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The Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2021 [FEATURE]

With 2021 now receding in the rear view mirror, we look back at the good, the bad, and the ugly in the arena of drug policy around the world.

1. The International Criminal Court Eyes Philippines Drug War Killings

Protestors denounce Duterte's bloody drug war. (hrw.org)
Rodrigo Duterte's term as Filipino president may be coming to an end, but his bloody legacy of drug war murders is going to haunt him. For us, last year actually begins in December 2020, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced its preliminary examination of the Filipino drug war showed evidence of crimes against humanity, clearing the path toward a formal investigation into what are estimated to be more than 30,000 killings. At that point, the ICC had to determine whether the Philippine justice system has is responding to the killings in a legitimate way. If the Philippines couldn't or wouldn't hold perpetrators accountable, the court could take the case.

ICC attention was only one piece of the mounting international pressure over the Duterte killings. For example, in February, US Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA), top Democrat on the East Asia and Pacific Subcommittee, Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) called for the full exoneration and release of Philippines drug war critic Senator Leila De Lima, who had then been detained on bogus, politically-motivated charges for four years. Now, it's been nearly five years, and she is still behind bars.

In May, a blustering Duterte vowed he would not open up police records about the killings and warned drug dealers that: "If I am there, I will really kill you. I don't care if there's TV around. I will really kill you."

In June, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor concluded its preliminary investigation and announced there was sufficient evidence to request authorization to proceed with an official investigation, which prompted the Duterte administration to say it would not cooperate with the ICC investigation.

In August, Duterte again resorted to bluster, this time taunting the ICC during his last State of the Nation address and daring the court to record his threats against those who would "destroy" the country, saying: "I never denied -- and the ICC can record it -- those who destroy my country, I will kill you. And those who destroy the young people of my country, I will kill you, because I love my country."

But while Duterte blustered, his Justice Department was attempting to blunt the ICC investigation by announcing it had finished a review of 52 drug war killing cases. It was a weak effort though: The cases represented only a tiny fraction of the more than 6,000 killings for which the Philippines National Police took responsibility. And it wasn't enough to stop the ICC, which announced in September that it would open an official investigation into the killings, setting the stage for summonses and possible arrests warrants if requested by Prosecutor Karim Khan.

In October, once again moving to blunt the investigation, the Justice Department announced that 154 police could be liable for drug war misconduct and then announced it would review thousands of drug war killings. The government also invoked a provision of the ICC's Rome Treaty to suspend the investigation while its request to defer it got considered. The following month, the ICC temporarily did suspend its official investigation, as per the treaty. "The prosecution has temporarily suspended its investigative activities while it assesses the scope and effect of the deferral request," ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan wrote.

The year ended with human rights groups urging the ICC to get back to investigating Duterte: "We ask the ICC not to allow itself to be swayed by the claims now being made by the Duterte administration," said the National Union of People's Lawyers, which represents some victims' families. The national justice system is "extremely slow and unavailing to the majority of poor and unrepresented victims", the statement said. The Duterte government's claim that existing legal mechanisms could bring justice to Duterte's victims was "absurd," said Human Rights Watch. "Let's hope the ICC sees through the ruse that it is," said Brad Adam, HRW Asia director.

2. Afghanistan's Government Falls, Opium Remains

Afghanistan has been the world's largest producer of opium since the 1990s, except for one year when the Taliban banned it the first time they held power. Opium never went away during the nearly two-decade long occupation by the US and NATO forces, and despite Taliban declarations to the contrary, it does not look like the trade is going anywhere.

When the Taliban completed their conquest of the country by seizing Kabul in August, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid vowed that their new government would not let Afghanistan become a full-fledged narco-state: "We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community that we will not have any narcotics produced," Mujahid said. "From now on, nobody's going to get involved (in the heroin trade), nobody can be involved in drug smuggling."

By October, the price of opium was rising in local markets, having tripled since the Taliban took power as buyers anticipated an opium shortage because of the possible ban, but the ban has yet to materialize.

And a UN Office on Drugs and Crime report that same month made it clear why the ban is unlikely to materialize. In a country now in economic crisis because the foreign spending that propped up the previous regime has vanished, UNODC reported that the spring opium crop had generated between $1.8 and $2.7 billion for the Afghan economy, also noting that "much larger sums are accrued along illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan."

The 2021 crop was some 6,800 tons, up 8% over 2020. Given the devastation of the Afghan economy and the unlikelihood that the Taliban will move against a crop that supports hundreds of thousands of Afghan families, it's entirely possible that the crop next spring will be even larger. As one farmer told the UNODC, "There is no work, all the families are in debt, and everyone's hope is opium."

3, Mexican Drug War Violence Just Keeps Going

Sixteen years after then-President Felipe Calderon called out the military to combat rising violence, Mexico's drug prohibition-related violence continued unabated in 2021, with more than 25,000 killed by the end of November.

Amidst the quotidian violence, some notable incidents stand out: in March, an attack on a police convoy in Mexico state left 13 officers dead; in May, presumed cartel gunmen ambushed Joel Ernesto Soto, director of the Sinaloa State Police, on Monday, killing him on the outskirts of Culiacan, the state capital; in June, gunmen in SUVs representing warring factions of the Gulf Cartel ranged across the border town of Reynosa, just across the Rio Grande River from McAllen, Texas, leaving a toll of at least 14 and as many as 18 dead; in August, masked men claiming to represent the Jalisco New Generation Cartel released a video where they threaten to kill Milenio TV anchor Azucena Uresti over what they called "unfair" coverage. And on and on.

The west central state of Michoacan was particularly plagued by cartel violence in 2021, beginning with an April massacre by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) of rival gang members in the municipality of Aguililla. In May, warring cartels blocked highways and burned vehiclesin Aguililla and neighboring municipalities.

As violent clashes and blockades continued through the year, residents of those municipalities took to the streets in September took to the streets in Septemberto excoriate the military for staying in its barracks and demand military intervention to fight the cartels. It didn't work. That same month, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel beheaded five men manning a checkpoint on the edge of Tepalcatepec designed to keep the drug gangs out. And in November, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel struck again, killing five men and six boys near the town of Tarecuato in the north of the state near the border with the state of Jalisco as it pursued its war with local criminal gangs.

When it comes to US-Mexico cooperation in the war on drugs, 2021 was not a good year. It began with a huge diplomatic spat around the DEA's arrest in late 2020 of former Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who was subsequently released after loud protests from Mexico, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who personally accusing the DEA of making up the case against Cienfuegos. The US retorted with the Justice Department sharply rebuking Mexico for releasing a massive trove of evidence in the aborted drug trafficking case against Cienfuegos. Mexico then countered with a call for a DEA internal probe of the "fabricated" case.

Amidst the controversy, US investigations into the cartels were paralyzed as a law enacted in December requiring US officials to report their law enforcement contacts in the country to Mexican officials, whom they view as largely corrupt, went into effect. In May, US and Mexican officials told Reuters the fight against Mexican drug trafficker had "ground to a halt"because of strained relations between the two counties.

But in October, there was a glimmer of hope for fans of continued anti-drug coordination between the two countries. Leading Biden administration officials including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and Attorney General Merrick Garland met with their Mexican counterparts to try to create a new framework for cooperation on drugs, crime, and border issues. The high-profile meeting came after months of quiet talks to rebuild relations.

4. Mexico Didn't Get Marijuana Legalization Done (Again)

Two years after the Mexican Supreme Court found marijuana prohibition unconstitutional and ordered the government to legalize it, the Senate finally passed a legalization bill in late 2020. The measure appeared to have momentum on its side, especially after the Chamber of Deputies approved it in March. Under the bill, people 18 and up would be able to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and grow up to six plants (although one controversial change in the Chamber of Deputies would require home growers to register with the state). The bill also created a system of taxed and regulated legal marijuana commerce.

