Police Raids

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Houston Narc & Suspect Killed in Drug Raid, FL Marijuana Init Can Gather Signatures, More... (9/21/21)

A Houston drug raid proved deadly Monday, mass killings are on the rise in one of Colombia's cocaine conflict zones, and more.

Will Floridians ever get a chance to vote on marijuana legalization? Maybe next year. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Florida Activists Mount Third Effort to Get Legalization Initiative on 2022 Ballot. After the state Supreme Court quashed two previous marijuana legalization initiative attempts earlier this year, the group behind one of them, Regulate Florida, is trying again. The group has filed a new petition with the state and it has been approved for signature gathering. The measure would allow people 21 and over to use and possess marijuana and allow them to grow up to nine plants, but not allow retail sales. Now, campaign organizers must gather 222,898 valid voter signatures to prompt a judicial and fiscal impact review, and if they pass that hurdle, must then come up 891,850 total valid signatures by February 1 to qualify for the November 2022 ballot.

Law Enforcement

Houston Narcotics Officer, Suspect Killed in Drug Raid. A Houston Police narcotics officer was shot and killed and a second officer shot and wounded while serving a drug search warrant early Monday. A suspect was also shot and killed. William "Bill" Jeffrey, a nearly 31-year veteran of the force, was shot several times and succumbed to his injuries. Sgt. Michael Vance, who's been on the force for 20 years, was also wounded and was in surgery Monday. Police said the unnamed suspect came out firing when they knocked on the door. The only information police released about the suspect was his race, Black.

International

Colombia Sees Rising Number of Mass Killings in Drug Conflict Zone. The Colombian Defense Ministry has reported a 91 percent increase in mass killings -- defined as the killing of four or more people -- across the country between January and July compared to the same period last year. Hardest hit has been the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca, where at least nine mass killings have occurred this year. Using a slightly different metric, the think tank Indepaz reported 260 people killed in 71 mass killings of three or more people. Valle del Cauca is contested terrain for a number of armed actors involved in the drug trade, ranging from FARC dissidents to rightist paramilitary to international drug trafficking organizations such as La Oficina de Envigado and local drug trafficking groups. According the Medical Examiner's Office, at least 8,566 were murdered nationwide between January and August, which is 26% more than in the same period last year and the highest number since 2013. The rightist government of President Ivan Duque has announced various strategies to deal with violence and drug trafficking since taking office in 2018, but none have had much impact.

Italian Referendum to Decriminalize Marijuana, Psilocybin, Other Drug Plants Meets Signature Requirement. It took Italian activists only a week to come up with some 500,000 online signatures to qualify a ballot measure decriminalizing the use and possession of marijuana, psilocybin mushrooms, and other psychoactive plants for the spring 2022 ballot. But they are calling on Italians to continue to sign the petition through the end of the month so they can build a buffer of surplus signatures in case some are invalidated. Once the signatures are formally submitted at the end of the month, the Court of Cassation and the Constitutional Court will then review the measure. If those two courts sign off, a vote would take place next spring.

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

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

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

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

Drug Policy

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

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

International

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

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

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

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

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

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

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

Law Enforcement

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

International

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

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

CT Set to Become 19th Marijuana Legalization State, Another Filipino "Narco Politician" Gunned Down, More... (6/17/21)

A minor civil asset forfeiture bill advances in Michigan, another new poll has strong support for drug decriminalization, and more.

A bill to legalize marijuana in Connecticut is now before the governor. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Marijuana Legalization Bill Heads for Governor's Desk. With final votes in the House and Senate approving Senate Bill 1201, Connecticut is set to become the 19th state to legalize marijuana. Gov. Ned Lamont (D) had aired concerns about whether an equity program went too far in prioritizing marijuana business licenses for people with marijuana arrests or convictions—even if they were now wealthy—but late amendments in the legislature addressed those concerns, and he is now expected to sign the bill.

