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Gallup Poll Has Pot Use at All-Time High, DEA Walks Back Proposed Ban on Two Psychedelics, More... (8/29/22)

A trio of marijuana bills are on the California governor's desk, New York City cocaine users are adopting fentanyl test strips, Colombia's new president announces a coca growers' assembly, and more.

Everybody's doing it. Well, not everybody, but more people than ever. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Gallup Poll Finds Marijuana Use at All-Time High. A new Gallup poll has marijuana use at a record high—and for the first time, more Americans reported smoking marijuana than smoking cigarettes. The new poll has 16 percent of respondents smoking marijuana within the past week, up from 12 percent a year ago and more than double the historic low of seven percent. The number of people who reported cigarette smoking in the past week was 11 percent. That's down from 16 percent last year and a whopping 45 percent during cigarette smoking's peak in the 1950s.

California Interstate Marijuana Commerce, Other Pot Bills Go to Governor's Desk. Bills to create a framework for interstate marijuana commerce, streamline expungement for past marijuana convictions, and safeguard companies providing insurance to the legal marijuana industry have all passed out of the legislature and are on the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D). A passel of other marijuana bills are also advancing as the session end approaches. The interstate commerce bill is Senate Bill 1326, the marijuana convictions bill is Assembly Bill 1706, and the insurance bill is Assembly Bill 2568.

Harm Reduction

Fentanyl Test Strips Are ‘Catching On’ Among Cocaine Users. Rising overdoses are prompting some drug users to make testing their stashes for the presence of fentanyl a regular part of their drug-taking ritual. New York City cocaine users say their fear of overdosing on fentanyl-contaminated cocaine has made them wary of using any cocaine that has not been tested. Dozens of bars, clubs, and restaurants in the city are now offering fentanyl test strips as well. A Lower East Side taco restaurant owner said he began stocking the strips this spring after two people he knew died from fentanyl-adulterated cocaine. "It was a no-brainer for us," he said. "When we first put them out, we had customers say, ‘What is that?’ They were like, ‘Let me get one for my friend,’" Mr Tirado said. "It’s catching on."

New Mexico Now Providing Fentanyl Test Strips. Thanks to a change in the state's Harm Reduction Act, state officials are now distributing fentanyl test strips by the thousands. The Department of Health has handed out 15,000 test strips since May and has already ordered another 30,000. At least 1,215 people in the state have died from an overdose involving fentanyl since 2019, but more than 12,000 people have been saved from overdoses by the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone.

Psychedelics

DEA Walks Back Plan to Ban Two Obscure Psychedelics. The DEA has backed away from plans to place two obscure psychedelics, DOI (dimethoxy-4-iodoamphetamine) and DOC (dimethoxy-4-chloroamphetamine), on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The retreat came after the proposal encountered strong opposition about psychedelic companies and academic researchers. The Panacea company filed a motion requiring the DEA to respond by today, with the possibility of a public hearing to defend its proposal. Instead, the DEA folded without stating any specific reasons.

International

Colombia President Announces First Assembly of Coca Growers.  President Gustavo Petro announced last Friday that the country's first assembly of coca growers will be held in the Catatumbo region in the northwest of the country. "I propose you to get out of that first place (in hectares of coca) last year and build the peace capital of Colombia. That here in Catatumbo the talks of society can be developed and that somewhere talks can begin to leave the weapons behind and move to the era of peace," he said. "I have admitted the idea of carrying out in Catatumbo the first assembly of coca leaf farmers (…) with one intention: to show this government the ways (…) that allow us to achieve that a peasant family that today is dedicated to coca leaf can substitute this for an activity that guarantees them more quality of life", he explained to local residents. Colombia is the world's largest coca and cocaine producer. 

Psychedelic Use Increasing in US, Colombia Looks to Cocaine Decriminalization, More... (8/22/22)

A Swiss pilot program allowing legal marijuana sales will begin in three weeks, Colombia's president plans a drug decrime move, and more.

