Mace, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting information about the Department of Justice's (DOJ) efforts to address longstanding abuses of its Equitable Sharing Program, which allows state and local governments to partner with DOJ by transferring property, money, or assets that have been seized by law enforcement to the federal government for forfeiture which then shares up to 80% of the proceeds with local and state law enforcement agencies, regardless of state law.

The letter came after a December hearing that examined the need to reform federal civil asset forfeiture programs, including equitable sharing, to prevent state, local, and federal law enforcement from abusing the civil rights and civil liberties of Americans. Expert witnesses testified that state and local law enforcement agencies use DOJ's Equitable Sharing Program to circumvent state laws aimed at curtailing civil asset forfeiture abuse. Between 2000 and 2019, DOJ paid at least $8.8 billion from its Asset Forfeiture Fund (AFF) to state and local agencies.

"We are concerned that the Equitable Sharing Program creates a loophole allowing state and local law enforcement to seize assets from individuals without bringing criminal charges or a conviction, even in states that prohibit civil asset forfeiture," the Members wrote. "In addition, we are concerned that DOJ does not conduct adequate oversight of law enforcement agencies participating in the Equitable Sharing Program."

International

Venezuela Becoming a Coca, Cocaine Producer. InsightCrime, a website that covers Latin American drug trafficking, is reporting that Venezuela is becoming a coca producing and cocaine manufacturing country. Previously, it had served only as a transshipment point for cocaine produced in the big three coca-growing countries: Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. But now, "InsightCrime has uncovered evidence of the presence of significant quantities of coca in at least three municipalities in Zulia, and two more to the south in the state of Apure, each time verified and corroborated by multiple reliable sources," the web site reported. "In addition, sources in the field, international agencies, and the Venezuelan government's own reports show that the crystalizing laboratories used to process coca paste into cocaine hydrochloride have been proliferating in the same areas."

All of this activity is taking place in western part of the country, where Colombian guerilla groups and drug traffickers dominate and appear to be operating openly. "So far, cocaine production in Venezuela is nascent, representing just a drop in an ocean of coca compared to the historic levels seen in Colombia in recent years," InsightCrime noted. "But the country's border region, poor, isolated, abandoned by the state and dominated by armed groups, represents a perfect petri dish for it to spread. And in a country trapped in an economic crisis, ruled by a corrupt regime, and ravaged by criminality, that is a dangerous proposition."

Peru Announces Plan to Buy Up Entire Illegal Coca Crop, NH Senate Kills Legal Pot Bills Again, More... (4/29/22)

The White House announces more money for drug law enforcement, GOP senators file a bill to reduce but not eliminate the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and more.

British Virgin Islands Premier Andrew Fahie -- busted on drug charges in Florida (bvi.gov.vg)
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Senate Again Rejects Marijuana Legalization Bills. The Senate on Thursday rejected two different marijuana legalization bills. House Bill 1598 would have created a state-run monopoly for retail marijuana sales, while House Bill 629 would have legalized personal possession and home cultivation of the plant. In recent years, the House has repeatedly passed marijuana legalization bills, only to see them die in the Senate. On reason is paternalistic politicians like Sen. Bob Guida (R-Warren), who said he was "proud" of defeating legalization. "It may be what people want, but it's not what we as a Senate should enable them to do because it will cause harm," he said.

Law Enforcement

White House Announces $275 Million for Law Enforcement in HIDTAs. The White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) announced Thursday that it has allocated $275 million for law enforcement in designate High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs) to tackle black market opioid trafficking. ONDCP said the funds would go to 33 regional HIDTAs to "reduce violence associated with drug trafficking, improve interdiction efforts through enhanced data sharing and targeting, and dismantle illicit finance operations." Some of the money will also support public health and safety partnerships, like the Overdose Response Strategy, which works with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce overdose. But the bulks of the money is going to prohibitionist law enforcement.

Sentencing

GOP Senators File Bill to Reduce but Not Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity, Stiffen Some Penalties. US Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Mike Lee (R-UT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Roger Wicker (R-MS) to introduce the SMART Cocaine Sentencing Act, which would reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders tried in federal courts. The bill would reduce the current crack-to-powder cocaine sentencing disparity from 18:1 to 2.5:1. It would reduce the volume required to trigger five-year mandatory minimum sentences for powder cocaine from 500 grams to 400 grams, and from 5 kilograms to 4 kilograms for 10-year mandatory minimum sentences. For crack cocaine, the volume triggering a five-year mandatory sentence would be increased from 28 grams to 160 grams; the volume for the 10-year mandatory sentence would be lifted from 280 grams to 1,600 grams.

