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Federal Marijuana Prisoner Killed by COVID-19, AL Mayoral Candidate Wants to Hang Drug Dealers, More... (5/22/20)

Ohio local decriminalization initiative campaigns can do electronic signature-gathering, an Alabama mayoral candidate draws attention with a call to hang drug dealers, and more.

At least 59 federal prisoners have died of the coronavirus. The latest was a man doing time for weed. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Most Recent Federal Inmate Death Was Man 18 Years into a Marijuana Sentence. A man serving a 20-year sentence for marijuana trafficking has become the latest federal prisoner to die of the coronavirus. Fidel Torres was sentenced in 2006 on charges of conspiracy to distribute more than a thousand pounds of pot. The same judge who sentenced him, Judge George Kazen of the Southern District of Texas, later denied him a sentencing reduction he would have qualified for under revised 2014 sentencing guidelines because of minor behavioral issues during the course of his imprisonment. "After the commission reduced the drug guideline retroactively in 2014, nearly 32,000 people got shorter, fairer sentences," said Kevin Ring, who heads the group Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Some 19,000 people were denied relief, Ring added. Less than 2% of those denials were due to prison misconduct, "and Mr. Torres appears to have been part of that very small and unfortunate minority," he said. Torres is the 59th federal prisoner to die of the coronavirus.

Ohio Local Decriminalization Initiatives Can Gather Signatures Electronically, Federal Judge Rules. A federal judge ruled Tuesday that campaigns to put marijuana decriminalization initiatives on local ballots across the state can turn to electronic signature-gathering after they were forced to suspend in-person campaigns because of the coronavirus pandemic. The court also ordered the state to push back the deadline for submitting signatures from July 1 to July 31.

Drug Policy

Alabama Mayoral Candidate Calls for Public Hanging of Drug Dealers. A man running for mayor in the small town of Sylacauga is calling for the public hanging of drug dealers as part of his campaign. Michael R. James posted his proposal on Facebook, where it has been shared and commented on hundreds of times. "Yes, I'm very aware public hanging is extreme and totally not possible without Federal Approvals and not from city or state officials. Extreme yes, but definitely brings attention to this scourge on Sylacauga, Alabama and the United States of America," he wrote in the Facebook post. His campaign materials say the hangings would only happen to third-time offenders.

Medical Marijuana Update

The Department of Health and Human Services is messing with Maine's mental health grants because it allows medical marijuana use by students, a ban on potentially kiddie-enticing edibles is headed for the Missouri governor's desk, and more.

Maine

Maine Loses Federal Mental Health Grants Because of Medical Marijuana. The federal government is cutting off $3.3 million in already approved funding for student mental health services because state law allows students access to medical marijuana. State education officials said "a new requirement" at the federal level cut off the funding for the ongoing program "because of our state's medical marijuana law, which requires schools to allow students who have written certification from their medical provider indicating their need for medical marijuana to receive such treatment while at school." The federal agency making the change is the Department of Health and Human Services.

Missouri

Missouri Lawmakers Approve Bill to Ban Edibles Attractive to Children. Both the House and the Senate voted late last week to approve House Bill 1682, which would ban the sale of edible medical marijuana shaped like fruit, gummy bears, cartoons, or other characters that might be attractive to children. Circles, squares, and other shapes would be okay, though. The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Michael Parson (R).

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Court Rules Worker Fired After CBD Use Caused Failed Drug Test Can Receive Unemployment Benefits. A Commonwealth Court panel has ruled that a health care worker who used legal CBD oil to ease her cancer symptoms, subsequently failing a drug test and getting fired, is entitled to unemployment compensation. The court held that even though CBD is derived from marijuana, the woman violated neither the law nor any work rule of her employer by using it. The decision confirms an earlier ruling by the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review, which was appealed by the employer, Washington Health.

Coronavirus Doesn't Halt Colombia Coca Offensive, MT Court Hears Pleas for Electronic Signature-Gathering, More... (4/29/20)

Whether Montana marijuana legalization campaigns can use electronic signature-gathering is now in the hands of a state judge, an Indiana judge orders the return of a Land Rover whose case changed federal asset forfeiture law, Colombia's campaign against coca continues despite the pandemic, and more.

The Colombian government isn't letting a nationwide coronavirus curfew interfere with its war on coca producers. (Pixabay)
Montana Court Hears Arguments Over Electronic Signature-Gathering for Marijuana Legalization Initiative. New Approach Montana, the group behind a pair of marijuana legalization initiatives, was in Lewis and Clark County District Court Tuesday in an effort to win permission to do electronic signature-gathering amidst the coronavirus pandemic. The group says the state's stay-at-home order and continued social distancing directives make it nearly impossible to gather enough in-person signatures to qualify their petitions for the November ballot. The hearing itself was held by telephone, a point New Approach's lawyer emphasized when arguing its case. Attorneys for the state argued against allowing electronic signature gathering, saying there is not enough evidence it can be done securely and that the group's injury was self-inflicted because it had not yet started signature gathering. Initiative-190 would legalize the use of recreational marijuana in the state. It requires over 25,000 valid voter signatures to appear on November's ballot. Constitutional Initiative-118 aims to amend the state constitution to set the age of marijuana consumption and possession at 21. It needs almost 51,000 valid voter signatures.