LSD blotter paper (Creative Commons)
Psychedelics

New Study Estimates Over 5.5 Million US Adults Use Hallucinogens. Hallucinogen use has increased since 2015, overall, and particularly among adults 26 and older, while use decreased in adolescents aged 12 -- 17 years, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center. An estimated 5.5+ million people in the US used hallucinogens in the past year, in 2019, which represents an increase from 1.7 percent of the population aged 12 years and over, in 2002, to 2.2 percent, in 2019. LSD use between 2002 and 2019 increased overall and in all age groups, with the past 12-month rate increasing from 0.9 percent in 2002 to 4 percent in 2019 for those 18-25 years of age. PCP use between 2002 and 2019 decreased, as did the drug Ecstasy since 2015. The study is the first to provide formal statistical analyses of trends in the prevalence of hallucinogen use overall and by age groups during the last two decades. The findings are published online in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction.

International

Colombia's New President Set to Move on Cocaine Decriminalization. The government of new President Gustavo Petro is now proposing an end to "prohibition" and the beginning of a government-regulated cocaine market. Working through both national legislation and alliances with other leftist governments in the region, the Petro government hopes to make the country a laboratory for drug decriminalization. Felipe Tascón, Petro's drug czar, said Colombia hoped to take advantage of the new regional power configuration, where leftists control the governments of the trio of cocaine producing countries (Bolivia, Colombia, Peru) and plans to meet with his regional counterparts on the issue with an eye toward forging a unified regional bloc to take on the international drug conventions at the United Nations. Tascón also said the administration would back legislation to decriminalize both cocaine and marijuana, as well as ending aerial spraying and manual eradication of coca crops. He said that regulating cocaine sales would allow the government to wrest control of the market from drug traffickers and armed groups.

Swiss Pilot Project on Regulated Marijuana Sales Begins Next Month. A pilot project that will see marijuana sold through pharmacies to some 370 study participants is set to begin September 15. The "Weed Care" program will allow participants to legally buy marijuana from nine shops in Basel. Health officials hope the trial will help address political questions about marijuana regulation. Study participants are all current marijuana users who must fill out surveys throughout the 30-month study. "It's not about full legalization -- but regulation -- where consumption is possible in a protected setting. That's what we want to test now," said Lukas Engelberger, medical director for Basel.

AR Legalization Campaign Sues to Get Back on Ballot, Honduras Coca Production, More... (8/5/22)

Coca grower factions continue to clash in Bolivia, Colombia's new president will move to decriminalize drugs, and more.

A coca lab in Honduras (HSDN)
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Campaign Sues to Get Initiative Back on the Ballot. Responsible Growth Arkansas, the group behind a marijuana legalization initiative, has filed suit against the State Board of Election Commissioners after the board earlier this week declined to certify the measure for the November ballot even though it had surpassed the required number of valid voter signatures. The board contended that the ballot title and description did not adequately describe the initiative, but Responsible Growth Arkansas says the board made an "incorrect" decision and "denied the wishes of hundreds of thousands of Arkansans to have the opportunity to vote on the Amendment."

International

Bolivia Coca Conflict Continues. Competing coca grower union factions, one affiliated with the government of President Luis Arce and the other opposed, continued to clash in La Paz this week. Adepcoca, which is the nation's largest coca union, is divided, with one faction now calling for the resignation of Minister of Rural Development Remmy Gonzales. And they are demanding the closure of a "parallel market" administered by coca union leader Arnold Alanez, whom the government recognizes as the leader of Adepcoca, and have filed a lawsuit against the government to force its closure. There are only two recognized coca markets, the Adepcoca market in La Paz and the Sacaba market in Cochabamba, and the Adepcoca growers say the third market is "illegal."

Colombia's Incoming Government Will Move to Decriminalize Drugs. The incoming administration of leftist President-elect Gustavo Petro is preparing drug policy proposals including drug decriminalization as it faces record cocaine production and violence from illegal armed groups and traffickers involved in the trade. Petro takes office on Sunday. His drug policy coordinator, Felipe Tascon, said that Petro also wants to end forced eradication of coca crops and instead concentrate on developing the rural economy. Tascon added that Petro will "speak up louder internationally" to explain that the problem is not drugs but "the problems drug prohibition created" and that "Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, if Lula wins, as progressive countries affected by narcotics can propose it as a block."

Honduras Sends in Military to Stop Illegal Coca Production. Honduran soldiers this week were on a mission to destroy a 75-acre coca field in the rugged mountains of Colon department. It's part of an effort by leftist President Xiomara Castro to prevent the country from becoming a cocaine producer. "In the operation, we are carrying out [they have seized] around 42 manzanas of coca bushes, with an approximate yield of one million 600 plants," the military said. There were also "eight nurseries with 50,000 plants ready for transplanting, six drug laboratories" and "three blocks of marijuana." More than 2.6 million coca plants have been seized this year, the military said. "We already have problems with being a transit and consumer country, but being a producer country would generate a criminality that we could not possibly control," it added.