International

British Virgin Islands Leader Busted in Florida Drug Sting Operation. The elected head of government of the British Virgin Island, Premier Andrew Fahie, was arrested in a drug sting operation in Florida Thursday. Fahie went down after an undercover informant posing as a member of the Sinaloa Cartel sought his help in moving cocaine through the territory and on to the United States and Fahie agreed to help in return for $500,000 paid up front and accepted $20,000 in cash as good faith money. The Caribbean island nation's port director and her son were also charged. Fahie and the other two all face charges of conspiracy to import at least five kilograms of a cocaine mixture and conspiracy to launder money.

Mexico Sends 200 More Soldiers to Tijuana to Fight Cartel Violence. Mexico has deployed an additional 200 National Guard troops to join the 3,500 already deployed in the border city of Tijuana, which has been ravaged by prohibition-related violence in recent weeks. "The conflict over control of production, distribution and sales of drugs led by organized delinquents within the state of Baja California has generated a large number of homicides as a result of these activities,"said General Francisco Javier Hernández Almanza, the head of the Mexico's National Guard in Baja California. The soldiers will man vehicle checkpoints across the city. But the entry of Mexican soldiers into areas of cartel violence has often led to more -- not less -- violence.

Peru Announces Plans to Buy Up Entire Illicit Coca Crop. The government has announced a plan to buy up the nation's entire supply of illegal coca leaf as part of its battle against drug trafficking. The Andean nation is one of the world's three major cocaine producers, along with Bolivia and Colombia. The country has a legal coca market and produced an estimated 160,000 tons of coca leaf last year, but 95 percent of that was grown illegally and was destined for illegal markets, where it was converted into about 400 tons of cocaine. The country's coca monopoly, ENACO, has 95,000 registered licit coca growers, but there are an estimated 400,000 illicit coca growers that the government wants to bring into the fold. "It is imperative, for at least a year, to buy coca leaf from existing registered producers and from those that will make up the newly created register," Cabinet Chief Anibal Torres said on Wednesday when presenting the initiative. The plan would also end the military occupation of the VRAEM (Valleys of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers), the country's main coca production area, which has had a military presence since 2006.

ND Legal Pot Initiative Can Start Signature-Gathering, Honduras Ex-Prez Extradited on Drug Charges, More... (4/22/22)

Kentucky's governor announces plans for executive actions to make medical marijuana available in the state,  a pair of US senators go after a methamphetamine precursor chemical, and more.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is now in custody in the US on drug trafficking conspiracy charges. (CC)
Marijuana Policy

North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Can Begin Signature-Gathering. Secretary of State Al Jager (R) announced Thursday that a marijuana legalization initiative sponsored by New Approach North Dakota has been approved for signature-gathering. The measure would legalize marijuana for people 21 and over and direct the legislature to establish rules and create a legal marijuana program by October 2023. The campaign now needs to gather 15,582 valid voter signatures by July 11 to qualify for the November ballot.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign Comes Up Short. Kind Idaho, the group behind an effort to get a medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot, says it is not going to make it. "We aren't going to meet numbers," the campaign's treasurer said. The campaign needs 70,000 valid voter signatures to make the ballot but has only come up with a tenth of them, and the deadline is one week from today. "We ran into some issues along the way with basically starting up a grassroots organization without any sort of financial backing or assistance," he said.

Kentucky Governor Announces Plan to Allow Medical Marijuana. In the wake of the legislature's failure to pass a marijuana bill (again), Gov. Andy Beshear (D) announced Thursday a process that could lead to executive actions to allow medical marijuana in the state. "Most of these steps are about hearing from you, the public, so that your voice is heard by the executive branch — even if it's ignored by the legislative branch," Beshear said. Without naming names, Beshear went after Republican senators who blocked the bill, saying that "it's time that a couple of individuals that are out of touch with the vast majority of Kentuckians on this issue stop obstructing it and we're able to move forward."

Methamphetamine

Senate Drug Caucus Chairs Call on International Panel to Push for Scheduling of Methamphetamine Precursor Chemical. Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Chairman and Co-Chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, in a letter Thursday urged the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to recommend the scheduling of methylamine—a precursor to methamphetamine. On the INCB’s recommendation, the most recent session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) voted unanimously to control three fentanyl precursor chemicals, but did not act on methylamine. Whitehouse and Grassley encourage the INCB to back the scheduling of methylamine, which would help to save lives across the globe, they said. "In 2020, 24,576 Americans died from an overdose involving psychostimulants, a class of drugs that includes methamphetamine," Whitehouse and Grassley wrote. "As the United States Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control has expressed to INCB in the past, international action is necessary to stop methylamine sales that enable criminal groups to produce methamphetamine. Recommending that CND schedule methylamine under the 1988 UN Convention will help save lives across the globe, including in the United States."