The momentum appeared to hold through April, when the bill won two Senate committee votes in as many days but then hit a last-minute snag when it ran into opposition from unhappy with the revised version of the bill. With that, the bill was dead in the water until the congress returned to work in September.

Progress remained slow when lawmakers returned. It was only in November that a draft legalization bill was being circulated among senators, and while there were hints that a vote could happen in December, it didn't. Maybe in 2022.

5. Bangladesh Drug War Killings Draw Pushback

In May, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina approved an anti-drugs campaign aimed at methamphetamines, and by mid-month police had killed 86 people and arrested 7,000. About the killings, police claimed they were only defending themselves in confrontations with drug traffickers, but family members and activists claimed they were executions. The opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) also said the anti-drug campaign was part of an effort to target and intimidate it.

By the end of May, the toll had risen to 115, with more signs of extrajudicial killings and complaints from the BNP that some party workers had been killed during the campaign despite no connection to the drug trade. Authorities continued to claim that dead dealers had died in crossfire or in gunfights with police, but more families complained that their relatives had been arrested and then killed in custody. Most of the raids were carried out by the RAB (Rapid Action Battalion), a controversial force that human rights groups have repeatedly accused of abuses, including forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

By June, the United Nations was responding, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein saying the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers must be "immediately halted" and the perpetrators brought to justice. "Every person has the right to life and they do not lose their human rights because they sell drugs," he added. At that time, the toll stood at 130 dead and 13,000 arrested.

After that, the campaign quieted down, but there is no sign of any Bangladeshi investigations into the killings and human rights abuses in in the late spring. The United States, however, was paying attention, and in December, imposed sanctions on the RAB for human rights abuses, abductions, and hundreds of extrajudicial killings going back to 2018, targeting not only drug dealers, but also opposition party members, journalists, and human rights activists.

6. Pushing the Boundaries in Canada

Canadian cities, provinces, and activists pressed the Liberal federal government on drug reform issues throughout the year, with important struggles being waged around drug decriminalization and the vanguard issue of a safe drug supply, as well as a noteworthy milestone reached in opioid maintenance therapy.

The Liberals started the year off by introducing a sweeping criminal justice reform billthat would make arrests for drug possession only one option for police, end all mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, end some other mandatory minimums, and open the way for conditional (probationary) sentences for a variety of offenses. But critics who demanded deeper reforms scoffed that it was too little, too late.

In April, British Columbia showed what deeper reforms might look like when it formally requested permission from the federal government for provincial drug decriminalization. That same month, saying the Liberal's reform bill didn't go far enough, the New Democratic Party's health critic, MP Don Davies filed a federal drug decriminalization bill.

VANDU is the vanguard.
The city of Vancouver also sought an exemption from federal drug laws to enact decriminalization.The city recommended the decriminalization of one gram or 10 rocks for crack cocaine, 1.5 grams for amphetamines, two grams for opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, and three grams for cocaine. That did not sit well with the city's vanguard drug user activists, who harshly criticized the possession limits. At that point, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) announced that it is withdrawing from talks with the city, and it and other drug policy advocates complained that drug users were largely excluded from the decriminalization process and that police have too large a role.

The push for decriminalization continued throughout the year. In October, nearly 70 organizations across the country, including the HIV Legal Network, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and the National Association of Women and the Law, urged Prime Minister Trudeau to decriminalize drug possession. And in November, Toronto moved toward decriminalizationas the city's top health officer, Dr. Eilenn de Villa, recommended that the board of health approve a request to the federal government to exempt city residents from criminal charges for small-time drug possession.

But even though decriminalization is in the Liberals' platform, the party under Justin Trudeau is not ready to go there yet. After calling elections in August, necessitating a restart on January criminal justice reform bill, and despite the rising clamor for decriminalization, the Liberal government refiled the bill anyway.

In the summer, an even more direct challenge to drug prohibition was underway as British Columbia moved toward providing a "safe supply" of illicit drugs to street users.A provincial policy directive in British Columbia requires 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.

A Vancouver elected official and local activists got in on the action, too, when Councilwoman Jean Swanson and a pair of drug user advocacy groups, Drug User Liberation Front (DULF) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) handed out free cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to drug users in the Downtown Eastside in a bid to dramatize the need for a safe drug supply. They also wanted to "raise awareness of the deeply flawed aspects of the Vancouver Model of decriminalization, including disproportionate influence of the Vancouver Police Department, unreasonably low drug thresholds, and lack of provisions for safe supply."

The following month, they were at it again, handing out a "safe supply" of drugs to mark International Overdose Awareness Dayto show the "life-saving potential of a community-led response to the crisis of prohibition in Canada" as an alternative to Vancouver's proposed model of decriminalization. And in September, DULF and VANDU formally asked the federal government to allow buyers' clubs for hard drugs. They requested a formal exemption from federal criminal drug laws so that no one is prosecuted for operating a "compassion club" to distribute those drugs.

And in October, the province of Alberta expressed interest in a safe drug supply. The prairie province's United Conservative government proposed that a committee of Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) look into the pluses and minuses of offering pharmaceutical versions of opioids and other addictive substances to people dependent on them.

Meanwhile, magic mushroom shops were sprouting in Vancouver. A handful of shops selling magic mushrooms and other psychedelic substances are operating in in the city even though selling magic mushrooms remains illegal in Canada. One such shop, the Coca Leaf Café & Mushroom Dispensary on East Hastings Street, is owned by long-time drug activist Dana Larsen. "We're sitting in a place that is unique in the world. There's nowhere else where you can get the same range of substances and things that we do right here," Larsen said.

And last but not least, in September, a Vancouver clinic began providing take-home prescription heroin,a North American first. The program began as an emergency response to the COVID epidemic, when the provincial health authority allowed clinic staff to deliver syringes filled with heroin to patients so they could stay isolated for 10 to 14 days, but now the patients can take it home themselves.

7. Malta Becomes First European Union County to Legalize Marijuana -- Germany, Luxembourg Next?

The Maltese parliament approved a bill legalizing marijuanaon December 14, and President George Vella signed it into law four days later, making the country the first member state of the European Union to do so. The law allows citizens 18 and over to possess up to seven grams of marijuana and cultivate up to four plants at home, harvesting up to 50 grams from them. The law does not envision commercial sales but allows nonprofit cooperatives to produce marijuana to be sold to members, with an upper limit on membership per coop of 500.

Either Germany or Luxembourg could be next. In October, the government of Luxembourg unveiled its marijuana legalization proposal, which would allow people 18 and over to grow up to four plants and possess up to three grams in public. Like Malta, the Luxembourg law does not envision commercial sales, but people would be allowed to buy and trade marijuana seeds for their home gardens. The proposal still has to be approved by parliament.

And in November, the three parties who have formed Germany's new governing coalition -- the Social Democrats, the Greens, and the Free Democrats -- agreed to legalize marijuana and its sale. The coalition is prepared to "introduce the regulated sale of cannabis to adults for consumption purposes in licensed stores," according to the coalition's health group's findings paper. It is not clear, however, whether home cultivation will be allowed.

8. Italy's Pending Referendum on Marijuana and Plant Psychedelics

Italy is on the cusp of a bold drug reform move. A number of pro-reform activist groups and political parties including the Radicals launched a ballot campaignin for a referendum to legalize the cultivation of marijuana and other psychoactive plants and fungi, such as psilocybin mushrooms. They faced several challenges: First, they had to obtain half a million valid voter signatures by month's end and have the signatures validated by the Supreme Court of Cassation, then the Constitutional Court would have to rule that the measure is in line with the constitution, and only then, President Sergio Mattarella would set the date for the referendum, which would ask whether that portion of the country's drug law criminalizing the cultivation of marijuana and psychoactive plants should be stricken.

