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This Year's Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories [FEATURE]

The good, the bad, and the ugly in US domestic drug policy this year.

Drug overdoses hit a record high in 2022, but may have peaked. (Creative Commons)
1. Overdose Deaths Appear to Have Peaked but Are Still at Horrid Levels

According to Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in December, the nation's fatal drug overdose epidemic has peaked. After reaching a record high of more than 110,000 fatal overdoses in the 12-month period ending in March, that number declined to 107,735 in the 12-month period ending in July, the last month for which data is available. That is a two percent decline from the March high.

While the decline is welcome, drug overdose numbers are still 25 percent higher than they were two years ago and double what they were five years ago. According to the CDC, synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, were implicated in more than two-thirds of overdose deaths and stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine were involved in nearly one-third. But some fraction of stimulant-implicated overdose deaths are not caused by the stimulants themselves but by stimulant users being exposed to drugs cut with fentanyl.

2. Neither Marijuana Legalization nor Banking Access Pass Congress

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) vowed to make passage of a marijuana legalization bill a priority in this Congress, but it didn't happen. While the House passed a legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617) in April, Schumer and congressional allies didn't even roll out a draft version of their Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act until this July -- 18 months after this Congress began -- and it never exhibited enough bipartisan support to go anywhere in the evenly divided Senate.

Schumer and his Senate allies also repeatedly blocked efforts to get a bill to allow state-legal marijuana businesses access to financial services through the Senate. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act (HR 1996) passed the House in April, and Senate allies tried repeatedly to attach it as an amendment to various spending bills, only to be stymied by Schumer and his holdouts for full-blown legalization. At year's end, though, while Schumer was finally ready to move forward with it, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) came out in opposition, helping to scuttle one last effort to tie it to a defense appropriations bill.

3. With Biden's Signature, A Standalone Marijuana Reform Bill Becomes Law for The First Time Ever

For the first time ever, Congress passed and in December the president signed into law a stand-alone marijuana reform bill, the bipartisan Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act (HR 8454). Some marijuana reform measures have been passed before, but only as part of much broader appropriations bills. The aim of the bill is to facilitate research on marijuana and its potential health benefits. The bill will accomplish this by streamlining the application process for scientific marijuana studies and removing existing barriers for research by allowing both private companies and research universities to seek DEA licenses to grow their own marijuana for research purposes.

4. Three More States Legalize Marijuana

In May, Rhode Island became the 19th state to legalize marijuana when the General Assembly passed and Gov. Dan McKee signed into law the Rhode Island Cannabis Act. Sales to any adult over 21 at medical marijuana dispensaries that acquired "hybrid retail licenses" began in December.

And in November, voters in Maryland and Missouri approved marijuana legalization initiatives. Maryland's Question 4 came not from the people but from the legislature and amends the state constitution and mandates that the General Assembly "shall provide for the use, distribution, possession, regulation and taxation of cannabis within the state." Missouri's Amendment 3 overcame multi-sided opposition not only from the usual suspects in law enforcement and the political establishment but also from civil rights groups and marijuana industry insiders to eke out a narrow victory. As of December 8, possession of up to three ounces by adults is no longer a crime, but sales to adults will not begin until next year.

But there were also losses at the ballot box this year. The Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment garnered only 43.8 percent of the vote, while North Dakota's Initiated Statutory Measure No. 1 managed only 45.1 percent, and South Dakota's Initiated Measure 27 came up short with only 46.6 percent of the vote. The South Dakota defeat was especially bitter, given that just two years ago, voters there approved a broader marijuana legalization initiative with 54 percent of the vote only to see it invalidated by the state Supreme Court.

5. The Year of Fentanyl Test Strip Decriminalization

Fentanyl test strips, which detect the presence of the powerful synthetic opioid in all different kinds of drugs (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, etc.) and formulations (pills, powders, and injectables) are recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a valuable harm reduction strategy and are increasingly seen by the states as a crucial tool in the fight to reduce drug overdose deaths. When the Biden White House first endorsed their use in 2021, they were considered illegal drug paraphernalia in a majority of states.

Not anymore. As of the end of 2022, 31 states have now legalized or decriminalized fentanyl test strips, with Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Wisconsin doing so this year alone. But that leaves 19 states, mostly in the South and including Florida and Texas where they remain banned.

