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WA to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor, FL Supreme Court Throws Out Legal Pot Initiative, More... (4/26/21)

The Philadelphia City Council votes to bar most pre-employment drug testing for marijuana, leading Democratic senators call on the attorney general to undo a Trump-era ruling that federal prisoners freed because of the pandemic must return to prison once it ends, and more.

Prisons in Washington could be a bit emptier once the state makes drug possession a misdemeanor. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Supreme Court Strikes Down 2022 Marijuana Legalization Initiative. The state Supreme Court last Thursday threw out a proposed voter initiative constitutional amendment, holding that the measure's ballot summary was misleading because it says it "permits" the possession, production, and sale of marijuana when marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The state's Republican attorney general challenged the initiative on those grounds last year and the state's all Republican-appointed court justices agreed. Now, its back to the drawing board for legalization supporters in the state.

Philadelphia City Council Votes to Prohibit Pre-Employment Drug Screening for Cannabis. The city council voted overwhelmingly to approve a municipal ordinance, Bill No. 200625, that "prohibits employers from requiring prospective employees to undergo testing for the presence of marijuana as a condition of employment, under certain terms and conditions." Some safety-sensitive positions, such as police officers or those who supervise children or medical patients will be exempted, as well drug testing mandated under federal law. Mayor Jim Kenney (D) is expected to sign the measure into law.

Drug Policy

Washington Legislature Passes Bill to Make Drug Possession a Simple Misdemeanor. The legislature on Saturday gave final approval to a bill designed to overhaul the state's drug sentencing scheme after the state Supreme Court in February threw out the state's felony drug possession law. The bill, Senate Bill 5476, passed the Senate with language making drug possession a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail, but the House amended it to make possession a simple misdemeanor punishable by only up to 90 days in jail. The House also amended the bill so that it expires in two years, leaving the state with no drug possession law unless the legislature acts again.

Incarceration

Leading Democratic Senators Call on Attorney General to Rescind Trump-Era Ruling That Federal Prisoners Released Because of Pandemic Must Return to Prison When Pandemic Ends. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice and Counterterrorism, last Friday sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland requesting that he rescind the Office of Legal Counsel's January 15, 2021, memorandum opinion entitled "Home Confinement of Federal Prisoners After the COVID-19 Emergency" (OLC opinion). In their letter, Durbin and Booker write that the OLC opinion, issued during the Trump Administration, incorrectly finds that following the emergency period of the pandemic, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) must recall federal inmates released to home confinement pursuant to the CARES Act and require these inmates to complete their sentences at BOP facilities. In fact, the CARES Act neither requires nor permits BOP to recall these prisoners, according to the letter.

VA Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Into Law, IL House Approves Drug Defelonization Bill, More... (4/22/21)

A Lebanese hash field. Other farmers are now turning to hash to survive. (Cannabisculture.com)
The House votes to temporarily keep fentanyl analogues in Schedule I, the Minnesota pot legalization bill wins an eighth (!) committee vote, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Wins Eighth House Committee Vote. A bill to legalize marijuana, House File 600, won its eighth committee vote Thursday, advancing out of the House Education Finance Committee on an 8-6 vote. It still has at least one more committee to clear before heading for a House Floor vote. It now goes to the House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee.

North Carolina Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. Four House members have filed a bill to legalize marijuana, House Bill 617. "We all know someone or have a constituent that has contacted House Member's offices for help with a relative or friend being jailed for possession of small amounts of marijuana," Rep. Pricey Harrison said. "We took great care in writing this bill to include items to encourage bipartisan support. This bill will ensure appropriate guidelines and restrictions." The bill includes a provision allowing up to 12 plants for personal cultivation.

Virginia Governor Signs Marijuana Legalization Into Law. Marijuana will become legal on July1 after Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed the bill into law. People will be allowed to possess up an ounce of pot and can grow up to four plants at home. Legal sales will follow once rules and regulations are established.

Birmingham, Alabama, to Issue Blanket Pardons for 15,000 Marijuana Convictions. Mayor Randall Woodfin announced Tuesday that the city will issue blanket pardons for some 15,000 people with misdemeanor pot convictions dating back to 1990. The pardons will be automatic, he said, adding that the move would help people rejoin the work force.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana Bill to Allow Smokable Medical Marijuana Advances. The House Health and Welfare Committee voted 12-1 Thursday to advance House Bill 391, which would allow medical marijuana patients to smoke their medicine. Louisiana's dispensaries sell medical marijuana in liquids, topical applications, inhalers and edible gummies. But they are barred from offering raw marijuana in smokable form. The proposal heads next to the full House for debate and a vote.

Drug Policy

House Votes to Approve Temporarily Keeping Fentanyl Analogues in Schedule I. With a voice vote, the House on Wednesday approved an extension of an emergency designation that places fentanyl-like substances in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The emergency designation is set to expire May 6. In both the House and Senate, there are various bills extend the scheduling of fentanyl analogues for varying lengths of time. This vote gives legislators some time to reach a more permanent agreement. Organizations have criticized the designation as effectively extending the use of mandatory minimum sentencing -- which President Biden has said should be abolished -- and circumventing the science-based process intended to be used in drug scheduling.