In October, activists met their first challenge, turning in some 630,000 raw signatures. They were able to meet their signature-gathering goals so quickly because a pandemic-related policy change allowed them to collect signatures online instead of only in person.

Now, after having staved off an attempt by rightist parties to block it, the fate of the referendum is before the courts. If it wins final approval from the Constitutional Court, which will determine whether it conflicts with the constitution, international treaties, or the country's fiscal system, voters could go to the polls on the issue sometime between April 15 and June 15.

There's tons of cocaine around these days. (Pixabay)
9. Cocaine Production Has Doubled in the Course of a Decade

In June, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its annual estimate of coca cultivation and potential cocaine production in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru, the three perennial coca and cocaine producing nations. What is at first glance most striking in the current report is that for the first time, one nation -- Colombia -- produced more than 1,000 metric tons of cocaine.

But a closer reading of the report, which details coca cultivation and cocaine production going back to 2010, produces an even more striking finding: Over the decade that the report covers, the total amount of potential cocaine production in the three countries has more than doubled, from 914 tons in 2010 to a whopping 2,132 tons in 2020. In other words, Colombia alone produced more cocaine in 2020 than the whole region did a decade earlier.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) does its own annual estimates of global potential cocaine production, and while they differ from those of the United Status, they outline the same massive expansion of cocaine. According to UNODC numbers compiled at Statista, beginning in 2004, 1,000 tons or more (slightly more in most years) was produced every year except 2012, 2013, and 2014, when it dipped down into the 900s. That series, which ended in 2019, has cocaine production topping out at 1,976 tons in 2017.

In the most recent edition of the UNODC's World Drug Report, that organization also reported that cocaine production had doubled, but put the period of doubling from 2014 to 2019, when it registered 1,784 tons.

Take your pick of the numbers. Either way, there is a lot more cocaine being produced these days than just a decade ago, tons more of it.

10. World Health Organization Declines Move Toward Labeling Kratom a Controlled Substance

The World Health Organization's (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) recommended in November that kratom not be subjected to a "critical review," which could have been a first step toward labeling it a controlled substance subject to international and national controls. The ECDD did a "pre-review" of kratom at its October meeting and found there was inadequate evidence to recommend a critical review.

WHO had begun the "pre-review" based in part on a "country-level report indicating the potential for abuse, dependence and harm to public health from" the chemical compounds in kratom. But it found concerns about fatalities associated with kratom to be overstated: "Kratom can produce serious toxicity in people who use high doses, but the number of cases is probably low as a proportion of the total number of people who use kratom," WHO stated in the document. "Although mitragynine [the active alkaloid in kratom] has been analytically confirmed in a number of deaths, almost all involve use of other substances, so the degree to which kratom use has been a contributory factor to fatalities is unclear."

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2021 [FEATURE]

Whew! Another year to put in the rear view mirror, but not before we reflect on the year that was. It was a year of tragic overdose death numbers and groundbreaking responses; it was a year of advances on marijuana reform in the states but statemate in Congress; it was a year of psychedelic advance in the states and cities -- but not enough political will to reform policing, at least not federally.

As always, there was a lot going on in the realm of domestic drug policy, and here are ten of the year's most important stories. Check back next week for our Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2021.

1. Fentanyl, Pandemic Drive Drug Overdose Deaths to Record High

The nation either neared or surpassed the one millionth drug overdose death since 1999 in 2021. Driven largely by two factors -- pandemic-related isolation and lack of access to treatment services, and the increasing presence of the highly potent opioid fentanyl in the unregulated drug supply -- overdose deaths hit an all-time high in the year ending in March 2021, with 96,779 overdose deaths reported.

That's an increase of nearly 30 percent over the previous 12-month period, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report in October. And as if that were not bad enough, CDC reported in November provisional estimates that drug overdose deaths had topped 100,300 in the period from May 2020 to April 2021 -- the highest one-year overdose death toll ever.

As for that million overall dead figure, the CDC reported that through 2019 the toll had reached 841,000. We are now two years past that, and while that figure hasn't been officially recorded, just adding up the numbers makes it likely that we have already reached that horrific benchmark.

2. Nation's First Official Safe Injection Site Opens in New York City

The legality of safe injection sites -- where drug users can consume their substances in a clean, well-lit place under medical supervision -- remains unsettled under federal law, but officials in New York City decided they couldn't wait. In November, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who began calling for them in 2018, and the city Health Department announced that "the first publicly recognized Overdose Prevention Center [safe injection site] services in the nation have commenced."

The move was quickly lauded by editorials in leading newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and by Christmas Eve, the city reported that 59 overdoses had already been reversed amid 2,000 visits to the facilities. Meanwhile, a safe injection site in Philadelphia whose opening was blocked in January by a federal appeals court after the Trump administration Justice Department moved against it, is awaiting a March filing by the Biden administration to see if it will take a more positive position allowing the facility to open.

Bills to allow safe injection sites were introduced in a number of states, including California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Utah, although only the Rhode Island bill passed and was signed into law. Still, the opening of the New York City facilities is a historic harm reduction first for the United States, and a likely harbinger of more to come.

3. Marijuana Reform Progress in the States

Nearly half the population now lives in legal marijuana states after five states this year joined the 13 others that had previously done so, mostly at the ballot box. But the states that legalized it this year all did so via the legislative process. Those are Connecticut (Senate Bill 1201), New Jersey (Assembly Bill 21/Senate Bill 21 and Assembly Bill 897), New Mexico (House Bill 2), New York (Senate Bill S854A), and Virginia (House Bill 2312/Senate Bill 1406).

This movement comes as marijuana legalization continues to garner strong public support, with a November Gallup poll reporting "a new high" of 68 per cent report. There was other marijuana-friendly legislative action in the states as well: Louisiana decriminalized it, four states (Colorado, Delaware, New Mexico, Virginia) passed expungement laws, Alabama approved medical marijuana (although not in smokeable form), and 17 states approved medical marijuana expansion laws. Weed is on a roll.

4. Democrats Haven't Got Federal Marijuana Legalization Done, and It's Not Looking So Great for Next Year, Either

With Democrats in control of Congress after the November 2020 elections, hopes were high that this could be the year federal marijuana prohibition would be ended. The House had already passed a legalization bill at the end of the last Congress, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) was pushing for it, and even if President Biden opposed full legalization and would only go as far as supporting decriminalization, that was a bridge that could be crossed when we came to it.

Now, at the end of 2021, that bridge is still a ways down the road. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617), sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), passed the House of Representatives a year ago. But that was a different Congress, meaning it has to pass the House again. In this Congress it's only passed the Judiciary Committee, in late September, and hasn't moved since. On the Senate side, Schumer and Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) rolled out an initial draft of their legalization bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act in mid-July, but have yet to formally file legislation.

One big reason for the impasse is that Democrats are at odds among themselves, tussling over whether to hold out for full legalization replete with social equity measures, or to go for incremental measures in the meanwhile, such as banking access for state-legal cannabusinesses through the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996). That bill passed the House and was inserted into the annual defense funding bill, only to be removed at the insistence of Senate leadership in the former camp, including Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY).

The fight over how to approach marijuana reform federally has split not only the Democrats, but also the drug reform movement, with groups like the Drug Policy Alliance calling for not passing banking except as part of a full legalization bill, while NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project lobbied hard for the SAFE Act.

