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NY Syringe Legalization Passes Senate, Portugal Ponders Marijuana Legalization, More... (6/10/21)

Marijuana legalization bills in Delaware and Rhode Island get delayed, Morocco's parliament has approved the legalization of hemp and medical marijuana, and more.

Even though coca planting in Colombia was down last year, cocaine production was up, UNODC says. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Bill to Let Researchers Study Marijuana from Dispensaries Wins Committee Vote. Tucked inside an omnibus transit bill is a provision that would let researchers study marijuana from state-legal marijuana shops instead of relying on marijuana from the only currently federally authorized source. That bill and its marijuana research provision passed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this week and now heads for a House floor vote.

Delaware Marijuana Legalization Vote Delayed. The House was set to vote on a marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 150, Thursday, but that didn't happen. Bill sponsor Rep. Edward Osienski (D) said lawmakers needed more time to consider proposed changes in the bills. "House Bill 150 is an extremely important piece of legislation with many complicated moving parts," he said. "In recent days, a number of amendments have been filed by myself and other legislators that would make significant changes to the bill as written. Accordingly, my colleagues and I need time to consider the implications of these various amendments before bringing the bill to the House floor for a vote."

Rhode Island House Speaker Says Marijuana Legalization Bill Could Be Taken Up in Summer or Fall. Marijuana legalization won't be taken up during the remaining days of the regular legislative session, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi (D) said. "Marijuana legalization will not be decided until after the budget is adopted this month," Shekarchi said Wednesday. "It is possible we will return sometime in the summer or fall."

Harm Reduction

New York Senate Approves Bill Decriminalizing Needle Possession. The state Senate this week approved Senate Bill 2523, which would decriminalize the sale and possession of needles for injecting drugs. The bill now goes to the Assembly, where it is expected to pass.

International

Colombia Coca Planting Shrank Last Year but Cocaine Output Increased, UNODC Says. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says in a new report that Colombia managed to reduce the area of coca planting by 7% in 2020, but that the potential production of cocaine derived from coca grew by 8%. That means the country produced more than 1,228 metric tons of cocaine last year. UNODC said the increase in production despite the decrease in cultivation was because farmers are sowing more productive varieties of coca, using more efficient agricultural techniques, and planting multiple crops in the same year.

Morocco Parliament Approves Hemp, Medical Marijuana Legalization -- But Not Recreational Marijuana. The upper house of Parliament has approved a bill to legalize the cultivation and sale of cannabis for industrial and medicinal purposes, but as Interior Minister Abdeluafi Laftit said, "the illegal use and consumption of marijuana is still prohibited in the country." The bill has already passed the lower house.

Portuguese Parliament to Debate Proposed Marijuana Legalization Bills. Portugal decriminalized drug possession two decades ago, but has never gotten around to legalizing marijuana. That could be about to change. Parliament will meet soon to debate two draft laws that would legalize marijuana.

LA House Passes Legal Pot Study Resolution, Peru Coca Zone Massacre, More... (5/25/21)

An Illinois marijuana equity bill heads for a House floor vote, a loosening of medical marijuana regulations during the pandemic may be made permanent in Pennsylvania, the Texas legislature advances bills to reduce penalties for pot concentrates and to study the therapeutic use of psychedelics, and more.

The Shining Path is suspected of massacring villagers in a coca-producing region of Peru. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Illinois Marijuana Equity Licensing Bill Heads to House Floor. A bill designed to get more people from drug war-ravaged communities involved in the legal marijuana industry, House Bill 1443, has passed out of the House Rules Committee and is now headed for a House floor vote.

Louisiana House Passes Marijuana Study Resolution. The House on Monday approved House Resolution 1, which directs the House Criminal Justice Committee to conduct a study of the impact of the use and legalization of marijuana. The move comes after efforts to approve legalization stalled in the legislature last week.

Texas Legislature Approves Bill to Lessen Penalties for Marijuana Concentrates. The Senate has approved House Bill 2593, which would reduce the penalty for the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana concentrates to a class B misdemeanor. The measure has already passed the House and now heads to the desk of Gov. Greg Abbott (R).

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Bill to Make Pandemic-Era Lessening of Delivery Restrictions Permanent Wins House Committee Vote. The House Health Committee on Monday approved a proposal to make permanent pandemic-related loosening of the state's medical marijuana rules permanent, House Bill 1024. The state Health Department allowed curbside pickups and the purchase of three-month supplies during the pandemic, and this bill would retain those changes. It now heads for a House floor vote.

Texas Senate Committee Approves Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The Senate State Affairs Committee voted Monday to approve House Bill 1535, which would expand the state's medical marijuana program to include all forms of PTSD and cancer, but not chronic pain. The bill still needs to pass the Senate, and if it does, then go back to the House for approval of changes made in the Senate.

Methampheamine

Oregon Bill Would Re-Legalize Over-the-Counter Pseudoephedrine Sales. In 2006, Oregon became the first state to ban OTC sales of cold and allergy remedies because they contain pseudoephedrine and could be used in home meth manufacture. Now, a new bill, House Bill 2648, would end the ban and allow anyone over 18 to buy products containing pseudoephedrine without a prescription, has been filed. It is currently before the Senate Health Care Committee.