6. Colorado Becomes Second State to Approve Natural Psychedelic Reforms

Three years after voters in Denver opened the door to psychedelic reform by approving a municipal initiative that made possession of psilocybin mushrooms the lowest law enforcement priority, voters statewide have approved an initiative that decriminalizes plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics and creates a program for the therapeutic administration of such substances. On Election Day, voters approved Proposition 122, the Natural Medicine Health Act, with 53.55 percent of the vote. The victory makes Colorado the second state to enact reforms decriminalizing a natural psychedelic and setting up a program for therapeutic use. Oregon voters led the way on that by approving Measure 109 in 2020.

Proposition 122 has two main prongs: First, it decriminalizes the personal use, possession, and cultivation by people 21 and over of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, mescaline (not derived from peyote), psilocybin, and psilocyn, as well as providing for the sealing of conviction records of people who have completed sentences for the use or possession of those substances. The measure sets no personal possession limits. Second, it creates a "natural medicine services" program for the therapeutic administration of the specified psychedelics and creates a rubric for regulated growth, distribution, and sales of those substances to entities within the program. Only psilocybin and psilocin would be okayed for therapeutic use until 2026. Then regulators could decide on whether to allow the therapeutic use of DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline.

7. Marijuana Social Consumption Lounges Spread

Ever since the first states legalized marijuana a decade ago, one question for users was where to go to smoke their newly legal product. Most states ban smoking outdoors in public or indoors pretty much anywhere except one's home -- and even that can be an issue if your landlord isn't down with it. One solution is allowing places for marijuana users to toke up in a convivial setting, the marijuana social consumption lounge, whether as part of a retail shop or as a standalone business.

Social consumption lounges are now legal in 11 states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Nevada -- although they are not actually up and running yet in some of them. Massachusetts has two lounges now operating; in New Jersey, regulators just approved rules for them; in Nevada, regulators just issued 20 provisional licenses; in New York, they're still waiting for regulators to act; and in California, the state's dozen or so lounges are set to double in number as more localities okay them. Meanwhile, the nation's capital could be next: In the District of Columbia, the city council just approved a bill allowing them.

8. Safe Injection Sites Are Operating in the United States

Safe injection sites, the harm reduction intervention proven to save lives after years of operation in more than a hundred cities in Australia, Canada, and Europe, are finally getting a toehold in the US. New York City's two safe injection sites have just celebrated their first birthdays after opening in late 2021, and in Rhode Island, a two-year pilot program is underway.

But there will be no safe injection sites in California after Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) vetoed a bill that would have allowed pilot programs in major cities across the state. And the fate of a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site -- and the Biden administration's attitude toward them -- remains in doubt. That facility was initially blocked by the Trump Justice Department, and two years later, the Biden Justice Department has yet to substantively respond to lawsuit from the site's would-be operators. Just this month, a federal judge gave DOJ just 30 more days to respond. A positive response would remove the obstacle to further expansion of such sites that fear of federal prosecution brings. Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service has thoughtfully released a report about other options for getting them up and running, such as passing budget amendments similar to those blocking the Justice Department from interfering in marijuana laws.

9. In DC and New York City, Gray Market Weed Finds a Way

In both the nation's capital and the nation's largest city, unregulated marijuana vendors have popped up to supply pent up demand as both cities endure legalization without legal marijuana sales. In New York City, it's only a matter of time before taxed, licensed, and regulators marijuana retailers are able to open, but in the interregnum between legalization and legal access, the pot scene has gone hog wild with marijuana being sold everywhere -- head shops, bodegas, even from folding tables on street corners -- with one particularly hysterical estimate putting the number at "likely tens of thousands of illicit cannabis businesses." The market isn't waiting for the regulators, and its emergence could undercut the legal businesses waiting in the wings. The city has undertaken limited enforcement efforts, but to little effect so far.

In Washington, DC, a congressional rider barring taxed and regulated marijuana sales has seen something similar, but with a DC twist: a multitude of shops that will "gift" you marijuana when you purchase some other item. The stores call themselves I-71 shops, after the 2014 initiative that legalized marijuana in the city and they even have their own industry association, which estimates there are a hundred or so of them. The city vowed a crackdown in August, but put that on hold the following month.

10. For the First Time, SAMSHA Funds Harm Reduction

In December 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced that it would for the first time ever make grants available to harm reduction groups to "help increase access to a range of community harm reduction services and support harm reduction service providers as they work to help prevent overdose deaths and reduce health risks often associated with drug use." SAMSHA would make available $10 million a year in grants for the next three years.