As the year came to an end, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) told the Congressional Cannabis Caucus that Congress would take up marijuana reform in the spring. But with an election year looming, Congress evenly divided, and not even all Democratic senators sure votes on marijuana legalization, Congress looks more likely to be nibbling at the edges of federal pot prohibition rather than ending it -- or perhaps to do nothing. There are dozens of marijuana-related bills filed, from expungement to veterans' access to easing research barriers and more. In 2021, nibbling at the edges may be the best we can do.

Meanwhile, in November, a GOP legislator, Sourth Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace filed her own bill, the States Reform Act, which would legalize marijuana at the federal level. It would do so by removing marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, leaving it up to the states to set their own marijuana policies. The bill would also set a three percent federal excise tax, and release and expunge the records of those convicted of federal marijuana offenses. Mace said her bill represented a compromise that could gain support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Last year's mass mobilization around George Floyd's death has yet to translate to new laws restraining police misbehavior. (CC)
5. Even in the Wake of George Floyd, Police Reform Can't Move in the Senate

Following the death of George Floyd while being arrested by Minneapolis police and the massive mobilizations it generated, the impetus grew to reexamine and reform police practices. The spirit of reform in response to the crisis took root in both houses and both parties, with Republican South Carolina Senator Tim Scott filing a tepid Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act last year. But that bill lacked key provisions demanded by Democrats, such as an end to qualified immunity for police officers in civil lawsuits, and it died at the end of the last session.

That spirit of reform was embodied in February, when the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (HR 1280), sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). That bill would make it easier to convict a police officer for misconduct in a federal prosecution and limit qualified immunity as a defense against liability in a private civil action against an officer. It also restricts the use of no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and carotid holds and creates a National Police Misconduct Registry, among other provisions.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) envisioned something similar in the Senate when in June he announced his framework for comprehensive police reform legislation. Like the House bill, it too reformed qualified immunity so that people could actually recover damages from police who violate their constitutional rights. It too would make it easier to federally prosecute police misconduct. And it too would create a National Police Misconduct Registry, as well as banning racial profiling and providing incentives for states to adopt policies banning no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and other airway-restrictive holds in their use-of-force policies.

Booker and Scott would become the point men in a month's long effort to craft a police reform bill with bipartisan support over the course of the summer. But by September, the negotiations had hit a dead end, with Booker telling reporters: "We weren't making progress -- any more meaningful progress on establishing really substantive reform to America's policing," he said. And with that, federal police reform was dead for the year.

One of the irresolvable issues was qualified immunity, on which Scott and the Republicans refused to budge. Instead, in a statement noting the end of negotiations, Scott claimed "Democrats said no because they could not let go of their push to defund our law enforcement" and then, with a complete unawareness of irony, complained about using "a partisan approach to score political points."

So far in the Congress, it has been justice delayed. Will it end up being justice denied? There is still a year left in the session, so stay tuned.

6. The Biden Administration's Partial Embrace of Harm Reduction

From the outset, the Biden administration is proving to be the friendliest ever toward harm reduction, even though it has yet to acknowledge one of the most effective harm reduction interventions: safe injection sites (or "supervised consumption sites" or "overdose prevention centers"). The first signal came in March, when the administration included nearly $4 billion for substance abuse disorder and mental health, including funding for harm reduction activities such as needle exchange services in the coronavirus relief bill. The bill allocated $30 million in community-based funding for local substance use disorder services like syringe services programs and other harm reduction interventions.

Then, on April 1, the 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. That document contains a heavy dose of drug prevention, treatment, and recovery, but also prioritizes "enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts." The same month, it allowed federal funds to be used to buy rapid fentanyl test strips.

After a quiet summer, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra made news in October when he announced the department's overdose prevention strategy and committed to more federal support for harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges, increased access to naloxone, and test strips to check drugs for the presence of fentanyl. He even suggested the agency might be open to safe injection sites, but in a sign of the delicacy of the subject in this administration, HHS quickly walked back the comments: "HHS does not have a position on supervised consumption sites," the statement read. "The issue is a matter of ongoing litigation. The Secretary was simply stressing that HHS supports various forms of harm reduction for people who use drugs."

In November, the administration released model naloxone legislation. The administration on Wednesday released model legislation to help states improve access to naloxone treatment for opioid overdoses. 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.

Also in November, that $30 million from the coronavirus relief bill got real when SAMHSA announced it had launched $30 million harm reduction grant funding opportunity 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."

The Biden administration is clearly moving in the direction of harm reduction, but where it comes down on safe injection sites is still muddy. The Justice Department is preparing a brief in the case of Safehouse, a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site that was blocked from opening after the Trump administration Justice Department persuaded the 3rd US Circuit Court of appeals that it violated the Controlled Substance Act's "crack house" provision. That brief will be a key indicator of whether the administration is prepared to fully embrace harm reduction, but we are going to have to wait until next year to find out.

7. Oregon Leads the Way on Drug Decriminalization, Others Are Vying to Follow

With the November 2020 passage of Measure 110 with 59 percent of the vote, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize drug possession, and by year's end, the initial results were looking pretty good. Because the measure tapped into marijuana tax revenues to fund treatment and harm reduction services, those programs are getting a hefty $302 million in much needed funding over the next two years.

While the numbers are not in yet for this first year of decriminalization, there were roughly 9,000 drug arrests a year prior to passage of Measure 110, and thousands of Oregonians who would have been arrested for drug possession this year have instead faced only their choice of a $100 fine or a health assessment. It won't be 9,000 fewer drug arrests, though, because some felony drug possession arrests (possession of more than the specified personal use amounts) have been downgraded to still arrestable misdemeanors. Still, it will be thousands fewer people subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system and all the negative consequences that brings.

In the wake of the Oregon vote, a number of other states saw decriminalization bills introduced -- Florida, Kansas, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia and Washington -- and so did Congress, when Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO in June filed the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), whose most striking provision is drug decrim. DPRA is the first time decriminalization bill to be introduced in Congress.

Also on the decrim front this year, efforts are underway in Washington, DC and Washington state to put initiatives on the ballot next year. The public seems to be ready: A summer poll from Data for Progress and The Lab found that 71 percent of respondents said federal anti-drug policies aren't working and reform is needed and 59 percent supported decriminalizing drug possession. A slightly earlier ACLU/Drug Policy Alliance poll around the same time had even stronger results, with 83% saying the war on drugs had failed and 66% supporting decrim. Decriminalization is starting to look like an idea whose time has come.

8. Conservative State Supreme Courts Negate the Will of the Voters

The November 2020 elections resulted in a clean sweep for drug reform initiatives, with marijuana legalization being approved in four states and medical marijuana in two states. But in two cases, marijuana legalization in South Dakota and medical marijuana in Mississippi, Republican-dominated state Supreme Courts moved to effectively negate the will of the voters.

In South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won with 54 percent of the vote, but acting at the behest of South Dakota anti-marijuana Republican Governor Kristi Noem, a county sheriff and the head of the Highway Patrol sued to block the measure. They won in circuit court and won again when the state Supreme Court threw out Amendment A, ruling it unconstitutional because it violated a provision limiting constitutional amendments to one subject. Noem's victory may prove ephemeral, though: The activists behind Amendment A are already collecting signatures for a 2022 initiative, and the state legislature didn't even wait for the Supreme Court decision to decide it is ready to legalize marijuana in the next session.

In Mississippi, Initiative 65 won with 74 percent of the vote, but a Republican local official successfully challenged it, and in May, the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court threw it out -- managing to wipe out the state's initiative process as it did so. Under the state constitution, initiative campaigns are required to get one-fifth of signatures from each of five congressional districts, which seems straightforward enough. The only problem is that since congressional reapportionment after the 2000 census, the state only has four districts, making it impossible for any initiative to comply with the constitutional language.