Asset Forfeiture

Indiana Judge Orders Return of Seized Land Rover That Led to US Supreme Court Asset Forfeiture Case. An Indiana Superior Court judge on Monday ordered the state to "immediately release" a seized Land Rover in a case that made history in the US Supreme Court when the court used it to overturn Indiana's civil asset forfeiture law, saying the seizure was disproportionate to the offense. The ruling comes seven years after police seized Tyson Timbs' $41,000 Land Rover when he was charged with a drug felony. But the state is continuing to appeal the case, so that "immediate release" is not going to happen just yet.

International

Colombia Carries on Major Offensive Against Coca Producers Amidst Pandemic Curfew. Although President Ivan Duque declared a nationwide curfew on March 24 to fight the coronavirus pandemic, massive military operations aimed at eradicating small producer coca plantations are continuing unimpeded. In the departments of Antioquia and Chocó, Norte de Santander, Nariño, Putumayo, and Caquetá, military and civilian eradication personnel are engaged in eradication efforts.

Swiss Parliament Passes Motion to Authorize Cannabis Production and Export. The Swiss Parliament has passed a measure that will allow producers in the country to export low-THC hemp, and doctors to prescribe medical marijuana directly. Currently, would-be patients must obtain prescriptions for the Federal Office of Public Health, an expensive and time-consuming process. The new law is expected to come into force sometime in the middle of next year. It will also include a pilot program for recreational use. The measure still has to be approved by the Council of States before it can proceed.

Mexico Legal Marijuana Bill Advancing, OR Drug Decriminalization Init Moving, More... (3/6/20)

Boston's first pot shop is set to open Monday, the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs again postpones a vote on classifying marijuana, and more.

Viva Mexico! (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Court Rules Smell of Marijuana in Vehicle by Itself Not Grounds for Search. A California appellate panel has ruled that now that marijuana is legal, the smell of marijuana in a car stopped for other reasons isn't enough to justify a full-blown search of the vehicle. "Marijuana and alcohol now receive similar treatment under the law," said the Appellate Division of Alameda County Superior Court in a ruling barring evidence of a loaded handgun that police found during the search in question. The ruling was issued in December and was published by the state courts this week as a precedent for future cases.

Boston's First Pot Shop Set to Open Monday. Three and a half years after voters approved marijuana legalization, Boston is about to get its first marijuana retail outlet. Pure Oasis will open Monday in Dorchester. It is the first shop to be approved by the state's Cannabis Control Commission.

Drug Policy

Oregon Drug Decriminalization Measure Rapidly Gathers Signatures for November Ballot.  A campaign to put a drug treatment and drug decriminalization initiative, the "Drug Treatment and Recovery Act" ( IP 44), on the November ballot has already collected 125,000 raw signatures, the Drug Policy Alliance, which is financing the campaign, announced Thursday. The measure needs 112,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. It has until May to turn in more signatures.

International

UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs Once Again Postpones Key Marijuana Vote. The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) has decided to delay until December a vote due to take place this week on the potential global rescheduling of cannabis. The CND, whose meeting in Vienna ended today, was due to vote on a set of recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) to loosen restrictions on marijuana and related substances like CBD and THC. This is the second time the CND has refused to vote on the recommendations, which the WHO first presented in January 2019.

Mexico Marijuana Legalization Bill Advances. Three Senate committees on Thursday approved a draft legalization bill, bringing it one step closer to passage. Ajoint meeting of the Justice, Health and Legislative Studies committees approved the bill "in general," meaning that individual articles within it remain open for debate and amendment. The bill would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and allow medical marijuana patients to grow their own. It would also establish a legal market for marijuana that would see 40% of production licenses go to people in communities affected by drug trafficking. Bill specifics will be debated by those same committees and then in a plenary session of the Senate, which could see a final vote as soon as next week. The measure would then go to the Chamber of Deputies. The Supreme Court has issued an April 30 deadline to end marijuana prohibition.

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

Bad Precedent: When the Fourth Amendment Doesn't Apply [FEATURE]

Criminal Court & Legal Affair Investigative Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at [email protected].

The Fourth Amendment should have protected suspected Indianapolis methamphetamine dealer Paul Huskisson when DEA agents without a search warrant and without any exigent circumstances, such as fear of imminent danger or injury to officers, flight of the suspect, or destruction of evidence, raided Huskisson's home, discovered pounds of meth, and arrested him for it.

Under the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary ule, when such evidence is unlawfully gathered the evidence cannot be used by the government in criminal cases.

But in a stunning blow to the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, that same unlawful seized evidence was indeed used in court against him, and Huskisson now sits in federal prison serving a 20-year sentence in FCI Lexington Kentucky.

In a 2019 decision, a three-judge panel of the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago; two of the justices, appointed by Clinton, including one appointed by Donald Trump, invoked a rarely used legal argument known as independent source doctrine to get around the Fourth Amendment violation, creating a floodgate of legal implications that has defense attorneys and legal scholars concerned.

WSNC 90.5 radio host of 'The Public Morality Show,' Byron Williams, condemned the decision in Huskisson's case in a scathing article published in the Winston-Salem Journal.

"Do we want to become a nation where obtaining a warrant before entering someone's home is optional?"

"The ends cannot justify the means," Williams said.