Psychedelics

Texas Senate Approves Therapeutic Psychedelic Study Bill. The Senate has approved House Bill 1802, which would require the state to study the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin and MDMA. The bill now goes back to the House for approval of a budget-neutrality amendment passed in the Senate.

International

Peru Coca Zone Massacre Leaves 14 Dead. At least 14 men, women, and children were killed in a massacre in the Ene River Valley, one of the country's most important coca-growing areas. Pamphlets from a Shining Path splinter group were left at the scene, and authorities were pointing the finger at the group. Shining Path, a Maoist-inspired guerrilla group, led a brutal insurgency that left 70,000 dead in the 1980s, but had largely been eliminated since 1992. But remnants remain in the Valleys of the Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro Rivers (VRAEM), where they have morphed into coca and cocaine traffickers.

Philippines Senator Lobbies for Death Penalty for Drug Offenses. Senator Ronald dela Rosa, who once led the Duterte administration's bloody war on drugs, argued that the death penalty for drug offenses should be reinstated Tuesday during a hearing on a bill that aims to toughen the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. He complained that imprisoned Chinese drug lords were still running their businesses from behind bars, saying "the frustration of law enforcement is that had these drug lords been executed, we would not have these problems now." But drug reform advocate Dr. Lee Edson Yarcia pointed out that under the proposed bill, the death penalty is not imposed on top drug lords or syndicates: "This was included in the provision about persons who are in possession of dangerous drugs during parties, social gatherings, or meetings," he noted. The House passed a reform bill last year, but the Senate has yet to file one. This was a preliminary hearing.

NC Black Man Killed By Cops Was Fleeing Drug Raid, CA Senate Approves Safe Injection Sites, More... (4/23/21)

US-Mexico law enforcement cooperation in battling Mexican drug cartels is at a standstill, a Montana marijuana legalization implementation bill is heading for House and Senate floor votes, and more.

Andrew Brown. Unarmed man killed by North Carolina police as he fled drug raid. (family photo)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Senate Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Implementation Bill. The Senate Select Committee on Marijuana Law has approved House Bill 701, which is aimed at implementing the state's voter-approved marijuana legalization law. The committee approved more than 30 amendments to the bill addressing multiple aspects of legalization implementation. The bill will now head to House and Senate floor votes.

Harm Reduction

California Senate Approves Safe Injection Site Bill. The state Senate on Thursday approved Senate Bill 57, sponsored by Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco). The bill would legalize safe injection sites as pilot programs in Los Angeles County, Oakland, and San Francisco. The bill now heads to the Assembly, and even if approved there and signed into law, it still faces federal hurdles too.

Law Enforcement

Unarmed Black Man Killed By North Carolina Cops Died Fleeing Drug Raid. Andrew Brown, the Elizabeth City, North Carolina, man killed by sheriff's deputies on Tuesday, died after being shot as he attempted to flee the scene in his vehicle. His killing by Pasquotank County deputies has sparked continuing protests, and the sheriff's office is being pressed to release deputies' body cam footage. Witnesses said deputies began shooting at Brown as he started to drive away from law enforcement. The sheriff said all three deputies on the scene fired their weapons.

US Investigations into Drug Cartels Paralyzed by Standoff with Mexico. Former and current officials in both the US and Mexico told Reuters that the fight against Mexican drug trafficking organizations has "ground to a halt" because of strained relations between the two counties. The freeze came after DEA agents arrested a Mexican general who was later released under pressure from Mexico, but that raid sparked the Mexican Congress to enact a new law requiring US drug agents to report their law enforcement contacts in the country to Mexican officials, whom the Americans regard as corrupt. As a result, investigators from both countries have paused their cooperation out of fear that cases could be compromised or informants killed.

International

Colombia Indigenous Community Attacked for Anti-Coca Stance. An indigenous community in the township of Caldono in Cauca province is under attack from armed leftist and rightist groups tied to the coca and cocaine trade. Last Tuesday, indigenous governor Sandra Liliana Peña Chocue, who opposed coca crops in indigenous lands, was assassinated, and last Thursday, at least 31 members of the community were wounded when one of the armed groups opened fire on them as they manually eradicated coca crops.

Book Review: Drug Use for Grown-Ups

Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, by Carl Hart (2021, Penguin Press, 290 pp., $28.00 HB)

Dr. Carl Hart is a one-man drug and drug user destigmatization machine. In his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, the Columbia University psychology professor blasts drug prohibition as both an affront to the American dream of the pursuit of happiness and as a tool of racial oppression. And he makes a strong, informed argument that recreational drug use can be, and usually is, a good thing.

