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White House Removes Buprenorphine Restrictions, BC Formally Requests Drug Decrim, More... (4/27/21)

A new poll has record support for marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania, House Republicans file a bill to protect gun rights of state-legal marijuana users, House Democrats file a bill to end the lifetime ban on federal cash and food benefits for people with drug felonies, and more.

buprenorphine (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

House Republicans File Gun Rights Bill for Marijuana Users. A group of House Republicans have filed a bill, HR 2830, that would allow marijuana users to purchase guns in states where marijuana is legal. "There's no reason somebody who uses marijuana responsibly and legally should be barred from purchasing a firearm, we're past that," Guns Save Life Executive Director John Boch said."We shouldn't be removing the constitutional rights of people to keep and bear arms just because they're using a drug or recreational marijuana," he added.

Pennsylvania Poll Has Record Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new Muhlenberg College annual public health poll has support for marijuana legalization at 58%, the highest level of support for legalization since the poll began tracking the issue. "The trend on public support for legalization of marijuana in Pennsylvania is clear, with support growing for the eighth year in a row," Chris Borick, director of the college's Institute of Public Opinion, said in a statement accompanying the survey results. "As the state government considers this policy option, the public is increasingly coming to the conclusion that they support legalization."

Medical Marijuana

Hawaii Legislature Approves Resolution Seeking Medical Marijuana Exemption from DEA. The state legislature has adopted a resolution, HCR 132, asking the state Health Department to seek an exemption from the DEA to permit it to run its medical marijuana program without fear of federal interference. The resolution asks the Health Department to seek an "exception to regulations" and to seek a DEA rulemaking process to protect the state's medical program from violating the Controlled Substances Act's requirements for drugs in Schedule I.

Drug Policy

House Democrats File Bill to End Ban on Federal Assistance for People with Drug Felonies. A handful of Democratic congressmen on Monday filed the Making Essentials Affordable and Lawful (MEAL) Act (not yet on the congressional web site) to stop states from imposing a lifetime ban on people with drug felonies from receiving federal cash and food assistance. Most states have already waived the ban, but the drug war-era law that imposes the ban remains on the books.

Drug Treatment

Biden Administration to Allow Nearly All Doctors to Prescribe Buprenorphine. The administration announced on Tuesday that it intends to dramatically deregulate the opioid maintenance treatment drug buprenorphine. The move was first proposed by the Trump administration back in January and would allow just about any doctor to treat patients with the drug, which is considered the most effective medication for opioid addiction.

International

British Columbia Formally Requests Permission from Canadian Federal Government for Provincial Drug Decriminalization. Five years to the day after the province declared a public health emergency because of overdose deaths, British Columbia has formally requested a federal exemption from Health Canada to decriminalize the personal possession of drugs. The province is specifically seeking a province-wide exemption from the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act to eliminate criminal penalties for drug possession. "Stigma drives people to hide their drug use, avoid health care and use alone," Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson said. "Through province-wide decriminalization, we can reduce the fear and shame that keep people silent about their drug use, and support people to reach out for help, life-saving supports and treatment."

Virginia Legalizes Marijuana, California Safe Injection Site Bill Advances, More... (4/8/21)

Medical marijuana bills advance in several states, Virginia legalizes marijuana, a West Virginia bill to continue mandatory drug screening and testing of welfare recipients passed the House, and more.

California could see pilot safe injection site programs if a bill in the state Senate passes. (vch.ca)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia Legalizes Marijuana. With a tie-breaking vote by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), the state Senate on Wednesday gave final approval to Senate Bill 1406, which legalizes marijuana in the state. The legislature also approved amendments by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) that included moving up the date of the legalization of pot possession from 2024 to this coming July. Virginia now becomes the 16th state to have legalized marijuana (New Mexico has passed a bill but it has not been signed into law yet.)

Medical Marijuana

Alabama Medical Marijuana Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A medical marijuana bill that has already passed the Senate, Senate Bill 46, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. The bill now goes to the House Health Committee before heading for a House floor vote. The bill would allow the use of marijuana by people with specified qualifying conditions.

Georgia Legislature Approves Bill to Allow Marijuana Oil Dispensaries. With a final vote in the Assembly, the legislature has passed House Bill 738, which will allow for the production and distribution of marijuana oil. The bill is now on the desk of Gov. Brian Kemp (R).

South Dakota Governor Still Wants Changes in Medical Marijuana Program. Despite being rebuffed by lawmakers during the last legislative session, Gov. Kristi Noem (R) says she wants a special session convened to address the same proposed changes lawmakers just rejected. She wants to set the maximum number of plants grown at three, she wants the Department of Health to be the rule-making authority for the program, and she wants to bar people under 21 from being eligible to use medical marijuana.