The state has seen numerous initiatives since 2000, with none of them challenged. When faced with the conundrum, the Supreme Court could have found that constitutional language "unworkable and inoperable on its face," but instead pronounced itself bound to find Amendment 65 "insufficient" because it cannot meet the five-district requirement.

The legislature has been working to craft a medical marijuana bill, but Republican Governor Tate Reeves is not happy with the legislative language and has refused to call a special session on medical marijuana. Mississippians will have to wait for 2022.

9. House Votes to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity, But Senate Dallies

In September, in an effort to undo one the gravest examples of racially-biased drug war injustice, the House voted to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. HR 1693, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act of 2021, passed on a vote of 361-66, demonstrating bipartisan support, although all 66 "no" votes came from Republicans. Amidst racially-tinged and "tough on drugs" political posturing around crack use in the early 1980s, accompanied by significant media distortions and oversimplifications, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, cosponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Under that bill, people caught with as little as five grams of crack faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while people would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence.

While race neutral on its face, the law was disproportionately wielded as a weapon against African-Americans. Although similarly small percentages of both Blacks and Whites used crack, and there were more White crack users than Black ones, Blacks were seven times more likely to be imprisoned for crack offenses than Whites between 1991 and 2016. Between 1991 and 1995, in the depths of the drug war, Blacks were 13 times more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice meat grinder over crack. And even last year, the US Sentencing Commission reported that Black people made up 77 percent of federal crack prosecutions.

After years of effort by an increasingly broad alliance of drug reform, racial justice, human rights, religious and civic groups, passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act took a partial step toward reducing those disparities. The FSA increased the threshold quantity of crack cocaine that would trigger certain mandatory minimums -- instead of 100 times as much powder cocaine than crack cocaine needed, it changed to 18 times as much.

The 2018 FIRST STEP Act signed by President Trump allowed people convicted before the 2010 law was passed to seek resentencing. And now, finally, an end to the disparity is in sight. The Senate version of the bill is S. 79, introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and cosponsored by fellow Democrat Dick Durbin (IL) and GOP Senators Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), and Thomas Tillis (NC). After the vote, they prodded their Senate fellows to get moving. But the Senate bill has yet to move after being filed 11 months ago.

10. Psychedelic Reform Movement Broadens in States and Cities

The movement to ease or undo laws criminalizing psychedelic substances continued to broaden and deepen in 2021. Detroit and Seattle joined Denver and Oakland in the ranks of major cities that have embraced psychedelic reform, with the Seattle city council approving a psychedelic decrim measure in October and Detroit voters approving a psychedelic decrim measure in November.

A number of smaller towns and cities went down the same path this year too, including Cambridge, Massachusetts in February, Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September (joining Ann Arbor), Easthampton, Massachusetts in October (joining Cambridge, Northampton, and Somerville), and Port Townsend, Washington, in December.

Psychedelic reform bills are now making their way to statehouses around the country, with bills showing up in eight states by March and a handful more by year's end. Most of them have died or are languishing in committee, and a much-watched California psychedelic decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 519, has been pushed to next year after passing the state Senate only to run into obstacles in the Assembly. Two of them passed, though: New Jersey S3256, which lessens the penalty for the possession of any amount of psilocybin from a third degree misdemeanor to a disorderly persons offense punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, became law in February. Then Texas House Bill 1802, which would expand research on therapeutic psychedelics, became law in June.

Meanwhile, building on Denver's pioneering psilocybin decriminalization in 2019, a national advocacy group, New Approach PAC, has filed therapeutic psychedelic and full psilocbyin legalization initiatives aimed at 2022. Oakland activists have announced a "Go Local" initiative under which people could legally purchase entheogenic substances from community-based local producers. The move aims to build on the city's current psychedelic decriminalization ordinance, passed in 2019.

Iowa Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana, Fed Prisoners Released Due to Pandemic Can Stay Home, More... (12/22/21)

The Biden administration rolls out new sanctions aimed at international drug trafficking, a Washington state town endorses psychedelic reforms, and more.

The Justice Department has determined that federal prisoners released because of the pandemic can stay home. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Iowa Senate Democrats Propose Constitutional Amendment to Legalize Marijuana. Led by state Sen. Joe Bolkom (D-Iowa City), a trio of Senate Democrats have proposed a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. The move comes after years of legislative efforts to legalize it have gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated legislature. Joining Bolkom at a Wednesday press conference to announce the plan were state Sens. Janet Petersen (D-Des Moines) and Sarah Trone Garriott (D-West Des Moines). It is time, Bolkom said, to "basically (beginning) to treat marijuana like we treat a six-pack of beer." He cited the conviction of more than 4,300 Iowans for marijuana possession last year.

Psychedelics

Port Townsend, Washington, City Council Unanimously Approves Psychedelic Reform Resolution. The city council in the Washington state coastal community of Port Townsend has unanimously approved a resolution making the enforcement of laws against entheogenic substances among the city's lowest priorities. It also includes specific language saying that the city would not direct funding to police specifically for entheogen enforcement activities. The resolution also expresses support for broader decriminalization at the state and federal level. " Port Townsend maintains that the abuse of controlled substances should be understood primarily as a public health issue," the text of the resolution says. The city becomes the second in the state to pass such a measure. Seattle's city council passed an entheogen decriminalization resolution in October.

Foreign Policy

White House Strengthens Sanctions to Fight International Drug Traffic. Last week, the White House issued Executive Order 14059, "Imposing Sanctions on Foreign Persons Involved in the Global Illicit Drug Trade." The order implements part of the Fentanyl Sanctions Act of 2019 and significantly expands the use of sanctions by the US government to fight drug trafficking. The order allows the government to impose sanctions on any foreign citizen involved in "international drug proliferation activity" or who provides support -- either financially or in goods or services -- for such activities. The sanctions will allow the US government to block a target's property in the US, block US financial institutions from doing business with the target, and bar US citizens from investing in an entity that has been targeted for sanctions.

Sentencing

Biden Administration Will Let Prisoners Sent Home Because of Pandemic to Stay Home. The Department of Justice has released a new analysis that will allow thousands of federal prisoners released to home confinement to avoid returning to prison to finish their sentences. As part of the 2020 CARES Act coronavirus relief bill, Congress granted the Bureau of Prisons the ability to release some federal prisoners for as long as the pandemic was considered a national emergency, and some 4,800 prisoners were released.

Late in the Trump administration, his Justice Department released a determination that once the pandemic emergency was over, those prisoners would have to go back to prison to finish their sentences. The Biden Justice Department initially agreed, holding that 2,800 of those prisoners would have to return to prison. But with this new analysis, the department has changed course, determining that the Bureau of Prisons does have the authorization to extend home confinement.

"Thousands of people on home confinement have reconnected with their families, have found gainful employment, and have followed the rules," said Attorney General Merrick Garland. "In light of today's Office of Legal Counsel opinion, I have directed that the Department engage in a rulemaking process to ensure that the Department lives up to the letter and the spirit of the CARES Act. We will exercise our authority so that those who have made rehabilitative progress and complied with the conditions of home confinement, and who in the interests of justice should be given an opportunity to continue transitioning back to society, are not unnecessarily returned to prison."

No More Pot Tickets in St. Louis, NY Hospital Sued Over Nonconsensual Drug Testing of Pregnant Women, More... (12/21/21)

An Ohio marijuana legalization initiative campaign hands in initial signatures, St. Louis becomes the latest city to give up on policing small-time pot possession, and more.