You could hardly find someone more qualified to make the case. Hart has spent years in the trenches of neuropsychopharmacology research, handed out drugs (or placebos) to thousands of research subjects, published numerous scientific papers and popular articles in the field, and risen to the top of his profession along the way. And here is his bottom line:

"[O]ver my more than 25-year career, I have discovered that most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm and that some responsible drug-scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning. Even 'recreational' drugs can and do improve day-to-day living... From my own experience -- the combination of my scientific work and my personal drug use, I have learned that recreational drugs can be used safely to enhance many vital human activities."

Hart is refreshingly -- and deliberately -- open about his own recreational drug use. Given the stigmatization and persecution of people identified as "drug users," he feels that justice demands privileged partakers come out of the closet and give voice to their own, non-destructive drug use histories as a necessary remedy for that demonization. He certainly does so himself, revealing a disciplined yet curious mind most definitely not averse to sampling various substances.

Those substances include heroin, which he describes as his current favorite drug, one that he's been using episodically for years now: "There aren't many things in life that I enjoy more than a few lines by the fireplace at the end of the day... Heroin allows me to suspend the perpetual preparation for battle that goes on in my head... The world is alright with me. I'm good. I'm refreshed. I'm prepared to face another day, another faculty meeting, another obligatory function. All parties benefit."

But Hart is not quite so mellow when it comes to people and institutions he sees as helping to perpetuate overly negative depictions of various drugs or the persecution of drug users. He rips into Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) over her "addiction is a brain disease" mantra and the rigid ideological control she has over research funding. He rips into journalists for uncritically and sensationally reporting salacious scientific findings about the evils of drugs that he argues are not supported by the evidence they are supposedly based on. He even calls Bernie Sanders "ignorant" (that word shows up more than a few times) for complaining that marijuana shouldn't be in the same drug schedule as "killer drugs like heroin."

Dr. Carl Hart (Columbia University)
Hart doesn't deny the potential dangers of drug use but makes the case that they are dramatically overstated. In that sense, Drug Use for Grown-Ups is a corrective to more than a century of anti-drug propaganda. In a deep dive into opioids, for instance, he notes that most opioid overdose deaths are actually opioid/benzodiazepines/alcohol deaths, and that a large number of them are due to ignorance (there's that word again) -- in that, in the black market that currently exists, drug users do not and cannot know what exactly is in that pill or powder they purchased.

As long as we are in a prohibition regime, the least we can do is widespread drug testing for quality control, as is done at some European music festivals, Hart argues. But that's the only kind of drug testing he's down with; he calls the urine drug testing industry "parasitic," a sobriquet he also applies to the drug treatment industry.

But hang on, he's not done yet. Although he is an advocate for harm reduction practices, he has a bone to pick with the term itself: It's too damned negative! Drug use doesn't typically involve harm, he argues, but pleasure-seeking. As I pondered this, I came up with "benefit enhancement" as an upbeat alternative to harm reduction, but Hart went with "health and happiness."

And he's got a bone to pick with "psychedelic exceptionalism," the notion, dear to folks like Decriminalize Nature, that psychedelics, or better yet, "plant entheogens," are somehow "better" than dirty old drugs like meth or heroin and thus deserve to be treated differently, more gently. He also snarks at the notion that taking drugs for spiritual or religious purposes is of a higher order than taking them for fun and rebels at the notion of having a shaman or guide during a tripping session: "Some people find this comforting. I find it creepy and have never done so myself."

Drug Use for Grown-Ups is bracing, informative, and provocative contribution to the literature. Even the most ardent drug reformers and defenders would benefit from reading it and reexamining their own assumptions. Maybe Carl Hart is onto something.

Year from Hell II: The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2020 [FEATURE]

As we wave an eager goodbye to 2020 in the rearview mirror, it's time to assess the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to drug policy and drug reform at the international level. As in other realms of human behavior, the coronavirus pandemic is inescapable, but even as the pandemic raged, drug policy developments kept happening. Here are the biggest world drug policy stories of 2020:

The Coronavirus Pandemic and the World of Drugs

As with virtually every other aspect of human affairs, the year's deadly coronavirus pandemic impacted the world of drugs, from disruptions of drug markets and anti-drug policing to drug trafficking groups as social distancing enforcers, fallout on efforts to reform drug policies, and beyond.

Early on, there were reports that Mexican drug traffickers were raising wholesale meth and fentanyl prices because of disruptions in the precursor chemical supply, and that pandemic lockdowns had disrupted the cocaine supply chain, driving down the farmgate price for coca and endangering the livelihoods of nearly a quarter-million coca-producing families in the Andes.

But some things couldn't be disrupted: Just a day after closing its famous cannabis cafes in response to the pandemic, the Dutch reopened them as the government was confronted with long lines of people queuing up to score after the ban was initially announced. In France, the price of hashish nearly doubled in a week as increased border controls due to the pandemic put the squeeze on. By midyear, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported pandemic-related border closures, lockdowns, and flight shortages were making drugs more expensive and difficult to obtain around the world.