And this year, the first tranche went out. Some 25 different programs from the Lost Dreams Awakening Center in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, to the Mile High Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in Denver, to the Los Angeles County Health Department got grants this year, almost all of them for $398,960. It's a drop in the bucket compared to federal spending on prohibition -- and compared to harm reduction's full funding needs -- but it's a start.

Crack Sentencing Bill Left out of Spending Bill, SAFE Banking Act Will Be Back Next Year, More... (12/22/22)

New York legal recreational marijuana sales are set to begin next week, Maryland's incoming Democratic governor says expunging past pot convictions will be a priority, and more.

crack cocaine (Argv0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44743583)
Marijuana Policy

SAFE Banking Act Plus Effort Set for Next Year. Supporters of the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) struck out in this Congress, but are determined to get an enhanced version of the bill passed next year. The SAFE Banking Act Plus will contain "important expungement and second amendment rights provisions," said bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Although the last chance to get the bill passed this year was blocked by Republican Senate leaders, Merkley said, the SAFE Banking Act Plus was a "must pass" in 2023. "We've made so much progress on forging bipartisan consensus," Merkley said, adding that he "won't rest until we get it done."

Maryland Governor-Elect Says Marijuana Expungements Will Be a Top Priority. In November, state voters approved marijuana legalization and elected a new governor, Democrat Wes Moore. The legislation goes into effect July 1, 2023 and includes provisions for the expungement of thousands of past marijuana convictions. Governor-Elect Moore is now saying getting those expungements done will be a priority of his administration.

New York Governor Announces First Recreational Marijuana Sales Will Begin Next Week. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced Wednesday that the first adult use marijuana sales will begin one week from today. State regulators had pledged to get the recreational market launched before year's end, and they will just barely meet that goal.

"We set a course just nine months ago to start New York's adult-use cannabis market off on the right foot by prioritizing equity, and now, we're fulfilling that goal," Hochul said. "The industry will continue to grow from here, creating inclusive opportunity in every corner of New York State with revenues directed to our schools and revitalizing communities. The first shop to open will be run by Housing Works, a nonprofit that provides HIV/AIDS services. Thirty-five more shops have also received licenses to begin operations.

Sentencing Policy

Bill to End Federal Crack Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Left Out of Last Chance Spending Measure. A bill that would have permanently eliminated the sentencing disparity for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses, the EQUAL Act (HR 1963) is dead after it was left out of a must-pass omnibus funding bill that was approved this week. The long-lived 100:1 sentencing disparity was reduced to 18:1 by Congress in 2010, and last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo that instructs prosecutors to effectively end the disparity by not charging mandatory minimum offenses.

Senators thought they had a deal to include the act in the omnibus bill, but Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) blamed Garland's action for getting the bill scuttled. "That hard-won compromise has been jeopardized because the attorney general inappropriately took lawmaking into his own hands," Grassley said. But Garland's memo does not have the force of law and could be reversed by a future attorney general.

Pakistan Moves to End Death Penalty for Drugs; IN, TX Pot Polls; More... (12/21/22)

Grenada is moving forward with multiple reforms, two new state polls show strong support for marijuana legalization in Indiana and Texas, and more.

Grenada. The Caribbean island nation is moving on marijuana reforms. (state.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Indiana Poll Has Overwhelming Support for Medical Marijuana, Strong Support for Legalization. A new Indiana Public Broadcasting-Ball State Hoosier Survey has support for medical marijuana at 85 percent, with 56 percent of Hoosiers also supporting marijuana legalization. The state's Republican-controlled legislature has so far fended off any moves toward legalization or even medical marijuana, even as popular support for marijuana reform has been increasing. "Thinking back to past Hoosier Surveys we’ve done, that number has just been creeping up," said Ball StateBowen Centers for Public Affairs Director Chad Kinsella. "So, I think it’s just kind of the floodgates are opening at this point."

Texas Poll Has Majority Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll finds support for marijuana legalization at 55 percent, support for decriminalization at 72 percent, and support for medical marijuana at 83 percent. Democrats and independents supported both decriminalization and legalization, but among Republicans, who control the state legislature, only 41 percent favored legalization.