Drug Testing

Michigan Senate Approves Bill to Ban "Drug Masking" to Defeat Drug Tests. The state Senate on Wednesday approved Senate Bill 134, which would criminalize using someone else's urine or taking a pill or vitamin to mask the presence of drugs in one's system. The bill makes the offense a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

Sentencing

Illinois House Approves Bill to Defelonize Drug Possession. The House on Wednesday approved a bill that would turn drug possession felonies into misdemeanors, House Bill 3447. "This approach not only strengthens communities across Illinois but addresses fundamental problems in our criminal legal system, rejecting decades of failed policy under the moniker of the War on Drugs," said Ben Ruddell, criminal justice policy director with the ACLU of Illinois. "We know that taking a proven public health approach to reducing harms associated with drug use will benefit everyone in the State of Illinois."

International

Lebanese Farmers Turn to Hash Amidst Economic Crisis. Buffeted not only by the coronavirus pandemic but also by the country's deep economic crisis, farmers who for years grew potatoes and other crops are now turning to hashish. "It's not for the love of hashish", explained one farmer. "It's just less expensive than other crops... and allows you to live with dignity."

MedMJ for Vets Bill in Congress, Pfizer Donating One Million Naloxone Doses, More... (4/16/21)

A medical marijuana bill moves in Tennessee, Idaho lawmakers defeat an anti-drug legalization constitutional amendment, and more.

the opioid overdose antidote naloxone (gov.pa)
Medical Marijuana

Bipartisan Bill to Legalize Medical Marijuana for Military Vets Filed in Congress. A bill that would federally legalize medical marijuana for veterans was refiled in Congress Thursday. Reps. Barbara lee (D-CA) and Dave Joyce (R-OH), both co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, and nine other original cosponsors filed the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act on the House side, while in the Senate, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) is leading the proposal, and he's joined by five other lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The bill would allow vets in states with legal medical marijuana programs to use it with a physician's recommendation, and it would allow doctors at Department of Veterans Affairs to make such recommendations.

Idaho House Kills Bill That Would Have Blocked Medical Marijuana. The House on Thursday defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have blocked the state from ever legalizing any illicit drug by requiring a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to do so. House Joint Resolution 4 failed after a half-dozen House Republicans voted against it saying Idahoans want medical marijuana.

Tennessee Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill to allow for the use of medical marijuana, Senate Bill 667, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday and now heads for the Senate Calendar Committee. Companion legislation, House Bill 880, is also moving, having passed out of one House Health subcommittee and scheduled for a House Health Committee vote net week.

Harm Reduction

Pfizer to Donate One Million Doses of Naloxone in a Bid to Blunt Overdose Deaths. Responding to a record number of drug overdose deaths in the United States, Pfizer has made a commitment to Direct Relief to donate 1 million doses of the drug naloxone, which saves lives by reversing opioid overdoses.The newly committed 1 million doses are in addition to the more than 1 million doses Pfizer has donated since 2017, which Direct Relief has distributed at no cost to nonprofit, community-based organizations across the United States. Deaths and emergency room visits from opioid overdoses have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to preliminary data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 87,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in September 2020 -- the highest number of deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

Drug Policy

Washington Senate Approves Bill to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor. The Senate voted Thursday to approve Senate Bill 5476, which would make drug possession a misdemeanor. The bill comes after the state Supreme Court threw out the state's felony drug possession law, leaving drug possession decriminalized. Some legislators argued for decriminalizing drug possession; others argued for refelonizing it but making it a misdemeanor is what the Senate passed.

International

Canada Opposition MP Files Drug Decriminalization Bill. New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Don Davies, who also serves as the party's health critic, has filed a private member's bill to remove provisions criminalizing drug possession from the Criminal Code. "Decades of criminalization, a toxic illicit street supply and a lack of timely access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services have caused this ongoing catastrophe. It's time to treat substance use and addiction as the health issues they truly are," he said at a news conference. A Liberal bill to reform drug laws filed in February doesn't go far enough, Davies said.

NY Gov Says Agreement Reached on Legalization Bill, IL Drug Defelonization Bill Advances, More... (3/25/21)

State legislatures are voting on marijuana all over the place, the Maryland Senate has just approved a bill to legalize drug paraphernalia, and more.

Drug paraphernalia would be legalized under a bill that just passed the Maryland Senate. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Delaware Marijuana Legalization Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 150, has passed out of the House Health and Human Development Committee on a party line vote and now heads for the House Appropriations Committee before getting a shot at a House floor vote. Gov. John Carney (D), who has been lukewarm on legalization, says he still has "concerns."

Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Wins House Committee Vote. A marijuana legalization bill, House File 600, was approved by the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday. It now heads to the House Rules and Legislative Administration Committee before getting a shot at a House floor vote.

New York Governor Announces Agreement on Marijuana Legalization. An agreement has been reached between the governor and legislative leaders on the final shape of marijuana legalization bill, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said Thursday. The bill will legalize the possession of up to three ounces and allow the home cultivation of up to six plants, as well as setting up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce with a strong equity component.

North Dakota Marijuana Legalization Bill Killed. A marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 1420, that won approval in the House has been killed in the Senate on a 37-10 floor vote. That opens the door for another try at legalizing it through the initiative process in 2022.

Drug Policy

Illinois Bill to Lessen Drug Penalties Wins House Committee Vote. The House Criminal Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 Tuesday to advance a bill that would lower penalties for hard drugs, House Bill 3447. The measure is in essence a defelonization bill, making possession of up to three grams of heroin, fentanyl, or methamphetamine a Class A misdemeanor. The same would apply to up to five grams of cocaine and up to 40 oxydocone or LSD pills. The bill now heads for a House floor vote.