Those same drug organizations struggling with the pandemic took on roles normally assumed by government in some countries. In Mexico, the Gulf Cartel and Los Viagras handed out food to poor families in Tamaulipas and the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel did the same in Guadalajara, spurring President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to acknowledge their efforts and implore them to knock it off and just stay home. Instead, the Sinaloa Cartel locked down the city of Culiacan, its home base, and patrolled the streets in heavily armed convoys to enforce a curfew. In Brazil, Rio de Janeiro drug gangs enforced social distancing and handed out cash and medications as the government of rightist authoritarian populist President Jair Bolsonaro was largely absent and in denial about coronavirus. In Colombia, with the government missing in action, drug gangs and armed groups enforced lockdown orders, even killing people who didn't comply, according to Human Rights Watch.

Some countries took positive steps to ameliorate these effects of the pandemic. In Great Britain, the government agreed to hand out methadone without a prescription to those already receiving it and shortly later began allowing monthly buprenorphine injections for heroin addicts. In Canada, British Columbia early on moved to increase a "safe supply" of drugs that registered nurses and registered psychiatric nurses to prescribe, make more medications available, and expand eligibility to people who are at risk of overdose, including those who may not necessarily be diagnosed with a substance use disorder. The province followed that move by lowering barriers to prescription medications, increasing the supply of opiate maintenance drugs and even dispensing some of them via a unique vending machine. By providing a safe supply of legal drug alternatives, the province hoped to lower a sudden spike in drug overdose deaths that coincided with the coronavirus outbreak in Vancouver.

Not everybody let a measly little coronavirus get in the way of their drug war. In Colombia, President Ivan Duque ordered a nationwide lockdown in March, but exempted coca eradicators and launched a major offensive against small producer coca farms. And Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte let his drug war rage on in the midst of the pandemic despite imposing a national partial lockdown in March. At least nine people were killed by unknown gunmen in Cebu Province alone. "Reports of drug-related killings continuing amid the lockdown order are deeply concerning, but not surprising," said Rachel Chhoa-Howard of Amnesty International. "The climate of impunity in the Philippines is so entrenched that police and others remain free to kill without consequence." In September Human Rights Watch noted the pace of acknowledged drug war killings by police had doubled. Duterte has also threatened to have the police and military shoot people who violate quarantine.

The coronavirus also wreaked havoc with drug reform initiative signature gathering campaigns in the US, preventing several marijuana legalization and one drug decriminalization initiative from qualifying for the ballot this year, and played a role in delaying marijuana legalization in Mexico when its Senate shut down in the spring because of the pandemic.

UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Votes to Remove Cannabis from Most Restrictive Drug Schedule

In an historic move on December 2, the 53 member states of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the UN body charged with setting drug policy, voted to remove cannabis from Schedule IV of the United Nations' drug classification system as they met in Vienna. Cannabis was both a Schedule I and a Schedule IV drug under the international drug treaties. Schedule I includes "substances that are highly addictive and liable to abuse or easily convertible into those (e.g. opium, heroin, cocaine, coca leaf"), while Schedule IV includes Schedule I drugs with "particularly dangerous properties and little or no therapeutic value" (e.g. heroin, carfentanil).

The vote removing cannabis from Schedule IV means the global anti-drug bureaucracy now recognizes the therapeutic value of cannabis and no longer considers it "particularly liable to abuse and to produce ill effects." With medical marijuana legal in dozens of countries in; one form or another, the ever-increasing mountain of evidence supporting the therapeutic uses of cannabis, not to mention outright legalization in 15 American states Canada and Uruguay, with Mexico about to come on board, this decision by the CND is long past due, but nonetheless welcome.

The UN Common Position on Drug Policy Gains Traction

Change at the United Nations comes at a glacial pace, but it can and does come. The shift away from punitive, law enforcement-heavy approaches to drug use has been building for years and picked up steam at the 2016 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs in 2016 and advanced further with the adoption of the UN Common Position on Drug Policy in 2018.

That approach, which seeks to get all the UN agencies involved in drug policy, public health, and human rights on the same page, explicitly calls for the decriminalization of drug use and possession for personal use. Among the position's directions for action is the following: "To promote alternatives to conviction and punishment in appropriate cases, including the decriminalization of drug possession for personal use, and to promote the principle of proportionality, to address prison overcrowding and overincarceration by people accused of drug crimes, to support implementation of effective criminal justice responses that ensure legal guarantees and due process safeguards pertaining to criminal justice proceedings and ensure timely access to legal aid and the right to a fair trial, and to support practical measures to prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and torture."

At least 30 countries have instituted some form of drug decriminalization (although in many it is only marijuana that has been decriminalized), and the Common Position is providing breathing space for others that may be inclined to take the plunge. In 2020, the US state of Oregon broke ground by becoming the first state to decriminalize the use and possession of all drugs, and just a few hundred miles to the north and across the Canadian border, the city council of Vancouver, British Columbia, voted to decriminalize and seek an exemption from the federal government to do so.

Decriminalization could also be around the corner in Norway, where a proposal first bruited in 2017 could pass some time next year. And Ghana (see below) has also effectively decriminalized drug use and possession. With a more consistent message from the UN, which the Common Position represents, we can expect further progress on this front in years to come.

