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With Sweeping Criminal Justice Reform Bill, Canada Seeks an Off-Ramp from the War on Drugs [FEATURE]

On February 16, Canada's governing Liberal Party finally moved to enact long-promised reforms to criminal justice by introducing a sweeping new bill that would make arrests for drug possession only one option for police, end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, end some other mandatory minimums, and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But is it enough?

Canadian parliament building, Ottawa (Creative Commons)
The government's move comes as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces mounting pressure for reform on two fronts. First, Canada is facing an unprecedented drug overdose crisis, with the province of British Columbia especially hard-hit. Last year, the provincial Coroners Service reported, BC saw a whopping 1,716 drug overdose deaths, up a startling 74 percent over 2019. The province has always been on the cutting edge of drug reform in Canada, and spurred by the crisis, BC formally asked the federal government in early February for an exemption to the country's drug laws to allow it to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of drugs. That request is still being considered by Ottawa.

But the pressure for drug decriminalization isn't just coming from British Columbia, it's coming from inside the criminal justice system. In July 2020, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for drug decriminalization, recommending the "current enforcement-based approach for possession be replaced with a health-care approach that diverts people from the criminal justice system." The following month, the federal prosecution service issued a directive permitting prosecution of drug cases only in the most serious cases.

And public opinion supports decriminalization. An Angus Reid poll released after the government announced the new bill found that seven out of 10 Canadians felt the country's opioid crisis had worsened in 2020, and 59 percent supported the decriminalization of all illegal drugs.

Second, just as last summer's massive protests in the United States channeled and amplified long-standing demands for racial and social justice here, so they echoed north of the border. Canada has its own not-so-noble history of racism and discrimination, and the number of Black and Indigenous people swept up in the country's criminal justice system demonstrates that the legacy of the past continues to this day.

Indigenous people make up 5% of the Canadian population but accounted for 25% of all federal prisoners in 2019. Similarly, Black Canadians accounted for about 3% of the population but more than 7% of prisoners that year. As the Justice Ministry noted in a 2017 report, after Conservatives passed tough anti-crime measures early this century, Black and Indigenous were disproportionately targeted for mandatory minimum sentencing in the decade ending in 2017. And as the Office of the Correctional Investigator reported, non-white inmates are more likely to sent to maximum security prisons, have forced used against them, and be denied parole.

As the government rolled out the bill, C-22, "An Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act," Justice Minister David Lametti made clear that not just public health but also racial justice was on its mind.

Trudeau had asked him to "address systemic inequities in the criminal justice system," he told a press conference. "We are turning the page on a failed Conservative criminal justice policy," he added. "It was an approach that did not make our communities safer. It did not deter criminals. It did not make the justice system more effective or more fair. Its singular accomplishment has been to incarcerate too many Indigenous people, too many Black people and too many marginalized Canadians."

The bill envisions reforms in policing, prosecuting, and sentencing drug offenders and sets out statements of principle for dealing with drug offenses, including "problematic drug use should be addressed primarily as a health and social issue," state actors should recognize human rights and harm reduction imperatives, and criminal sanctions are stigmatizing and not consistent with public health practice.

Under these principles, when encountering people using or possessing drugs, police would be granted the discretion to "consider whether it would be preferable... to take no further action, or warn the individual, or, with the consent of the individual, to refer the individual to a program or to an agency or other service provider in the community that may assist the individual."

Similarly, the bill mandates the prosecutors open drug possession cases only when a warning, referral, or alternate measures are "not appropriate, and a prosecution in appropriate in the circumstances." And it gives judges much broader discretion to order probationary sentences instead of confinement.

C-22 looks as if it were designed to cut off inputs to the Canadian prison system at every level of the system. Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who has represented Toronto's Beaches-East York riding (district) since 2015 and is a longtime proponent of full drug decriminalization, says that is exactly what it is supposed to do.

He filed private member's bills this session for decriminalization (C-235) and for an evidence-based diversion model (C-236) to reduce drug arrests and prosecutions. It is that latter bill that the government has now largely adopted as C-22.