Texas Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill Advances. A bill that would expand the state's compassionate use program for medical marijuana, House Bill 1535, has passed the House Public Health Committee. The bill would expand the program, which currently only applies to terminal cancer patients, to include other cancer patients, veterans with PTSD, and chronic pain that would otherwise be treated by an opioid.

Hemp

Idaho Legislature Approves Hemp Bill. With a final vote in the Senate Wednesday, the legislature approved a bill to legalize hemp production in the state, House Bill 126. The bill is now on the desk of Gov. Brad Little (R). Idaho is the only state that has yet to legalize hemp production.

Drug Testing

West Virginia House Approves Bill to Extend Drug Testing Requirement for Welfare Recipients. The House of Delegates on Wednesday approved Senate Bill 387, which would keep in place a requirement that first time applicants of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) pass a drug test if a drug screening suggests they may be drug users. The Senate version of the bill would only extend the program for one year, so the bill is going to have to go back to the Senate to resolve the difference.

Harm Reduction

California Bill to Allow Safe Injection Site Pilot Programs Wins Committee Vote. The Senate Public Safety Committee on Wednesday approved Senate Bill 57, sponsored by Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco). The bill would legalize safe injection sites as pilot programs in Los Angeles County, Oakland, and San Francisco. The bill still needs to be approved by the Senate Health Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee before heading for a Senate floor vote. If passed, it may have to overcome federal hurdles too.

Milwaukee Pot Fine to Drop to $1, Baltimore Ends Prosecutions for Drug Possession, More... (2/26/21)

Democrat lawmakers in Congress ask the Biden administration to reconsider its policy on past employee marijuana use, a Minnesota bill to provide protections for informants passes the Senate, and more.

France has embarked on a two-year experiment with medical marijuana.
Marijuana Policy

House Democrats Ask Biden to Reverse Employee Policy on Past Marijuana Use. Some 30 Democratic lawmakers sent a letter Thursday to President Biden calling on him to reverse his administration's policy of removing or relocating staffers who had admitted to past marijuana use. The letter comes after reports came out that five staffers had been fired for past marijuana use. While they praised the administration's overall orientation, they said: "We, however, were dismayed to learn that several White House staffers were reportedly suspended, put on probation, or asked to resign after honestly disclosing past cannabis use. We ask that you clarify your employment suitability policies, remove past cannabis use as a potential disqualifier, and apply these policies with consistency and fairness."

Wisconsin's Most Populous County Drops Marijuana Fine to $1. The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted Thursday to drop the fine for small-time marijuana possession from $275 to $1. The measure passed on a 16-1 vote, and County Executive David Crowley says he will sign it into law.

Law Enforcement

Minnesota Senate Approves Bill to Protect Police Informants. The Senate on Thursday unanimously approved "Matthew's Law," a bill named after Matthew Klaus, who died of a drug overdose while working as an informant for the Rochester Police. "Matthew had been a confidential informant in Rochester, working with the Rochester Police Department on drug buys, and during that whole process Matthew himself became the victim of a heroin overdose and passed away," Sen. Dave Senjem told his colleagues before they passed Senate File 304. The bill would require law enforcement entities in the state create and abide by statewide standards for handling informants and ensuring their rights are protected. The bill has now gone to the House, where it is before the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform and Finance and Policy committees.

Baltimore State's Attorney Makes No Prosecution Policy for Minor Offenses Permanent. Last year, as the coronavirus pandemic swept the country, State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby (D) announced the city would no longer prosecute drug possession and other minor charges, and then crime dropped in Baltimore. On Friday, Mosby announced that the changes will be permanent and the city will continue to decline to try drug possession, prostitution, minor traffic, and misdemeanor cases. "A year ago, we underwent an experiment in Baltimore," Mosby said. "What we learned in that year, and it's so incredibly exciting, is there's no public safety value in prosecuting these low-level offenses. These low-level offenses were being, and have been, discriminately enforced against Black and Brown people. Prosecutors have to recognize their power to change the criminal justice system."

International

British Private Members' Bill Calls for Review of Drug Laws. MP Tommy Sheppard (Labor) has filed the Problem Drugs Bill, which seeks to reframe drug policy as a health issue, rather than one oriented around criminalization. It also calls for a basic review of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. This would allow not only a review of the classification system, but a fundamental reconsideration of Britain's legal framework for drug policy. The bill also calls for drug decriminalization and the approval of safe injection sites. Because it is a private member's bill, it is unlikely to pass, but can provide an opportunity to advance debate on the issue.