The Philippine Drug War Faces Increasing Pressure

Four years into the government of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines remains embroiled in a bloody war on drug users and sellers, but is facing increasing pressure from human rights groups, domestic critics, and international institutions over mass killings that are believed to now total more than 30,000. In a June report, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights said that tens of thousands of people had been killed in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drug users and sellers amid "near impunity" for police and the incitement of violence by top officials. The report said that rhetoric may have been interpreted as "permission to kill."

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, called for independent investigations into the killings and said her office was ready to help credible domestic Philippine or international efforts to establish accountability. Two months later, during the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council, Bachelet called for an end to the policies and rhetoric that led to abuse and killings. She acknowledged some small steps taken by the Duterte government but warned "there is clearly an urgent need to revoke the policies that continue to result in killings and other human rights violations, to bring to justice the perpetrators, and to halt the use of rhetoric inciting violence against people who use or sell drugs."

In October, Duterte said he accepted responsibility for drug war killings, but only those acknowledged by police, not the thousands committed by shadowy vigilantes. That same month, global civil society groups including StoptheDrugWar.org (the publisher of this newsletter) and Movement for a Free Philippines launched the Stand for Human Rights and Democracy campaign to keep the pressure on. The campaign launch included an "Autocrat Fair" demonstration outside Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC; and an accompanying video, "Trump and Duterte -- Allies in Violence." An event organized by StoptheDrugWar.org on December 22 discussed the role of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The pressure on the Duterte government only heightened at year's end, when the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor issued a report saying there was "reasonable basis to believe" Filipino forces committed crimes against humanity in Duterte's drug war. That leaves one stage left in the Office's "preliminary examination," admissibility. For the ICC to have jurisdiction, prosecutors must show that the Philippine justice system lacks a legitimate or capable response to the killings. Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has promised a decision will be by mid-2021, when her term ends, over whether to seek authorization from the court to open a formal investigation. She has also pointedly warned that the court's resources fall badly short of what's needed to carry out their mission, which affects how cases are prioritized, and may affect whether the new prosecutor initiates cases.

Even as Drug War Violence Continues Unabated, Mexico is About to Become the World's Largest Legal Marijuana Market

There is no end in sight to Mexico's bloody drug wars. The year began with the announcement that 2019 was the most murderous year in recent history, with some 35,588 recorded homicide victims. As the year ends, 2020 appears on track to equal or surpass that toll, with the country registering about 3,000 murders a month.

As mass killing after mass killing took place throughout the year, the number of dead wasn't the only thing rising either. In January, the government announced that the number of "disappeared" people in the country was around 61,000, up from an estimated 40,000 in mid-2019. By July, the number of those officially missing had risen to 73,201 as prohibition-related violence ripped through the country.

While President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador came into office in 2018 critical of the role of the military in the drug war, and with a plan to reduce crime and violence by focusing on their root causes, in May he renewed orders keeping the military on the streets for another four years. "His security strategy is not working and that is why he has had to order with this decree for the Armed Forces to support public security," security specialist Juan Ibarrola told the Milenio newspaper at the time.

The following month, Lopez Obrador signaled that perhaps it wasn't security strategy that wasn't working, but drug prohibition. He released a plan to decriminalize drugs, and urged the US to do the same. Mexico's current "prohibitionist strategy is unsustainable," the plan said.

As the drug war chugged along, US-Mexico relations took a hit in October, when DEA agents arrested Mexico's former defense minister in Los Angeles on drug and money laundering charges. Loud protests from Mexico eventually resulted in his release, but in December, Mexican lawmakers chafing at US heavy-handedness voted to restrict the activities of foreign agents in the country.

Even as the drug wars rage, there is significant progress on another drug policy track. As the year comes to an end, Mexico is one vote in the Chamber of Deputies away from legalizing marijuana. The government-supported legalization bill, crafted in response to a ruling from the country's Supreme Court that said marijuana prohibition must end, passed the Senate in November after delays caused by political infighting and shutdowns due to the coronavirus.

Under an order from the Supreme Court, the Congress had until December 15 to act, but the Chamber of Deputies delayed the vote, saying it needed more time to study the bill, and the Supreme Court agreed to grant one more extension, giving the Chamber of Deputies until the end of the next legislative session in April to get the job done. President Lopez Obrador downplayed the delay, calling it a matter of "form not substance." And Mexico is waiting to inhale.

Bolivia display at the 2008 Commission on Narcotic Drugs
Bolivia Returns the Coca-Friendly Movement to Socialism to Power

Long-time Bolivian leader Evo Morales, a former coca growers union leader who won the presidency in 2005 and was reelected twice, was forced from office and fled the country after extended protests in the wake of disputed elections in November 2019. The self-appointed interim right-wing government worked to suppress Morales' Movement to Socialism and harassed harassed coca producers in the name of the war on drugs.

The coca growers stood firm, however mobilizing to blockade roads to protest delays in promised elections. When those elections finally came in October, voters returned the MAS to power, electing Morales' former economics minister, Luis Arce, without 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, and that he wants to expand the country's industrial coca production.

