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Capitol Hill Democrats Divided on Marijuana Reform Progress, Administration Releases Model Naloxone Legislation, More... (11/18/21)

South Dakota lawmakers are ready to take up marijuana legalization in the next session, the drug czar suggests the pandemic-related easing of methadone restictions could be made permanent, and more.

Drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta is pushing harm reduction and is considering loosening methadone restrictions. (March of Dimes)
Marijuana Policy

Democratic Divisions Threaten Progress on Federal Marijuana Reforms. Democrats on Capitol Hill are finding it difficult to push forward with marijuana law reforms as they split on whether to pass a bipartisan bill to provide state-legal marijuana firms access to banking services or instead push a full-fledged marijuana legalization bill. Backers of the banking bill have tried to move it by attaching it to a must-pass defense spending bill, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is proving a roadblock. He is instead siding with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) as a cosponsor a marijuana legalization bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act.

The Senate trio and their supporters argue that passing the banking bill first would make passing their broader bill more difficult. "To me, it wouldn't be a win," Booker said Tuesday. "It would be a setback for expunging the records of all of the people who are waiting for some kind of justice. And unfortunately, if you do that, the pressure won't be there to get it done." Those prioritizing the banking bill "are doing a big disservice to our ability to get restorative justice principles passed, and it's really unfortunate they can't see the urgency for the millions of Americans who are carrying criminal charges for nonviolent drug offenses involving marijuana and have had their lives destroyed because of a war on marijuana that has disproportionately impacted people of color." But supporters of the banking bill, the SAFE Banking Act, say it has bipartisan support that legalization lacks and the time has come for Congress to chipping away at pot prohibition.

South Dakota Top Lawmakers Officially Recommend Marijuana Legalization Bill for 2022 Session. The legislature's Executive Board, led by the House speaker and the Senate president pro tempore, has unanimously approved a report from the Marijuana Interim Study Committee recommending that the legislature take up a bill to legalize marijuana during the 2022 session. Meanwhile, activists who ushered a marijuana legalization initiative to victory last year only to see it blocked in court (the state Supreme Court has yet to decide the case) are pushing to put another legalization initiative on the ballot next year, too. As drafted, the current version of the legislation approved in committee and by the executive board would allow adults 21 and older to purchase and possess up to an ounce of cannabis. The state Department of Revenue would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing marijuana business licenses. It does not include the right to grow your own.

Harm Reduction

Biden Administration Releases Model Naloxone Legislation. The administration on Wednesday released model legislation to help states improve access to naloxone treatment for opioid overdoses. The move comes as the nation recorded a record-high 100,000 drug overdose deaths in a one-year period ending in May. The model bill encourages people to obtain naloxone, protects them from prosecution when administering it, requires health insurance to cover it, and provides increased access to it in schools and correctional facilities. "This model law can help all states implement consistent, evidence-based policies to make naloxone always accessible to those who need it," said Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Dr. Rahul Gupta. "We certainly hope that state leaders will carefully consider this model law, which can help save lives."

Drug Czar Wants to Expand Use of Addiction Medication. Dr. Rahul Gupta, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) said Wednesday that the Biden administration is now considering making permanent the easing of restrictions on methadone that has occurred during the coronavirus pandemic. Patients must go to a clinic to have methadone administered but were allowed to take a supply home with them during the pandemic, and Gupta suggested that change could be here to stay. "Adoption of these services did increase access to opioid and substance use disorder treatment," Gupta said, so making the changes permanent is "under consideration and we remain pretty hopeful about it."

Another AR Marijuana Legalization Initiative Filed, Furor Over Looming Singapore Drug Execution, More... (11/5/21)

Critics chide the new drug czar over his perfomance in West Virginia, a third marijuana legalization initiative has been filed in Arkansas, and more. 

Peru's coca crop is increasing, and much of it has to do with the pandemic. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Sees Third Marijuana Legalization Initiative Filed. And then there were three. Veteran activist Melissa Fults on Friday filed the Arkansas Adult Use and Expungement Marijuana Amendment, the third marijuana legalization initiative filed in the state so far this year. The initiative takes the form of a constitutional amendment, which means it faces higher signature-gathering requirements than the other two initiatives, which are statutory initiatives. Constitutional amendments require 89,151 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot, but statutory initiatives require only 71,321. In either case, signatures must be handed in by early July 2022. The Fults initiative would increase the number of dispensaries to one for every 15,000 residents up to a maximum of 200 and would also allow the home cultivation of up to six plants. The amendment also envisions a tax on recreational marijuana sales, with proceeds going to support education and the state's general fund. Other initiatives already filed are the Arkansas Cannabis Industry Amendment and an initiative sponsored by Arkansas True Grass.