Maryland Senate Approves Bill Legalizing Drug Paraphernalia. The Senate on Wednesday voted largely along party lines to approve Senate Bill 420, which legalizes the possession of drug paraphernalia. Sponsors said it is necessary to protect the health and safety of heroin users. The bill now heads to the House.

Drug Decriminalization is Starting to Show Up at the Statehouse [FEATURE]

With marijuana prohibition mortally wounded and on its last legs in the United States -- only Idaho, Kansas, and Nebraska still allow no form of legal marijuana -- the next frontiers are beginning to open up. Last week, we looked at the spread of interest in the loosening of laws around psychedelics, with eight states seeing legislation this year. This week, we will turn our attention to the spread of broader efforts toward drug decriminalization.

The Washington state capitol in Olympia. Lawmakers there and elsewhere are wrestling with drug decriminalization. (CC)
With both psychedelic drug reform and broader drug decriminalization, voters in Oregon led the way, continuing a tradition of pioneering drug reform that began when it became the first state to decriminalize weed back in 1973 and was among the earliest to adopt medical marijuana (1998) and marijuana legalization (2014). Last November, they broke new ground again by approving Measure 109 legalizing therapeutic psilocybin use and Measure 110 decriminalizing the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs.

With Oregon leading the way, legislators in other states are now taking up the cause. As with marijuana legalization, getting bills actually passed will likely prove to be an arduous, multi-year task, but you have to start somewhere, and here's where it's starting this year (with a big tip of the hat to Marijuana Moment, which provides a list of marijuana, psychedelic, and other drug reform bills to its paying subscribers):

Kansas -- Drug Decriminalization with an Authoritarian Twist

Twenty-year-old freshman Rep. Aaron Coleman (D-Kansas City), who ran on a fairly progressive platform, has filed House Bill 2288, which would indeed decriminalize drug possession, replacing a criminal charge with a maximum $100 fine, as well as reducing penalties for drug manufacture and distribution. But the bill also mandates forced drug treatment -- "the county or district attorney shall refer such person for participation in the certified drug abuse treatment program… or another drug abuse treatment program available in the community" -- and creates a new crime of failing to comply with drug treatment. That would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to five days in jail, six months on probation, and a $250 fine. The bill was introduced February 9 and assigned to the House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice, where it has sat without action ever since.

Maryland -- Decriminalization of Drug Paraphernalia

A bill that would decriminalize the possession of "drug paraphernalia to inject, ingest, inhale, or otherwise introduce into the human body a controlled dangerous substance," Senate Bill 0420, was approved by the Senate on March 4. Meanwhile, a companion measure, House Bill 0372, has passed the House, and that bill is now before the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

New York -- Drug Decriminalization

State Senator Gustavo Rivera (D, WF-The Bronx) has filed Senate Bill 1284, which "[e]liminates criminal and civil penalties for possession of controlled substances; establishes the drug decriminalization task force to develop recommendations for reforming state laws, regulations and practices so that they align with the stated goal of treating substance use disorder as a disease, rather than a criminal behavior." The bill is in the Senate Codes Committee, where it has sat unmoving since it was filed in January. The House version of the bill, Assembly Bill 6583, died on March 24, when its sponsor, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan), removed her support for it. Maybe next year.

Vermont -- Drug Decriminalization

House Bill 422, which currently has 14 cosponsors, would create a board with the Department of Health to set personal use and personal supply quantities and subsequently decriminalize the possession or supply of amounts under those limits. Violations would be punishable by no more than a $50 fine, which could be waived if the person agrees to a drug screening. It was introduced on March 10 and has been in the Committee on Human Services ever since.

Virginia -- Drug Decriminalization Study

A bill that would have directed "the Virginia State Crime Commission to study the propriety and effectiveness of alternative approaches to the Commonwealth's enforcement scheme for the possession of controlled substances, including decriminalization of the possession of such substances," House Bill 530, was introduced in January but killed in a House Rules Committee subcommittee in February.

Washington -- Drug Decriminalization

In February, the state Supreme Court lobbed a bomb into the criminal justice system when it ruled the state's felony drug possession law unconstitutional on the grounds that, unlike all other state criminal laws, it didn't require defendants to "knowingly" possess drugs. That inspired at least three legislative attempts to remedy the situation: Senate Bill 5471 to decriminalize unknowing drug possession; Senate Bill 5475 to make knowingly possessing drugs a crime but also create a working group to study drug possession laws; and Senate Bill 5468, which would simply refelonize drug possession. But before the court decision and all the bills it has lately inspired was a pure decriminalization measure, House Bill 1499. It's still alive, having passed the House Public Safety Committee in February, and is now before the House Appropriations Committee.

If any drug decriminalization bills in the states actually get passed and signed into law this year, that would be a pleasant surprise, but they are now beginning to pop up like they never did before. Getting things done through state legislatures is a frustrating and time-consuming process, as we see when it gets to trying to pass something as popular as marijuana legalization. With marijuana legalization, the early successes came from the initiative process, not state legislatures. Decriminalization victories may well come first from the voters, as in Oregon, not lawmakers. And that could make the prospects for next year better than this year.

SD Judge Throws Out Marijuana Legalization Init, IL Drug Defelonization Bill Coming, More... (2/10/21)

A South Dakota court throws out the voter-approved marijuana legalization amendment, Idaho medical marijuana campaigners can begin signature-gathering for 2022, and more.