"I favor drug decriminalization because the war on drugs is an absolute failure that harms the people we want to help," he told the Chronicle. "Our opioid crisis has taken more than 16,000 lives since 2016, and there is systemic racism in the criminal justice system, including around drug charges."

"My goal was to call for full decriminalization, with a second bill to show the government if they weren't inclined to favor decriminalization, here's an alternative that would get us closer to the goal and would be more politically feasible. This bill seriously restricts the discretion of police and prosecutors to proceed, according to a set of principles that will ensure a stronger focus on human rights and harm reduction," he said. "It doesn't go as far as I want it to go, but it is unquestionably a step forward. It will be virtually impossible for the state to move forward with drug possession charges and prosecutions."

Donald Macpherson, executive director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and author of Vancouver's groundbreaking Four Pillars drug strategy in the 1990s, has a more jaundiced view of both the Liberals and C-22.

"The things that are in this bill are all things the Liberals promised when they were elected in 2015, and if they had done this then it would have been seen as a good move, getting rid of egregious stuff the Harper government had implemented," he told the Chronicle. "But now, the discussion has moved so far that even police chiefs are calling for decriminalization. It's too little, too late."

Even the limited support he gave the bill was filled with caveats.

"Overall, though, it is a good thing, it is incremental progress, getting rid of the mandatory minimums is probably the most powerful aspect in terms of criminal law," McPherson conceded. "But the bill was supposed to deal with the disproportionate impact of drug law enforcement on people of color, and it won't do it. There will be more probationary sentences and more alternatives to imprisonment, but arrests and prosecutions will be 'at the discretion of' and Black and Indigenous people will now be caught up in kinder, gentler diversion programs."

Still, passage of C-22 would be a step in the right direction, Macpherson said.

"It is preparing the ground for the next step, full decriminalization, which I think is now inevitable. The harms of criminalization in Canada are now so evident to everyone that the question now is not whether to but how to," he said. "We saw this with cannabis -- at a certain point, the change in the discourse was palpable. We're now at that point with drug decriminalization."

Long-time Vancouver drug user activist Ann Livingston, cofounder of the pioneering Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and currently executive project coordinator for the BC-Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors, had an even more jaundiced view than Macpherson, scoffing at more police discretion and expanded probationary sentences.

"I'm glad to see the mandatory minimums gone, but the Liberals want more police, and we say don't do us any more favors," she told the Chronicle. "And the police have always had discretion to not make drug arrests; they just never exercise it. And probation -- many of the people in jail are there for probation violations, even administrative ones, like missing appointments."

For Livingston, the cutting edge is now no longer criminal justice reforms or even decriminalization but creating a safe supply of currently illegal drugs. Limited opioid maintenance programs, including heroin, are available in the city, but they aren't enough, she said.

"Here in British Columbia, we had 900 COVID deaths last year and 1,700 overdose deaths. What we need is a safe drug supply," she argued. "We have to have clear demands and what we are demanding is a pure, safe supply of heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth. This is a crisis; this is the time to do this drug law stuff right. And to get serious. The feds tell us they place no barriers on heroin prescribing, but then they fight about who is going to pay for it."

If Justin Trudeau and the Liberals think passing C-22 is going to quiet the clamor for more fundamental change in Canadian drug policies, they should probably think again.

Canada

Lawmakers Urge Biden to Allow Buprenorphine Expansion, Honduran President Target of US Drug Investigation, More... (2/9/21)

A major new marijuana reform coalition has formed, a Hawaii asset forfeiture reform bill advances, so does an Idaho medical marijuana bill, and more.