Drug Policy

Critics Question New Drug Czar's Commitment to Harm Reduction. The Biden administration is now on record as supporting harm reduction policies, but some critics of his pick to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office), Dr. Rahul Gupta, are expressing concern over his commitment to harm reduction, especially around his role in shutting down West Virginia's largest needle exchange program. As then-director of the state's Bureau of Public Health and faced with harsh local political opposition to needle exchanges, Gupta ordered an audit of the Charleston needle exchange program and called for it to be suspended because it didn’t require participants to first seek treatment for drug use before accessing clean syringes. That stance flouted Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations that support lowering barriers to access and guidelines set up by his own office. Since then, the state has moved toward eliminating all harm reduction services. Dr Robin Pollini, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University, and six other harm reduction experts nationwide wrote letters speaking out against Gupta’s findings saying his central criticism – that treatment options weren’t being prioritized above syringe access – showed he missed the point of harm reduction entirely. "The report was arbitrary in faulting the program for not adhering to practices that were not even required by the state certification guidelines” – guidelines written by Gupta’s own office." Pollini said in a recent interview. Gupta's audit legacy includes a new state law that makes it illegal for harm reduction programs in the state to follow CDC guidelines. Since that law passed, three more counties have shut down their needle exchange programs.

International

Peru Coca Cultivation is Rising; Three Reasons Why. While the White House and Peruvian authorities disagree over how much coca is being produced in the country, there is little disagreement that coca cultivation is increasing and Insight Crime has produced an analysis citing three reasons why: The coronavirus pandemic and associated lockdowns led the government to suspend eradication efforts and reduced the ability of the National Police to enforce coca cultivation laws, the balloon effect (when crops are suppressed in one area, they pop up in another), and people who lost jobs because of the pandemic headed back to the countryside, where sowing coca or working as laborers on coca farms are some of the only economically viable activities.

Singapore Set to Execute Malaysian Man Over 1 ½ Ounces of Heroin. Singapore is set to hang Malaysian citizen Nagaenthran K.Dharmalingam for smuggling 43 grams of heroin into the country, but human rights and legal groups are calling for the execution to be halted because the man has an IQ of only 69, indicating severe disability. A hearing is set for Monday where supporters will argue that executing a mentally disabled person violated the country's constitution. Nagaenthran's lawyer aid he "could possibly have a mental age below 18," and that that disability doesn't allow him to understand deterrence. "Therefore, we contend that the execution is irrational and a capricious act of the state." The Malaysian Bar and other legal groups submitted appeals to commute his sentence this week, and demonstrations have broken out in front of the Malaysian Parliament demanding the government intervene. The Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch echoed calls to save Nagaenthran, saying the execution of a disabled person violates international laws and won’t deter crime. "Singapore should commute Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s sentence and amend its laws to ensure that no one is subjected to the death penalty, certainly not people with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities,” Human Rights Watch said.

Rahul Gupta Confirmed as ONDCP Director, PA Pot Poll, Colombia Coca Growers Seize Solders, More... (11/1/21)

The nation has a new drug czar, Italian activists hand in hundreds of thousands of signatures to try to get a marijuana and psychoactive substances initiative before the voters, and more.

Meet the new drug czar: Dr. Rahul Gupta has been confirmed by the Senate to head ONDCP. (MD)
Marijuana Policy

Pennsylvania Poll Has Record High Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new Franklin & Marshall College poll has support for marijuana legalization at a record high, with 60 percent of respondents backing it. That's up one percentage point since the last Franklin & Marshall poll in March. The poll comes as a number of state legislators file bills to make it happen, but such efforts have so far gotten little traction in the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

Drug Policy

Senate Confirms Dr. Rahul Gupta as ONDCP Director. The Senate last Thursday confirmed President Biden's pick to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office), Dr. Rahul Gupta. Gupta is the first MD to serve as drug czar. Gupta has served as West Virginia's Chief Medical and Health Officer and Senior Vice President at March of Dimes. As the state’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Gupta led the opioid crisis response efforts and launched a number of pioneering public health initiatives, including the Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Birthscore program to identify high-risk infants. He also led the development of the state’s Zika action plan and its preparedness efforts during the Ebola Virus Disease Outbreak.