A bill to requiring reporting on COVID in federal prisons is about to be filed. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New National Poll Has Three-Fifths Saying Marijuana Legalization is a "Good Idea." A new national survey from Emerson College Polling has 61% of respondents saying marijuana legalization is a "good idea." The poll asked about various issues -- new pathways for citizenship, raising the minimum wage, for example -- but none had as much support as marijuana legalization.

Connecticut Bill Would Require "Labor Peace" for Marijuana Businesses. A bill now before the Labor and Public Employees Committee, HB 6377, would require that marijuana businesses enter into labor peace agreements with a union before being granted licenses. The bill would require an agreement "between a cannabis establishment and a bona fide labor organization that protects the state's interests by, at minimum, prohibiting the labor organization from engaging in picketing, work stoppages or boycotts against the cannabis establishment." Under the bill, marijuana employers would give up some rights, including the right to speak to employees about union organizing efforts.

South Dakota Judge Rejects Amendment Legalizing Marijuana. A circuit court judge in Pierre appointed by marijuana legalization opponent Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has thrown out the constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana that was approved by 54% of the voters in November. The judge held that the measure violated the state's requirement that constitutional amendments deal with just one subject and would have created broad changes to state government. Amendment sponsors led by former US Attorney Brendan Johnson said they would appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho Campaigners Cleared to Begin Signature Gathering for 2022 Medical Marijuana Initiative. Kind Idaho, the group leading the campaign for a 2022 medical marijuana initiative, has been cleared to begin signature gathering. A 2020 signature-gathering campaign was disrupted by the coronavirus and ultimately failed to back the ballot. This move comes as a medical marijuana bill has just been introduced in the legislature and as the legislature also considers legislation that would prevent the state from legalizing any currently illicit drugs.

South Dakota Governor Seeks Delay in Implementing Medical Marijuana Initiative. Gov. Kristi Noem (R) said Wednesday that while she will not stand in the way of implementing a voter-approved medical marijuana initiative, the state will need more time to get the program up and running. "We are working diligently to get IM 26 implemented safely and correctly," Noem said. "The feasibility of getting this program up and running well will take additional time." Under state law, voter-approved ballot measures are supposed to take effect the following July 1, but Noem and the state's Republican legislative leadership say they will delay implementation until July 1, 2022.

Incarceration

Progressive Lawmakers Will Reintroduce COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act. United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), along with Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) will reintroduce of the COVID-19 in Corrections Data Transparency Act, bicameral legislation that would require the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the United States Marshals Service (USMS), and state governments to collect and publicly report detailed data about COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, deaths, and vaccinations in federal, state, and local correctional facilities. "As a result of their confinement, incarcerated people are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, and reports show that COVID-19 has spread like wildfire in correctional facilities across the country. This bill takes a necessary step towards containing the pandemic and supporting the health and safety of incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and the general public by strengthening data collection, reporting, and transparency," Senator Warren said.

Sentencing Policy

Illinois Drug Defelonization Bill Coming. Criminal justice reform advocates were thwarted in getting a drug defelonization bill passed in 2019, and now they are preparing to try again. The proposed bill would not only defelonize drug possession, it would also seek to divert drug users from the criminal justice system.

NJ Governor Signs Bill to Reduce Psilocybin Penalties, VA Drug Decrim Bill Killed, More... (2/8/21)

New Jersey reduces penalties for possession of psychedelic mushrooms, an Idaho medical marijuana bil lis filed, a Minnesota asset forfeiture reform bill advances, and more.

psilocybin molecule (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Deadline for Marijuana Legalization Legislation Extended. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) last Friday bumped back a procedural deadline for gubernatorial action on two already-passed marijuana legalization implementation and decriminalization measures from Monday to February 18. Governor Phil Murphy (D) and legislative leaders are making progress on changes to those bills to address concerns raised by the governor.

South Dakota Bill to Ban Smoking Marijuana in a Motor Vehicle Gets Hearing. A bill that would ban smoking marijuana in a motor vehicle got a hearing Monday. The bill, House Bill 1061, is a response to the voter-approved marijuana legalization initiative that passed in November.

Wisconsin Governor Proposes Legalizing Marijuana. Governor Tony Evers (D) announced Sunday that he is proposing that the state legalize marijuana. Evers' plan would allow people 21 and over to possess up to two ounces and grow up to six plants, as well as set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce. Medical marijuana would be available for people 18 and over.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. The House Health and Welfare Committee has filed a bill to allow for medical marijuana in the state. In a hearing Friday, witnesses including a prominent medical oncologist urged support for the legislation. No action was taken.

Pennsylvania Marijuana Workers Can't Unionize, NLRB Rules. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has squashed an attempt to unionize workers at a medical marijuana facility near Philadelphia. Workers at the AgriKind growing operation cannot be unionized because they are agricultural workers, the NLRB held. Agricultural and farm workers are usually considered to be exempt from federal labor law. The NLRB has ruled in favor of unionizing marijuana workers if their work includes packaging or delivering marijuana.

Psychedelics

New Jersey Governor Signs Bill to Reduce Penalties for Psilocybin Possession. Governor Phil Murphy (D) has signed into law A 5084 / S 3256, which reduces the penalty for people caught with small amounts of psilocybin from up to five years in state prison to a maximum of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), who first introduced the mushroom amendment, said Thursday the change mushrooms are still illegal in New Jersey, "but it's not going to ruin lives for a first offense."