International

Grenada to Move to Legalize Medical Marijuana. Minister for Agriculture and Lands Sen. Adrian Thomas announced Tuesday that the Grenadian government intends to present legislation to legalize medical marijuana by next December. "In January we will be opening a secretariat so that the necessary work can be done," said Thomas, who is also Leader of Government Business in the Upper House. "There will be extensive consultation with the general public, involving education programs, because our people must understand what this industry is all about. We want them to be part of it. In 12 months' times, the necessary legislation will be put in place and we will be ready to cultivate and process the necessary products from the cannabis," he said. In September, the government named a 12-member Commission on Cannabis Legalization and Regulation, whose task includes holding broad-based consultations and engage in public awareness on the policy decision to legalize cannabis within a legal and regulatory framework. Parliament is also currently considering whether to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce for people 18 and over, as well as allowing the home cultivation of up to five plants.

Pakistan National Assembly Votes to Abolish Death Penalty for Drug Offenses. The National Assembly approved the Control of Narcotics Substance Amendment Bill 2022 on Tuesday, abolishing the death penalty for people involved in drug dealing and replacing it with life imprisonment. The vote came after Law and Justice Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar told members that the death penalty under the Control of Narcotics Substance Act was used in an inappropriate manner, adding that it was a violation of basic human rights.

SAFE Banking Act Dead in This Congress, CA Natural Psychedelic Bill Refiled, More... (12/20/22)

The marijuana industry will remain without access to many services after Congress failed to act this year, the GAO looks at how the drug czar's office is performing, and more.

Marijuana Banking Reform Dead in This Congress. Efforts to provide state-legal marijuana businesses with access to banking and financial services have come to naught in this Congress. The push has been on to get the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) through the Senate after it passed the House on seven different occasions, most recently in July. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) never called it for a vote and he and his Senate allies repeatedly blocked it from being attached to various spending bills as they held out for a full-blown legalization bill. One last chance for the act was the omnibus spending bill passed Tuesday, but it didn't include the act, either. This time, though, it was blocked not by Schumer but by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Psychedelics

California Psychedelic Decriminalization Bill is Back. Four months after state Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) pulled his bill to decriminalize certain psychedelics when it was gutted in committee, the bill has been refiled. Senate Bill 58 would decriminalize magic mushrooms and ayahuasca -- but not LSD or MDMA -- and is being backed by veterans and mental health professionals. The bill decriminalizes only plant- or fungi-based psychedelics.

Drug Policy

GAO: Office of National Drug Control Policy Met Some Strategy Requirements but Needs a Performance Evaluation Plan. The Government Accountability Office reported Monday on the performance of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) and found that the 2022 strategy "fully met some legal requirements, including setting long-range, measurable goals to address drug misuse. The Strategy partially met others related to identifying the resources to treat substance use disorders. But, it didn't include a systematic plan for increasing data collection."

Also, "The 2022 Strategy and accompanying documents vary in their level of compliance with selected statutory requirements. The Strategy fully met some requirements, including those related to comprehensive, long-range, quantifiable goals, and targets to accomplish those goals. The Strategy partially met other selected requirements, including those related to identifying resources for the treatment of substance use disorders. The Strategy does not address some statutory requirements, including some related to future planning. For example, the Strategy is to contain a systematic plan for increasing data collection, including to enable real time surveillance of drug control threats. However, as of December 2022, ONDCP has not created such a plan. GAO recommended in 2019 that ONDCP routinely implement an approach to meet the requirements for the 2020 Strategy and future iterations. Doing so will better position ONDCP to ensure that future strategies completely address all of the statutory requirements."

AG Garland Moves to End Cocaine Sentencing Disparities, BC Decriminalization Granted, More... (12/19/22)

Kansas City, Missouri, dismisses open marijuana cases, Colombia Congress advances marijuana legalization bill, more...

Attorney General Merrick Garland (DOJ)
Marijuana Policy

Tennessee Lawmaker Will File Marijuana Legalization Bill. State Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) said last Friday she plans to cosponsor a marijuana legalization bill with Rep. Bob Freeman (D-West Nashville) in the coming session. Previous attempts at passage of such a bill have come up short, but Campbell is ready to try again: "We're filing a full legalization bill," Campbell said. "We are in the process of modifying our last bill and haven't filed it yet."

Kansas City Dismisses Hundreds of Marijuana Cases Following Statewide Legalization Vote. Municipal court workers in the Missouri city have "dismissed over 500" open marijuana cases since statewide marijuana legalization took effect on December 8. Voters statewide approved legalization in the November election. City officials depenalized pot possession in 2020 and had already dismissed over 2,400 marijuana cases. They now report no remaining open marijuana misdemeanor cases in the city.