International

Colombia Coca Growers Seize, Then Release 180 Government Soldiers. Hundreds of coca growers armed with sticks and machetes seized 180 Colombian soldiers who were part of an operation to destroy coca crops early last week and released them days later after deciding unilaterally to let them go after negotiations with the government. "The situation ends here with a voluntary agreement from the growers," said a mediator from the ombudsman's office. The eradication operation was taking place near the Venezuelan border and threatened to disrupt the farmers' livelihoods.

Italian Activists Turn in Hundreds of Thousands of Signatures for Marijuana and Psilocybin Referendum. Last Thursday, activists handed in some 630,000 signatures for a referendum to legalize the cultivation of marijuana and other psychoactive plants and fungi. Now, the Supreme Court of Cassation has 30 days to determine that the signatures are valid, and if they are found valid, the Constitutional Court will determine whether the measure conflicts with the national constitution or international treaties. Activists say they intentionally limited the referendum's language to meet that standard.

Biden Asks Congress to Permanently Schedule Fentanyl Analogues, Seattle Task Force Calls for Drug Decrim, More... (9/3/21)

A Seattle task force calls for drug decriminalization, Vancouver activists seek permission to operate drug buyers' clubs, and more.

Congress must decide whether to permanently schedule fentanyl analogues as Schedule I substances. (Creative Commons)
Drug Policy

Biden's Acting Drug Czar Asks Congress for Opioid Crackdown Help. The Biden administration has asked Congress to permanently schedule illicit fentanyl analogues as Schedule I substances, alongside heroin and MDMA. Acting Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) Director Regina LaBelle made the request in a letter to Congress, saying the move would help law enforcement go after illicit opioid manufactures and dealers. Drug reformers had lobbied the administration not to take this step, and reacted unhappily (see below).

Civil Rights Leaders, Drug Policy Experts Denounce as Counterproductive Biden Recommendations on Fentanyl-Related Substances and Continued War on Drugs. In response to the recommendations presented to Congress by the ONDCP, HHS, and the Justice Department to permanently schedule fentanyl analogues as Schedule I drugs, civil rights leaders drug policy reform leaders including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Drug Policy Alliance issued the following statement:

"We cannot continue doing the same things and expect to get different results. Despite the Biden administration's stated commitment to criminal justice reform, and ending disparities in the system, the recommendation to permanently schedule fentanyl-related substances echoes the failed drug policies of our past. Today's proposal is reminiscent of these policies, which led to over-policing and law enforcement, disproportionately impacted people of color, overcrowded prisons, and cost lives. The proposal is a major step backward in the fight to dismantle the harms of the past and save lives."

Seattle Task Force Calls for Drug Decriminalization. The city's Overdose Emergency Innovative Recovery (OEIR) task force is recommending the decriminalization of the possession of all drugs. The group, which was responding to the city council's request for policy advice on how to reduce overdose deaths, announced its recommendations at a Tuesday night event. It said that removing the penalties around drug possession -- or even legalizing and regulating them -- would "create opportunities for research and access to a regulated safe supply in a manner that is safest for everyone in the community." The task force also recommended expanding housing, treatment and harm reduction services, and working to reduce social stigma around substance abuse disorders. "Unlearning drug war propaganda of the last century will take time and patience," the group said in a summary document. "It will take an all hands on deck effort to end the stigmatization and harm that more than a century of prohibition has caused."

International

Vancouver Activists Formally Ask Canadian Government to Allow Buyers' Clubs for Hard Drugs. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and the Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) have formally asked the Canadian government to allow them to operate buyers' clubs for heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine in order to produce users with a reliable "safe supply" of those drugs. The two groups submitted an open letter to Health Canada requesting a formal exemption from federal criminal drug laws so that no one is prosecuted for operating a "compassion club" to distribute those drugs. "The DULF Fulfillment Center and Compassion Club model is saving lives right now," the letter states, "and will save more if we are permitted to continue our work with federal authorization. We are prepared to undertake such action, and hope that you will support our efforts. Lives depend on it." The letter requests a decision from Health Canada by October 15. If DULF and VANDU's request is granted, it will represent a historic milestone in international efforts to roll back the drug war. More importantly, it will have an immediate impact on the safety of compassion club members.