France Embarks on Two-Year Medical Marijuana Trial. The Health Ministry has announced that some 3,000 patients will be given medical marijuana while the national medicines watchdog monitors their health. The trial will go on for two years. The parliament had approved the project in 2019, but it was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

WA Supreme Court Throws Out Felony Drug Possession Law, Clock Ticking on VA Marijuana Legalization, More... (2/26/21)

Asset forfeiture reform is moving in Arizona, the Connecticut governor's marijuana legalization bill gets a hearing, the Nevada legislature looks at ending the federal ban on food stamps for drug offenders, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Marijuana Legalization Bill Gets Hearing, Police Chiefs Oppose. The Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on a marijuana legalization bill supported by Gov. Ned Lamont (D), SB 888. At the same time, the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association is formally opposing the bill, saying it is worried legalization would make the highways less safe and invoking the opioid crisis.

Montana Lawmakers Consider Tightening Limits on Legal Marijuana. The House Business and Labor Committee on Wednesday heard testimony of HB 568, which would impose numerical and distance restrictions on legal marijuana businesses. The bill would cap the number of adult sales stores to one per 10,000 residents, with only one shop in counties with fewer than 10,000 residents. The bill would also require pot shops to be 1,000 feet away from places of worship, schools, preschools, day care facilities, parks, recreational facilities and playgrounds. The committee took no action on Wednesday.

South Dakota Lawmakers Advance Marijuana Banking Bill. The Senate Commerce and Energy Committee voted Thursday to approve HB 1203, which would let state-chartered banks do business with legal marijuana and industrial hemp businesses. The bill has already passed the House and now heads for a Senate floor vote.

Virginia House, Senate Seek Compromise on Marijuana Legalization as Saturday Deadline Looms. Legislators have about 24 hours to come to agreement on competing marijuana legalization bills passed by the House and Senate before a Saturday deadline. It looks like lawmakers will go with the House on timing, agreeing to defer legalization until January 1, 2024, while the Senate bill called for legalization on July 1. The two chambers remain split, though, on whether five current medical marijuana operators will be allowed to sell recreational weed. The House opposes such vertical integration, but the Senate would allow it if the operators pay $1 million into a Cannabis Equity Business Fund. The clock is ticking.

Medical Marijuana

South Dakota House Approves Bill Delaying Implementation of Medical Marijuana Legalization. The House voted to approve a bill delaying implementation of voter-approved medical marijuana, HB 1100. The bill was the brainchild of Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who sought a one-year delay, but the bill was amended in the House to create only a six-month delay "in the spirit of compromise."

Asset Forfeiture

Arizona House Passes Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. The House on Wednesday approved a bill to end civil asset forfeiture in the state, HB 2810, which would require that the state actually convict somebody of a crime before seizing their property. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Drug Policy

Nevada Lawmakers Take Up Bill to End Food Stamp Ban for Drug Offenders. The Assembly is considering a bill that would let the state opt out of a federal 1996 "welfare reform" that banned people convicted of drug offenses from being able to receive assistance such as food stamps. AB 138, which was heard Wednesday, removes the prohibition. The bill would have originally required persons to show they were not "currently possessing, using or distributing controlled substance," but Assemblywoman Susie Martinez (D-Las Vegas), the primary sponsor for the legislation, eliminated that section. No vote was taken.

Washington Supreme Court Strikes Down Strikes Down State's Drug Possession Law. The state Supreme Court on Thursday throw out the state's felony drug possession law because it did not mandate that prosecutors prove that someone knowingly or intentionally possessed drugs. The ruling came in the case of a Spokane woman who was given a pair of jeans that had a small bag of meth in one pocket. "Attaching the harsh penalties of felony conviction, lengthy imprisonment, stigma, and the many collateral consequences that accompany every felony drug conviction to entirely innocent and passive conduct exceeds the legislature's powers, Chief Justice Sheryl Gordon McCloud wrote for the majority.

Book Review: Three Takes on the Opioid Crisis [FEATURE]

RX Appalachia: Stories of Treatment and Survival in Rural Kentucky, by Lesly-Marie Buer (2020, Haymarket Books, 264 pp., $22.95 PB)

Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight Against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic, by Eric Eyre (2020, Scribner, 289 pp., $28.00 HB)

White Market Drugs: Big Pharma and the Hidden History of Addiction in America, by David Herzberg (2020, University of Chicago Press, 365 pp., $27.50 HB)

America remains in the grip of what is arguably its third great opioid addiction and overdose crisis. It began in the late 1990s as doctors tried to address an historic problem of under-prescribing and unavailability of opioids for chronic pain treatment that affected many patients. But mistakes were made along the way, and a massive tide of not always well targeted prescription opioids swamped the country. As regulators and law enforcement cracked down on pain pills, that morphed into a deadly wave of heroin addiction. And then we got fentanyl, which quickly took first place as a cause for overdose deaths. Produced mostly in China and Mexico, fentanyl is used by some hardcore addicts with high tolerance, but mainly appears as an adulterant added to heroin or in counterfeit prescription pills.