Opiates and Opioids

Senate Passes END FENTANYL Act in Bid to Reduce Drug Smuggling. The Senate last Thursday passed SB 4460, the "Eradicating Narcotic Drugs and Formulating Effective New Tools to Address National Yearly Losses of Life (END FENTANYL) Act." This legislation would require the Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to update agency policies at least once every three years, and require the Commissioner of CBP to review and update the Office of Field Operations' policies and handbooks at least once every three years. It would also require the Commissioner to report to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the Senate and the Committee on Homeland Security of the House of Representatives about the changes.

Sentencing Policy

US Attorney General Moves to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparities. In a memo to federal prosecutors last Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland instructed them to file charges that avoid mandatory minimum sentences that are triggered by small amounts of crack cocaine in small-time, nonviolent cases. For decades, crack has been treated more harshly in federal sentencing even though there is no scientific basis for it, and that has led to "unwarranted racial disparities," Garland wrote. "They are two forms of the same drug, with powder readily convertible into crack cocaine."

But Garland's move could last only as long a his tenure in office. To permanently end sentencing disparities between the two forms of the drug, Congress would have to act. The House passed such a bill last year, and there are still hopes that the Senate will pass its version of the bill, S.2156, as part of an omnibus appropriations bill before the current session ends.

International

British Columbia Drug Decriminalization to Last for Three Years. The decriminalization of the possession of up to 2.5 grams of drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, an cocaine in the Canadian province, which was granted by the federal government as an emergency measure in the face of an overdose epidemic, has now been set to begin on January 31, 2023, and will be extended until January 31, 2026. The BC Coroners Service reports 1,827 fatal drug overdoses so far this year.

Colombia House and Senate Agree on Marijuana Legalization Bill. The Chamber of Representatives and the Senate have both voted to reconcile their differing versions of a marijuana legalization bill, clearing the way for final votes to come early in the new year. The bill must again pass both chambers because it is a constitutional amendment, and a key Senate sponsor of the bill says it should be formally enacted by June. In final negotiations, lawmakers agreed to limit marijuana consumption and marketing in public spaces and near school zones. They also agreed to have the law go into effect 12 months after final passage.

Last Minute Push for SAFE Banking ACT, NH Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed, More... (12/15/22)

Some Texas town officials are trying to run roughshod over the will of the voters on marijuana enforcement, sponsors of the SAFE Banking Act are not giving up hope yet, and more.

State-legal pot businesses seek access to financial services through the SAFE Banking Act. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Last Minute Push for SAFE Banking Act. With the curtain about to close on the current Congress, Senate sponsors of the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) are still trying to get the bill passed. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) tried and failed to get the bill attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, but now they're trying to get it attached to the omnibus funding bill, but again face Republican opposition, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Nine Republicans have previously sponsored the bill, but it would need 10 votes to overcome a filibuster. Earlier in the session, the bill was blocked by the Democratic leadership, which was holding out for a comprehensive marijuana legalization bill.

New Hampshire Lawmakers Filed Marijuana Legalization Bill. Incoming Democratic House leader Matt Wilhelm (D-Manchester) is a main sponsor of a new marijuana legalization bill filed in the House last week. The bipartisan bill would legalize marijuana for people 21 and over and set up a system of taxed and regulated retail sales. While similar bills have failed in years past, Wilhelm said it is "long past" time for the state to stop "wasting scarce tax dollars and valuable local and state policing resources by continuing a restriction that has failed for decades and needlessly ruined the lives of many young and poor Granite Staters."

Texas Towns Seek to Undo Will of Voters on Marijuana Ordinances. Voters in five Texas towns and cities approved ending criminal enforcement of marijuana prohibition by voting for local ballot measures that ban arrests and tickets for possessing less than four ounces of weed. But elected officials in those localities are balking, with some saying the effort violates state laws and hinders police officers.

In Harker Heights, the city council repealed the ordinance two weeks after the vote. In Killeen, the Bell County DA attempted to undo the ordinance, but the city council approved it anyway. In San Marcos, the Hays County Criminal DA has asked for the state attorney general's opinion about enforceability of the ordinance, while in Denton, the city council certified the initiative, but the city manager opposes implementing part of it.

Rotterdam Mayor Says Port City "Drowning in Cocaine," SAMHSA to Ease Opioid Treatment Rules, More... (12/14/22)

The US Pardon Attorney says federal marijuana pardon certificates are coming soon, an Irish parliament committee calls for drug decriminalization and regulation, and more.