Here's how we got here:

The Bust

According to court documents and case testimony, the raid on Paul Huskisson had its genesis in the February 5, 2016 arrest by DEA agents of one Anthony Hardy on assorted meth charges, including conspiracy. Desperate to cut a deal, Hardy confessed his role in a dope smuggling scheme, even leading DEA agents to a cache of drugs and guns. Hardy implicated two other men, one of whom was Huskisson, who was previously unknown to the DEA.

And Hardy had plenty to say about Huskisson. He told DEA agents that he had scored substantial amounts of meth from him at least six times in the previous five months for $8,000 a pound, that he had purchased meth both at Huskisson's house and at a business owned by one of Huskisson's family member called 'No Limit' LLC, and that Huskisson was expected to receive a shipment of "10 to 12 pounds" the following day.

Hardy then took his snitching to the next level by volunteering to do a controlled buy for the DEA. DEA Special Agent Michael Cline prompted Hardy to call Huskisson on a recorded phone call to set up a buy to ensure Huskisson would sell dope to him, and Huskisson agreed to sell "10 to 12 pounds." After several more recorded calls, the pair agreed to meet at night on February 6, at Huskisson's place.

With undercover DEA agents already in place near Huskisson's house, Agent Cline tailed Hardy's car as he drove to 612 Laclede Street, where Huskisson lived, arriving 5:30 or 5:45 p.m. Hardy went into the house, and the assembled DEA agents waited. Half an hour later, Cline spotted a car pull into Huskisson's driveway and watched two men (later identifed as Jezzar Terraz-Zamarron and Fred Aragon) exit the visible vehicle carrying a cooler and enter the house.

Ten minutes later, a nervous Anthony Hardy came out the door and gave a prearranged signal to DEA Agent Cline to indicate he'd seen the meth. On that signal, DEA agents armed with high-powered weapons stormed the home, forcing the men inside onto the floor. Meanwhile Cline faked arresting Hardy to disguise Hardy's role as an informant. While milling around in Huskisson's home like characters readying for the next act, DEA agents and Indiana State Police investigators observed in the kitchen in plain sight an open cooler with 'ten saran-wrapped packages of meth.

All three men were arrested.

Paul Huskisson was subsequently indicted for possession with the intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine in violation of the federal statute 21 U.S.C. 841(a).

When those DEA agents entered Huskisson's home and found the meth they had no search warrant whatsoever that allowed them to legally be there. They didn't bother to get one "until later," Cline testified at trial.

An Effort to Have the Evidence Thrown Out

Before going to trial, Huskisson's attorney filed a motion to suppress the drug evidence, arguing the drugs were found only after the DEA entry team entered Huskisson's house without a search warrant and without any exigent circumstances -- a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment's requirement for lawful searches. He also argued that DEA agents had included that tainted evidence, that fruit of the poisonous tree, into the affidavit for the search warrant that they obtained after the fact from a judge, "an hour or so later."

DEA agent Michael Cline was unable to testify at the motion hearing, so Indiana State Police investigator Noel Kinney substituted for Cline. Pertaining to the warrant obtained after agents rushed into the house, Kinney testified inconsistently regarding the ex post facto warrant, contradicting himself badly about the intent of the search and other government evidence.

Under questioning by defense attorney John L. Tompkins, Kinney first testified the task force's original plan was to apply for a warrant even if Huskisson refused consent to search, and no matter whether law enforcement saw evidence of drug activities in the house.

"Depending on the conversation with Mr. Huskisson, and, if he granted consent to search, we would continue the search of the residence," Kinney testified.

"What would've happened if Mr. Huskisson hadn't given consent," defense attorney Tompkins, asked.

"If he didn't give consent, we would've secured the residence and obtained a search warrant," Kinney said.

This testimony strongly suggests that DEA agents intended to enter the house and search for drugs without a warrant.

Belatedly realizing the incriminating implications of his testimony, Kinney then offered another alternative, claiming the plan was to apply for a warrant only if the DEA found meth in Huskisson's home -- and if Huskisson had refused consent to search.

At this point, Huskisson's attorney seized the moment to pounce on Kinney.

"So, if you didn't get consent you was going to start the process of obtaining a warrant?" Tompkins asked incredulous.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/judge-jane-magnus-stinson.jpg
Judge Jane Magnus Stinson
"Yes," Kinney replied.

"So, no part of the plan was to obtain a warrant prior to entry into Huskisson's residence?" Thompson asked, again.

"That's correct, yes," the investigators' replied.

Despite the testimony about the warrantless search, US District Court Judge

Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled against throwing out the evidence against Huskisson, holding that independent source doctrine in essence trumped the Fourth Amendment.

On Appeal

Based in part on the evidence developed through the warrantless search, Huskisson was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison in 2017. Both men arrested with Huskisson on February 6, 2016, were also convicted and sent to prison. Huskisson's lawyers immediately appealed his conviction.

Filing a counter appeal, government prosecutors argued that the issuance of the warrant after the illegal entry of Huskisson's home by (DEA Agents) was based on an independent source for the meth evidence, thus making independent source doctrine applicable. Independent source doctrine in criminal cases creates an exception to the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule.

Independent search doctrine and the exception to the exclusionary rule was created in a 1988 US Supreme Court case, Murray v. United States (487 U.S. 533), with the opinion authored by arch-conservative jurist Justice Antonin Scalia. In that case, police in Boston had probable cause to stop two vehicles carrying marijuana as they exited a warehouse. Police then forced entry into the warehouse without a warrant and saw several wrapped bales that they suspected were drugs.