The authors of the three books reviewed here take on various aspects of the phenomenon, from the granular nitty-gritty of the lives of poor, white, female drug users ensnared in the treatment and rehab system in present-day Appalachia, to a state-level look at how drug distribution companies flooded West Virginia with literally billions of prescription opioids, to a long-term overview of the effort to regulate drugs and the subsequent -- and enduring -- historic division of drug use and users into markets black and white. (And by white markets, we are referring not only to legality but also, sadly yet unsurprisingly, skin color.)

Taken together, the three books weave a damning indictment of pharmaceutical companies, the people and entities that are supposed to regulate them, and the moral crusaders who -- too often, successfully -- use the issue of drug use to call for repressive policies, especially aimed at people who aren't "good people;" that is, poor and/or non-white people.

There are also some things the books don't do more than tangentially. They don't touch on the issue of access to pain medications for chronic pain patients. These are people who often suffer not from too-easy access to prescription opioids, but from obstacles to access, and who have suffered even more as politicians and regulators moved to rein in what they argue is massive overprescribing of such medications.

Whether it's being prosecuted for seeking their medicine in the black market or being forced to jump through hoops to obtain their medicine or being refused it altogether in the white market, these are people whose access to the medicines they need is encumbered. Their story is an important part of the debate over opioids (and drug policy more generally), but it gets only a side mention in one of these three works. But over-prescribing of opioids and under-prescribing of them continue to coexist.

The books also don't attempt to disentangle supply-driven opioid abuse, from the so-called "deaths of despair." The same social and economic factors that have driven up the suicide rate in recent decades, and which arguably helped to elect Donald Trump, increase the rates at which drugs are used and abused, including opioids. That in turn leads to more overdose deaths, and some apparent overdoses actually are suicides.

And the authors don't ask their readers to question whether any given "pill mill" or seemingly too large prescription, is really what it looks like. If we accept that abuses in the supply system have played a role in the opioid crisis, that doesn't mean that any given doctor or pharmacist or distributor is guilty as charged. A medical practice with patients treating patients from hundreds of miles away, could be a "pill mill," but it could also have the one doctor who understands pain treatment and is willing to work with poor people whom other doctors view as too risky. A prescription that seems huge because of the number of pills, could represent diversion to the underground market – or it could mean that a long-term pain patient who needs a large dosage because of tolerance built up over time, and who doesn't use technology like a medically-inserted morphine pump, is reliant on pills and their standard-sized dosages that are designed for less tolerant patients. Without considering those contexts, pill numbers can be a misleading metric, at least some of the time.

The books do discuss some options for making effective opioid addiction treatments more easy for more patients to obtain, or for reducing the likelihood of a user coming to serious harm. But the most effective treatment for this type of addiction is the use of other opioids, in what's known as Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT). Through controlled use of methadone or buprenorphine supplied by clinics, people with opioid addictions are able to stabilize their lives and avoid catastrophic physical harms, while maintaining responsibilities like work and family needs. Making MAT available through a doctor's office, while training doctors in their use, would reduce the harm of opioid addiction by providing a legal alternative that works -- in this case a quality-controlled opioid. Offering HAT, too -- heroin assisted treatment, or heroin maintenance, as Canada and some European countries do for people who have tried methadone or buprenorphine without succeeding -- would do more.

And that begs the question about prohibition itself. Though some may find it counterintuitive to talk about legalization as a solution to a problem driven by increased drug availability, it is the case that this opioid crisis in its entirety has transpired under the current system – a system in which all drugs of this type are illegal unless one has a prescription, and in which most people are usually not supposed to be given prescriptions. Fentanyl, which today accounts for 2/3 of US opioid deaths and has room to spread geographically and increase further, is a textbook example of the consequences of prohibition -- most people taking it, and nearly all of those who die from it, thought they were taking something else. If people who developed addiction problems had access to predictable, (relatively) safe, easy to access and financially affordable options, that might be better even than a less heavy-handed system but still prohibition-based system.

All that said, there is an opioid crisis. These three books provide an eye-opening and important look at some critical sides of the phenomenon.

Lesly-Marie Buer is a Knoxville-based harm reductionist and medical anthropologist whose RX Appalachia is a compelling examination of the socially constructed suffering of mainly poor, white women who use drugs in a cluster of eastern Kentucky counties. She spent months living in the area, followed the women to court, to drug treatment, and opioid maintenance programs, and interviewed them extensively over time.

The result is a nuanced portrayal of these women's lives and struggles as they contend with the demands of institutions of social control even as they have to deal with poverty, child custody issues, and their stigmatization as drug users and therefore bad mothers. In that very important sense, RX Appalachia gives voice to the voiceless.

It also voices an unrelenting critique of a social and political system that provides unequal access to resources, chronically underfunds services to the poor and needy -- including but not limited to drug treatment and mental health services -- and is more willing to impose social controls on these women than to help them deal with the complexities of their lives. Appalachia RX is an important contribution to our understanding of the way drug policies, as well as broader social and economic trends, play out on the bodies of these multiply oppressed women.