British Columbia Set to Begin "Safe Supply" of Drugs for Street Users, Biden Nominates New Drug Czar, More... (7/13/21)

Marijuana protections are advancing in congressional appropriations bills, former Drug Police Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelman starts a provocative new podcast on drugs, and more.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, nominated by President Biden to serve as drug czar. (March of Dimes)
Marijuana Policy

Congressional Committees Advance Marijuana Protections for Medical Programs and Universities in New Spending Bills. The House Appropriations Committee will take up a spending bill Thursday that includes riders that provide protections for states with medical marijuana programs and universities that conduct marijuana research after they were approved in subcommittee on Monday. The rider protecting has been approved in each Congress since 2014. The House in 2019 and 2020 also approved a rider protecting state recreational marijuana programs, but it is not clear yet whether that will be the case this year. Meanwhile, the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill now includes a longstanding provision barring the DEA from interfering in hemp programs and a new provision that bars certain law enforcement grants to states and localities if they allow no-knock searches in drug cases.

Drug Policy

Biden Nominates Former West Virginia Health Official Rahul Gupta as Drug Czar. Ending months of speculation, President Biden has nominated Dr. Rahul Gupta to lead the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office). Currently the top health official at March of Dimes, Gupta is a primary care physician who previously served as West Virginia health commissioner. Drug reformers applauded his role in implementing and overseeing that state's medical marijuana program as head of the state Bureau for Public Health, but some harm reductionists have criticized him for overseeing the decertification of a needle exchange program that aimed to reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases, such as Hepatitis C and AIDS. Others, though, do not hold him responsible for the circumstances that led to the shutdown. He has not taken a public position on marijuana legalization.

Ethan Nadelman's New Podcast on Drugs Set to Begin. Ethan Nadelman, the founder and former longtime executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance before stepping down in 2017, is rolling out a new podcast series on drug policy, Psychoactive. The aim of the podcast is to open a deep national conversation about drugs, drug policy, and the human experience. The podcast, on IHeartRadio, launches on Thursday.

International

British Columbia Will Provide "Safe Supply" of Illicit Drugs to Street Users. A provincial policy directive in British Columbia will require all local health authorities to develop programs to provide pharmaceutical quality opioids and stimulants to street drug users in a bid to reduce overdose deaths. But which drugs are offered and who gets them will be at the discretion of local programs and doctors, which could be a barrier to expanding access. And they can only be provided in clinical or programmatic settings—no takeaway drugs. There are also signs some health care providers are reluctant to participate. 'Some key partners, including some prescribers, have expressed reservations about the approach outlined in this document, and others have noted that an approach that begins with programmatic settings will not provide broad access for people who use substances," the directive says. "We recognize that we have been unable to address all concerns, but we also recognize that we must start somewhere." The drugs will be covered by the province's prescription drug plan and will not be forced to enter into drug treatment. Safe supply is the idea that health care providers can lower or eliminate a person's dependence on illicit black market drugs and thus reduce overdose deaths and other harms.

US Seeks Meeting with WADA on Athletes' Marijuana Bans, Ukraine to Vote on MedMJ, More... (7/12/21)

South Dakota's attorney general flip-flops on the validity of tribal medical marijuana cards, a Tennessee lawmaker files a bill to put marijuana ballot questions before voters next year, and more.

Marijuana Policy

White House to Seek Meeting with WADA on Restrictions on Athletes' Marijuana Use. In the wake of the huge blow-up over US track sensation Sha'Carri Richardson being banned from Olympic competition because of a positive drug test for marijuana, the Biden administration is reportedly seeking a meeting with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) about easing the bar against marijuana use for athletes. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office), which has a seat on WADA's board, is taking the lead. WADA, for its part, has made it clear that the US has long supported, indeed, even demanded, that marijuana be included on its list of prohibited drugs: "At no time since the first Prohibited List was published in 2004 has WADA received any objection from US stakeholders concerning the inclusion of cannabinoids on the Prohibited List. On the contrary, as has been reported by some media, the US has been one of the most vocal and strong advocates for including cannabinoids on the Prohibited List," a letter from Witold Banka, WADA’s president, said. "The meeting minutes and written submissions received from the US over nearly two decades, in particular from [the US Anti-Doping Agency], have consistently advocated for cannabinoids to be included on the Prohibited List."