After seeing the bales, the officers left the warehouse and got a warrant based on their suspicion that more drugs were stored in the building. But in the affidavit for that search warrant, the police never mentioned that they had already entered the warehouse without a warrant and saw only stacked bales.

Still, Scalia ruled for the police, holding that the Fourth Amendment doesn't require the exclusion of evidence found during a warrantless illegal search if that evidence is also found during a later search with a valid search warrant.

Another case, this one on probable cause for searches, also came into play as appeals court judges pondered the issues before them in Huskisson's case. In 2010, judges of that same 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals held in a case involving drugs stored in an apartment, United States v. Etchins that's even though police illegally entered the apartment without a warrant and without the consent of the resident and remained in the apartment until a warrant was issued hours later, that "because the officers' search relied on a later-arriving warrant based on information sufficiently unrelated to the initial entry, the evidence discovered in Etchin's apartment was untainted by the officers' illegal behavior. "We therefore conclude that the district court properly denied the defendants' motions to suppress and, finding no error in the sentences imposed, we affirm."

Even as it denied Etchins' appeal, the appeals court conceded that "we do not doubt that the officers' warrantless entry violated the Fourth Amendment, but probable cause existed to search Etchins' apartment when officers unlawfully entered the first time. Therefore, the evidence discovered in Etchins' apartment was untainted by the officers' illegal behavior."

Relying mostly on Murray, but also on Etchins, on June 5th 2019, the 7th Circuit found that although Drug Enforcement (DEA) agents should've obtained a search warrant prior to entering Huskisson's home to get the dope, yet the panel insisted the unlawful evidence was still admissible under independent source doctrine, and that prior probable cause had already been established, tilting their decision in favor of the police.

The 7th Circuit concluded that prior evidence of police informant Anthony Hardy's initial admissions to DEA agent Michael Cline about his drug-dealing history with Huskisson, including Hardy's nine phone calls to Huskisson to set up the meth deal including Hardy's pre-bust signal to Cline at the scene were sufficient for probable cause prior to the officers entering Huskisson's home.

Paul Huskisson, currently serving 20 years at FCI Lexington. (Facebook)
Another key point the justices took into consideration was Hardy's story of drugs he saw in Huskisson's house after Hardy arrived, which, taken together, justified the resort to independent source doctrine because the DEA had already established probable cause against Huskisson without a warrant in hand.

"Though the government should not profit from its bad behavior, neither should it be placed in a worse position than it would otherwise have occupied," the panel held.

These same judges weren't even swayed by the glaringly inconsistent statements made by the police sergeant who testified agents planned to search Huskisson's house without a warrant even if he refused to consent to a search. Rejecting

Huskisson's appeal, the justices affirmed his conviction on federal drug charges in Indianapolis as result of the DEA investigation.

In effect, the appeals court held that police had established probable cause that Huskisson was dealing drugs, so the illegal search was okay. But probable cause should only give law enforcement the ability to obtain a search warrant, not give the police automatic permission to enter someone's home without one.

Still, the panel was critical of the DEA. "We do not condone this illegal behavior by law enforcement; the better practice is to obtain a warrant before entering a home. Ordinarily, the evidence found here would be excluded. But, because the government had much other evidence of probable cause, and had already planned to apply for a warrant before the illegal entry; therefore, the evidence is admissible."

Troubling Precedents

Legal scholars and defense attorneys are troubled by the line of cases that resulted in allowing illegally seized evidence to be used in criminal prosecutions.

"There are so many examples of police taking advantage of loopholes in Supreme Court doctrines that it must be incentivizing police in some cases to conduct illegal searches where they would otherwise seek a warrant," Ryan W. Scott, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, told the Chronicle.

Washington, DC-based criminal defense attorney and appellate expert Steve Leckar, explained how the problem is rooted in the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Murray.

"Here's the problem," Leckar told the Chronicle. "In Murray, the US Supreme Court said independent source doctrine can be used."

Professor Scott concurred in pointing to Murray.

"The Supreme Court's answer in Murray was that police ( like the agents in Huskisson's case) still should prefer to obtain a warrant up front because then the police wouldn't have to bear the additional burden of establishing that both the showing of probable cause and their decision to seek a warrant were totally independent of the evidence the police recovered," he said.

Attorney Leckar said the line of decisions is deeply concerning. "This ruling gives police a green light to enter homes unannounced without a warrant, with the risk of confronting armed citizens," he noted. "Decisions like this allow the police to bust into people's homes' willy-nilly with little fear of being held accountable in a civil lawsuit," Leckar added.

He also worries that as officers become more aware of how independent source doctrine can be used to get around the exclusionary rule, they may be incentivized to create a story filled with half-truths to create questionable probable cause in order to make a warrantless entry into a person's residence or place of business.

Leckar was also critical of the appeals court panels' reasoning. "The problem with this court's decision is the belief the police shouldn't be put in a worse position, but the fact of the matter is the officers identified no reason that prevented them from getting a warrant within a timely manner," he argued. "They said they were going to get a warrant, but that's easy to say. What evidence was there of that?"

"Why bother getting a warrant right away if you can just conduct the search illegally, confirm that you were right, and then get the evidence admitted anyway?" Professor Scott added. "To be clear, independent source doctrine affects only the admissibility of evidence; it doesn't mean the police are legally free to enter the homes of suspected drug dealers without a warrant," he explained.