No more pot tickets in St. Looey. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Ohio Legalization Campaign Submits Signatures Needed to Force Vote. The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol handed in more than 200,000 raw signatures Monday for its proposed initiative to legalize the personal possession and cultivation of marijuana. They need only 132,887 valid voter signatures for the measure to be valid This is not a typical, direct-to-the-voters initiative; instead, if the signatures are verified, the legislature would then have four months to act on the measure. If the legislature rejects or fails to act on the measure, campaigners would then have to gather another 132,887 valid voter signatures to put the issues before the voters in the next general election.

St. Louis Police No Longer Issuing Marijuana Citations. People found with up to two ounces of marijuana or growing up to six plants will no longer be cited by city police. That's because Mayor Tishaura Jones last week signed into law an ordinance that virtually legalizes marijuana in the city. The ordinance bars police from issuing citations for two ounces or less, bars police from initiating a search based on the "odor or visual presence" of marijuana, and provides that city workers who test positive for marijuana can cite their state-issued medical marijuana cards to avoid "adverse employer actions."

Drug Testing

New York Civil Liberties Union and National Advocates for Pregnant Women File Complaints Against New York Hospital Over Drug Testing Mothers Without Consent. Last Friday, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the activist group National Advocates for Pregnant Women filed human rights complaints against Garnet Health Medical Center in Middletown on behalf of two mothers who were drug tested while hospitalized to give birth. The hospital reported both mothers to Child Protective Services after the testing generated false positives caused by eating poppy seeds. The groups say the hospital conducted the drug tests without the knowledge or consent of the women, that the pattern of hospital maternal drug testing is discriminatory, and that the practice drives mothers of color away from health services, increasing infant mortality in minority communities. They want the state to pass legislation to end the nonconsensual drug testing of pregnant women.

Yet Another Poll Shows Strong Marijuana Legalization Support, Canada Decrim Platform, More... (12/10/21)

Member states of the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs block a human rights expert from presenting a report on arbitrary detentions, a Missouri bill would end police searches based solely on the odor of marijuana, and more.

Canadian civil society groups have a plan to decriminalize drug possession. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

National Poll: Marijuana Legalization Supported by Majorities of All Age Groups. A new YouGov America poll has support for marijuana legalization at 57 percent, with majority support in every age group. Support among Democrats was at 70 percent, while among Republicans it was only 40 percent. While the poll shows continuing strong support for marijuana legalization, it comes in a few points lower than other recent national polls on the issue.

Missouri Bill Would End Warrantless Searches Based Solely on Odor of Marijuana. Rep. Ian Mackey (D-Richmond Heights) has filed legislation, House Bill 1867, that would bar police from using the odor of marijuana as justification for a warrantless search. Here's the bill language in its entirety: "Notwithstanding any provision of law, the odor of marijuana alone shall not provide a law enforcement officer with probable cause to conduct a warrantless search of a motor vehicle, home, or other private property." As Rep. Mackey noted: "Medicinal marijuana is legal in Missouri. It makes sense because of these new laws [the smell of marijuana alone] should not be a justifiable reason for a police officer to begin searching property or a particular individual."

Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Regulators Approve Provisional Licenses for 30 New Medical Marijuana Dispensaries. Finally, state regulators have provided provisional licenses to 30 applicants seeking to run medical marijuana facilities. So far, there are only 23 such facilities in the state, leading to high prices and supply bottlenecks for patients, who are not permitted under state law to grow their own. Provisional licensees still have to pass background checks and win site approval before they can open for business.

International

On International Human Rights Day, UN Drugs Body Silences UN Human Rights Expert on Groundbreaking Report. In an unprecedented, last-minute decision, the lead UN drugs body has blocked the presentation of a report from a group of independent human rights experts that calls out governments for serious human rights abuses committed in the war on drugs. The UN's lead drug policy-making body has slammed the door on human rights expert Dr Elina Steinerte, Chair of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, who was due to present a watershed study on how drug control policies drive an epidemic of arbitrary detention across the world. She has been blocked from addressing the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs today, 10th December, which is coincidentally International Human Rights Day, and her statement has been merely published online.

The last-minute decision, which led to a contentious exchange during the session, was reached through an opaque, closed-door process that kept the human rights experts in the dark about their exclusion until today. The report sheds light on the arrest and incarceration of millions of people around the world for drug-related offences, including for drug use. People who use drugs are also routinely held against their will in so-called "rehab centers," where they are often subject to degrading and inhumane treatment, including forced labor.

With Thursday's decision, the Commission on Narcotic Drugs stands in defiance of the Human Rights Council - the main UN human rights body -- which had asked human rights experts to produce the very same report that now has been stonewalled.

Canadian Civil Society Groups Release Drug Decriminalization Platform.In the wake of almost 23,000 drug poisoning deaths since 2016, twenty-one civil society organizations across the country, including groups of people who use drugs, families affected by drug use, drug policy and human rights organizations, frontline service providers, and researchers, have collaborated to release Canada's first civil society-led policy framework for drug decriminalization in Canada.

Decriminalization Done Right: A Rights-Based Path for Drug Policy seeks to end the harmful and fatal criminalization of people who use drugs -- which has fueled unprecedented overdose deaths -- and protect the health and human rights of all people in Canada. The comprehensive platform, endorsed by more than 100 organizations calls for the full decriminalization of all drug possession for personal use -- as well as sharing or selling of drugs for subsistence, to support personal drug use costs, or to provide a safe supply -- by repealing or amending sections of Canadian drug laws, removing all sanctions linked to possession or "necessity trafficking," tighten rules around when police can stop, search, and investigate someone for drug possession, and shift resources away from law enforcement to non-coercive policies, programs, and services that protect people's health and human rights.

Austin Init Would Decriminalize Marijuana and Ban No-Knock Raids, VT Medical Society Wants THC Limits, More... (12/1/30)

Evo Morales marches back into Bolivia's capitol alongside the current president, the Vermont Medical Society wants to limit THC in marijuana available in the state, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Vermont Medical Society Urges Ban on Sale on Marijuana with More Than 15% THC. The Vermont Medical Society is urging state officials to ban the sale of marijuana containing more than 15 percent tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana. The group's board adopted a resolution asking the legislature and the state Cannabis Control Board to adopt the ban. The physicians said high-potency marijuana was associated with more emergency room visits for respiratory distress and "serious medical outcomes," although it is not clear what those "serious medical outcomes" are. The association is also urging that all marijuana products be labelled with warnings that it "may cause psychosis, impaired driving, addiction, and harm to fetuses and nursing babies."

Drug Policy

Austin Municipal Initiative to Decriminalize Pot Possession, Bar No-Knock Raids Has Enough Signatures to Make Ballot. An Austin progressive nonprofit, Ground Game Texas, has announced that it has gathered enough signatures for the Austin Freedom Act of 2021 to qualify for the ballot. The initiative would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana and bar the use of no-knock search warrants. The group needs 20,000 valid voter signatures to qualify and says it has gathered 30,000 raw signatures.

International

Bolivian President and Predecessor Evo Morales Lead March of Thousands into La Paz. President Alberto Arce and his ousted predecessor, Evo Morales, led a march of thousands of coca farmers, miners, and local residents into the capital Monday after marching across the country for a week. The rally was called by the ruling Movement Toward Socialism to demonstrate support for the government against "right wing" elements. Morales had been ousted in 2019 after contested elections and replaced by rightist lawmaker Jeanine Anez. Anez herself now faces sedition, terrorism, and conspiracy charges for her actions during her brief reign, and Morales has now regained leadership of the largest coca growers' union in the country.

Sri Lanka Moves to Legalize Hemp Exports. The government is preparing to introduce a bill to legalize the export of hemp, said State Minister of Indigenous Medicine Promotion, Rural and Ayurvedic Hospitals Development, and Community Health Sisira Jayakody. "There has been clinical evidence of the benefits of this plant. We must remember that cancer and other major diseases have also been treated with Hemp. Because of this, within the next three months we plan on presenting a bill to Parliament for the legalization of the export of hemp for medicinal use ," said Jayakody.