International

Mexican President Confirms Closure of Elite Anti-Drug Unit That Worked with DEA. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Thursday that an elite anti-drug unit that worked on drug investigations with the DEA was shut down last year, confirming a Reuters report from Tuesday. Lopez Obrador said the unit was shut down "over a year ago" and charged the unit had been infiltrated by criminals. "That group, which was supposedly a high-level strategic group, was infiltrated (by criminals),"he said. The Sensitive Investigative Units (SIU) police were considered among the country's law enforcement elite and had worked on major investigations, such as the capture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, but one of its former leaders, Ivan Reyes Arzate, has pleaded guilty in US federal court to taking bribes from a drug gang. The unit was seen as vital by US drug agents, who needed Mexican police to help with investigations there.

Honduras Ex-President Extradited to US to Face Drug Charges. Former President Juan Orlando Hernandez was extradited from Honduras Thursday to face drug charges in the US. He is accused of taking massive bribes from Mexican drug traffickers to abet a cocaine-importing conspiracy and related gun trafficking offenses. Hernandez was president from 2014 to January 2022 and was a Washington ally despite rumors of corruption surrounding him for years. "Hernandez abused his position as president of Honduras from 2014 through 2022 to operate the country as a narco-state,"said US Attorney General Merrick Garland. "Hernandez worked closely with other public officials to protect cocaine shipments bound for the United States." Hernandez's brother Tony, a former Honduran congressman, has already been sentenced to life in prison in the US after being convicted earlier on drug trafficking charges. 

Amendments Fly as House Legal Pot Vote Looms, Singapore Hangs Man for Drug Trafficking, More... (3/30/22)

A Maryland marijuana legalization bill advances, New Mexico pot shops will open starting Friday, a Georgia therapeutic psychedelic study bill advances, and more.

The House is set to vote on the MORE Act this week. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Lawmakers File Various Amendments to House Marijuana Legalization Bill. With a House floor vote on the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617) set for this week, proposed amendments are coming fast and furious. They will be taken up by the House Rules Committee Wednesday. Most of the proposed amendments seek to impose restrictions on the bill, such as requiring completion of various certain studies before legalization, limiting expungement provisions, or maintaining certain penalties. One, though, would provide relief for people denied security clearances because of past marijuana convictions.

Maryland Marijuana Legalization Bill Advances. The Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday approved a marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 833, that would only take effect if voters approved a related ballot question in November. A slightly different version of the bill passed the House last month, so a conference committee will have to hash out the differences. The panel did not act on House Bill 1, which would establish the November referendum. The legislature faces a deadline at the end of the week. Lawmakers will only have the chance to override a possible veto by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) if they get bills to his desk this week.

New Mexico Recreational Pot Shops Can Open Their Doors on Friday. The state legislature legalized marijuana last year, and beginning on Friday, the first recreational marijuana sales in the state can begin. New Mexicans could legally possess and use marijuana since last June, but had no place to legally purchase recreational marijuana—until now. State officials have issued more than 200 licenses for retail pot shops. When they open later this week, adults will be able to purchase two ounces of weed at a time.

Opiates and Opioids

California Fentanyl Crisis Prompts Flurry of Bills. Lawmakers are responding to a surge in fentanyl-related overdoses with a number of bills, some punitive, but others embracing harm reduction interventions. Assembly Member Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Irvine) has filed Assembly Bill 2246, which would increase penalties for possession and distribution, including a sentence of 20 years to life for someone who sold fentanyl that resulted in a fatal overdose. Assembly Member James Ramos (D-Highland) has field Assembly Bill 1628, which would require companies such as Snapchat to implement policies that prohibit the sale of fentanyl and other controlled substances on their platforms. Senate Bill 864 would require hospitals to test drug screening urine samples for fentanyl, Senate Bill 1350 would require warnings to people convicted of drug distribution offenses that they could be charged with manslaughter of murder in the event of a fatal overdose, while Assembly Bill 1673 would set up a California Fentanyl Task Force to produce statewide statistics and ramp up public awareness. On the harm reduction side, Sen. Scott Weiner's (D-San Francisco) Senate Bill 57 would authorize pilot safe injection site program in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles. That bill has passed the Senate and is now before the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

Psychedelics

Georgia Therapeutic Psychedelic Study Bill Advances. The House Appropriations Public Safety Subcommittee voted Tuesday to approve House Resolution 896, which would create a House study committee to investigate the therapeutic potential of psychedelics such as psilocybin and make recommendations for legislation. The bill is couched as an effort to address the need for effective treatments for depression and PTSD for military veterans. It now heads to the House Defense and Veteran Affairs Committee.