Cocaine seized before it could reach its European market. (defensa.gob.es)
Marijuana Policy

DOJ Official Details Plans to Provide Presidential Marijuana Pardon Certificates. US Pardon Attorney Elizabeth Oyer said Tuesday that people seeking presidential pardons for past federal marijuana convictions would soon get the opportunity to obtain certificates to do so, and that the application process should take less than ten minutes. Oyer noted that President Biden's recent pardon of some 6,500 federal marijuana offenders was "self-effectuating," meaning the pardons went into effect as soon as Biden announced them, but Biden's pardon proclamation directed the Justice Department to follow up with a certification process. The process is "very far along" and the certificates should be ready "soon," she added.

Opiates and Opioids

SAMHSA Proposes Update to Federal Rules to Expand Access to Opioid Use Disorder Treatment and Help Close Gap in Care. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through its Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), is proposing to expand access to treatment for opioid use disorder (OUD) at a time when more than 107,000 Americans lost their lives to an overdose last year.

The proposal would update federal regulations that oversee OUD treatment standards, specifically 42 CFR Part 8, by allowing take home doses of methadone and the use of telehealth in initiating buprenorphine at opioid treatment programs (OTPs). Goals include providing greater autonomy to OTP practitioners, supporting recovery, and continuing the move toward flexibility in OTP that was extended at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

International

Irish Parliament Justice Committee Recommends Drug Decriminalization, Legalization. The Oireachtas (parliament) Justice Committee has recommended a host of changes to Ireland's drug policy, including examining legalizing and regulating some drugs, notably marijuana, and decriminalizing others. In its new report, the committee called for a three-pronged approach -- decriminalization, exploring drug regulation, and improving existing addiction services.

"There's already a commencement on that journey [of decriminalization], we've seen that in recent years but that policy should be doubled down on and accelerated," said committee Chair James Lawless. He also argued that a "managed market" could make drugs safer than the existing black market. "In the regulation would be a concept of actually having a commercial product and having the product available, which can be monitored, managed, licensed, weighed, tested for compliance, for safety, for content in a way that it clearly is not at the moment," he said.

Europe's Biggest Port Drowning in Cocaine. The port of Rotterdam, Europe's largest, saw nearly 70 tons of cocaine seized in 2021, up 74 percent over 2020, according to Dutch customs. Rotterdam and the nearby Belgian port of Antwerp were the two main ports used by a Dubai-based "super cartel" allegedly supplying a third of Europe's cocaine. That group was busted last month, but the flow of cocaine is expected to continue. "It seems there are lots of buyers" in Europe," said Customs officer Ger Scheringa. "And if there is demand, it is supplied."

Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb said the city is "drowning in cocaine" and deplored the violence that has accompanied the black market drug trade. Aboutaleb wants all ships coming from Latin America scanned, but that runs up against the imperatives of business. "The biggest challenge is to find a good balance between the speed of logistics for the port, and checking everything you want," said Scheringa.

White House Extends National Drug Trafficking Emergency, OTC Naloxone Could Be Coming, More... (12/13/22)

Kansas lawmakers will push for a medical marijuana bill when the session begins in January, Connecticut's dispensaries will be able to sell to any adult beginning in January, and more.

The opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. There is a move afoot to make it available OTC. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Recreational Marijuana Sales Set to Begin January 10. The state Department of Consumer Protection, which regulates marijuana in the state, has announced that the state's seven existing medical marijuana dispensaries had "successfully completed the necessary steps for conversion to a hybrid license," allowing them to also sell to the adult recreational market beginning January 10. Sales will be limited to a "a total of ¼ ounce of cannabis flower or its equivalent per transaction," according to the DCP. The move comes more than a year and a half after Gov. Ned Lamont (D) signed a marijuana legalization bill into law.

Medical Marijuana

Kansas Lawmakers Plan to Introduce Medical Marijuana Bill at Start of Session Next Month. Since the end of the last legislative session, members of the Special Committee on Medical Marijuana have been meeting, compiling data, and evaluating research, and now they say they are ready to file a medical marijuana bill at the beginning of the session beginning next month. "I think what I’m going to do is — and any member is more than welcome — is to take this information and create the bill," said. Sen. Rob Olson (R-Olathe), chair of the medical marijuana committee. "And I’m going to work on a bill with a couple members and then if anybody wants to sign on in the Senate, they’ll be more than able to sign onto that bill and introduce it at the beginning of session." He also called on House lawmakers to file similar legislation. "I think that’s probably the best way forward," Olson said. Kansas is one of the 13 states that have still not legalized medical marijuana.