Tennessee Lawmaker Files Bill to Put Marijuana Legalization on 2022 Ballot. State Rep. Bruce Griffey (R-District 75) has filed legislation, House Bill 1634, that would put three non-binding questions regarding marijuana legalization on the 2022 ballot. One question asks about legalizing medical marijuana, a second asks about decriminalizing marijuana, and the third asks about legalizing and regulating marijuana. If the bill were to pass, the results of the ballot questions would be transmitted to the legislature, which could use them as a guide for future legislation but would not be bound by them. The bill comes after the legislature for years has refused to enact marijuana law reforms, with the only exception being a limited low-THC medical marijuana program approved in 2018 and slightly expanded this year..

Medical Marijuana

Missouri Governor Vetoes Tax Relief Bill for Medical Marijuana Businesses. Gov. Mike Parsons (R) last Friday vetoed Senate Bill 226, which, among other things, would have lifted a bar on medical marijuana companies claiming business expenses on their taxes. Parsons didn't mention the medical marijuana provision in his veto message, but instead cited a provision that would have provided tax relief to businesses that suffered losses because of public health restrictions, which he said could have "significant unintended consequences that could greatly harm localities." The bill would not have altered federal tax law, which currently does not allow for such deduction by state-legal marijuana companies, but would have reduced state tax for such companies.

South Dakota Attorney General Changes Mind About Validity of Tribal Medical Marijuana Cards. Only two days after he said state law enforcement would have to accept tribal-issued medical marijuana cards regardless of the cardholder's tribal status, putting him at odds with the Highway Patrol, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg has changed his mind. In a statement last Friday, his office said: "Contrary to current media reports, the Attorney General’s Office agrees with the South Dakota Highway Patrol’s framework for implementation of Initiated Measure 26," and people with tribal medical cards who are not tribe members are still subject to arrest for marijuana possession. A word to all non-tribal medical marijuana cardholders: Obey all traffic laws.

International

Ukraine Ruling Party to Support Medical Marijuana Legalization. The ruling Servant of the People Party, which holds an overwhelming majority in the Ukrainian parliament, is set to debate a bill to legalize medical marijuana on Tuesday. "It seems that colleagues from other factions support it. Our faction will support, not unanimously, it is obvious: there are those who are against it," First Deputy Head of the Servant of the People faction Oleksandr Korniyenko said. "But I think we will give 200 votes," said. The parliament has 348 members. The members are meeting in a special session called by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

CA Safe Injection Site Bill Delayed to Next Year, Drug Czar's Office Seeks Input on Harms of Drug Policies, More... (7/7/21)

The punishment of Olypmic athlete Sha'carri Richardson for testing positive for marijuana draws intense interest and criticism, New Mexico drug dogs are getting laid off in the wake of legal pot, and more.

New Mexico drug dogs are being forced into retirement by marijuana legalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Mexico Drug Dogs Face Retirement in Wake of Marijuana Legalization. Drug-sniffing police dogs in the state are being forced into retirement because they have been trained to alert on any drug, including marijuana, and cannot be retrained. As the Tucumcari Police Department noted as it announced the retirement of its drug dog, Aries: "With the legalization of recreational marijuana, K9 Aries is unable to continue his function as a narcotics detection dog." Other cities and towns are doing the same thing, and so is the State Police, which will be retiring all nine of its current drug dogs. "Once the new canines are trained, the handlers will have the option of retiring their current assigned canine to their home, or we will look at other options to the likes of donating them to other law enforcement entities outside of the state of New Mexico who have yet to legalize marijuana," the State Police said.

Drug Policy

Drug Czar's Office Seeks Comment on How Drug Policies Create Systemic Barriers for Underserved Communities. In a notice published in the Federal Register Wednesday, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) said it is seeking comment on whether existing federal drug control policies create "systemic barriers to opportunities for underserved communities" and to better promote equity in future programs. Although the agency has embraced some progressive drug policy positions, such as pushing for broader access to buprenorpine, this level of acknowledgment of harms caused by drug policy marks a change of direction.

The agency didn't take the action independently. Rather, it is part of a broader executive order requiring agencies to seek feedback and "assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups. Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all," ONDCP explained. Comments on how ONDCP can better achieve equity are being accepted at [email protected] through August 6.

Drug Testing

Sha'Carri Richardson Out of Olympics After Positive Marijuana Test. Star athlete Sha'Carri Richardson was disqualified last week from the Tokyo Olympics' women's 100 meter race after testing positive for marijuana after the qualifying run, and now will completely miss the games after being left off the team chose for the women's relay race. Her disqualification has caused howls of outrage, with some commentators calling it racist, and even President Biden, who initially responded with "the rules are the rules," suggesting the rules need to change. Richardson said she smoked marijuana to cope with the death of her biological mother and did so in Oregon, where it is legal, but she took responsibility for her actions: "I know what I did," Richardson said. "I know what I'm supposed to do... and I still made that decision."