DEA Backs Off on Banning Five New Psychedelics, Colombia's ELN Hints at Peace Talks with New President, More... (7/25/22)

Signature gatherers are criss-crossing the Cowboy State for a pair of marijuana initiatives, the US and India sign a joint agreement on cooperating against the drug trade, and more.

tryptamine molecule (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Wyoming Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Signature-Gathering Drive Chugging Right Along. Organizers of a pair of marijuana initiatives, the Wyoming Patient Cannabis Act and the Wyoming Cannabis Amendments, are at the midpoint of an 18-month-long signature-gathering window and already have about 17,000 raw voter signatures to qualify for the 2024 ballot. They need 41,776 valid voter signatures to make the ballot. One initiative would legalize medical marijuana; the other would remove criminal penalties for possessing or using marijuana.

Psychedelics

DEA Reverses Course, Will Not Ban Five New Psychedelics. Back in January, the DEA announced that it was moving to place five new psychedelics, all tryptamines, on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I is reserved for substances with a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use. But there was significant public pushback on the proposed role, including at a DEA public hearing where researchers and advocates made the case for not regulating the substances. Last Friday, DEA announced it had withdrawn the potential rule. The five new psychedelics are 4-Hydroxy-N,N-diisopropyltryptamine (4-OH-DiPT), 5-Methoxy-alphamethyltryptamine (5-MeO-AMT), N-Isopropyl-5-Methoxy-N-Methyltryptamine (5-MeO-MiPT), N,N-Diethyl-5-methoxytryptamine (5-MeO-DET), and N,N-Diisopropyltryptamine (DiPT).

Foreign Policy

US, India Ink Agreement on Fighting Drug Traffic. The State Department announced last Friday that India and the United States have signed an Amended Letter of Agreement (ALOA) in the field of narcotics control and law enforcement cooperation. The signing took place during the third meeting of the India-US Counternarcotics Working Group (CNWG) held in New Delhi on July 7-8. "Representatives from relevant agencies responsible for law enforcement, policy formulation, drug demand reduction, and other drug-related matters, participated in the deliberations on wide-ranging issues related to drug demand, narcotics trafficking, regulatory and control efforts, and cooperation on enforcement and criminal investigations," the State Department said. Both countries agreed to increase coordination and information-sharing on the drug trade, as well as fighting unregulated chemicals and pharmaceuticals being diverted into the black market. They also agreed to include drug demand reduction topics in the working group.

International

Colombia's ELN Hints at Peace Talks with Incoming President. After the FARC laid down its arms in 2016 as part of an agreement with the Colombian government, the largest remaining leftist rebel group in the countryis the National Liberation Army (ELN). Now, ELN leader Eliécer Erlinto Chamorro says that the group is interested in reaching a peace deal with leftist incoming President Gustavo Petro. "We hear voices from the new government about a different policy against drug trafficking: 'the war on drug trafficking must be ended', for being a policy that did not produce positive results. We agree, but it is not enough," he explained. "The new government says it is interested in peace in Colombia, the ELN too. We have listened to their messages and we are in the best disposition to resume talks to fill peace, with contents of social justice and democracy," the revolutionary leader said. "It is about ending drug trafficking once and for all. To build that solution, the country can count on us," he added. The ELN is one of numerous armed actors on the left and right that have financed their activities through the drug trade.

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans: The 200-Year History of the War on Drugs by P.E. Caquet (2022, Reaktion Books, 400 pp., $35.00 HB)

The history of drug prohibition is increasingly well-trodden territory, but with Opium's Orphans, British historian P.E. Caquet brings a fascinating new perspective embedded in a sweeping narrative and fortified with an erudite grasp of the broad global historical context. Although Asian bans on opium pre-dated 19th Century China (the Thai monarchy announced a ban in the 1400s), for Caquet, the critical moment in what became a linear trajectory toward global drug prohibition a century later came when the Qing emperor banned opium in 1813 and imposed severe penalties on anything to do with it, including possessing it. Precisely 100 years later, after two Opium Wars imposed opium on the empire followed by decades of diplomatic wrangling over how to suppress the trade (and for moralizing Americans, how to win favor with China), the 1913 Hague Opium Convention ushered in the modern war on drugs with its targeting not just of opium (and coca) producers or sellers but also of mere users for criminal prosecution. It urged countries to enact such laws, and they did.