How some of those women got strung out in the first place is the subject matter of Death in Mud Lick, still in Appalachia and just across the West Virginia line from those Kentucky women. Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre won a Pulitzer Prize for his years of doggedly chasing down the story of how drug distribution companies pumped billions of opioid pain pills into the state in just a few years, and here, he puts that reporting in book form. It's quite a tale.

Eyre starts with a single drug overdose death, and by the time he's done, has unraveled a tangled tale of negligence, indifference, and profit-driven decision-making that left 1,728 West Virginians dead of drug overdoses in a six-year period. Thanks to Eyre's journalistic persistence and to a legal team determined to get to the bottom of the flood of pain pills that overwhelmed the state (and the region and the nation), we now know that drug companies dumped some 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone tablets into the state during that same period.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Pharmaceutical corporations such as Purdue aggressively promoted their opioid products, doctors turned medical practices into pill-prescribing machines, pharmacies blithely filled numberless prescriptions, and drug distribution companies such as Cardinal and McKesson just as blithely delivered all those pills to the pharmacies, despite warning signs.

And regulators failed to regulate. Whether it was the state Board of Pharmacy or the DEA, regulators were asleep at the switch as an opioid epidemic grew right in front of them. And state officials were compromised by ties with the pharmaceutical industry and the distributors.

Eyre tells his tale with journalistic panache, taking the reader with him as he and his struggling newspaper take on the state political establishment and the distributors in the court battles that ultimately forced the companies and the DEA to release the records that documented the deluge of opioids. Death in Mud Lick is a real eye-opener.

But for David Hertzberg, an associate professor of history at the University of Buffalo and author of White Market Drugs, Eyre's story is just the latest chapter in the long history of America's effort to control drugs. Hertzberg begins with the opioid crisis of the late 19th Century and ably describes how the competing forces seeking to deal with it -- therapeutic reformers, repressive moral entrepreneurs, pharmaceutical companies, the medical profession -- created a class- and race-based bifurcation of the world of psychoactive substances into "medicines" and "drugs."

If it was prescribed by a physician, it was medicine. If not, not. The world of legal, regulated drugs became Hertzberg's white market. The world of repressed, prohibited drugs is the familiar black market. One serves middle-class white people and is concerned with consumer safety. The other serves the poor, the unconnected, the immigrant, the people of color, whose drug use and sales are considered crimes.

The history of drugs in America is well-trodden ground, but Hertzberg brings both new revelations and a new perspective to the subject. The drug reform movement's archvillain, Harry Anslinger, the master of Reefer Madness propaganda, becomes more than one-dimensional as Hertzberg tells the story of his strict scientific approach to opioids. As head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger enlisted a Committee on Drug Addiction to closely study opioids, and those scientists even developed their own new opioids (they were market flops), as well as closely measuring the addictive potential of other potential new opioid products. Here, Anslinger was acting not as the heavy-handed lawman, but as the protector of white market consumers.

And as he tells the story of pharmaceutical companies continually coming up with new psychoactive products, patterns begin to occur. After the original drug prohibition laws a century ago effectively suppressed opioid use for decades, the pharmaceutical companies came up with barbiturates in the 1930s, amphetamines in the 1940s and 1950s, benzodiazepines in the 1970s and 1980s, before hitting it big again with opioids in the OxyContin-led bonanza beginning in the 1990s and lingering like a bad hangover to the present day. In all those cases, the profit motives of the drug makers overwhelmed regulatory structures designed to protect those good, deserving consumers of the white market -- even as the drug companies demonized black market drug users for causing the problems.

Given this history of pharmaceutical and regulatory fecklessness, Hertzberg comes to a shocking, but not really surprising conclusion: Left to their own devices, profit-drive drug companies peddling addictive products will function in ways that are incompatible with the public health. In Hertzberg's words:

"Profit-driven drug markets follow a predicably damaging cycle. Companies hype new medicines as safe and beneficial and sell with insufficient regard for consumer safety; a health crisis ensues as consumers are left ill-equipped to make informed decisions; authorities respond with consumer protections and destructive drug wars; the pharmaceutical industry devises strategies to circumvent the new restrictions and start the cycle again. After umpteen repetitions of this cat and mouse game, it may be time to acknowledge the impossibility of establishing a safe, for-profit market for addictive drugs. Alternatives exist: state monopolies, for example, or public utility models. We need to consider these and other creative ideas for dramatically minimizing or even eliminating profit from psychoactive capitalism."

Whether a shift to models of that type is what's needed, or just better regulation, is a question for debate. But it's clear that ending drug prohibition isn't enough. Reimagining the white market is necessary, too.