International

Colombia Coca Zone Battle Sees 11 FARC Dissidents Killed. The Colombia Army said Tuesday its soldiers had killed at least 11 FARC dissidents in open combat n Puerto Leguizamo municipality in Putumayo province near the borders with Ecuador and Peru. The area has extensive coca plantings and cocaine-producing laboratories and is contested by various armed actors. The FARC dissidents are former members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who rejected the FARC's demobilization under a 2016 peace deal with the government.

Mexico Attack Leaves at Least 20 Dead in Michoacan. Presumed cartel gunmen attacked spectators at a cockfighting pit in the town of Las Tinajas Sunday, leaving at least 20 people dead and several more wounded. "It was a massacre of one group by another," President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told a news conference, expressing his regret at the deaths. The state of Michoacan and neighboring Guanajuato have been plagued by cartel violence for years, with the most recent mass killing leaving 17 people dead only weeks ago. Earlier this month, the mayor of Aguilla, Michoacan, was gunned down, and days later, journalist Armando Linares was killed in Zitacuaro. Most of the violence is between the Jalisco New Generation Cartel and local gangs, but some of it is between different factions of that same cartel.

Singapore Hangs Man for Drug Trafficking. Closing its ears to pleas for leniency, including from the UN Human Rights Office, Singapore on Wednesday executed Abdul Kahar Othman, 68, for drug trafficking. The hanging marked the first execution in the country since it halted them due to the coronavirus pandemic. The last execution took place in November 2019. Kahar, from a poor family, had struggled with addiction all his life and spent much of his adult life behind bars. He was convicted of drug trafficking in 2013. Another execution may be looming. A Malaysian man with mental disabilities, Nagaenthran K. Dharmalingam, has been on death row since 2010 for trying to smuggle 1.5 ounces of heroin into the city-state. He lost his final appeal on Tuesday. 

MD Lawmakers Take Up Marijuana Legalization, Former Honduras Prez Detained on US Drug Charges, More... (2/15/22)

The Oregon Health Authority has released draft rules for therapeutic psilocybin, the New Mexico legislature approves legalizing fentanyl test strips, and more.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Alabama Marijuana Decriminalization Bill Filed. Senator Rick Singleton (R) has filed a bill to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Senate Bill 160 would make first offense possession of more than two ounces a misdemeanor but with a maximum penalty of a $250 fine, a second offense would be a $500 fine, and a third offense would merit a felony charge and a $750 fine but no jail time. Possession of less than two ounces would also be subject to a $250 fine but would only be an infraction. Under current state law, possession of any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Maryland Lawmakers Begin Work on Marijuana Legalization as Plans for Referendum Quicken. Lawmakers in Annapolis have begun working on a pair of bills aimed at legalizing marijuana in the state. The first bill, House Bill 1, sponsored by Del. Luke Clippinger (D), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, would put the question of legalization before the voters in November, while the second bill, House Bill 837, also from Clippinger, provides a framework for lawmakers to come up with a scheme for taxation and regulation.

If the referendum bill is approved by both lawmakers and voters, possession of up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana would become a civil violation punishable by only a $100 fine starting January 1, 2023. And expungement of past possession convictions would be automatic. The legislation would also require the state to conduct a "disparity study" to evaluate barriers groups may face in gaining access to the legal industry.

Psychedelics

Oregon Releases Draft Rules for Therapeutic Use of Psilocybin. The state health department has released draft rules for the therapeutic use of psilocybin. The move is in response to the passage of Measure 109 in November 2020, which gave the state two years to come up with a framework for regulating magic mushrooms for therapeutic purposes. While most of the draft rules deal with how to credential and evaluate training programs for those administering psilocybin, one rule specifies that only one species of mushroom, psilocybe cubensis, will be allowed. Growers would not be allowed to use dung or wood chips to cultivate mushrooms or make synthetic psilocybin and would also not be able to make products that might appeal to children, such as "products in the shape of an animal, vehicle, person or character."