Asset Forfeiture

Michigan House Approves Minor Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform. On a vote of 108-1, the House on Tuesday approved House Bill 4240, which mandates the funds derived from civil asset forfeitures will be distributed "through the treasurer of the unit of government overseeing the law enforcement unit, so that they may be appropriated for uses that enhance enforcement of criminal laws." The bill comes after a scandal last year in which the former Macomb County prosecutor was charged with official misconduct and embezzlement of civil asset forfeiture funds while in office. The bill does not otherwise restrict civil asset forfeiture.

Drug Policy

Second Recent Poll Finds Strong Support for Ending War on Drugs. A new poll from Data for Progress and The Lab found that 71% of respondents said federal anti-drug policies aren't working and reform is needed, 59% supported decriminalizing drug possession, 60% support moving regulatory authority of drugs from the DEA to HHS, and even 55% support decriminalizing small-time drug sales. An ACLU/Drug Policy Alliance poll last week had even stronger results, with 83% saying the war on drugs had failed and 66% supporting drug decriminalization.

Law Enforcement

Wisconsin Assembly Approves Limited Policing Reforms. The Assembly has passed a package of bills approving police reform measures, including barring chokeholds unless an officer's life is under threat, requiring police who shoot someone to take a drug test, and tracking the use of no-knock warrants. But some Democrats said that failing to enact a complete ban on chokeholds and no-knock search warrants meant the Assembly was not seriously addressing the issue. Legislative leaders countered that the bills were a step in the right direction.

International

Another Filipino Accused of Being "Narco Politician" Shot Dead in Police Custody. Former Talitay Mayor Montasser Sabal was shot and killed by police Wednesday after they arrested him on drug trafficking charges. Police said he tried to grab a gun from officers while being brought to Manila. In May 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte identified 44 mayors and other elected officials as "narco politicians." More than 20 on the list have already been killed in similar circumstances. In cases where police ackowledge killing people in anti-drug operations during the Duterte drug war -- 6,117, a figure far lower than the 30,000 estimated by NGOs watching the situation, police claim those killed were resisting arrest ("nanlaban") in all but a few cases. In its request for authorization to investigate announced this week, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court wrote there is "a reasonable basis to believe that between at least 1 July 2016 and 16 March 2019, members of Philippine security forces... deliberately killed thousands of civilians..."

Rio de Janeiro Drug Raid Massacre, AZ Governor Signs Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill, More... (5/7/21)

Medical marijuana bills are moving in several states, a Minnesota marijuana legalization bill has just won its 11th committee vote (!), the Texas House passes a psychedelic therapeutic study bill, and more.

A favela in Rio de Janeiro. A police raid on a Rio favela left 25 dead this week. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Law Enforcement Arrested Nearly 5,000 People on Marijuana Charges Last Year. Despite spreading legalization at the state level, federal marijuana prohibition remains in full force, with the DEA reporting seizing over 4 ½ million pot plants and making nearly 5,000 marijuana arrests. The number of plants seized was up by 20% over 2019, while the number of arrests was up only slightly from 2019. Both figures, though, represent substantial decreases from a decade ago, when the DEA seized nearly nine million plants and made 8,500 pot arrests.

Idaho Senate Approves Bill to Ban Marijuana Advertising. The state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would bar commercial advertising for marijuana in the state, a move that could potentially impact ballot initiatives to legalize the drug in the state. The bill was only filed this week and had a public hearing earlier in the day that gave the public little chance to participate. The bill now goes to the House.

Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Wins Yet Another House Committee Vote. The omnibus marijuana legalization bill, House File 600, was approved by the House Taxes Committee Wednesday. That was the 11th committee to approve the bill. It still must go before the House Ways and Means Committee before heading for a House floor vote. The bill face dim prospects, though, in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

Wisconsin GOP Lawmakers Strip Governor's Marijuana Legalization Proposal from Budget. The Republican-dominated Joint Finance Committee voted 12-4 on Thursday to delete Gov. Tony Evers' (D) marijuana legalization proposal from the budget. The move was no surprise, and has led to call from Evers for residents to put pressure on GOP lawmakers to support his agenda.