Harm Reduction

California Safe Injection Site Bill Delayed to Next Year. The Assembly Health Committee has informed Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) that his bill to allow a safe injection site pilot program, Senate Bill 57, which is billed as an "overdose prevention program," will not get a hearing until January. The state is in the first year of its two-year legislative session, so the bill is not dead, just delayed. "While I'm extremely disappointed that we are experiencing another delay in passing this life-saving legislation -- which has passed both the Senate and Assembly twice in different forms over the past five years -- I continue to be optimistic that we'll pass SB 57 and get it signed into law," said Weiner. "San Francisco and other California cities are experiencing record overdose deaths, and safe consumption sites are a proven strategy to save lives and help people into recovery. I am deeply committed to this legislation -- as is our broad coalition -- and I look forward to moving SB 57 forward in January." The bill has already passed the Senate.

Clarence Thomas Questions Federal Marijuana Prohibition, ONDCP Reports on Colombia Coca, More... (6/28/21)

A major pharmaceutical company settles with the state of New York over opioid distribution, Minnesota lawmakers are on the verge of passing policing reforms, and more.

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas questions the viability of federal marijuana prohibition. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Clarence Thomas Says Federal Marijuana Prohibition May No Longer Make Sense. One the Supreme Court's most conservative justices said Monday that because marijuana is already legalized either medically or recreationally in a growing number of states, federal pot prohibition may no longer make sense. "A prohibition on interstate use or cultivation of marijuana may no longer be necessary or proper to support the federal government's piecemeal approach," wrote Justice Clarence Thomas as the high court declined to hear the appeal of a Colorado medical marijuana dispensary that was denied federal tax breaks. "Federal policies of the past 16 years have greatly undermined its reasoning," he said. "The federal government's current approach is a half-in, half-out regime that simultaneously tolerates and forbids local use of marijuana."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Johnson & Johnson Settles With New York for $230 Million, Agrees to Stop Selling Opioids. Pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson has agreed to a $230 million settlement with the state of New York over its role in the country's opioid crisis, which has led to nearly half a million dead of overdoses in the past two decades. As part of the settlement, the company agreed to not promote opioids and confirmed it has quit distributing them in the US. Pharmaceutical companies and distributors have faced a barrage of lawsuits over opioids, with governments arguing that the companies pushed the drugs and caused people to become addicted and then turn to illegal opioids as states and the federal government cracked down. The companies argued that they were distributing medically necessary opioids for people who need them. The crackdowns on opioid prescribing have left one group of people in particular in the lurch: chronic pain patients, who must seek opioids and doctors willing to prescribe them in large quantities in the midst of the retrenchment.

Law Enforcement

Minnesota Lawmakers Reach "General Agreement" on Policing Reforms. Legislative leaders of both the Democratic Farm Labor Party and the Republicans have reached "general agreement" on a broad-ranging police reform bill, leaders of both parties said late Saturday. Among other things, the bill would restrict the use of no-knock warrants, civil asset forfeiture reforms (but not an outright ban), reforms of fines and fee structures, restrict the use of confidential informants to better protect them, and make modifications to state police misconduct database to create an early warning system to keep bad cops off the street. The legislature is working under a deadline: If the broader public safety bill that includes the policing reforms is not passed by Wednesday, key government public safety functions, such as running state prisons and the State Patrol, would theoretically face shutdowns. But Gov. Tim Walz (DFL) said he will keep those operations functioning, even if that is legally questionable.

International

US Drug Czar's Office Says Colombia Coca Cultivation Expanded Last Year. Colombian coca cultivation increased 15% last year and potential cocaine production rose 7.9% to around a thousand metric tons, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), said Friday. The report from ONDCP differed from a report issued by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released on June 9, which had a lower figure for crop cultivation but a higher figure -- 1,228 metric tons -- for potential cocaine production. In either case, Colombia remains the world's largest coca and cocaine producer, ahead of second place Peru and third place Bolivia.

Cuba Reiterates Zero Tolerance Drug Policies. Cuba used the occasion of the UN's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on Saturday to make clear that its zero tolerance policy toward drug use, production, and trafficking remains unchanged. In a tweet, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez vowed that the island nations will never be a place to use, store, or traffic illicit drugs.