What began at the Hague would eventually grow into an international anti-drug bureaucracy, first in the League of Nations and then in United Nations bodies such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board. But it is a global prohibition regime that has, Caquet writes, straight-jacketed itself with an opium-based perspective that has proven unable or unwilling to recognize the differences among the substances over which it seeks dominion, reflexively resorting to opium and its addiction model. Drugs such as amphetamines, psychedelics, and marijuana don't really fit that model -- they are the orphans of the book's title -- and in a different world would be differently regulated.

But Opium's Orphans isn't just dry diplomatic history. Caquet delves deep into the social, cultural, and political forces driving drug use and drug policies. His description of the spread of opium smoking among Chinese elites before it spread into the masses and became declasse is both finely detailed and strangely evocative of the trajectory of cocaine use in the United States in the 1970s, when it was the stuff of rock musicians and Hollywood stars before going middle class and then spreading among the urban poor in the form of crack.

Along the way, we encounter opium merchants and colonial opium monopolies, crusading missionary moralists, and early Western proponents of recreational drug use, such as Confessions of an English Opium Eater author Thomas De Quincey and the French habitues of mid-19th Century hashish clubs. More contemporaneously, we also meet the men who achieved international notoriety in the trade in prohibited drugs, "drug lords" such as Khun Sa in the Golden Triangle, Pablo Escobar in Colombia and El Chapo Guzman in Mexico, as well as the people whose job it is to hunt them down. Caquet notes that no matter how often a drug lord is removed -- jailed or killed, in most cases -- the impact on the trade is negligible.

For Caquet, drug prohibition as a global phenomenon peaked with the adoption of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Coming as it did amidst a post-World War II decline in drug use around the world, the treaty criminalizing coca, cocaine, opium and opioids, and marijuana seemed to ratify a successful global prohibitionist effort. (In the US, in the 1950s, when domestic drug use was at low ebb, Congress passed tough new drug laws.) But before the decade was over, drug prohibition was under flamboyant challenge from the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a horde of hippie pot smokers. The prohibitionist consensus was seeing its first cracks.

And the prohibitionist response was to crack down even harder, which in turn begat its own backlash. Drug use of all sorts began rising around the world in the 1960s and hasn't let up yet, and the increasingly omnivorous drug war machine grew right along with it, as did the wealth and power of the illicit groups that provided the drugs the world demanded. As the negative impacts of the global drug war -- from the current opioid overdose crisis in the US to the prisons filled with drug offenders to the bloody killing fields of Colombia and Mexico -- grew ever more undeniable, the critiques grew ever sharper.

In recent years, the UN anti-drug bureaucrats have been forced to grudgingly accept the notion of harm reduction, although they protest bitterly over such interventions as safe injection sites. For them, harm reduction is less of an erosion of the drug war consensus than all that talk of drug legalization. As Caquet notes, perhaps a tad unfairly, harm reduction doesn't seek to confront drug prohibition head-on, but to mitigate its harms.

The man is a historian, not a policymaker, and his response to questions about what to do now is "I wouldn't start from here." Still, at the end of it all, he has a trio of observations: First, supply reduction ("suppression" is his word) does not work. Sure, you can successfully wipe out poppies in Thailand or Turkey, but they just pop up somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle or Afghanistan. That's the infamous balloon effect. Second, "criminalization of the drug user has been a huge historical blunder." It has no impact on drug use levels, is cruel and inhumane, and it didn't have to be that way. A century ago, countries could have agreed to regulate the drug trade; instead, they tried to eradicate it in an ever-escalating, never-ending crusade. Third, illicit drugs as a group should be seen "as a historical category, not a scientific one." Different substances demand different approaches.

Opium's Orphans is a fascinating, provocative, and nuanced account of the mess we've gotten ourselves into. Now, we continue the work of trying to get out of that mess.