buprenorphine (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Major Marijuana Coalition Forms to Coordinate Legalization Push, But Some Key Advocacy Players Are Not Involved. A bunch of industry and advocacy groups have formed a new coalition, the United States Cannabis Council, to press forward on marijuana legalization. But while the group is headed by Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins on an interim basis, it does not include major advocacy groups such as NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance. It does include marijuana enterprises such as Acreage Holdings, Canopy Growth, Columbia Care, Cronos Group, Curaleaf, Eaze, iAnthus Capital Holdings, LivWell Enlightened Health, MedMen, PAX Labs, Schwazze, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Vireo.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill that would legalize medical marijuana in the state won a vote in the House Health and Welfare Committee Monday. Although sponsored by the committee, the bill was actually written by Sgt. Jeremy Kitzhaber, a US Air Force veteran with terminal cancer, who testified before the vote Monday. "I'm here to talk with you about my desire for medical cannabis to be legalized here in Idaho, with specific limitations and controls," Kitzhaber said. "I've spent years writing and editing this legislation, to make it something that would allow medical cannabis to reach those who need it, but not necessarily reach those who just want it."

Asset Forfeiture

Hawaii Senate Advances Asset Forfeiture Reform Measure. The state Senate has approved Senate Bill 294, which would end civil asset forfeiture by requiring a conviction on a felony count before seized property could be sold or otherwise disposed of. The bill would also direct proceeds from the sale of seized property to the state's general fund instead of a fund controlled by law enforcement. Gov. David Ige (D) vetoed a similar bill in 2019, citing concerns it would hinder law enforcement.

Drug Testing

Illinois Bill Would Require Drug Screening to Receive Food Stamps. A downstate Republican, Rep. Blaine Wilhour, filed HB 658 last Friday. The bill would require recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to undergo a drug screening upon being approved for benefits. The bill would also require them to agree to random drug screening while they are receiving the benefits. The bill has not yet been referred to a committee.

Drug Treatment

Lawmakers Urge Biden to Back Buprenorphine Expansion. A group of lawmakers led by led by Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and joined by four members in the House is calling on President Biden to allow more doctors to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug used for the treatment of opioid addiction. The Trump administration had loosened rules for buprenorphine prescribing, but in an early move, the Biden administration reversed that move, saying it was premature. The lawmakers are now reintroducing legislation to eliminate restrictive rules and are calling on Biden to "deliver on your promise to expand access to medication-assisted treatment."

Foreign Policy

US Prosecutors Are Investigating the Honduran President on Drug Trafficking Charges. In new court filing last Friday in the case of an indicted Honduran drug trafficker, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York said that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and other "high-ranking officials" were targets of a drug trafficking investigation. In another filing last month, prosecutors said that by 2013 Hernandez had "accepted millions of dollars in drug trafficking proceeds" and in return had "promised drug traffickers from prosecutors, law enforcement, and extradition to the United States." Hernandez has been a key US ally in the region.

Study Finds Meth Deaths Rose Steadily in Recent Years, USSC Charts Rise in Federal Fentanyl Cases, More... (1/25/21)

Marijuana legalization bills are filed in Florida and Hawaii, a bill to protect medical marijuana-using veterans is filed in Congress, and more.

Federal fentanyl prosecutions are rising rapidly, the US Sentencing Commission reports. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Marijuana Legalization Bills Filed. State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) and state Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) have filed companion marijuana legalization bills, HB 343 and SB 710, respectively. The bills would "establish a robust and free-market regulatory approach to the governance of cultivation, processing, and retail sales of both medical and adult-use marijuana." They would legalize up to 2.5 ounces for people 21 and over.

Hawaii Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. A marijuana legalization bill was filed last week in Honolulu. The bill, SB 704, would set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana sales, as well as legalizing the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and allowing for the personal cultivation of up to six plants, of which three can be mature.

Washington State Home Cultivation Bill Advances. A bill that would allow people to grow their own weed at home, HB 1019, was approved by the House Commerce and Gaming Committee on a 7-2 vote last Friday. Although the state has legalized marijuana, home cultivation remains a felony. This bill would allow people to grow up to six plants and keep the fruits of their harvest.