We Just Won an Old Fight

Dear reformer,

One never knows when something good is going to happen. Last night, with the signing of the budget and stimulus bill, the drug conviction question on the federal college aid form was finally done away with -- students will no longer lose financial aid because of drug convictions, at least not automatically or in many cases. Congress also restored Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

Barney Frank led the fight in Congress for many years. He and nine other congresspersons spoke at our 2002 press conference.
Our fight to repeal that law -- section 1091(r) of the Higher Education Act -- began in 1998, after the law passed and before it took effect. The effort was multifaceted and long-term. We circulated a resolution adopted by student governments. We founded the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), which worked actively through most of the '00s. Through this campaign, we founded the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an independent organization that plays an important role in drug policy reform. We even created a scholarship fund for students losing financial aid because of drug convictions.

All of these efforts drew attention from the media and from Congress. News stories appeared in all the major US outlets, through a campaign we carried out in partnership with SSDP. Most of the news inquiries, by design, were steered to our student partners. But we did some too -- here's a New York Times story I was quoted in. The voices of people affected by the law were key to driving public attention and to gaining more allies. Our first student spokesperson was Marisa Garcia, whose story appeared publicly for the first time in Rolling Stone magazine. Rolling Stone went on to donate advertising space for the campaign.

Now former US Rep. Barney Frank led the fight in Congress for many years, sponsoring the Removing Impediments to Students' Education (RISE) Act. He and his office energetically recruited other members of Congress to cosponsor the bill. We worked with them on several press conferences, including one in 2002 at the "Triangle" area of the US Capitol where ten members of Congress spoke, as well as representatives of leading civil rights and higher education groups. We also held a series of forums and fundraisers for the John W. Perry Fund, with members of Congress and other notable personalities. The Perry Fund supported about twenty students who'd lost their federal aid, and was covered by news outlets including BET.

Marisa Garcia in Rolling Stone magazine, 2001
In 2006, Congress scaled back the law, limiting its reach to drug law violations committed while a student was in school and receiving federal financial aid. Then in 2009, a further reform limiting it to sales convictions passed the House of Representatives. That was included in a Senate higher education bill too. The section of that bill that included the reform got stripped from the final legislation, after Democrats combined their student aid bill with the health care reform bill as part of their strategy to pass both in 2010.

What's interesting about what almost happened in 2009/2010 was that by that time, our work had already put the provision solidly on the radar of members of Congress. It was congressional staffers who contacted lobbyists who were active with the coalition that time, not the other way around, to tell them they were already planning to take it up and had figured out what they could do. We'd also been successful in communicating our message that partial changes to the law were good but not enough.

Changes in Congress made it less clear after that, when the next chance to repeal the law would be. It had also become clear to us that further work had to be done by groups with full-time legislative staff who could lobby on other issues too. We continued to contribute as we could to the effort, but we mostly left the lead to groups in education and drug policy and criminal justice who are funded in that way. I'm thankful that some of them did so and that this was able to happen.

I'm also grateful to people who supported our campaign, and to the many past staff of our own organization who poured themselves into it through the years. One of them called the news of the law's repeal "a random ray of light." But the unexpected usually isn't random -- it was made possible in part through work done by him and others. I'm especially grateful to the students and would-be students who agreed to our publicizing their stories. More of the history can be found on the web site for the campaign, RaiseYourVoice.com.

the language eliminating the drug conviction question
We have continued to do our work in much the same way as we did on our Higher Education Act campaign. We pick issues that are important but where there are important roles not already being played by other organizations. We organize coalitions. We do targeted work like media-worthy events and lobbying selected members of Congress. We find the pressure points where the smaller resources can make a larger impact. We support and build up our partners and allies, so their strength can be brought to bear on these efforts too. And we reach out for new allies, as the new issues we take on present those opportunities.

The last few years a lot of this work has been on the international policy front. We've organized nine events at official international meetings. The latest, on the International Criminal Court and the murderous drug war in the Philippines, was covered in that country's media last week. Our work before a major UN drug meeting was covered by the Washington Post and other media.

Click here, here and here to read about our work on human rights in the drug war, democracy and rule of law, the issue of marijuana legalization within the UN drug treaties, and other drug policy issues at the UN.

We continue to raise funds for our end-year $10,000 matching grant, on which we have $4,000 left to go. I hope if you haven't contributed recently that you might do so over the next few days. A donation to our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, DRCNet Foundation is tax-deductible, and can be done online here by credit card, PayPal or ACH. Note that even if you don't itemize your taxes, under pandemic rules you can deduct up to $300 total above-the-line for charitable gifts in 2020.

A non-deductible contribution to our 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Drug Reform Coordination Network would also count toward the matching grant, and can be made here. This would support our congressional outreach, legislative action alerts, and the technical publishing costs for our newsletter.