Huskisson is appealing to the US Supreme Court. Its his last hope, but his prospects there are cloudy at best.

Journalist Clarence Walker Jr. wishes Drug War Chronicle readers and everyone a safe, wonderful, blessed Christmas and prosperous New Year in 2020.

Any comments? Reach Clarence Walker at: [email protected]

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2019 [FEATURE]

As the clock ticks down toward 2020, it's worth taking a moment to look back and reflect on what has gone on in the world of drug policy this year. From marijuana to psychedelics to the lingering overdose crisis to the emergence of a new vaping-related illness, a lot happened. Here are ten of the biggest highs and lows of 2019, in no particular order:

It was a big year for marijuana in Congress. Less so in the states.
1, For the First Time, Marijuana Legalization Wins a Congressional Vote

In November, the House Judiciary Committee made history when it approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3384). The bill would effectively legalize marijuana at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substance Act's drug schedules. It would also require federal courts to expunge prior convictions and conduct resentencing hearings for those still doing federal marijuana time. And it would assess a five percent tax on marijuana sales to create a fund to aid to people and communities most impacted by prohibition.

There's a good chance the MORE Act will get a House floor vote before the end of this Congress, but even if it does, its prospects in Sen. Mitch McConnell's Senate are dim at best. Still, step by step, Congress by Congress, the end of federal marijuana prohibition is drawing nearer.

2. Marijuana Banking Bill Passes the House

In September, the House passed the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to get access to banking and other financial services. The vote was 321-103, with near unanimous support from Democrats, as well as nearly half of Republicans.

The vote came although some civil rights and drug reform groups had called for it to be put off until more comprehensive marijuana or criminal justice reform, such as the MORE Act (see above) could be enacted. They argued that passage of a narrowly targeted financial services bill could erode momentum toward broader reforms. The MORE Act did win a House Judiciary Committee vote, but has yet to get a House floor vote.

And while SAFE passed the House, it must still get through the Senate, where it is not clear whether it will be allowed to a vote, much less whether it can pass. A companion version of SAFE, S.1200, was introduced in April by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and a bipartisan group of 21 original cosponsors. It currently has 33 total cosponsors. In September, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said his committee would take up the cannabis banking issue this year and is working on preparing a new bill, but now it's December and little has happened.

3. Legalization in the States Didn't Have a Great Year

At the beginning of 2019, prospects looked good for as many as a half-dozen states to get legalization bills passed, but the year turned out to largely be a dud. Hopes were especially high in New Jersey and New York, where Democratic governors supported legalization, but it didn't come to pass this year in either state. In Albany, they'll be back at it next year, but in Trenton, it looks like the legislature is going to punt, opting instead to put the issue directly to the voters next year in a legislative referendum.

One state did make it all the way to the finish line: Illinois. After a legalization bill sailed through the legislature in the spring, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it into law in late June. With that signature, Illinois became the first state to create a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce through the legislative process, rather than through a voter initiative. (Vermont's legislature legalized possession and cultivation but not sales in early 2018.)

Getting bills through a state legislature is hard work, and it sometimes takes years. Still, that hard work that didn't quite make it over the top this year, is laying the groundwork for legalization in places like New Jersey and New York -- and maybe more -- next year. And next year is an election year, which means initiative campaigns that can bypass legislative logjams will be in play. There are already active campaigns in Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota and South Dakota, although none have yet qualified for the ballot. Look for 2020 to be a better year when it comes to freeing the weed.

4. Pot Prohibition Isn't Dead Yet: Despite Legalization, Marijuana Arrests Up in Latest FBI Crime Report

In late September, the FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2018, and once again, marijuana arrests were on the rise -- despite legalization in 11 states and DC, and decriminalization in 15 more states. There were some 663,367 marijuana arrests in 2018, up from 659,700 in 2017 and 653,249 in 2017. In all three years, simple possession cases accounted for about nine out of ten pot busts. Before 2016, marijuana arrests had been going down for more than a decade. Clearly, there is still work to do here.

5. US Supreme Court Unanimously Reins in Asset Forfeiture

In a February victory for proponents of civil libertarians, the US Supreme Court ruled in Timbs v. Indiana that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to states, thereby prohibiting state and local governments from collecting excessive fines, fees and forfeitures. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. "The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government's punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority," Ginsburg wrote. The case involved the seizure of a $42,000 Land Rover over a drug sale of $225.

There was more progress on the asset forfeiture front on the state level, too: Bills to either end civil asset forfeiture entirely or to restrict it passed this year in Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, and North Dakota, and in September, a South Carolina circuit court judge ruled civil asset forfeiture unconstitutional, setting up a fight in state appeals courts there.

6. Thousands of Federal Drug Prisoners Go Free Under First Step Act

President Trump signed the First Step Act into law at the end of last year, but the sentencing reform measure's true impact was felt in July, when the Bureau of Prisons released more than 3,000 prisoners and reduced the sentences of nearly 1,700 more. Almost all of those released were drug offenders. The First Step Act was aimed at redressing harsh sentences for federal prisoners excluded from the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the infamous crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, but which did not include prisoners sentenced before its passage. Three states -- Florida, South Carolina and Virginia -- accounted for a whopping 25 percent of sentence reductions, and more than 90 percent went to African-American men.