Asset Forfeiture

Minnesota Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Advances. A bill that would limit cash seizures to amounts greater $1,500 unless drug trafficking is alleged and bar the seizure of vehicles except for repeat drunk driving offenders or vehicles used for drug trafficking -- not possession -- passed the House last Friday. HF 75 passed the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee and will now be considered by the House State Government Finance and Elections Committee.

Sentencing

Virginia Drug Defelonization Bill Killed in Committee. A bill that would have eliminated felony drug possession charges and shift the focus toward drug treatment instead of punishment, House Bill 2303, was defeated in the Committee on Courts and Justice last Friday.

Drugs and the Year from Hell: The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2020 [FEATURE]

What a year! Pandemic, civic unrest, national elections -- 2020 has been a year of tumult that can't be done with soon enough. But when it comes to drug policy, it wasn't all bad; in fact, a lot of it was pretty darned good. Some of it however was quite tragic Here's our year-end round up of the biggest drug policy stories of the year.

Update: The 2020 top ten list now goes to eleven, with Congress removing the drug conviction question from the federal financial aid for college form. See below.

The Pandemic

Just as it has infiltrated just about every aspect of American life, the coronavirus pandemic has been felt in the world of drugs and drug policy. Social distancing requirements early in the pandemic, precisely at the time drug reform initiative campaigns were typically in the midst of signature-gathering drives proved particularly lethal to marijuana legalization efforts in the Heartland as initiative campaigns in Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Oklahoma all succumbed. It also helped fell a Washington state drug decriminalization campaign, with organizers there opting instead to go the legislative route.

It has also infiltrated jails and prisons. One in five prisoners in the US has had COVID-19, according to The Marshall Project. 1,700 of them have died from it. Prison wardens have worsened the situation by blocking congressionally legislated compassionate releases for prisoners. Second waves are now hitting the nation's penal institutions. And most vaccinations in the prisons have been for staff, not prisoners. With drugs directly accounting for about one-in-four prisoners, COVID-19 in the prisons is partly a drug war story.

Amidst the layoffs, shutdowns, and social distancing imposed by the pandemic, drug use jumped. In July, the specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported that its analysis of more than half a million urine drug test results and found large increases in the use of four illicit drugs during the coronavirus pandemic. The lab found a 32.0% increase for non-prescribed fentanyl over the same period last year, a 20.0% increase for methamphetamine, a 10.1% increase for cocaine, and a 12.5% increase for heroin.

In September, a study published in the American Medical Association's JAMA Network found that drug test positivity rates for cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine ha increased nationwide during the pandemic. That same month, in a new study, Millennium Health reported that urine samples from across the US came back positive at a rate 20% higher in the early weeks of the pandemic compared to the same period before the pandemic began ratcheting up in early March. The pandemic almost certainly also has had an impact on fatal drug overdoses (see below).

One of the most striking impacts of the pandemic has been on policing. Early on, big cities began to forego drug arrests and prosecutions as a discretionary luxury they could no longer afford as they struggled with the coronavirus. In Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago, police or prosecutors announced they would not arrest or would not prosecute small-time drug possession cases. In March, prosecutors from more than 30 cities, including Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and St. Louis signed on to an open letter urging local governments to make change in the face of COVID-19. They called for police to adopt "cite and release policies for offenses which pose no immediate physical threat to the community, including simple possession of controlled substances." They also called for the release of people being held solely because they can't come up with cash bail and for reducing jail and prison populations "to promote the health safety, staff, those incarcerated, and visitors." These were not intended as permanent moves, but perhaps politicians, police and prosecutors will take the opportunity to break their addiction to punishing drug users and sellers by going cold turkey amidst the pandemic. That would be a silver lining to the current crisis.

Advocates for marijuana legalization folded the pandemic into their arguments for ending federal marijuana prohibition. More than 30 state attorneys general cited the pandemic in calling for Congress to pass the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to gain access to banking and financial services. The House HEROES Act coronavirus relief bill, passed in May, included a handful of criminal justice and drug policy reforms, mostly aimed at reducing the prison population during the pandemic, but also included that marijuana banking language.

COVID was also cited as making it even more imperative to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3884). Over the summer, as the pandemic simmered, a coalition of justice and drug reform groups called on Congress to pass the bill, arguing that legalization was especially urgent in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests over police brutality. Given the current situation, "marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the war on drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before," they wrote in a letter to Congress.

That was followed by an even broader assemblage of 125 religious, human rights, and drug reform groups calling for passage of the bill. "[T]he circumstances of 2020 have made the failed War on Drugs even more untenable and amplified the voices of those demanding transformation in our criminal legal system. In the face of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and a growing national dialogue on unjust law enforcement practices, marijuana reform as a modest first step at chipping away at the War on Drugs is more relevant and more pressing than ever before. The MORE Act remains the most effective and equitable way forward," the groups said. The MORE Act passed in December.

The Long, Hot Summer Uprising Against Police Violence and Racism

It all started with that horrid video of George Floyd dying under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer over an alleged miniscule offense, but as people took to the streets all over the country, the name Breonna Taylor also loomed large. The totally innocent 26-year-old black EMT was gunned down by Louisville police in a misbegotten "no-knock" drug raid (it might be more accurate to call them "home invasion raids") in March, and her killing not only powered months of street demonstrations in her hometown, it also engendered howls of outrage and promises of reform from politicians around the land. And it brought heightened scrutiny to business as usual in the war on drugs.