White House Supports Bill Ending Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity, Mexico Marijuana Mess, More... (6/22/21)

A New York City DA drops thousands of pending marijuana cases, an Ohio's judge's courtroom temper tantrum will get him off the bench for a year, and more.

There's a move underway in Congress to finally do away with the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

New York City Sees More Than 3,000 Marijuana Cases Dismissed by Queens DA. Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz moved to dismiss some 3,255 pending marijuana cases, citing the "disproportionate impact" of marijuana enforcement on people of color, and a judge immediately granted the motion. The move comes after the state legalized marijuana earlier this year and is in line with similar decisions in district attorney's office across the state. Since legalization, New Yorkers have been able to possess up to three ounces. All of the cases dismissed were for possession of less than three ounces.

Drug Testing

Ohio Judge Faces Justice for Jailing Courtroom Attendee for Refusing to Take Drug Test. Seneca County District Court Judge Mark Repp is facing a year-long suspension from the bench after Repp called the girlfriend of a defendant who was observing his case "a drug addict," ordered her to take a drug test, and then jailed her when she refused. Repp ordered the woman, who had no criminal record, jailed for 10 days, but she was released the following day when prosecutors declined to file any charge against her. She and her attorney complained to the state Board of Professional Conduct, which recommended the one-year suspension. Repp has now waived his objections to the findings and is set to be suspended. A possible civil lawsuit is pending, but the US Supreme Court has ruled in the past that judges are immune from lawsuits if they are acting in an official capacity within the courtroom.

Sentencing

Biden Administration Endorses Bill to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. At a Tuesday hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Regina LaBelle, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office), said the Biden administration supported passage of the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act, or Equal Act, S, 79. Sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the bill would end the disparity between sentences in federal crack and powder cocaine cases. Biden helped create that disparity decades ago, has been ready to end it since at least 2008, when he sponsored the Drug Sentencing Reform and Cocaine Kingpin Act of 2008 (S.1711). "The current disparity is not based on evidence, yet has caused significant harm for decades, particularly to individuals, families and communities of color," LaBelle testified. "The continuation of this sentencing disparity is a significant injustice in our legal system, and it is past time for it to end. Therefore, the administration urges the swift passage of the ‘Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law Act.’" Biden championed a 100:1 disparity in a 1986 anti-drug bill, but that disparity was reduced to 18:1 in 2010. 

International

Mexico Supreme Court Moves to End Marijuana Prohibition After Lawmakers Fail to Act. After the Mexican congress has missed repeated Supreme Court-imposed deadlines to end marijuana prohibition, the high court is moving toward ending it on its own. Court member Norma Lucia Pina Hernandez has filed a general declaration of unconstitutionality on the country's marijuana laws, and the whole court is expected to take up the issue this week. The court deemed marijuana prohibition unconstitutional in 2018 and ordered the congress to legalize marijuana, but the congress has been slowed by political infighting and the disruptions of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, if the politicians continue to fail to get it done, the court is hinting it will just nullify the law.

Biden's Drug Policy Priorities Are a Small Step in the Right Direction, But Old Attitudes Linger [FEATURE]

On April 1, the Biden administration gave us the first big hint of what its drug policy will look like as it released the congressionally-mandated Statement of Drug Policy Priorities for Year One. The result is a definite mixed bag: a heavy dose of drug prevention, treatment, and recovery, along with an acknowledgement of harm reduction and a nod in the direction of racially-sensitive criminal justice reform, but also a reflexive reliance on prohibitionist drug war policies both at home and abroad.

And nothing about the most widely used illicit drug by far: marijuana. The word "marijuana" appears not once in the heavily annotated 11-page document, and the word "cannabis" only once, in the title of an academic research paper about the onset of teen drug use in the footnotes. That's perhaps not so surprising, given that, in response to a reporter's question, Vice President Harris said last week the administration was too busy dealing with other crises to worry about making good its campaign pledges about marijuana reform.

What is on the administration's mind is "the overdose and addiction crisis." Citing ever-increasing drug overdose deaths, the statement says "addressing the overdose and addiction epidemic is an urgent priority for [the] administration." But the solution is not to imprison drug users, with the statement noting that "President Biden has also said that people should not be incarcerated for drug use but should be offered treatment instead." (Underlying that seemingly humane approach is the errant presumption that all or most drug users are addicts in need of treatment when, depending on the drug, only between one in five and one in 10 drug users fit that dependent or problematic drug user description.)