A movement to decriminalize natural psychedelics emerged this year. (Greenoid/Flickr)
7. Psychedelic Decriminalization Becomes a Movement

After emerging in 2018, the movement to decriminalize natural psychedelics mushroomed this year. In May, voters in Denver narrowly approved the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Decriminalization Initiative, making clear that they wanted to "deprioritize, to the greatest extent possible, the imposition of criminal penalties on persons 21 years of age and older for the personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms." The measure also "prohibits the city and county of Denver from spending resources on imposing criminal penalties on persons 21 years of age and older for the personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms."

That surprise victory sparked interest across the country, and the following month Oakland followed suit, only this time it was the city council -- not the voters -- who decriminalized magic mushrooms and other natural psychedelics. In September, Chicago became the next city to get on board, with the city council unanimously passing an advisory resolution expressing support for research on the potential use of psychoactive plants and pledging support for adult use of the substances. Meanwhile, activists in three more major cities -- Berkeley, Dallas, and Portland -- were pushing psychedelic decriminalization measures, either through ballot initiatives or city council actions. By December, Decriminalize Nature, the group behind the movement, reported that more than 100 cities across the country are now seeing efforts to open up to psychedelics.

And it's not just cities. In two states, psychedelic reformers have filed initiatives aimed at the November 2020 ballot. In the Golden State, the California Psilocybin Mushroom Initiative, which would decriminalize the possession, use, and gifting of magic mushrooms and the chemical compounds -- psilocybin and psilocin -- has been cleared for signature gathering. It has until April 21 to come up with 623,212 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. Just across the border to the north, the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin, is in the midst of signature gathering. It needs 112,020 valid voter signatures by July 2 to make the ballot. The Oregon measure in October got a nice $150,000 donation from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps.

8. Overdose Deaths Decline Slightly, But Are Still Way Too High

In July, the CDC reported 2018 drug overdose death numbers and found that they had declined from 2017's record high of more than 70,000 to just under 68,000, a five percent decrease. The latest data from CDC, which measured drug deaths in the 12-month period ending in April 2019 showed deaths at 67,000, suggesting that the decline continues, but at a glacial pace. Still, the number of overdose deaths is about seven times higher than it was in 1995, at the start of the prescription opioid epidemic.

The recent decline has been driven by a decrease in heroin and prescription opioid overdoses, although overdoses involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl increased, as did those involving the stimulant drugs cocaine and methamphetamine. Many overdoses involved more than one drug, with benzodiazepines often implicated.

If some researchers are right, fentanyl overdoses could balloon to an even higher level, if distribution of the highly potent substance takes hold in the western US. Most users take fentanyl unknowingly, after it's been used to cut street heroin or counterfeit pills.

9. Vaping-Linked Illness Emerges, Sparking Broad Anti-Vaping Backlash

In the summer, reports of vaping or e-cig users being struck down by a mysterious, lung-damaging condition began to emerge. By the end of October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 1,600 cases of lung-damaged vapors, with the death toll rising to 34. (That number has since risen to 47.) The CDC also gave the condition a name: e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI).

A likely culprit soon emerged: black market THC vaping cartridges contaminated with new additives, particularly thinners including propylene glycol (PG) and polyethylene glycol (PEG), vitamin E acetate, and medium chain triglycerides (MCT oil). The FDA has begun investigating vitamin E acetate, while public health officials in New York have found the substance in a majority of seized vape cartridges there. The FDA also announced in August that it is proposing adding propylene glycol as a "respiratory toxicant" in its list of harmful tobacco product ingredients.

While the CDC and the FDA responded to the outbreak with recommendations targeting the suspect products, elected and public health officials in a number of states responded by going after not black market marijuana vaping cartridges but legal flavored tobacco vaping products.

Massachusetts banned all vaping products, Michigan banned flavored nicotine products, New York banned flavored e-cigarettes, Oregon banned all flavored vaping products for six months, as did Rhode Island, while Washingtonissued a four-month ban on flavored vaping products. President Trump threatened to move toward a national ban on flavored vaping products, but has since changed course, even making an anti-prohibitionist argument to do so.

In its latest update, the CDC reports the number of EVALI cases has risen to nearly 2,300 and the death toll has climbed to 47. But unlike those state governments that reacted with flavored vaping bans, the CDC takes a different approach: It points the finger strongly at vitamin E acetate, recommends that people not use THC vaping products at this point -- especially if obtained informally or in the black market -- and also warns people not to add any products to vaping cartridges that are not intended by the manufacturer.

10. Safe Injection Sites Win an Important Preliminary Legal Battle

In a case involving a proposed safe injection site in Philadelphia, a federal judge ruled that it would not violate federal law. With the backing of city officials and former Gov. Ed Rendell (D), the nonprofit group Safehouse pressed forward with plans for the facility even though the Justice Department had warned that it would not allow any safe injection sites to move forward. The Justice Department sued in February to halt the project, arguing that it violated the federal "crack house law."

But US District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that the "crack house" provision of the Controlled Substances Act does not apply to the group's bid to assist opioid users. "No credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress" when that body wrote the law in 1986 or amended it in 2003, McHugh wrote. "I cannot conclude that Safehouse [the safe injection site] has, as a significant purpose, the objective of facilitating drug use. Safehouse plans to make a place available for the purposes of reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment and connecting participants with social services."

While the Justice Department has appealed the ruling, it is a good omen, and the case is being carefully watched in cities such as Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, all of which are pursuing similar plans.