As the streets overflowed in May, nearly four dozen members of Congress called for an independent investigation of the raid, calling Taylor's death "an unspeakable tragedy that requires immediate answers and accountability." That was followed by a bevy of bills in Congress, including the Justice in Policing Act, which would ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases. House Democrats pushed the bill through in three weeks in June. Republicans in the Senate responded with Sen. Tim Scott's Justice Act, which wouldn't ban no-knock raids, but would increase federal reporting requirements for no-knock raids and use of force. But the GOP bill never moved in Sen. Mitch McConnell's Senate. As with so many measures passed by the House, McConnell's domain was where a congressional response to the crisis went to die.

But some states and localities actually enacted laws or ordinances aimed at reining in no-knocks. The Louisville Metro Council banned no-knock search warrants by unanimously passing "Breonna's Law" in June. Other cities, including Indianapolis, Memphis, Minneapolis, San Antonio and Santa Fe moved to either restrict or ban no-knocks. And while several states saw efforts to ban no-knocks, the only state where it's come to fruition so far is Virginia, where Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed into law House Bill 5099, which bars police from breaking into a home or business to conduct a raid without first announcing their presence.

In Historic Move, House Votes to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition

Breaking almost but not entirely along party lines, the House voted on December 4 to approve the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act of 2019 (HR 3884). 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.

Here Comes Psychedelic Drug Law Reform

Denver made history in May 2019 by becoming the first locality in the US to effectively decriminalize a psychedelic drug -- psilocybin-bearing magic mushrooms -- and as a psychedelic reform movement has spread across the land, this year saw more important advances. As the year went on, three more cities -- Ann Arbor, Oakland, and Santa Cruz -- passed similar ordinances.

Then on Election Day, voters in Oregon approved the groundbreaking Measure 109, the Psilocybin Services Act, with 56 percent of the vote. It will create a program to allow the administration of psilocybin products, such as magic mushrooms, to adults 21 and over for therapeutic purposes. People will be allowed to buy, possess, and consume psilocybin at a psilocybin services center, but only after undergoing a preparation session and under the supervision of a psilocybin service facilitator.

On the East Coast, Washington, DC, voters approved Initiative 81, the Entheogenic Plant and Fungi Policy Act of 2020, with 74 percent of the vote. The measure will have police treat natural plant medicines (entheogens) as their lowest law enforcement priority. The measure also asks the city's top prosecutor and its US Attorney to not prosecute such cases.

This string of psychedelic reform victories has generated momentum that is likely to result in more pushes in more places next year and beyond. Since Election Day, activists in San Francisco and Washington state have announced plans for decriminalization, a New Jersey state senator has filed a bill to downgrade the offense of magic mushroom possession, and a California state senator has announced he plans to file a bill. that would decriminalize the possession of psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics. And that's before the new year even begins.

Oregon Decriminalizes Drugs

With the passage by voters of Measure 110, the Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative, Oregon broke new ground by becoming the first state to decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs, including cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. The quantities decriminalized are up to one gram of heroin, up to one gram of or five pills of MDMA, up to two gram of meth, up to 40 units of LSD, up to 12 grams of psilocybin, up to 40 units of methadone, up to 40 pills of oxycodone, and up to two grams of cocaine. That's thousands of drug arrests that now will not occur in Oregon -- and now Oregon can set an example for other states to follow.

Red State or Blue State, Voters Choose Legal Marijuana When Given the Chance

The November election saw marijuana legalization on the ballot in four states and medical marijuana on the ballot in two states. They all won. Evenly-divided Arizona saw Proposition 207: The Smart & Safe Arizona Act, cruise to victory with 60 percent of the vote, while in blue New Jersey, Public Question 1 garnered a resounding 67 percent.

The really surprising results were in two red states: In Montana, Constitutional Initiative 118 and its companion Initiative 190 won with 58 percent and 57 percent of the vote, respectively, while in South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won with 54 percent of the vote. Both those states are Trump country, with the president taking 57 percent in the former and 62 percent in the latter.

It was the same story with medical marijuana too, as Mississippi approved Initiative 65 with 74 percent of the vote, while South Dakota's Measure 26 won with 70 percent. Marijuana for adult use in now legal in 15 states and medical marijuana is now legal in 38.

Attack of the Progressive Prosecutors

The November elections didn't just end the reign of Donald Trump and bring drug reform victories at the state level, they also ushered in a new crop of progressive prosecutors who will have the ability to affect the conduct of the war on drugs at the local level. Led by George Gascon, who was elected prosecutor of the nation's most populous county, Los Angeles, and running on progressive platforms that included confronting police misconduct, ramping down the war on drugs, and shrinking prison populations, progressives won prosecutor races in Detroit (Oakland County), Orlando, and two large Colorado districts that had been held for decades by Republicans. Progressives didn't win everywhere they ran, but the shift from "law and order" district attorneys toward progressives that began with Kim Foxx in Chicago and Larry Krasner in Philadelphia really gathered momentum this year.

A Tough Year for Safe Injection Sites

Safe injection sites -- or supervised injection sites or safe consumption sites, take your pick -- are a proven harm reduction intervention with 120 in operation in 10 countries around the world, but no legal ones operating in the US. It looked like that would change in 2020, but it didn't. A proposed site in Philadelphia got the final go-ahead from a federal judge in February, but the local US Attorney then won a stay blocking it, with a hearing on that stay held in October and the decision from the bench still pending. Things were also looking good in San Francisco after the Board of Supervisors okayed a three-site pilot program in June, but the state-level bill that would have allowed the city to proceed, Assembly Bill 362, died in the Senate after passing the Assembly. A similar fate befell a Massachusetts safe injection site bill, House Bill 4723, which managed to win a committee vote but then stalled. Maybe next year.