NYC Opens Nation's First Official Supervised Injection Sites, Toronto Moves Toward Drug Decrim, More... (11/30/21)

A pair of supervised injection sites are now operating in New York City, NORML issues a report on marijuana legislative victories in the states, and more.

Blotter acid. The Bombay High Court has ruled that the blotter paper must be weighed along with the LSD for sharing purposes.
Marijuana Policy

NORML Issues Report Highlighting 2021 State Legislative Victories. "State legislators in 2021 enacted over 50 laws liberalizing marijuana policies in more than 25 states, according to a report issued Monday by the National Organization of the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)," the group said in a blog post. "Specifically, legislatures in five states -- Connecticut, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Virginia -- enacted laws legalizing adult-use marijuana possession and regulating retail cannabis markets. These legislative victories mark a significant change from past years, when similar laws were primarily enacted via citizens' initiatives, not by legislative action. In total, 18 states -- comprising nearly one-half of the US population -- now have laws on the books regulating adult use marijuana production and retail sales. Many states also took actions facilitating the expungement or sealing of past marijuana convictions. Over the past several months, state officials have vacated an estimated 2.2 million marijuana convictions. Numerous states in 2021 also enacted legislation expanding medical cannabis access and stimulating greater diversity among licensed marijuana businesses."

Harm Reduction

New York City Opens Supervised Injection Sites. Supervised injection sites are now operating in East Harlem and Washington Heights -- a first for the city and the country. The two sites are already operating as needle exchanges. Mayor Bill de Blasio began calling for the harm reduction intervention in 2018, and on Tuesday, he and the city Health Department announced that "the first publicly recognized Overdose Prevention Center services in the nation have commenced."

"New York City has led the nation's battle against COVID-19, and the fight to keep our community safe doesn't stop there. After exhaustive study, we know the right path forward to protect the most vulnerable people in our city. And we will not hesitate to take it," de Blasio said in a statement announcing the move. "Overdose Prevention Centers are a safe and effective way to address the opioid crisis. I'm proud to show cities in this country that after decades of failure, a smarter approach is possible."

The sites are not operated by the city but by two nonprofits, New York Harm Reduction Educators and the Washington Heights Corner Project. City officials said they have had "productive conversations" with state and federal officials and believe the federal government will not interfere becauwe of "a shared sense of urgency" around record overdose deaths.

International

Toronto Moves Toward Drug Decriminalization. Canada's largest city is preparing to take the first step toward municipal drug decriminalization after the city's top health officer, Dr. Eilenn de Villa, recommended Monday that the board of health approve a request to the federal government to exempt city residents from criminal charges for small-time drug possession. "The status quo approach to the drug poisoning crisis is not working," the report said. "There is an urgent need for a comprehensive public health approach to drug policy that removes structural barriers to health care and social services, provides alternatives to the toxic drug supply, and enhances and expands services to improve the health and well-being of Toronto's communities."

De Villa is recommending that the board of health direct her to apply for the exemption by year's end. If the board does so, she will not need city council approval to move forward. It will then be up to Health Canada to approve or deny the exemption. The city of Vancouver sought a similar exemption in March, but Health Canada has yet to rule on that request. The plan has the support of the police and Mayor John Tory.

Bombay High Court Rules Blotter Paper Should Be Included When Weighing LSD for Charging Purposes. The High Court in India's largest city has ruled that the weight of blotter paper is an integral part of contraband seizures and the paper should be included when weighing LSD for charging purposes. "I have held that having regard to the findings in Hira Singh's judgment passed by the Supreme Court and the objective of the NDPS Act, blotter paper forms an integral part of LSD and the blotter paper will have to be considered for taking weight of the LSD. The impugned order is quashed and set aside," Justice Dere pronounced.

A lower court had ruled that the blotter paper should not be included when weighing the drug. Indian drug law says that possession of more than a tenth of a gram of LSD indicates a commercial quantity, but the weight of a single blotter weighed by authorities came in at more than six tenths of a gram, signifying that the courts would consider a single hit of blotter LSD to be evidence of intent to deal drugs.

In the US, the US Sentencing Commission has weighed in on the issue and come to the opposite conclusion: "In the case of LSD on a carrier medium (e.g., a sheet of blotter paper), do not use the weight of the LSD/carrier medium. Instead, treat each dose of LSD on the carrier medium as equal to 0.4 mg of LSD for the purposes of the Drug Quantity Table."

Chronicle Book Review: "Psychedelic Justice"

Chronicle Book Review: Psychedelic Justice: Toward a Diverse and Equitable Psychedelic Culture (A Chacruna Anthology) by Beatriz Labate and Clancy Cavnar, eds. (2021: Synergetic Press, 237 pp., $19.95 PB)

The world and culture of psychedelics is undergoing rapid change. From the decriminalization of entheogenic plants in various US locales to the rise of ayahuasca tourism in the Amazon, from the stunning advances in psychedelic-assisted therapies to the equally stunning gusher of corporate capital investment in potential psychedelic gold mines, the Psychedelic Renaissance is most definitely upon us.

But as psychedelics come in from the cold, psychedelic culture is increasingly feeling growing pains, with any number of conundrums, controversies, and contradictions. How does Indigenous knowledge and practice of sacred plant medicines (ayahuasca, peyote, psilocybin mushrooms) translate into Western medical science? How does a scene dominated by straight White guys move toward diversity and equity? How can psychedelics retain their transformative power if and when they become commodified corporate products? And how can the movement deal with sleazy -- if not downright criminal -- operators in its midst?

Who better to tackle these issues than the good folks at the Chacruna Institute of Psychedelic Plant Medicines? Founded by Brazilian anthropologist and anthology co-editor Beatriz (Bia) Labate, the institute "produces high-quality research on plant medicines and psychedelics and helps propagate academic knowledge in more accessible formats," according to its web site. It also tries to bridge the gap between traditional ceremonial use and clinical and therapeutic settings and seeks to "foster cultural and political reflections on the field of psychedelic science and facilitate conversations about controversial topics that have been simmering on the sidelines as psychedelics go mainstream."

Edited by Labate and Chacruna co-founder and board member psychologist Clancy Cavnar, Psychedelic Justice is one of the fruits of those labors, and boy is it juicy! One could be forgiven for assuming a tome such as this would be dry and tendentious, but one would be mistaken. Some 30 contributors from across the psychedelic specturm take on the heavy questions surrounding the realm, and they do so with verve and flair. The pieces are almost uniformly passionate, provocative, and insightful, and they dig down deep into the issues percolating in the psychedelic space.

The book is divided into thematic sections -- Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity; Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation, Colonialism, and Globalization of Plant Medicines; Psychedelics and Western Culture; Queer; Sex and Power; and Sustainability, Policy and Reciprocity -- with multiple authors and points of view in each section. Although diverse viewpoints are represented, the contributors are collectively members of the broad psychedelic community and appear united in wanting to not lose that underlying transformative potential that so characterizes psychedelics and differentiates them from other classes of drugs.

Whether it is a critique of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy (like psychotherapy in general) as too invested in the individual dealing with his problems to take on the social causes of those problems, a skeptical examination of the burgeoning psychedelic conference scene, or a jeremiad against the failures of "White feminism," Psychedelic Justice and its contributors are down for radical cultural transformation.

And that includes some form of policing the burgeoning commerce in psychedelics. Whether its is abuses and neglect in the unregulated ibogaine treatment industry or the predatory practices and sexual exploitation of clients by some ayahuasca shamans (both traditional and neo-), Psychedelic Justice demands the community find a way to weed out such behavior. Sexual abuse by therapists is bad enough; sexual abuse by therapists while clients are under the influence of powerful mild-altering drugs is potentially even more shattering.