Colombia, Coca, Cocaine, and Conflict

Four years after the truce between the Colombian government and the leftist rebels of the FARC was supposed to bring peace to the country, peace remains elusive as the rightist government of President Ivan Duque continues to wage war against other leftist rebels, drug traffickers, and coca-growing peasants.

Under pressure from the US, the Duque government began the year by moving to resume the aerial spraying of coca fields. This plan was rejected by state governors, who said they supported alternative development and voluntary crop substitution and wanted President Duque to actually implement the 2016 peace accords.

Instead, the government attempted to pull out of a crop substitution monitoring program with the UN, preventing a pending evaluation of the effectiveness of planned forced coca eradication, although it later backtracked. That prompted coca farmers to call "bullshit" on Duque's duplicity, not only around crop substitution and eradication, but on the government's efforts to downplay a campaign of assassination against coca substitution leaders.

Indeed, human rights remained a major concern throughout the year, as a UN peace mission condemned a spike in massacres in August, and a month later, the International Crisis Group demanded the government stop the killing of activists. The group said the government must prioritize communities' safety over military operations against armed groups and coca eradication efforts. Human rights were no concern for US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, who promised Colombia more anti-drug aid the following month.

On another track, efforts to reform the country's drug laws continue. Bills to legalize marijuana were defeated late in the year, as right-wing factions aligned with Duque killed them. A bill to legalize cocaine was introduced in December, with cosponsor Senator Ivan Marulanda saying the bill would allow a legal cocaine supply for Colombian cocaine users -- use and possession is legal in Colombia -- and that the government could buy up the entire coca crop.

The year ended as it began, with the government still talking about plans to restart aerial fumigation even it claimed it would meet its coca eradication goal. Meanwhile, coca and cocaine production remain at world-leading levels.

Progress in Africa

Attitudes towards drugs and drug users are changing in Africa, and 2020 saw significant advances. It was in July 2019 that health, drug control and population ministers from member states of the African Union met in Cairo to forge a continental action plan for adopting more balanced policies toward drug use.

At that meeting, the Union's Department for Social Affairs called on member states to adopt master plans for drug policy by 2023. Such plans create a national framework for deciding which agencies should deal with illicit drug use in a way that deals with both drug supplies and demand reduction and ensure that not just law enforcement but also treatment and rehabilitation issues are addressed.

Zimbabwe had begun work on its own master plan years earlier -- back in 1999 -- but that effort had stalled until 2016 when, thanks to a civil society group, the Zimbabwean Civil Liberties and Drug Network (ZCLDN), the effort was reignited. The country hasn't passed a reformist master plan yet, but thanks to years of organizing and alliance-building, reform is coming.

In July, ZCLDN and regional ally groups worked with the Ministry of Health and Child Care to draft treatment and rehabilitation guidelines that formally incorporated harm reduction practices, a big step forward. In September, the group brought together civil society groups and the government's inter-ministerial committee charged with creating the master plan, helping to lay the groundwork for the plan to be adopted early in 2021. But first, it has to be approved by the cabinet, the attorney general's office, and then parliament. The work was not finished in 2020, but it is well underway.

Meanwhile in West Africa, Ghana actually passed a major drug reform law, the Narcotics Control Commission bill, in March. It only took five years from the time the bill was first introduced. Drafted with the intent of treating drug use as a public health issue, the law effectively decriminalizes drug possession, replacing prison terms of up to ten years with fines of roughly US $250 to $1,000. The new law also clears the way for the implementation of harm reduction services, which had previously been outlawed. And it allows for the production of low-THC cannabis products, such as industrial hemp and CBD.

The colonial legacy weighs heavy on Africa, but when it comes to drug policy, African nations are beginning to forge their own, more humane paths.

Thanks to a Plant, Afghanistan Becomes a Meth Producer

For years now, Afghanistan has been the world's number one supplier of opium poppies and the heroin derived from it, accounting for about 90% of global production. Now the war-torn country is diversifying, becoming a big-time player in the methamphetamine trade thanks to a plant common in the country and low-tech techniques for using it to make meth.

That plant is ephedra, from which meth's key ingredient -- ephedrine -- is created, and in a November report, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) warned that while its findings were provisional, "the data reported here on the potential scale of ephedrine and methamphetamine production emanating from this remote corner of Afghanistan, the income it generates and the speed at which it has emerged are both surprising and worrying." The report cited seizures of Afghan meth in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Australia, and tax revenues in the millions for the Taliban.

New Zealand Narrowly Rejects Marijuana Legalization

New Zealand had a chance to become the next country to legalize marijuana but rejected it. Early on, polling suggested that a referendum to legalize marijuana faced an uphill battle, and as early election results came in in October, the polls proved accurate, with the referendum faltering with only 46% of the vote. In the final tally, the margin narrowed, but the referendum still lost narrowly, garnering 48% of votes.

Kiwis were not ready to become the second commonwealth country to legalize marijuana, after Canada, On the other hand, voters approved a referendum to allow voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill by a margin of two-to-one.