Asset Forfeiture Reforms

Asset forfeiture, especially civil asset forfeiture (without a criminal conviction), is increasingly unpopular, with 35 states and the District of Columbia approving reforms between 2014 and 2019. A November poll found that only 26% support allowing police to seize cash or property from someone without a criminal conviction. Some 59% of respondents oppose "allowing law enforcement agencies to use forfeited property or its proceeds for their own use." Opposition to equitable sharing, a federal program that allows state and local police to evade state laws against civil asset forfeiture, was even higher, with 70% against the program.

Here are some reasons why: In March, in Georgia,the Department of Revenue got caught spending millions of dollars in seized cash on "engraved firearms, pricey gym equipment, clothing, personal items, even $130 sunglasses." That same month, in Michigan, the Macomb County prosecutor was hit with a slew of criminal charges for allegedly taking funds seized from drug and other suspects for his own personal use, including a personal security system for his house, country club parties, campaign expenses and to buy flowers and make-up for his secretaries. In July, in Chicago, the city agreed to a $5 million payout to settle a class action lawsuit filed by two people whose vehicle was seized after a passenger was arrested for marijuana possession. The settlement will apply to hundreds of other cases where drivers had their vehicles impounded as part of drug cases. Also in Michigan, the Wayne County Sheriff's Office faces a similar lawsuit for seizing thousands of cars and other property belonging to residents without criminal convictions.

Such abuses helped New Jersey become the 36th asset forfeiture reform state when Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday (D) signed into law a bill mandating comprehensive disclosure and transparency requirements for the system of civil asset forfeiture. Unfortunately, the few remaining non-reform states are tough nuts to crack, as we saw with reform bills killed in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But, hey, at least Tyson Timbs, the Indiana man whose seized Land Rover resulted in a 2019 Supreme Court decision scaling back civil asset forfeiture, finally got his Land Rover back -- six years after it was seized over a drug bust.

America Keeps ODing

Amidst all the death in the pandemic, the ongoing epidemic of drug overdose deaths got short shrift this shift, but Americans are continuing to die by the tens of thousands. In July, the CDC reported preliminary data showing that after declining for the first time in decades in 2018, fatal ODs rose 4.6% in 2019. There's a lag in data for this year, but initial reports suggest bad news ahead. In July, the specialty laboratory Millennium Health reported that its analysis of more than half a million urine drug found large increases in the use fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. That same month, the Washington Post reportedthat fatal ODs have jumped and keep jumping during the pandemic. The Post's data showed overdose deaths up 18% in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May. The Post pointed to continued isolation, economic devastation, and disruptions in the drug trade as contributing factors.

Update 12/22: This year the top ten domestic stories goes to eleven, with the infamous "Aid Elimination Penalty" of the Higher Education Act set for repeal, as part of the massive spending bill sent to the president on the night of Monday the 21st. The provision barred students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for college, for varying lengths of time. The spending bill also restores Pell Grant eligibility to prisoners.

Our own organization campaigned for many years for the law's repeal, through the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform and the John W. Perry scholarship fund. Extensive media coverage made the law controversial, and in 2006 it was scaled back to be limited to drug offenses committed while a student was in school and receiving federal aid. In 2010 legislation to limit its reach further passed the House of Representatives.The provision stayed on the radar for members of Congress and their staffs, and yesterday it got done.

California Effort to Roll Back Sentencing Reforms Defeated on Election Day

A ballot measure that would roll back changes to California's sentencing laws, changing certain misdemeanor crimes, including some drug offenses to felony crimes, was roundly defeated at the ballot box on Election Day. Proposition 20 which "Restricts Parole for Non-Violent Offenders. Authorizes Felony Sentences for Certain Offenses Currently Treated Only as Misdemeanors," went down 68% to 32%, according to the Associated Press.

It was an effort to undo sentencing reforms by both the legislature (AB 109 in 2011) and two voter-passed initiatives, Proposition 47 (2014), and Proposition 57 (2016). All of those measures were designed to reduce the state's prison population; this one would have increased it at a cost of tens of millions of dollars a year.

One State is About to Vote on Radical Drug Policy Reform [FEATURE]

Oregon residents will have a chance in November to approve the most far-reaching drug reform measure ever to make the ballot in this country when they vote on Measure 110, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act. While the initiative indeed expands drug treatment, what makes it really revolutionary is that it would also decriminalize the possession of personal use amounts of all drugs, from psychedelics to cocaine and methamphetamine, as well as heroin and other illicit opioids.

Possession of illicit drugs will no longer be a criminal offense under Oregon law if this measure passes. (DEA)
"Our current drug laws can ruin lives based on a single mistake, sticking you with a lifelong criminal record that prevents you from getting jobs, housing and more," Bobby Byrd, an organizer with the More Treatment, A Better Oregon campaign," said in a press release.

If Oregon voters approve the measure, the state will be in select company. At least 19 countries, mostly in Europe and Latin America, have drug decriminalization laws on the books, with the most well-known being Portugal, which pioneered the way, decriminalizing drug possession in 2001. Instead of being arrested and jailed, people caught with illicit drugs there are given a warning and a small fine or asked to voluntarily appear before a local commission whose aim is to determine whether the person needs drug treatment and if so, to offer it to them at no expense. (It helps that Portugal has universal health care.)