One nit I want to pick is that the book's emphasis is overwhelmingly on spiritual and/or therapeutic use. There is little discussion of issues surrounding recreational use, and it almost seems as if some contributors think using merely to enjoy the psychoactive effects is not worthy. But I would wager that the vast majority of psychedelic drug users are not doing so primarily for spiritual or therapeutic purposes, but because they enjoy the sensations. I could be wrong, though.

Still, Psychedelic Justice is an invaluable contribution. It demands to be read by anyone who claims to have an interest in psychedelics, plant medicines, or, more broadly, social justice under capitalism. It will provide you with plenty to ponder.

FL Decrim Bill, UAE Drug Reform, Guide for Psychedelic Churches, More... (11/29/21)

The Chacruna Institute releases a guide for psychedelic churches, the Justice Department says the Bureau of Prisons short-changed up to 60,000 First Step Act prisoners on their earned-time credits, and more.

Dubai skyline (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Kentucky Lawmaker Pre-Files Marijuana Legalization Bills for 2022. State Rep. Nima Kulkarni (D) announced Monday that she is pre-filing two parallel bills to legalize marijuana. One bill would proceed along the statutory legislative route, while the other would ask legislators to approve a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, which would then go before the voters. "I am sponsoring these bills for several reasons, any one of which should be enough for them to become law," Kulkarni said. "First, current cannabis statutes have needlessly and tragically ruined many lives, especially people of color who have suffered because of unequal enforcement. Second, thousands of citizens, from cancer patients to veterans suffering from PTSD, should have the right to use something that gives them the mental and physical relief they deserve without relying on stronger, potentially addictive medicine. Third, cannabis decriminalization would give the state a much-needed source of reliable revenue without raising current taxes a single cent."

Psychedelics

Chacruna Institute Releases Guide to Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Best Practices for Psychedelic Plant Medicine Churches. The Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicines has released its comprehensive Guide to RFRA and Best Practices for Psychedelic Plant Medicine Churches. This free publication aims to inform churches using psychedelic plant medicine as a sacrament on how to better establish their operation and rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

"This Guide is written to simply explain the laws and basic information needed by a psychedelic plant medicine church to make informed decisions and understand its rights and risks by operating in the United States," said Allison Hoots, member of Chacruna's Council for the Protection of Sacred Plants. The guide is a comprehensive resource on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and how a church using psychedelic plant medicine as sacrament can be informed by the law in terms of its operation and establishing its rights under RFRA. Download it here.

Drug Policy

Florida Lawmaker Introduces Bill to Decriminalize All Drugs. State Rep. Dotie Joseph (D) has filed a drug decriminalization bill, the "Collateral Consequences of Convictions and Decriminalization of Cannabis and All Drugs Act" (House Bill 725). The bill would make possession of up to an ounce of marijuana a violation punishable by no more than a $50 fine and automatically expunge past arrest and conviction records if the offense is more than a year old. The bill adds that the legislature prioritizes "rehabilitative health intervention in lieu of criminalization for personal usage of controlled substances, including but not limited to stimulants including cocaine, methamphetamine, opioids, heroin, fentanyl, depressants or benzodiazepines, and other addictive controlled substances." To that end, charges "associated with the personal usage and possession of controlled substances that do not involve production, distribution or sale shall be decriminalized in favor of civil fines and referral for drug rehabilitation."

Sentencing

Justice Department Finds Federal Bureau of Prisons Failed to Apply Earned Time Credits to First Step Act Prisoners. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz has released a report charging that the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) failed to properly credit up to 60,000 federal prisoners with time served under the First Step Act's recidivism programs. "We are concerned that the delay in applying earned time credits may negatively affect inmates who have earned a reduction in their sentence or an earlier placement in the community," Horowitz wrote in the report. Under the First Step Act, inmates who completed a recidivism program could receive time-served credit, but the BOP told the inspector general the credits were not applied becausethey "must be negotiated with the national union because it would create changes to conditions of employment, including determinations and application of earned time credits for inmates, for Unit Team staff working in BOP institutions who are bargaining unit employees," according to the report.

International

United Arab Emirates Enacts Drug Reforms. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has dramatically amended its drug laws to allow for drug treatment instead of prison for first-time offenders. The new law mandates the creation of specialized treatment and rehabilitation units throughout the country, where judges can place offenders instead of in prison. The new law also changes the UAE's stance toward foreigners who get caught carrying food items or other products containing drugs (mainly marijuana). Under the old law, deportation was mandatory in such cases, but now people caught with such items will face no charges, but the items will be seized. The new law also increases penalties for some repeat offenders and imposes a mandatory minimum five-year sentence for anyone "who induced, incited or facilitated drug use for another person." The new law goes into effect January 2.

SD MJ Legalization Init Thrown Out, New Zealand Legalizes Drug Checking, More... (11/24/21)

A federal jury finds major drugstore chains culpable in two Ohio counties' opioid crisis, St, Louis decriminalizes marijuana possession, and more.

drug checking kits (SSDP)
Marijuana Policy

South Dakota Supreme Court Throws Out Voter-Approved Marijuana Legalization Initiative. The state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the voter-approved Amendment A marijuana legalization initiative violates the state constitution because it violated a provision limiting constitutional amendments to one subject. The court held that encompassing medical marijuana and recreational marijuana as well as setting out a taxation and regulatory structure made the amendment too broad to be considered a single subject.

While the ruling derails legalization for now, it may not be derailed for long. South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws, the group behind Amendment A, is already undertaking a signature-gathering drive to get another, single-issue initiative on the 2022 ballot, and the state legislature has already committed to taking up marijuana legalization in the legislative session that begins in January.

St. Louis Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession. The city's Board of Alderman voted unanimously Tuesday night to repeal an ordinance making it illegal to possess 35 grams or less of marijuana, and to bar police from enforcing state and federal law against small amounts or paraphernalia. Mayor Tishaura O. Jones (D) says she will sign the bill as soon as it reaches her desk.

Opioids

Ohio Jury Finds Drugstore Chains Culpable in Opioid Crisis. A federal jury has found that three major retailers -- CVS, Walgreens and Walmart -- helped flood two Ohio counties with opioids, contributing to the area's opioid crisis. The two counties, Lake and Trumbull, argued that the pharmacies did not do enough to stop large quantities of opioids from reaching the black market, and the jury agreed. Two other pharmacy chains -- Giant Eagle and Rite Aid -- previously settled with the counties for undisclosed amounts.

The counties' attorneys estimated the opioid epidemic cost each one more than a billion dollars. "For decades, pharmacy chains have watched as the pills flowing out of their doors cause harm and failed to take action as required by law," the counties' legal team said. "Instead, these companies responded by opening up more locations, flooding communities with pills, and facilitating the flow of opioids into an illegal, secondary market. The judgment today against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS represents the overdue reckoning for their complicity in creating a public nuisance."

No mention was made about the need to protect chronic pain patients from the spillover effects from opioid crackdowns. In 2019, the US Centers for Disease Control issued a statement detailing ways in which its 2016 guidance on pain prescribing had been misapplied to harmfully restrict patients' access to pain medications.

International

New Zealand Becomes First Country to Legalize Drug Checking. With a vote in parliament this week, New Zealand has made permanent and explicitly legal a pilot drug checking program. The pilot program approved last December was set to expire next month. The Health Ministry had recommended in April that the program be made permanent after data showed high percentages of people who took advantage of the drug checks changed their behavior and better understood the potential harms. The bill creates broad legal protections for people offering and using drug checking services.

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