Chronicle AM: AOC Calls for Drug Decriminalization, SD Meth Awareness Campaign Fiasco, More... (11/19/19)

Garden State voters may get the chance to legalize marijuana themselves, a South Dakota meth awareness campaign gets mocked, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calls for drug decriminalization, and more. 

This South Dakota meth awareness campaign is generating mockery and ridicule.
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Senate Democrats File Bill to Put Marijuana Legalization to Public Vote. State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D) and state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a bill Monday to allow the public to vote directly on whether to legalize marijuana. Democratic Assembly leaders said they will sponsor similar legislation. The Democratic Senate leaders said they had given up on trying to pass legalization through the legislature after a year of trying.

Medical Marijuana

Colorado Supreme Court Rules People on Probation Can Use Medical Marijuana. The state Supreme Court has overruled a trial judge who required that defendants have a doctor testify in court testify in support of their medical marijuana use. The Supreme Court held that the practice violates the state constitution. The judge in the case had deferred to a "standing procedure" of the El Paso County District Attorney's office, but the high court "disapproved" of the decision, saying the state's medical marijuana law "creates a presumption that a defendant who is sentenced to a term of probation may use medical marijuana."

 Florida Bill Would Protect Patients' Employment Rights. Rep. Tina Polsky (D- Boca Raton) has filed a bill that wouldprovide some employment protections to people who use medical marijuana. House Bill 595 would bar employers from discriminating against, firing, demoting, or taking any other "adverse personnel action" against employees who are card-carrying medical marijuana users. Exceptions include workers performing safety-sensitive job duties such as operating machinery, fighting fires, driving, carrying a firearm, handling hazardous materials, or caring for children or patients. If confronted with positive drug test results, job applicants would be able to use doctors' recommendations or state-issued cards as proof of legal use.

Methamphetamines

South Dakota Anti-Meth Campaign Sparks Ridicule. The state has spent $499,000 on an anti-meth public campaign called "Meth. We're on it" that features state residents ranging from ranchers to high school football players pictured beneath that phrase. The rollout of the campaign has sparked considerable online ridicule and mockery with posters suggesting alternatives such as "Meth: Just Do It" "Meth: for Real Men" "Meth: Fun, Cheap, Wacky" "Meth: Bringing Families Together" "Meth: You Should Buy Some and Use It" and "Got Meth?" But Gov. Kristi Noem (R) said Monday that all the attention only showed that the campaign was working.

Drug Policy

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Calls for Drug Decriminalization. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Sunday for the decriminalization of all drugs, going a step beyond her previous support for the decriminalization of psychedelics. "Marijuana should be legalized, and drug consumption should be decriminalized," she tweeted.
"These are matters of public health."

Chronicle AM: Opioid Makers Settle with Ohio Counties, Mexico Marijuana Legalization Moves, More... (10/21/19)

A federal court says the DEA is doing what it needs to in processing marijuana research applications, more opioid makers and distributors settle and pay out over the opioid crisis, the Honduran president's brother has been convicted of drug trafficking conspiracy in New York, and more.

Fentanyl manufacturer Teva Pharmaceuticals is among four companies who just settled for millions with two Ohio counties. (CC)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Court Dismisses Suit Against DEA over Marijuana Growing Applications. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed a lawsuit against the DEA over the processing of applications for research-grade marijuana cultivators. The court found that since the case was filed in June, the DEA had fulfilled the requirement to process those applications.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Medical Marijuana Program Stalled. Six months after Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a bill allowing for the cultivation and sales of medical marijuana in the state, the program is stalled because he and other top political figures have yet to appoint the members of a commission that will oversee the expansion. Neither the governor nor other key figures have explained the delay.

Utah Medical Marijuana Advocates Win Round in Lawsuit over Replacing Initiative. Medical marijuana advocates who are suing the state after the legislature replaced a voter-approved initiative with its own medical marijuana bill won an initial victory in court last Thursday. US Magistrate Judge Dustin Pead denied a motion from the attorney general's office to dismiss their lawsuit. He also accepted plaintiff's request to send the case back to state court.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Ohio Counties to Receive Millions in Settlement with Opioid Makers. Cuyahoga and Summit counties will receive at least $260 million from four opioid distributors and manufacturers as a settlement of their case against them for their role in the opioid epidemic. The four are drug distributors McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, and Cardinal Health as well as generic opioid painkiller maker Teva Pharmaceuticals. The only remaining defendant, Walgreens, did not settle, but now its case, which was set to begin Monday, is delayed.

International

Honduran President's Brother Convicted of Drug Trafficking in New York. A federal jury in New York City found former Honduran congressman Tony Hernandez guilty of a drug trafficking conspiracy. Hernandez is the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Early in the trial, prosecutors told the court that Tony Hernandez passed on a $1 million bribe from Sinaloa Cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman to his brother during Juan Orlando Hernandez' 2013 presidential reelection campaign.

Mexican Committees Unveil Marijuana Legalization Bill Ahead of Supreme Court Deadline. Mexican Senate committees unveiled draft marijuana legalization bills last Thursday, days ahead of a Supreme Court-imposed deadline, and said they would stay in permanent session to ensure they get legislation passed before the October 31 deadline. Votes could come this week. The bill would allow people 18 and over to possess marijuana, grow up to four plants, and purchase pot from licensed retailers. A new regulatory body, the Cannabis Institute, would handle licensing and monitoring implementation of the law, and poor people, small farmers, and indigenous people would have licensing priority.