You can also send a check or money order, if you prefer, to us at P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016. Please make sure to indicate whether it's tax-deductible for DRCNet Foundation, or non-deductible for Drug Reform Coordination Network. There's also info on how to donate stock shares on our web site here.

Thank you for your support, and the work continues.

Sincerely,

David Borden, Executive Director
StoptheDrugWar.org
P.O. Box 9853, Washington, DC 20016
https://stopthedrugwar.org

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

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

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

Psychedelics

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

Drug Policy

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

Higher Education

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

In Historic Move, House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition [FEATURE]

Breaking almost entirely along party lines, the House on Friday voted to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act of 2019 or the MORE Act of 2019 (HR 3884). The vote was 228 to 164, with only a handful of Republicans voting "aye" and a handful of Democrats voting "nay."

Friday was an historic day on Capitol Hill. (Creative Commons)
The MORE Act would effectively end federal pot prohibition by removing marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act's list of scheduled substances and eliminating federal criminal penalties for its possession, cultivation and sale. The bill would not affect state laws that criminalize marijuana, but it would end the conflict between states that have already legalized marijuana and federal law.

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

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

Still, drug policy reformers were quick to celebrate the victory.

"Today's vote marks a historic victory for the marijuana policy reform movement. It indicates that federal lawmakers are finally listening to the overwhelming majority of Americans who are in favor of ending prohibition and comes at a critical time as this important measure addresses two key challenges we currently face," Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins said in a statement moments after the vote ended.

"Serious criminal justice reform cannot begin in our country without ending the war on cannabis," Hawkins continued. "The MORE Act would set federal marijuana policy on a path toward correcting an unfair system and help restore justice to those who have been victimized by prohibition. This legislation would also help address our country's fiscal and economic challenges by empowering states to implement programs that can stimulate economic growth and generate new tax revenue at a time when both are desperately needed. We call on the Senate to listen to the American people and pass the MORE Act without delay."

"This is HUGE!" said the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in a blog post announcing the vote. "This is an historic day for marijuana policy in the United States. This vote marks the first time in 50 years that a chamber of Congress has ever revisited the classification of cannabis as a federally controlled and prohibited substance, and it marks the first time in 24 years -- when California became the first state to defy the federal government on the issue of marijuana prohibition -- that Congress has sought to close the widening chasm between state and federal marijuana policies."

"The criminalization of marijuana is a cornerstone of the racist war on drugs. Even after a decade of reform victories, one person was arrested nearly every minute last year for simply possessing marijuana," Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) said in a statement. "Today the House took the most powerful step forward to address that shameful legacy. But the MORE Act as passed is imperfect, and we will continue to demand more until our communities have the world they deserve."

DPA is particularly irked by the insertion of language during the legislative process that limits expungement and resentencing provisions to people with nonviolent marijuana offenses and language that blocks people with marijuana felony convictions from fully participating in the industry. The group said in the statement that it would work with Congress next session "to remove these additions and pass a bill that fully aligns with our principles."

"Getting to this point definitely gives us hope, but the fight is far from over. We will continue to build support for an even stronger, and more inclusive bill in the next session," Queen Adesuyi, policy manager for DPA's Office of National Affairs, said in the statement. "We are grateful that members of Congress have rightly come to the realization that the drug war has exacerbated the racial injustices in this country and ending marijuana prohibition is a concrete tangible action they can take to benefit our communities now."

Not everyone was happy, though. America's leading anti-pot activist, Kevin Sabet, president and co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana lashed out at the vote and the House leadership in a statement that called it "a useless show vote."

"The pot industry has won a post-season exhibition game, but they're treating it like Game 7 of the World Series," he snarked. "The bill is a smokescreen for Altria Phillip Morris and their Big Tobacco gang of investors. As we have seen in state after state, marijuana commercialization does not lead to any tangible benefit for disadvantaged communities and social equity programs continue to be manipulated. Legalization simply results in rich, overwhelmingly white men getting richer while using predatory marketing tactics to expand substance abuse in the communities that were somehow supposed to benefit. Big Pot doesn't care about social justice or equity, its only concern is profit."

But while Sabet goes on about his mythical "Big Pot," he neglects to mention who actually supports the bill: the American people. In the latest Gallup poll, released less than a month ago, 68% said they wanted legal marijuana. They may have to wait for NORHWWE Congress to get in done at the federal level, but passage of the MORE Act is in line with what the public wants, even if prohibitionists don't wish to acknowledge that.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of Drug War Chronicle.

Washington, DC
United States

Study Finds Drug Use Rose During Pandemic, San Francisco Sues to Block Dealers from Tenderloin, More... (9/25/20)

The Michigan legislature is moving forward on a couple of fronts, San Francisco prosecutors try suing Tenderloin drug dealers, and more.