Harm Reduction

New Mexico Legislature Approves Fentanyl Test Strip Bill. The state Senate on Monday gave final approval to House Bill 52, which legalizes test strips that can detect the presence of fentanyl. The move is a bid to reduce overdoses. Overdoses linked to fentanyl began climbing in the state in 2019. The bill has already passed the House and now goes to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who supports it.

International

Former Honduran President Detained on US Drug Charges. Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who left office less than a month ago, has been detained by Honduran authorities to face extradition to the US to face drug charges. An extradition request presented to the Honduran Supreme Court accuses Hernandez of participating in a "violent drug-trafficking conspiracy" that transported 500 tons of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela to the US since 2004. His brother, Juan Antonio Hernandez, is already doing a life sentence in the US for drug trafficking, and so is another trafficker, Geovanny Fuentes, who implicated Hernandez in the conspiracy. It is not clear if or when Hernandez will be extradited; the Supreme Court judge who will hear his case is affiliated with his political party and has a history of freeing suspects in corruption cases.

House Advances SAFE Banking Act (Again), MI Psychedelic Legalization Initiative Filed, More... (2/3/22)

Mountains of meth are being cooked up in Myanmar's Shan state, UNODC reports. (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

House Approves Marijuana Banking on Voice Vote, Final Approval with Roll Call Vote Expected Today. The House on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a marijuana banking amendment to a science and technology bill, with a roll call voice vote expected Thursday. The amendment is the SAFE Banking Act, which is aimed at providing access to financial services for state-legal marijuana businesses. The measure has repeatedly been approved by the House, most recently as part of a defense appropriations bill, but Senate negotiators more interested in passing a full-on marijuana legalization bill killed it then.

Bipartisan Coalition of House Members Call for Quick Vote on Marijuana Legalization. A bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to congressional leaders Wednesday demanding that Congress move "expeditiously" to pass a bill to legalize marijuana. The bill in question is the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617), which passed the House in 2020 and passed the House Judiciary Committee this session, but has yet to be scheduled for a floor vote.

The MORE ACT is "is foundational in righting systemic injustices and removing barriers for families and individuals nationwide" and so it should be "expeditiously considered by the House and Senate," the letter said. The letter was led by Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) and cosigned by Reps. Nikema Williams (D-GA), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Marie Newman (D-IL), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Dina Titus (D-NV), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Lou Correa (D-CA), Angie Craig (D-MN) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

Drug Policy

Grassley, Whitehouse Implore Biden Administration to Quickly Release National Drug Control Strategy for 2022. On Wednesday, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), co-chairs of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, pushed the Biden administration to finish its work on and release the 2022 National Drug Control Strategy. Their bipartisan letter comes after Dr. Rahul Gupta -- Director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) -- indicated last week that their 2022 strategy could be delayed until the end of June, far past the statutorily required date of February 7, 2022.

"We are pleased that your office is taking a thoughtful look and share your sentiments, especially in light of the record overdose deaths. Despite this, we are disappointed in the delay. The Strategy is critical in informing the federal government's approach to drug enforcement, prevention, and treatment. Now more than ever, a timely and whole-of-government Strategy is necessary," the senators wrote.

Psychedelics

Michigan Activists File Psychedelic Legalization Ballot Initiative. The national group Decriminalize Nature, its state affiliate, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) have filed paperwork for an initiative to legalize the possession, cultivation, and non-remunerated sharing of psychedelics, as well as setting up a system to enable therapeutic and spiritual use. The measure would legalize a broad range of psychedelics for people 18 and over. Sales would be allowed to provide psychedelics to people whose doctors have issued written recommendations for them.

International

Colombian Army Kills Nine in Raid on Gulf Clan Cartel. Defense Minister Diego Molina announced late Tuesday evening that at least nine people were killed in an army raid on the Gulf Clan Cartel in northwest Colombia. The raid took place in Ituango, a Gulf Clan stronghold. The Gulf Clan is a major drug trafficking organization, considered responsible for about a third of the cocaine being smuggled out of the country. It's leader, Dario Antonio Usuga, also known as Otoniel, was arrested in October in a raid involving 500 police and military, an event that President Ivan Duque said marked "the end" of the Guld Clan. Apparently not quite yet.

Myanmar Illicit Drug Production Surges Since Coup. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said this week that political turmoil and instability in the wake of a military coup has resulted in massive increases in drug production and trafficking in the country. Last month alone, authorities in Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar seized a mind-boggling 90 million methamphetamine tablets and 4.4 tons of crystal meth, with the bulk of it reportedly produced in Myanmar's Shan state. "Meth production increased last year from already extreme levels in northern Myanmar and there is no sign it will slow down," said Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC's regional representative in Southeast Asia.