Book Review: How to Regulate Stimulants

How to Regulate Stimulants: A Practical Guide by Steve Rolles, Harvey Slade, and James Nicholls (2020, Transform Drug Policy Foundation, 304 pp., $20 PB)

Marijuana is now legal, taxed and regulated in 15 states, with most of the Northeast likely to join them next year. The movement for psychedelic liberation is flexing its muscles. Oregon just voted to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs. Brick by brick the wall of drug prohibition is crumbling in the United States.

And now, the good folks at Britain's Transform Drug Policy Foundation are out with a how-to guide for turning that wall into nothing more than a pile of bricks. When it comes to attacking prohibition, marijuana and psychedelics are the low-hanging fruit -- it's easier for members of the public to consider that the harms attributed to their potential abuse or misuse may be far outweighed by the harms of prohibiting them -- but with stimulants such as meth, Ecstasy, and cocaine, the case for prohibition is more popular because the potential harms of their abuse or misuse are much greater.

Still, Steve Rolles and his coauthors make a strong, thoughtful case for dealing with these drugs as we do other non-banned psychoactive substances: Regulating and offering them to consumers with restrictions based on the degree of risk involved. Caffeine is a stimulant, but one with low risk levels for users and society. It is subject only to the regulations of normal commerce -- quality control, informational packaging, and the like.

Coca leaf, coca tea, and oral coca products (lozenges, hard candies, pouches) have a similar risk profile to caffeine -- that is, not much. But both international and US law fail to differentiate between such products with low levels of the cocaine alkaloid and cocaine itself. A regulatory regime based on reason and science would treat coca tea like coffee, not cocaine. But that doesn't mean cocaine would be prohibited.

Indeed, Rolles et al. explicitly differentiate between different forms of stimulants to create a three-tiered regulatory system based not only on science, public health, human rights, but also recognizing the need to prevent corporate takeover and promote social equity. The first tier is the tier of coca tea and coffee.

The second tier, that of medium risk drugs in their typology, produces what they call their "standard model" for dealing with stimulants. Included here are MDMA pills, amphetamine pills (or meth pills -- Desoxyn, anyone?), and cocaine powder. For this tier, they recommend pharmacy-style retail sales at state-owned shops where specially trained druggists dispense not only the dope but also targeted harm reduction information.

And they recommend rationing of these substances, either by purchase amount limits or by means of licensing requirements. The idea is to limit harm by restricting access to these particularly binge-inducing drugs. Rationing is what we do with legal marijuana by restricting purchases, typical to one ounce per day. We don't do that with alcohol, however; you can walk in and buy multiple kegs of beer or cases of hard liquor and no one bats an eye.

Purchase limits -- say one gram of 70% pure powder cocaine per month -- would probably work for most cocaine consumers, who use it recreationally and infrequently. But it wouldn't work for the party host who wants to supply his guests, and more importantly, it wouldn't suffice for the needs of serious drug users, who make up a huge percentage of the sales of any drug.

If the object is to take drug consumers out of the illicit market, rationing is going to have to be flexible enough to address their needs and demands. The authors suggest a tiered system that would allow larger purchases contingent on periodic brief discussions of risks and harm reduction with trained pharmacy vendors.

When it comes to the hardest forms of stimulants, such as injectable meth or cocaine or smokable meth or crack, the model shifts from regulatory retail to harm reduction. The authors advocates measures such as supervised consumption sites and harm reduction kits for crack users. They envision no retail sales of drugs in such forms, but also no criminalization of their users. That might leave users to get their goodies in the black market (or get creative with less harmful forms of the drug, such as converting cocaine powder into crack at home), which could undercut one of the primary rationales for regulation: killing off the illicit market.

But instead of sticks, Rolles et al. offer carrots. Perhaps hardcore tweakers and cokeheads can be induced into using less harmful forms of their drugs of choice, switching from shooting meth to eating oral amphetamines or being offered less-potent powder cocaine formulations with a price incentive. Not discussed is whether users of tier three substances would have some way of obtaining a regulated supply of them through a medical or other non-sales framework.

Regulating stimulant drugs is tricky, with all sorts of different considerations to undertake. But we have a freedom interest, a social justice interest, and a public health interest in moving away from coercive drug prohibition. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation shows us some of the possible paths and is acutely aware of the intricacies of the task. This is very useful stuff. We should all probably send copies of this book to our state and federal elected officials, but not wait for them before starting down the path ourselves.

State, Local Regulators Call on Congress to Move on MORE Act, Rwanda to Allow MedMJ Exports, More... (10/23/20)

Rwanda okays medical marijuana exports, state and local marijuana regulators want Congress to move on marijuana legalization, and more.