Foreign Policy

White House Formally Continues Drug Trafficking State of National Emergency. The White House on Monday issued an executive order continuing a state of national emergency "to deal with the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States constituted by global illicit drug trafficking." Noting that drug overdoses are killing tens of thousands of Americans each year, the order warns that: "Drug cartels, transnational criminal organizations, and their facilitators are the primary sources of illicit drugs and precursor chemicals that fuel the current opioid epidemic, as well as drug-related violence that harms our communities.  International drug trafficking — including the illicit production, global sale, and widespread distribution of illegal drugs; the rise of extremely potent drugs such as fentanyl and other synthetic opioids; as well as the growing role of Internet-based drug sales — continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.  For this reason, the national emergency declared in Executive Order 14059 of December 15, 2021, must continue in effect beyond December 15, 2022.  Therefore, in accordance with section 202(d) of the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1622(d)), I am continuing for 1 year the national emergency declared in Executive Order 14059 with respect to global illicit drug trafficking."

Harm Reduction

Major Drug Maker Applies to Sell Over-the-Counter Naloxone. In a move that addiction experts say could save tens of thousands of lives, a major drug maker has applied to sell the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone over-the-counter. Emergent BioSolutions is now seeking permission to sell the drug without a prescription and says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has agreed to fast-track its review. A decision is expected by the end of March. Drug policy experts agreed that making naloxone more widely available is an important step in reducing drug overdoses but raised one concern: price. If OTC naloxone is too expensive, many people using drugs on the street just won't buy it, said University of North Carolina drug researcher Nabarun Dasgupta. "If we have this resource scarcity mentality that this is an expensive product, this is a special product, then people will not take enough kits to do what they need to do."

Study of Pot Shop Robberies Points to Need for SAFE Banking Act Now [FEATURE]

As the lame duck congressional session ticks down toward its final days, not only have prospects for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's marijuana legalization bill faded into misty nothingness, even the more incremental but much clamored-for effort to provide state-legal marijuana businesses with access to the banking system remains undone.

marijuana shop robbery in Seattle (KOMO screen grab)
Despite being passed on multiple occasions in the House, the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) has not managed to get a vote in the Senate, either as a standalone bill or attached to an omnibus appropriations bill. While Schumer and his pro-legalization Senate allies blocked consideration of the bill earlier in the session as they tried to build support for the further-reaching legislation, this week it was Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who kept it out of the annual defense appropriations bill.

While Congress dithers, marijuana retailers, especially in the West, have been paying the price of having to operate with extremely limited access to the banking sector. As a new report from StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter) executive director David Borden demonstrates, that price is paid not only in stolen cash and traumatized employees and customers, but sometimes in lost lives. The report, Dangerous Delays: What Washington State (Re) Teaches Us About Cannabis Store Robberies analyzes some 165 armed robberies of marijuana shops in the state beginning in 2017, including a spate of nearly 100 reported robberies in a 4 ½ months beginning in late 2021.

"While SAFE was stalling in the Senate [last year], Washington State's cannabis community was in the grip of an unprecedented surge in armed robberies of cannabis stores," the report notes. "This occurrence, which began in November 2021 and lasted 4 ½ months, saw nearly 100 reported robberies affect roughly 80 cannabis stores, and ended with three people dead."

One of those killed was a marijuana shop employee; two were armed robbers.

The data on robberies comes from a unique resource, the "Uncle Ike's i502 Robbery Tracker." Uncle Ike's is a Seattle-area marijuana shop chain that has seen two of its stores victimized, one in White Center in 2018 and one in Lake City in 2021. Its list is compiled from media reports, police reports, and direct communication with store robbery victims.

The study analyzed robberies by whether they targeted cash or product or both; and for those that targeted cash, whether they aimed only at cash registers (front of the store) or safes (back of the store). It also examined the relationship between robbery targets and levels of aggression by robbers.

"Our analysis confirms that cash dominates as the target for cannabis store robberies," the report's executive summary says. "Product also plays an important role, but almost always in combination with cash; whereas cash on its own gets targeted in roughly 50 percent of the time, during the incidents for which we could determine what was targeted. Most burglaries, by contrast, appear to only target product."