Decriminalization has worked for Portugal. According to a Drug Policy Alliance report after a delegation visited Lisbon in 2018, before drug decriminalization, the country suffered rapidly increasing drug overdose deaths, a high number of people who caught HIV through needle-sharing, and led the European Union in drug-related AIDS. Since decriminalization, though, "the number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly, while overdose deaths, HIV infections, problematic drug use, and incarceration for drug related offenses has plummeted." Not bad at all.

It was just three years ago that the Oregon legislature approved drug defelonization -- making possession a misdemeanor instead of a felony -- but now advocates are already prepared to push further down the Portuguese path. That's because while, according to the state Criminal Justice Commission (CJC), drug defelonization indeed resulted in felony drug convictions dropping by nearly two-thirds, it also included a near 10-fold increase in misdemeanor drug possession convictions. That translates into only a slight decline in overall drug arrests, from just over 10,000 in Fiscal Year 2016 to 8,903 in Fiscal Year 2018.

Under Measure 110, those misdemeanor drug arrests would vanish as drug possession gets reclassified as a mere violation punishable only by a $100 fine or by completing a health assessment with an addiction treatment professional. Those who are deemed to benefit from drug treatment could go to an addiction recovery center, one of which will be located in every organization service area in the state. Those centers, as well as additional funding for treatment, would be paid for with revenues from marijuana sales taxes.

The measure is backed by Drug Policy Action, the political and lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has put $2.5 million into the campaign already, DPA director of media relations Matt Sutton said in an email exchange. And that's just the beginning, he added.

"We'll continue to invest in terms of what it takes to win it," he said. "The campaign is starting a variety of different ads and raising awareness in the final push. We've invested a lot already and we're very committed to it financially. We think this is winnable."

So, why Oregon and why now?

"We have to start somewhere," said Sutton. "Oregon is a very progressive state and has really been the leader on a lot of drug policy reforms. It was one of the first to decriminalize marijuana, one of the first to legalize medical marijuana, one of the first to legalize marijuana, one of the first to defelonize drug possession. It's no surprise that Oregon would be an attractive state to do this in."

The special nature of this year, with its double whammy of enduring pandemic and its long, hot summer of street protests, makes drug decriminalization all the more relevant, Sutton said.

"Having a state like Oregon that has been a progressive leader take this on will signal to the rest of the country that this can be done and that it's not actually that radical of a proposition," said Sutton. "And just in terms of everything that's happened this year -- COVID and the awakening to racial injustice -- it just doesn't seem as such a radical proposition. With COVID we've seen the discrepancies in the health care system.

"It's the same communities that are being overpoliced and have been hit hardest by the war on drugs," he continued. "And people are realizing that the war on drugs is racist. The real reason behind the war on drugs was to criminalize and marginalize communities of color, and we've demonized drugs and the people who use them. The drug war hasn't made drugs less accessible to youth, but instead we get a lot more people incarcerated and dying of drug use. The more we criminalize it, the more dangerous it becomes."

In an August report, the state CJC made clear just what sort of impact drug decriminalization would have on racial inequities, and the results are impressive: Racial disparities in drug arrests, using an academically accepted comparison measure, would drop by an astounding 95%.

The report also found that decriminalization would radically reduce overall drug convictions, with projected convictions of Black and Indigenous people declining by an equally astounding 94%.

"This drop in convictions will result in fewer collateral consequences stemming from criminal justice system involvement, which include difficulties in finding employment, loss of access to student loans for education, difficulties in obtaining housing, restrictions on professional licensing, and others," the report found.

"This report only scratches the surface," Kayse Jama, executive director of Unite Oregon said in a press release. "Drugs are too often used as an excuse to disproportionately target Black and Brown Oregonians and economically disadvantaged communities."

"This initiative addresses those racial disparities more than anything," said DPA's Sutton. "It will help those communities that have been down for far too long. A lot of the economic problems we see there are a result of decades of drug war, taking generations of people out of their homes and saddling them with felony convictions. This would be a huge win in taking drug reform to the next level. It doesn't solve all the problems of drug prohibition -- people would still be charged with distribution and drug induced homicide -- but it would still be a huge step forward."

And now, a broad coalition of change agents are uniting to push the initiative to victory in November. Endorsements range from national and international groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, AFSCME, the National Association of Social Workers, and Human Rights Watch, as well as dozens and dozens of state and local racial justice, human rights, and religious groups and groups representing health and social welfare professionals.

"We've received an incredible amount of support, and it's really broad," said Sutton. "And there is no organized opposition."

If things go well in November, DPA and its lobbying and campaign arm, Drug Policy Action, are already planning next moves.

"We just a few weeks ago released a national framework for drug decriminalization, the Drug Policy Reform Act," Sutton said. "This has been a goal of DPA all along and where our work is focused today, all drug decriminalization. We think that people are ready for that. We decided to release the framework right now just because of everything happening in the country especially around racial justice issues. People are seeing the direct impact of the war on drugs and the racial disparities."

"We're already looking ahead at other states where we could replicate this," Sutton revealed. "Some of the first states to legalize marijuana would likely be the first to consider drug decriminalization."

Once again, Oregon voters have a chance to burnish their drug reform credentials, only this time with the most dramatic attack yet on drug prohibition. If they approve Measure 110, they will truly be the drug reform vanguard -- and blaze a path others can follow.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of StoptheDrugWar.org, and we participated in the Lisbon delegation.

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