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

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

1. The International Criminal Court Eyes Philippines Drug War Killings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Afghanistan's Government Falls, Opium Remains

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

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

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

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

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

3, Mexican Drug War Violence Just Keeps Going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Bangladesh Drug War Killings Draw Pushback

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

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

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

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

6. Pushing the Boundaries in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOP Lawmakers in Missouri and Ohio File Legal Marijuana Bills, UK PM Takes Aim at Posh Drug Users, More... (12/6/21)

Republican lawmakers in Missouri and Ohio roll out marijuana legalization legislation, the New York Times reports that the Syrian government is a major trafficker of the amphetamine captagon, and more.

Captagon being cooked by ISIS. Now, the Syrian government is in the same business. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Missouri GOP Lawmaker Files Joint Resolution to Put Marijuana Legalization on the Ballot. State Rep. Shamed Dogan (R) has pre-filed a joint resolution to put a marijuana legalization constitutional amendment on the November 2022 ballot. Under Dogan's plan, adults could grow, purchase, and possess marijuana for personal use, although no amounts are specified. The resolution also calls for a 12 percent tax on recreational marijuana and a four percent tax on medical. The resolution comes as activists pursue at least two separate marijuana legalization initiatives, with one campaign beginning signature-gathering last week.

Ohio Republican Lawmakers File Marijuana Legalization Bill. Two Republican state representatives, Jamie Callender and Ron Ferguson, have filed a marijuana legalization bill. Their "Ohio Adult Use Act" would legalize the possession of up to 50 grams of pot and the cultivation of up to six plants, only three of which could be mature. The bill also allows for the unremunerated gifting of up to 25 grams of marijuana and envisions a 10 percent tax, with proceeds going to the state general fund (50 percent), combatting drug trafficking (25 percent), and drug treatment programs (25 percent). The bill comes as activists are nearing signature-gathering goals for the first phase of an effort to get the issue directly before the voters.

International

Costa Rica Supreme Court Has No Problems with Draft Medical Marijuana and Hemp Bill. Ruling on a charge by a group of deputies that the proposed draft Law on Cannabis for Medicinal and Therapeutic Use and Hemp for Food and Industrial Use was somehow unconstitutional, the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice has ruled that it is not. That clears the way for the measure to continue advancing in the Legislative Assembly, and the Executive Power is ready to do so: "Given the resolution issued this Tuesday by the Constitutional Chamber, in which it indicates that there are no unconstitutionalities in the bill on Cannabis for Medicinal and Therapeutic Use and Hemp for Food and Industrial use (file 21,388), the Executive Branch presents immediately the call for this initiative in the period of extraordinary sessions, so that once the full sentence arrives, it will proceed with its process," said Geannina Dinarte Romero, Minister of the Presidency.

Syrian Government Implicated in Major Drug Trafficking. The New York Times reports that close associates of President Bashar al-Assad are manufacturing and distributing massive quantities of the amphetamine-type stimulant captagon, creating what the Times called "a new narcostate on the Mediterranean." The country's illegal drug industry includes factories that make the pills, packing plants where they are packaged for export, and smuggling networks that extend throughout the Middle East and South Asia. "Much of the production and distribution is overseen by the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, an elite unit commanded by Maher al-Assad, the president's younger brother and one of Syria's most powerful men," the newspaper reported. It also named other members of the president's extended family, businessmen, and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. With the country's legal economy decimated by a decade of civil war, the illicit drug trade has become a major revenue source for the regime.

United Kingdom Plan to Target Drug Crime Could See Users of Class A Drugs Lose Passports. Prime Minister is set to launch a 10-year plan to tackle drug-related crime this week, and early reports said some measures will be aimed at middle class drug users to act as a "deterrent for well-off professionals who peddle coke at swanky clubs and dinner parties," according to the tabloid The Sun. "We need to look at new ways of penalizing them. Things that will actually interfere with their lives," the prime minister told the paper. "So we will look at taking away their passports and driving licenses. What I want to see is a world in which we have penalties for lifestyle drug users that will seriously interfere with their enjoyment of their own lifestyles." Meanwhile, amid reports of widespread cocaine use at Parliament, there are reports drug-sniffing dogs could be deployed across the premises as part of a crackdown by House of Commons authorities.

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