Colombian officals say Mexican drug cartels are the biggest customers for Colombia's cocaine. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

State and Municipal Cannabis Regulators Call on Congress to Prioritize Federal Marijuana Reform. Joined by the Drug Policy Alliance, state and municipal cannabis regulators from across the country are calling on Congress to prioritize federal marijuana reform by passing the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment & Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3884) when it comes up for a vote on the House floor following the November 2020 election. In a letter to Congress, regulators said "by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, respecting state’s policies regarding legalization, affording legitimate cannabis businesses access to resources that allow them to be compliant and tax-paying businesses, developing and funding programs aimed at equitable participation in the cannabis industry and acknowledging and addressing the war on drugs and its impacts, the MORE Act would ensure that the federal government is a partner to state and municipal regulators both in our collective responsibility to serve our community through the reform of negatively impactful cannabis policies and in our collective responsibility to recognize and correct injustices."

International

Colombian Official Says Mexican Cartels Top Buyers of Country's Cocaine."The Mexicans are the principal buyers of the supply of coca produced in Colombia," Rafael Guarin, presidential adviser for security said Wednesday. "Fundamentally, the Mexicans take charge of the buying, trafficking and sale in the United States." He named the Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation, Zetas, and Beltran-Leyva cartels as the top buyers and traffickers of cocaine produced by criminal groups in Colombia, including current and former leftist rebels.

Rwandan Government Okays Medical Marijuana Exports. The Rwanda Development Board announced earlier this month that the government has approved the cultivation of medical marijuana for export as it seeks to target markets in the US and Europe. The country will soon begin taking applications for licenses from interested investors. The board made it clear that "this investment framework does not affect the legal status of cannabis consumption in Rwanda, which remains prohibited."

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.

NJ Police Chiefs Warn on Marijuana Legalization, European Drug Tends, More... (10/13/20)

Mississippi's Republican governor tries to undermine a medical marijuana initiative, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction has a new report out, and more.

Cocaine en route to Europe seized by Spanish police.
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Police Chiefs Present Arguments Against Marijuana Legalization. In an open letter, the state Association of Chiefs of Police did not explicitly come out against the state's pending referendum on marijuana legalization, but instead presented several arguments designed to highlight its dangers. They wrote that marijuana is not "benign," warned of stoned drivers, claimed the black market is "stronger than ever" in legal states, and cited "unintended consequences" of legalization.

Medical Marijuana

Mississippi Governor Signs Bill Allowing FDA-Approved Cannabis Medications as Legalization Vote Looms. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) last week signed into law a bill that allows residents to use marijuana-derived medications that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The move comes as the state prepares to vote on a medical marijuana initiative and a watered-down version of it forwarded by the legislature. Reeves said he is "against efforts to make marijuana mainstream."

International

European Drug Report Shows Advances in Trans-Atlantic Drug Trafficking. The European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) has released the European Drug Report 2020, which examines drug trafficking dynamics from 2018 to 2020. The big takeaways: Cocaine trafficking to Europe has boomed during the pandemic, greater quantities of higher quality cocaine are arriving, the cocaine market is expanding in Europe going back at least a decade, and European MDMA production keeps rising.

CDC Reports on Rising Cocaine Overdoses, Mexico Poppy Farmers Vow to Fight Eradication, More... (10/9/20)

South Dakota's marijuana legalization initiative picks up support from a leading state political figure, the CDC says cocaine overdose deaths nearly tripled between 2013 and 2018, and more.

Cocaine overdose deaths rose dramatically between 2013 and 2018, the CDC reports. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

California Eradicated More Than A Million Illegal Pot Plants This Year. The state's Campaign Against Marijuana Planting has eradicated 1.1 million plants at 455 different grow sites this year. The campaign also racked up 140 arrests and the seizure of 174 weapons. Southern California's Riverside County yielded some 293,000 plants -- the biggest haul -- while Northern California's Tulare, Trinity, Lake and Siskiyou counties rounded out the top five.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle Supports South Dakota Marijuana Legalization. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D), who represented the state in the Congress for nearly three decades, has come out in support of the Amendment A marijuana legalization initiative. "I did not advocate for legal marijuana while I served in the Senate but, like many other Americans, my viewpoint has vastly evolved in recent years, and my passion for improving how our society delivers health care as well as pioneering social and political change has never been stronger," Daschle said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

Cocaine

Cocaine Overdose Deaths Rising Dramatically. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that cocaine overdose deaths have nearly tripled over five years, rising at an average rate of 27% per year from 2013 to 2018. "While much attention has been given to the increase in drug overdose deaths involving opioids, it's also important to recognize that deaths involving other drugs, such as cocaine, have also increased in recent years," said Dr. Holly Hedegaard, lead researcher and injury epidemiologist at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

International

Mexico Opium Farmers Vow to Stop Military from Burning Poppies. Saying authorities have failed to deliver educational, health, and road improvements, residents of 33 communities in the state of Guerrero have pledged they will not allow the military to destroy their poppy fields. They say that opium cultivation is their only source of income. Farmers have proposed blocking the Acapulco-Zihuatanejo highway and the one linking Chilpancingo and Iguala and warned that if anything happens to military aerial eradication helicopters or military personnel engaged in eradication it would be the fault of the federal government. "We are determined to prevent our poppy plantations from being destroyed whether it is by air or land," said a document agreed to by the villagers.

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