House Approves SAFE Banking Again, Colombia Cocaine Production Down Slightly, More... (7/15/22)

The NYPD reverses course on testing cops for marijuana, Colorado's governor signs an executive order protecting marijuana-using workers from discrimination, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Coca and cocaine production remained relatively stable at high levels last year. (Pixabay)
House Approves More Marijuana Amendments as Part of Defense Spending Bill. The House on Thursday approved a half dozen marijuana amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act, including amendments to protect banks that work with state-legal marijuana businesses and allow Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical marijuana to patients. The banking amendment came from Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) and contains the language of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which has been included in other omnibus spending bills only to be stripped out in conference committee by Senate leadership, which is still holding out for a full-fledged marijuana legalization bill.

Colorado Governor Issues Executive Order to Protect Marijuana Users from Workplace Discrimination. Gov. Jared Polis (D) has issued an executive order designed to protect workers from being punished or denied a professional license for using, possessing, or growing marijuana. The order includes people from other states. "The exclusion of people from the workforce because of marijuana-related activities that are lawful in Colorado, but still criminally penalized in other states, hinders our residents, economy and our State," said Polis. The order also directs the state Department of Regulatory Agencies to not provide information to aid in professional investigations related to legal marijuana-related activities in the state.

NYPD Says It Will Stop Testing Cops for Weed, Then Reverses Course. The NYPD on Wednesday announced it would quit drug testing officers for marijuana, only to reverse course within a matter of hours. "The New York City Law Department has directed the NYPD to cease all random, scheduled and pre-employment testing for marijuana," an NYPD spokeswoman said early Wednesday. "The Department will continue to administer marijuana screenings to personnel when there are indications of impairment and is reviewing its current policies in light of this directive." But later in the day, an NYPD spokesman said that the department was in discussions with the Law Department about possible conflicts with federal law and that in the meantime, it was back to the old policy. "While these discussions continue, there is no change in NYPD policies, procedures, or testing protocols regarding the use of Marijuana by uniformed members of the service," the spokesperson announced.

International

Colombian Coca, Cocaine Production Fell Slightly Last Year, Drug Czar's Office Says. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) reported Thursday that Colombia had seen slight reductions in coca cultivation and cocaine production in 2021. Estimated coca cultivation dropped from 600,000 acres to 578,000, while estimated cocaine production dropped from 994 tons in 2020 to 972 tons last year. Despite billions of dollars in US anti-drug and counter-insurgency funding over the past several decades, Colombia remains one of the world's top cocaine producer, with leftist rebel factions, former rightist paramilitaries, and criminal gangs competing earn black market profits from the trade. ONDCP also reported that Peruvian cocaine production and coca cultivation dropped slightly as well last year, but production was up slightly in Bolivia, leaving global cocaine production at near record levels.

Senate Democrats' Legal Weed Bill Coming Next Week, Peru Seeks US Help With Cocaine Planes, More... (7/14/22)

Some marijuana and psychedelic amendments have made it into a defense spending bill, Germany's Left Party is calling for drug decriminalization, and more.

Marijuana is on the agenda on Capitol Hill. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Approves Marijuana and Psychedelic Amendments to Defense Spending Bill. The House on Wednesday voted to includes a pair of amendments on psychedelic research and one that would require the military to study marijuana-related discrimination in the armed forces as part of an omnibus defense spending bill. Another half dozen marijuana-related amendments remain to be voted on before a final vote on the defense bill. The psychedelic amendments would require research into the therapeutic potential of substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, and ibogaine and one of them is aimed at active duty service members with PTSD.

Senate Democrats' Marijuana Legalization Bill Coming Next Week. A legalization bill backed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) is set to be filed next week. The Senate Democratic leadership is pushing the bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, even as it comes under criticism that it is blocking consideration of incremental reforms that would give state-legal marijuana businesses access to banking and financial services. The House has already passed its own marijuana legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617).

International

Germany's Left Opposition Party Calls for Drug Decriminalization. Even as the country moves down the path toward marijuana legalization, the Left Party (Die Linke) is calling for the decriminalization of so-called hard drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The party is proposing a "fundamental rethink" of national drug policy and is calling for addicts to be given access to small amounts of drugs under "therapeutic support." Drug users must be "consistently protected from criminal prosecution," the party said in its motion. Die Linke said the move would free up police resources for more important matters. "Police, public prosecutors, courts and last but not least medical facilities must be relieved and be able to concentrate on important public welfare tasks," the party said.<

Peru Wants US Help to Stop Cocaine Trafficking Planes. Peru has since March been seeking an accord with the US to allow "non-lethal" support for intercepting drug-carrying planes headed for global markets. The US once provided air support for Peruvian efforts to intercept planes, but that program ended two decades ago after the Peruvian Air Force mistakenly shot down a plane that was carrying US missionaries, killing two of them. Ricardo Soberon, head of DEVIDA, the national anti-drug agency, said global demand is undermining eradication efforts on the ground and that it was time to review the "principle of shared responsibility." He added that talks with the US are ongoing: "The process now is strictly one of bilateral negotiation. The Peruvian Foreign Ministry has it in its hands, so we hope to finish that as soon as possible." He said he expects to travel to Washington in the fall to meet with State Department officials to discuss the matter.