Police in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. (AdamChandler86/Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Legislature Passes Expungement Bill. A bill that would automatically expunge criminal records for those convicted of marijuana offenses has passed the legislature. Under the bill, people convicted of those offenses would not have to apply and their records would be cleared seven years after their misdemeanor sentence or 10 years for a felony offense. The bill is part of a six-bill package, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign into law, also would allow people with misdemeanor marijuana convictions to clear the offenses sooner if they would not have been considered crimes after voters' legalization of marijuana in 2018. They could start applying 180 days after the law is enacted -- late March or early April.

Drug Policy

Drug Use Rose During Pandemic, Study Finds. A study published Wednesday in the American Medical Association's JAMA Network found that drug test positivity rates for cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine have increased nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic. Coauthored by the Department of Health and Human Services and Millennium Health, the study was based on urine drug test results from 150,000 patients between Nov. 14 and July 10. The study found that people were 19% more likely to test positive for cocaine, 67% more likely to test positive for fentanyl, 33% more likely to test positive for heroin, andd 23% more likely to test positive for methamphetamine.

Michigan Bill to Lift SNAP Drug Felony Ban Advances. A bill that would end the state's permanent ban on food assistance for people with two or more drug convictions passed out of the Senate Families, Seniors and Veterans committee this week. The measure, SB 1006, is sponsored by State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint), and is now headed for a Senate floor vote.

San Francisco Sues 28 Tenderloin Drug Dealers, Seeks to Ban Them from Area. The city has sued 28 alleged drug dealers in the Tenderloin, where drug dealing and open drug use is common, in a bid to clean up the area. City Attorney Dennis Herrera said the lawsuits would bar the defendants from a 50-square-block area of the Tenderloin and part of the adjoining South of Market neighborhood. Of the 28 defendants, 27 live outside the city, and all have multiple arrests for sale or possession of cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl.

State Treasurers Lobby for Marijuana Banking in COVID Bill, Journalists Harassed in Colombia, More... (8/18/20)

A coalition of state treasurers is urging Congress to pass marijuana banking reforms as part of any coronavirus relief package, Arizona's Maricopa County improves the way it handles smalltime pot busts, and more.

Can the marijuana industry catch a break with the coronavirus relief bill? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

State Treasurers Group Lobbies for Marijuana Banking in Coronavirus Bill. A coalition of state treasurers from around the country are calling on Congress to include marijuana banking reforms in the next coronavirus relief package. The move would boost the economy by giving it a much-needed infusion of capital, while protecting workers in the sector, the treasurers argued. The House included the SAFE Banking Act in the relief bill it passed in May, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has long opposed marijuana reforms, sharply criticized House Democrats for including marijuana in the bill. Negotiations on the relief bill are currently going nowhere.

Arizona's Most Populous County Will Defer Pot Possession Prosecutions if Offenders Get a Medical Marijuana Card. Maricopa County (Phoenix) Attorney Allister Adel has announced that anyone who gets arrested in Maricopa County on a simple marijuana possession charge can apply for a medical marijuana card to avoid prosecution. "In cases where the defendant was not in compliance with the AMMA [Arizona Medical Marijuana Act] at the time of the crime solely because the person did not have a valid medical marijuana card, MCAO will dismiss a charge involving any crime covered by the AMMA if the defendant obtains a medical marijuana card and provides proof by the [initial pretrial conference]," the new policy says. That's a vast improvement over past practice under former County Attorney Bill Montgomery. Under the reign of Montgomery and his predecessors, low-level, first- and second-time marijuana offenders were sent to a drug treatment program called TASC, where they would shell out thousands of dollars and submit to frequent urine tests. The county attorney's office would get a cut of the profits.

Drug Policy

Minneapolis Suburb Repeals "Crime-Free, Drug-Free" Ordinance. The city council in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park voted unanimously Monday to repeal a controversial housing ordinance that police used to order landlords to evict tenants over suspected criminal activity. Tenants who were never convicted or even charged with a crime lost their housing, and once a local news station went public with its investigation, the city council moved quickly to repeal the policy.

International

Committee to Protect Journalists Calls for Investigation After Colombian Soldiers Shoot at Journalist, Threaten Reporters Covering Coca Protests. The Committee to Protect Journalists called Monday for Colombian authorities to undertake a thorough and transparent investigation into an incident where soldiers fired weapons at journalists Fernando Osorio and Edilson Álvarez as they covered a coca grower protest, then detained them for six hours and accused them of being left-wing guerrillas. "Colombian authorities should thoroughly investigate soldiers' brazen attacks on journalists Fernando Osorio and Edilson Álvarez and ensure that all those responsible are held to account," said CPJ Central and South Americas Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. "The fact that this is the second shooting attack by soldiers on Osorio highlights the disregard that some in the Army appear to have for journalists. Impunity in these attacks will only perpetuate violence against journalists."

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