The report also concluded that:

  • Based on current incentives, there is little reason to believe that robberies targeting the back of a store will continue (as opposed to burglaries), or continue at the same level, if cash is removed from the equation. The great majority of such robberies are aimed at accessing cash in the safe, and without cash or with much less of it, that will no longer be lucrative.
  • There will also be much less incentive to target the cash register at the front of the store, in the absence of strong profits there. Those are roughly half of the documented front-store robberies on Uncle Ike's. There's little reason to believe that front-store robberies targeting only cash will continue in that scenario.
  • Data finds few examples of product-only robberies (as opposed to burglaries which are mainly product-only). That may suggest product alone does not provide enough incentive to sustain interest in doing robberies, particularly because burglary is a viable option to obtain the same product.

"Given what happened in Washington -- which could happen again -- it would be wholly unjustifiable for Congress to again put off enacting some form of the SAFE Banking Act," said Borden. "But there will be more left to do after Congress passes SAFE, for the robberies problem to be thoroughly addressed," Borden continued. "One remaining piece is to specifically greenlight purchase transactions, which is how cash enters the system. The current language of SAFE explicitly addresses only depository banking."

While the prospects for passage of the SAFE Banking Act grow dimmer each day, there remains the chance that the SAFE Banking Act Plus, which Schumer has been negotiating for the past several months and which also includes social equity provisions demanded by activists and some lawmakers, could move as a standalone measure before the session ends.

But if it doesn't move, the marijuana shops will remain at risk. There are steps that can be taken to ameliorate that risk, the report says.

"Security, worker training, and likely other factors, will continue to have importance for cannabusinesses, regardless of what happens with SAFE or further measures," the report states. "In the meanwhile, the cannabis community in other states can help, by duplicating the tracking effort pioneered in Washington by Uncle Ike's." Also, stores should improve employee training "with respect to emphasizing the reasons for cooperating with robbers and how to avoid escalating tensions in robbery situations."

States, for their part, should "provide funding for security measures to small and midsize cannabis stores," the report adds, and at the state and federal level, regulators should "review their policies with an aim toward facilitating greater adoption of electronic payment for cannabis stores."

Or Congress could just legalize marijuana.

12/16 report launch webinar:

Fed Judge Gives DOJ Only One-Month Extension in Safe Injection Site Case, More... (12/8/22)

Moves are afoot to rein in Oregon's underground marijuana production, an Iowa law is blocking health authorities from including fentanyl test strips in harm reduction boxes, and more.

Illegal marijuana grow in Jackson County, Oregon. (Jackson County SO)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon 1Bill Would Double Penalties for Illicit Marijuana Grows. Faced with massive unpermitted marijuana growing—police have seized 105 tons of weed this year—and a rising chorus of complaints from police, legal growers, and neighbors, lawmakers have prepared a draft bill that would double maximum prison sentences and fines for unlawful manufacture of more than 100 plants and possession of more than two pounds in public or eight pounds at home. Under the proposed bill, the maximum sentence would jump from five years to 10 and the maximum fine  would jump to $250,000. The bill would also punish property owners for environmental damage and prohibit the use of water (which is owned by the state) for unlicensed marijuana grows. Voters approved legalization in 2014, at least partly on the grounds it would reduce illegal grows, but legalization proponents now say illicit grows will be a problem until the plant is legalized nationwide.

Harm Reduction

Federal Court Gives Justice Department One Month to Respond in Philadelphia Safe Injection Site Case. A federal judge has given the Justice Department just a one-month extension before it has to respond in a lawsuit about the legality of a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site. The Trump administration Justice Department sued to block Safehouse from opening in 2019, and the Biden Justice Department has continued the case while seeking repeated extensions as it talked with Safehouse But when Justice asked for another extension, Safehouse balked at the requested two-month delay, and the judge subsequently cut that request in half. Once it comes, the Justice Department's response should shed some light on whether the agency will or will not continue to challenge the legality of safe injection sites. The department said in February it was evaluating the sites, including discussions about appropriate "guardrails" for them, but with yet another extension request this month, Safehouse's patience is growing thin. "Safehouse did not consent to today’s DOJ request for more time," the group said the day of the filing, noting that the case "has been pending for almost four years." As the group noted, "more than 3,600 lives have been lost in Philadelphia to the opioid overdose crisis" while the case has been ongoing.

Iowa Law Blocks Fentanyl Test Strips from Being Included in Harm Reduction Boxes. The Polk County (Des Moines) Health Department is adding harm reduction boxes at its office and urgent care locations around the city. The boxes will include tourniquets, cotton filters, and needle disposal containers, but not fentanyl test strips, which are considered drug paraphernalia under state law. The Health Department said it supports changing that law, but that has not happened yet. Lawmakers in at least five other states—Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Wisconsin—have taken that action this year.  

Drug War Issues

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