Supreme Court Sides with Inmate in Crack Cocaine Resentencing Case [FEATURE]

In a Monday decision little-noticed amidst the rising clamor over recent Supreme Court decisions on guns, abortion, and religion, the highest court in the land ruled in favor of a federal crack cocaine prisoner seeking a sentence reduction under the terms of the 2018 First Step Act. The ruling could affect thousands of other mostly Black inmates sentenced under the nation's harsh crack cocaine laws.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes for the majority. (Creative Commons)
During the crack panic of the 1980s, Congress passed legislation creating a 100:1 disparity in the weight of the drug required to trigger a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence. Confronted with the increasingly unassailable evidence that the sentencing disparity was neither scientifically justified nor racially neutral -- nearly 80 percent of federal crack prosecutions targeted Black people by 2009 -- Congress in 2010 passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced but did not eliminate the weight disparity, setting it at 18:1.

The Fair Sentencing Act provided relief to people sentenced after its passage, but it was not retroactive, meaning people sentenced under the old standard still had to do those harsh sentences. In order to address that oversight and reduce racial inequities, Congress in 2018 passed the First Step Act, making those sentencing changes retroactive and opening the door for people sentenced under the old law to seek resentencing.

The case in question, Concepcion v. United States, began when Carlos Concepcion pleaded guilty to selling crack in 2009 and was sentenced to 19 years in prison based on the 100:1 sentencing disparity in effect at the time. After passage of the First Step Act and having already served a decade of his sentence, Concepcion filed for a reduced sentence. Part of his argument was that he was no longer considered a "career offender" subject to harsher sentencing because of changes in the federal sentencing guidelines unrelated to the First Step Act.

Without that "career offender" designation, Concepcion would have been a free man after serving just less than six years [Ed: six years is itself a very long time], but a Massachusetts federal district court judge declined to consider factors unrelated to the First Step Act and denied his resentencing request. That denial was upheld by the 1st US Circuit Court in Boston, and Concepcion and his attorneys then appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in a 5-4 decision.

The majority on the court was an odd one, consisting of the three liberal justices -- Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor -- joined by hard conservative justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas. Sotomayor wrote the opinion.

In it, she argued that judges enjoy broad discretion at sentencing and that discretion continues in any later proceedings that may change the sentence.

"Federal courts historically have exercised broad discretion to consider all relevant information at an initial sentencing hearing, consistent with their responsibility to sentence the whole person before them," she wrote. "That discretion also carries forward to later proceedings that may modify an original sentence. District courts' discretion is bounded only when Congress or the Constitution expressly limits the type of information a district court may consider in modifying a sentence."

There is nothing in the First Step Act that limits that discretion, she added.

"Nothing in the text and structure of the First Step Act expressly, or even implicitly, overcomes the established tradition of district courts' sentencing discretion," she wrote. "The text of the First Step Act does not so much as hint that district courts are prohibited from considering evidence of rehabilitation, disciplinary infractions, or unrelated Guidelines changes. The only two limitations on district courts' discretion appear in §404(c): A district court may not consider a First Step Act motion if the movant's sentence was already reduced under the Fair Sentencing Act or if the court considered and rejected a motion under the First Step Act. Neither limitation applies here."

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued that the First Step Act only authorized judges to cut sentences related to changes in the crack sentencing ranges, but not unrelated factors.

"Congress enacted the First Step Act to provide a targeted retroactive reduction in crack-cocaine sentencing ranges, not to unleash a sentencing free-for-all in the lower courts," Kavanaugh wrote.

But that was the minority opinion. And if reducing unduly harsh crack cocaine sentences that were based on panic and prejudice is "a sentencing free-for-all," that would be a small price to pay for some restorative justice.

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.

Drug War Issues

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