Medical Marijuana

Bill to Protect Veterans Who Use Medical Marijuana Filed in House. Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL) has filed a bill to protect military veterans who are using medical marijuana in compliance with state laws from being penalized. HR 430 would also clarify that Department of Veterans Affairs doctors can discuss the benefits and risks of medical marijuana with their patients. The bill is now before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

US Sentencing Commission Finds Big Increases in Fentanyl Prosecutions. In a report released Monday, the US Sentencing Commission finds that while fentanyl and fentanyl analogues account for only 5.8% of federal drug trafficking cases, the number of fentanyl cases has doubled each fiscal year since 2015 and the number of fentanyl analog cases has doubled each fiscal year since 2016. Fentanyl cases jumped from 24 to 886, a whopping 3,592% increase, while analog cases jumped from four to 233, an even larger 5,725% increase.

Methamphetamine

Methamphetamine Overdose Deaths Have Risen Sharply, Study Finds. A study supported by the National Institutes of Health finds that meth overdose deaths rose sharply nationwide between 2011 and 2018, with the death rate rising from 4.5 to 20.9 per 100,000 among people aged 25 to 54. The numbers rose across all racial and ethnic groups, but American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest death rates overall. The research was conducted at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

US and Mexico in Drug War Tiff, IL Passes Bill to Abolish Cash Bail, Santa Fe DA Softens Drug Charges, More... (1/19/21)

Marijuana legalization and medical marijuana bills get filed in Nebraska, the US and Mexico spar over the undone arrest of a former defense minister, a Washington state bill to allow home cultivation gets a hearing, and more.

Bail bond businesses like this one are about to go the way of the dodo in Illinois. (CA Dept. of Insurance)
Marijuana Policy

Nebraska Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. State Senator Terrell McKinney (D-Omaha) has introduced Legislative Bill 481, which would remove marijuana from the state's criminal code and expunge past convictions for marijuana possession.

Washington State Bill to Allow Home Cultivation Gets Hearing. A bill to allow state residents to grow their own marijuana at home got a hearing last week in the House Commerce and Gaming Committee, with little controversy generated. House Bill 1019 could get a committee vote as soon as this Friday.

Medical Marijuana

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. State Senator Anna Wishart (D-Lincoln) has filed Legislative Bill 474, which would create a system of regulated medical marijuana distribution for qualifying patients. She filed a similar bill two years ago, which was defeated. A medical marijuana initiative last year qualified for the ballot but was thrown off by the state's Supreme Court.

Psychedelics

Somerville, Massachusetts, Moves to Effectively Decriminalize Natural Psychedelics. The city council last week voted unanimously to approve a resolution that directs city agencies and employees, including police, to not use city resources to enforce laws against the use and possession of natural psychedelics (entheogenic plants). The move came thanks to advocacy by Bay Staters for Natural Medicine, Decriminalize Nature Massachusetts and the Heroic Hearts Project.

Drug Policy

Santa Fe, New Mexico DA Announces New, Softer Policy Toward Drug Possession. New District Attorney Mary Carmakc-Atlwies has announced a set of new, progressive policies including downgrading felony drug possession charges to misdemeanors for a first offense and offering defendants treatment or probation. The only people charged with a drug possession felony will be those who refuse a plea or diversion and ask for a jury trial. "I ran as a progressive on the idea that we need to reform the criminal justice system. And there are prosecutors all over the country doing things in this manner," she said. "We have acknowledged the war on drugs has not worked and we have to do something about it. This is step one of doing something about it."

Foreign Policy

Mexico Exonerates Ex-Defense Minister of Drug Charges, Lashes Out at DEA. At a news conference last Friday, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) lashed out at the DEA, accusing the US drug agency of making up a drug case against former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested upon arrival in Los Angeles last October but then released with US charges dropped after heated protests from Mexico. "Why did they do this investigation this way? Without substance, without evidence?" AMLO demanded after the Mexican attorney general a day earlier said he had found no grounds to charge Cienfuegos with a crime in Mexico.