Chronicle AM: Lawrence, KS Ends Marijuana Prosecutions, El Chapo's Gunmen Free His Son in Firefight, More... (10/18/19)

The head of the Senate Banking Committee wants some changes made to the SAFE Banking Act, Kansas' Douglas County ends marijuana prosecutions, the Sinaloa Cartel battles Mexican soldiers and police to free El Chapo's son, and more.

The Mexican police and military were no match for the Sinaloa Cartel in Culicacan on Thursday. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Key GOP Senate Chairman Outlines Changes He Wants for Marijuana Banking Bill. Sen Mike Crapo (R-ID), head of the Senate Banking Committee, wants to see some changes in the SAFE Banking Act passed last month by the House. "The things we're looking at are, first of all, to make sure we improve and clarify the interstate banking application of all of this," Crapo said. "Secondly, money laundering issues with regard to legacy cash to make sure how that is managed properly. [Financial Crimes Enforcement Network] issues and other related issues. And then finally the health and safety issues about what is going to be banked."

Florida Marijuana Legalization Would Create 100,000 Jobs, Report Finds. A study from New Frontier Data finds that legalization would be a job booster for the state, creating more than 100,000 jobs by 2025. "Assuming full federal legalization, New Frontier Data estimates cannabis jobs could reach 128,587 by 2025," says John Kagia, chief knowledge officer at the DC-based research group. That's up dramatically from the state's current number of cannabis jobs, which Kagia says is at 16,792.

Kansas County Home to University of Kansas Ends Marijuana Possession Prosecutions. Douglas County, with a county seat of Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas, will no longer prosecute simple marijuana possession cases, District Attorney Charles Branson said Thursday. Branson cited changing attitudes, law enforcement priorities, and noted that pot prosecutions have "a disproportional impact upon people of color and the poor." The decision takes effect immediately.

Drug Testing

Louisiana Supreme Court Rules Unconfirmed Drug Test Can't Be Used to Deny Workers' Comp Claim. The state's highest court has ruled that an unconfirmed or unverified drug test is not sufficient to prove intoxication or fraud as a means of denying workers' compensation claims for injured workers. The court noted that state law requires verification or confirmation of any testing before disqualifying any claims.

International

Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel "Unarrests" El Chapo's Son as Security Forces Retreat. Mexican security forces captured one of imprisoned drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's sons in the cartel heartland city of Culiacan on Thursday, but were forced to release him after cartel gunmen surrounded the house where he was being held, triggered gun battles with authorities, and organized a prison break. Police said Ovidio Guzman was one of four people in a house where militarized police came under attack, but when they arrested him, cartel gunmen quickly outmatched them, and Guzman was released to prevent lives being lost, security officials said. As Guzman was being held, fighters emerged throughout the city, fighting police and soldiers in broad daylight, used burning buses as barricades, and left at least one gas station ablaze. At least two people were killed, though some reports mentioned seeing three bodies at one location.

Chronicle AM: Northeastern Governors Hold Legalization Summit, SC Judge Throws Out Civil Asset Forfeiture, More... (10/17/19)

At least five governors have marijuana on their minds this week, Canada allows marijuana edibles and vapes to go on sale, a South Carolina judge rules the state's civil asset forfeiture law unconstitutional, and more.

Marijuana is on the minds of governors in the Northeast -- and New Mexico, too. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Governors of Four Northeastern States Hold Summit to Coordinate Marijuana Legalization Plans. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont (D) have been joined at a Thursday meeting by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) as the state chief executives discuss how best to move forward with marijuana legalization. The governors' marijuana summit is divided into five sessions: on vaping and related issues, market regulation and social justice issues, public health consequences of cannabis, public safety issues and a "best practices" panel led by Colorado representatives.

New Mexico Governor's Working Group Releases Marijuana Legalization Proposal. A working group on marijuana legalization appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) released its recommendations Wednesday. The group is recommending, among other things, the automatic expungement of past marijuana convictions, exempting medical marijuana patients from taxation, a low-income subsidy program for patients, and either a ban or a licensing requirement for home cultivation. The state will see a 30-day legislative session early next year, and the release of the recommendations could pave the way for passage of a legalization bill then.

Asset Forfeiture

South Carolina Judge Rules Civil Asset Forfeiture Unconstitutional. A South Carolina circuit court judge in Horry County has ruled the state's civil asset forfeiture law unconstitutional, in violation of the US Constitution's 4th, 5th and 14 amendments. 15th Circuit Court Judge Steven H. John found that South Carolina's forfeiture laws violate both the federal and state constitutional protections against excessive fines by allowing the government to seize unlimited amounts of cash and property that aren't proportionate to the alleged crime. The ruling sets the scene for an appeals court ruling down the road.

International

Australian Plan to Drug Test Welfare Recipients Passes First Parliamentary Hurdle. A government bill to begin a pilot program requiring welfare recipients to undergo drug tests has been approved by the lower house and is now on its way to the Senate -- where it is likely to be defeated.

Canada Legalizes Marijuana Derivatives. One year after legalizing marijuana, Canada has now finalized regulations for marijuana products such as edibles, marijuana-infused beverages, and vape products, and those products will now be available to Canadian consumers as the country moves to "Legalization 2.0."

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