Here are the Biden administration's drug policy priorities, all of which are gone into in detail in the statement:

  • Expanding access to evidence-based treatment;
  • Advancing racial equity issues in our approach to drug policy;
  • Enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts;
  • Supporting evidence-based prevention efforts to reduce youth substance use;
  • Reducing the supply of illicit substances;
  • Advancing recovery-ready workplaces and expanding the addiction workforce; and
  • Expanding access to recovery support services.

Prioritizing treatment, prevention, and recovery is bound to be music to the ears of advocacy groups such as Faces and Voices in Recovery (FAVOR), whose own federal policy and advocacy priorities, while focusing on specific legislation, lean in the same direction. But the group also advocates for harm reduction practices the administration omits, particularly supervised consumption sites. FAVOR noted the administration's statement without comment.

As with the failure to even mention marijuana, the Biden administration's failure to include supervised consumption sites in its embrace of harm reduction -- it is wholeheartedly behind needle exchanges, for example -- is another indication that the administration is in no hurry no rush down a progressive drug reform path. And its prioritizing of supply reduction implies continued drug war in Latin America ("working with key partners like Mexico and Colombia") and at home, via support of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) and "multi-jurisdictional task forces and other law enforcement efforts to disrupt and dismantle transnational drug trafficking and money laundering organizations." Prohibition is a hard drug to kick.

Still, naming advancing racial equity issues as a key priority is evidence that the Biden administration is serious about getting at some of the most perverse and corrosive outcomes of the war on drugs and is in line with its broader push for racial justice, as exemplified by Executive Order 13985, "Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government," issued on Biden's first day in office. And it is in this context that criminal justice system reform gets prioritized, although somewhat vaguely, with the promise of the creation of an "interagency working group to agree on specific policy priorities for criminal justice reform."

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has some specific policy priorities for criminal justice reform, too, and they go far beyond where the administration is at. In its 2020 Roadmap for the incoming administration released in November, the group calls for federal marijuana legalization, drug decriminalization, and a slew of other criminal justice and policing reforms ranging from ending mandatory minimum sentencing and the deportation of non-citizens for drug possession to barring no-knock police raids, ending the transfer of military surplus equipment for counter-narcotics law enforcement, and dismantling the DEA. And the federal government should get out of the way of supervised consumption sites, or in DPA's politically attuned language "overdose prevention centers."

"We're glad the administration is taking important steps to address the overdose crisis -- by increasing access and funding to harm reduction services and reducing barriers to life-saving medications -- especially as people are dying at an alarming rate. We also appreciate their commitment to studying how to advance racial equity in our drug policies and best implement innovative practices on the ground. But it's clearly not enough. We need action," DPA Director of the Office of National Affairs Maritza Perez said in a statement responding to the administration's statement. "Black, Latinx and Indigenous people continue to lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement in the name of the drug war, and yet, the administration has chosen to prioritize increased funding for law enforcement. We need supervised consumption sites, not more money for police."

"And while we commend the Administration for taking steps to reduce employment discrimination, unless we address the biggest barrier for people trying to get a job -- past drug convictions and arrests -- we will still be left with significant inequities and racial disparities in the workplace," Perez continued. "It's time we get serious about saving lives and repairing the damage that has been caused by the drug war, particularly on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. We can start by passing federal marijuana reform and ending the criminalization of people for drugs in all forms."

Young drug reformers also had a few bones to pick with the administration's priorities. In their own statement in response to the administration, Students for Sensible Drug Policy applauded priorities such as more access to treatment and more research on racial equity, it complained that the administration priorities "fail to provide adequate support to Young People Who Use Drugs (YPWUD) in this country" -- especially those who use drugs non-problematically.

"There are no steps being taken to support YPWUD that do not want to and will not stop using drugs," SSDP said. "Young people have feared and faced the consequences of punitive drug policies and shouldered the burden of caring for their peers who use drugs for far too long. Young leaders calling for drug policy reform recognize that simply using drugs is not problematic and that we can support the safe and prosperous futures of People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) without forcing them to stop as a pre-condition for compassion, care, and opportunity."

Although only time will tell, for drug reformers, the Biden administration is looking like a step in the right direction, but only a step, and its policy prescriptions are limited by a vision of drug use rooted in the last century. Perhaps they can be pressured and prodded to plot a more progressive drug policy path.

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