US Rebukes Mexico for Revealing Evidence in Ex-Defense Minister Case. The Justice Department last Friday sharply criticized Mexico for releasing a massive trove of evidence in an aborted drug trafficking case against former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos. "Publicizing such information violates the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance between Mexico and the United States, and calls into question whether the United States can continue to share information to support Mexico's own criminal investigations," said a statement from an agency spokeswoman. The DOJ also defended the case against Cienfuegos, saying the evidence shows that the charges were "not fabricated."

Law Enforcement

Illinois Legislature Passes Bill to Abolish Cash Bail. A bill to completely abolish cash bail, House Bill 3653, has passed both houses of the legislature and now awaits the signature of Gov. JB Pritzker, who is expected to okay it. The bill will end cash bail and empower judges to base their pretrial decisions on whether a person needs to be held for public safety reasons, not their socioeconomic status. It will require the release of people charged with crimes before trial with the exception of a narrow set of felony offenses or if someone poses a specific harm to another individual. In all exceptions, the bill requires judges to impose the least restrictive conditions possible.

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

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

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

The Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long, Hot Summer Uprising Against Police Violence and Racism

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

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

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

In Historic Move, House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

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

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

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

Here Comes Psychedelic Drug Law Reform

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

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

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

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

Oregon Decriminalizes Drugs

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

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

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

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

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

Attack of the Progressive Prosecutors

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

A Tough Year for Safe Injection Sites

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

Asset Forfeiture Reforms

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

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

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

America Keeps ODing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychedelics

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

Drug Policy

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

Higher Education

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

Oregon's Largest County Ends Drug Possession Prosecutions, New Jersey MJ and Psilocybin Bills Pass, More... (12/16/20)

The DEA has published a rule that will finally allow for an end to the government monopoly on marijuana grown for research purposes, the Mexican congress slaps back at the US by limiting the activities of DEA agents inside the country, and more.

Meth arrest. You'll be seeing a lot less of this in Oregon as voter-approved decriminalization begins to bite. (Creative Commons
Marijuana Policy

DEA Issues Rule Allowing Expanded Number of Marijuana Research Grows. The DEA on Thursday made public a rule that will allow researchers to be able to obtain marijuana from more than the one currently sanctioned grower, a farm at the University of Mississippi. The DEA began soliciting applications from potential growers in 2016, and 41 applicants have submitted requests to grow research marijuana since then. Those applications went unanswered during the Trump administration.

New Jersey Lawmakers Pass Marijuana Legalization, Decriminalization, and Magic Mushroom Bills. The Assembly and the Senate on Thursday approved three bills on marijuana and magic mushrooms. Senate Bill 21 would create a new, legal marijuana industry, while a second bill decriminalizes the possession of up to six ounces of marijuana, and the third bill reduces penalties for magic mushroom possession from a felony to disorderly persons offense. The bills now go to the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who is expected to sign them into law.

Washington State Bill Would Allow Personal Home Grows. A bill introduced last week, HB 1019, would let adults 21 and over grow up to six plants for personal use and possess the fruits of the harvest. Similar bills have been filed each year since 2015 but have yet to pass.

Drug Policy

Oregon's Most Populous County to Halt Drug Possession Prosecutions Ahead of Looming Decriminalization. The drug decriminalization measure approved by voters in November doesn't go into effect until February 1, but prosecutors in Multnomah County (Portland) the state's most populous, aren't waiting to stop drug possession arrests. DA Mike Schmidt announced Thursday that, effective immediately, it will quit prosecuting drug possession cases. "Past punitive drug policies and laws resulted in over-policing of diverse communities, heavy reliance on correctional facilities and a failure to promote public safety and health," Schmidt said in a statement. "It's time to move beyond these failed practices, expand access to treatment and focus our limited law enforcement resources to target high-level, commercial drug offenses."

Sentencing Reform

California State Senator Files Sentencing Reform Bill. State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) on Thursday introduced SB 73, a bill that gives judges more discretion to order probation and other alternatives to incarceration for certain drug offenses, as well as doing away with mandatory minimum sentencing provisions for some drug offenses.

International

Mexican Lawmakers Vote to Restrict Foreign Agents Despite US Pressure. The Chamber of Deputies of Mexico voted on Tuesday to approve a bill restricting the activities of foreign agents on national territory, despite the US voicing concerns that it could hamper cross-border drug investigations. The Senate already approved the measure last Wednesday. The bill came as a reaction to the arrest of former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos by DEA agents in Los Angeles in October. Bowing to pressure from Mexico, US prosecutors dropped the charges, but it appears the Mexicans are still not mollified.

CBO Says Marijuana Legalization Would Help Federal Budget Deficit, DEA Virtual Lecture Series to Begin, More... (12/8/20)

A state senator is leading a push for a marijuana legalization initiative in Nebraska, the new progressive Los Angeles County DA is getting down to work, and more.

"Drug Kingpin" Ivan Velasquez Caballero upon extradition to the US. He's been replaced. (DEA.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Congressional Budget Office Says Marijuana Legalization Would Help Federal Budget. In an analysis of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3384), which passed the House last week, the Congressional Budget Office reported that revenues from legal marijuana businesses and shrinking federal prison costs could shrink the federal budget deficit $7.3 billion during the remainder of this decade. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a staunch legalization supporter, liked what he saw in the report: "It shows that the MORE Act would reduce 73,000 person-years of prison time," Blumenauer said. "It would increase revenues by $13.7 billion. It would provide $3 billion for job training and legal aid to people harmed by the war on drugs. While doing all of this, it would reduce the deficit by $7.344 billion."

Nebraska State Senator to Draft Marijuana Legalization Initiative for 2022. Marijuana reform proponent state Sen. Anna Wishart (D-Lincoln) announced last Saturday that she has a team drafting a marijuana legalization initiative for the 2022 ballot. She, along with Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, is already involved with drafting a medical marijuana initiative for 2022.

Law Enforcement

DEA Virtual Lecture Series to Begin with Look at Kingpin Strategy. Former Administrator Robert C. Bonner will lead off the first installment of the Drug Enforcement Administration Museum & Visitor Center's fiscal year 2021 lecture series Disrupt, Dismantle, and Destroy. Mr. Bonner will speak about leading DEA as it put the "Kingpin Strategy" into place in the early 1990s to combat violent and powerful drug trafficking organizations. "The Kingpin Strategy attacks drug organizations' most vulnerable areas-leadership, production, distribution, and assets. DEA designed the strategy to weaken, destroy, and dismantle major drug trafficking organizations," the DEA press release said. Given the Kingpin Strategy's results in places like Colombia and Mexico, someone should ask how that's working out so far. Virtual tickets are available at the link.

New Los Angeles County DA to End Cash Bail, Review Sentences, Divert Low-Level Offenders. Incoming Los Angeles County DA George Gascon said Monday upon taking office that he will end cash bail except for violent offenses and review sentences in thousands of cases. He said the latter move could affect at least 20,000 cases. He also said his office will work to divert people arrested for low-level offenses related to poverty, addiction, homelessness, and mental health issue to behavioral health services.

OR Dems Endorse Drug Reform Inits, CA East Bay County Ends Drug Possession Prosecutions, More... (9/24/20)

The Drug Policy Alliance on the Breonna Taylor non-indictments, Oregon Democrats go all in for drug decriminalization and therapeutic psilocybin initiatives, and more.

If you get arrested for drug possession in Contra Costa County, CA, prosecutors will not file charges against you. (CC)
Drug Policy

Oregon Democratic Party Endorses Legal Psilocybin Therapy and Drug Decriminalization Ballot Measures. The state Democratic Party officially endorsed two statewide drug reform initiatives Wednesday. The party is getting behind both Measure 110, which would decriminalize drug possession, and Measure 109, the therapeutic psilocybin initiative.

Law Enforcement

Drug Policy Alliance Statement on Release of Grand Jury’s Findings in Breonna Taylor Killing by Louisville Police. In response to the release of the grand jury’s findings -- only indicting one of the three officers on a charge of "wanton endangerment" -- in the horrific killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville Police in what was a baseless no-knock warrant in a drug investigation, Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), released the following statement: "Breonna Taylor should be alive today, but instead, the systems we have in place -- as a result of the drug war -- failed her. And they robbed her of the bright future she was just beginning. Had it not been for the drug war -- which provides the military-grade equipment to local police departments through military weapons transfer and earmarked federal funds -- Breonna would be alive today. And had it not been for the drug war that incentivizes drug arrests with said federal resources, the police likely would have never gone to her home to begin with. While this decision is upsetting and certainly doesn’t go far enough, it does not change the fact that as long as the drug war remains, people of color will continue to have a bounty on their heads. They will continue to be gunned down in their beds, or held down until they can’t breathe with an officer’s knee on their necks. And worse, those responsible for their deaths will use drugs -- or alleged drug involvement -- as a cover for their merciless actions. This isn't an isolated incident. These aren't 'a few bad cops.' It is a system that has been created through the parasitic relationship between policing, the drug war and racism. And until we completely terminate those connections, we are simply adding fuel to the fire and no court or jury will be able to stop the police violence that ensues."

California East Bay County to Stop Prosecutions for Drug Possession, Other Nonviolent Misdemeanors. Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton announced Thursday that her office will no longer file charges against most people arrested for small-time drug possession and other nonviolent misdemeanor offenses. The county had not been pursuing such charges under a pilot program in effect since early this year. Now that policy has been made permanent. The county says the move will divert low-level recreational users out of the criminal justice system and into the health care system with the goals of both reducing the strain in the courts and on law enforcement.

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

(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.)

DEA Loses Bid to Kill MJ Rescheduling Lawsuit, Canada to Stop Prosecuting Most Drug Possession Cases, More... (8/20/20)

A new poll shows bipartisan support for marijuana legalization, Colombian coca eradication goes into high gear amidst the pandemic, and more.

Marijuana Policy

New Poll Has Bipartisan Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new poll from Data for Progress has support for marijuana legalization at 58%, including 69% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans. Support among Democrats jumped to 79% when respondents were provided details of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which is currently pending before Congress. So did Republican support, which jumped to 60%.

Law Enforcement Professionals Call on Congress to Legalize Marijuana. More than 50 current and former law enforcement professionals have sent a letter to Congress urging it to move swiftly on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. The letter was signed by the National Black Police Association, Fair and Just Prosecution and Law Enforcement Action Partnership, in addition to dozens of current and former prosecutors, judges and police officers. Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) were among the list of signees.

Federal Appeals Court Rejects DEA Challenge to Marijuana Rescheduling Lawsuit. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a DEA request to throw out a lawsuit challenging marijuana's listing as a Schedule I drug. The lawsuit was filed in May by a group of scientists and veterans who argue that marijuana's classification is unconstitutional.

International

Canadian Federal Prosecutors Directed to Avoid Drug Possession Charges in Most Cases. The Public Prosecution Service of Canada has issued a directive to prosecutors to not prosecute drug possession cases unless major public safety concerns are involved. Charges should be filed only "in the most serious cases," said agency director Kathleen Roussel. In most cases, prosecutors should seek alternative approaches, such as restorative justice and indigenous approaches. "When deciding whether to initiate and conduct any prosecution, PPSC prosecutors must consider not only whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction based on the evidence available but also whether a prosecution serves the public interest," she said.

Colombia Coca Eradication Goes into High Gear During Pandemic. Manual coca eradication is occurring at levels not seen for a decade even as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic. In June alone, more than 32,000 acres were forcibly eradicated, more than any month since the government and the FARC signed a peace treaty in 2016. "The government has taken advantage of the pandemic to do an eradication campaign and not to support farmers," said Eduardo Diaz, director of the Agency for the Voluntary Substitution of Illegal Crops under former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. "If the government wanted to support farmers, they would also take the opportunity to be present in the territories and support them in the production of food, support them in productive development. It takes the same effort to bring troops to do forced eradication as to bring technicians to do training and plant the fields... They have to pursue drug traffickers, but the farmers aren't drug traffickers."

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