Medical Marijuana

Alabama Medical Marijuana Bill Heads to Governor's Desk. With final approval in the House on Thursday, and the Senate approving changes from the House that same day, a medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 46, is now headed to the desk of Gov. Kay Ivey (R), who has not indicated whether she will sign it. The bill would allow people suffering from a list of about 20 specified medical conditions to have access to medical marijuana.

Kansas House Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The House on Thursday voted 78-42 to approve a medical marijuana bill, House Substitute for SB158. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Tennessee Legislature Approves Limited Medical Marijuana Bill. A bill that would expand the state's limited CBD program and create a medical marijuana study commission has passed the legislature and now heads for the desk of Gov. Bill Lee (R), who is expected to sign it. It would allow patients to possess CBD oil with no more than 0.9% THC but provides no legal means of accessing it within the state.

Psychedelics

Texas House Approves Psychedelic Therapeutic Study Bill. The House on Thursday voted to approve a bill, House Bill 1802, that would mandate the state conduct a study of the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin and MDMA. The measure passed on an overwhelming vote of 134-12. The bill was amended in the House to limit the study to veterans with PTSD instead of the broader study originally envisioned. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Asset Forfeiture

Arizona Governor Signs Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill into Law. Governor Doug Ducey (R) on Wednesday signed into law House Bill 2810, which reforms but does not eliminate civil asset forfeiture in the state. The bill passed the legislature with strong support.

International

Brazil Drug Raid in Rio Favela Leaves 25 Dead. A massive police operation Thursday against drug traffickers in the Jacarezinho favela in Rio de Janeiro left one policeman and 24 favela residents dead. The bloody raid is drawing condemnation from human rights groups. "Who are the dead? Young black men. That’s why the police talk about ‘24 suspects.’ Being a young, black favela resident automatically makes you a suspect to the police. They just keep piling up bodies and saying, ‘They’re all criminals,’" said Silvia Ramos, head of the Security Observatory at Candido Mendes University. "Is this the public security policy we want? Shootouts, killings and police massacres?" This isn't the deadliest anti-drug police operation in the country's history: A 2005 raid in the Baixada Fluminense favela left 29 dead. Police in Rio have a reputation for deadliness, and Human Rights Watch reports that they killed 453 in the first quarter of 2021.

Chronicle Book Review: "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption"

We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops, and Corruption by Justin Fenton (2021, Random House, 335 pp., $28.00 HB)

The thuggish, racially-charged reality of the war on drugs sometimes leaps dramatically into the national spotlight, as when gung-ho drug cops in Louisville gunned down Breonna Taylor in her own apartment last year or when a North Carolina SWAT team sent to execute a routine drug warrant managed to shoot Andrew Brown in the back of the head as he fled in his car. Both were African-American, both collateral damage in the endless drug war.

Such outrages inevitably -- and deservedly -- shock the conscience of the nation and garner lots of headlines. And they sometimes lead to reforms, with Taylor's death resulting in a Louisville ban on no-knock raids and a statewide partial ban on them, as well as propelling legislation both in other states and in Congress.

But most of the time, the drug war just grinds on, chewing up its victims and turning them into raw inputs for the criminal justice industrial complex, but also engendering both crime related to black market activities and deep mistrust if not outright loathing in the communities of color most ground down by the heavy hand of prohibition policing.

It also has a way of chewing through the integrity of too many cops. Corruption and drug law enforcement have gone hand in hand from the days of Harry Anslinger's crooked federal narcs all the way through the war on drugs. The litany of drug-related police corruption scandals is long and sordid, from Serpico's NYPD to the LAPD's Ramparts scandal, the Oakland Riders, Philadelphia's Tarnished Badge scandal and lesser, but equally corrupt groups of officers in places such as Miami, Memphis, Tulsa, and Baton Rouge.

And now we can add Baltimore's Gun Trace Task Force scandal. The name should ring a bell among regular readers of the Chronicle's This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories, where task force members made regular appearances among our listings of officers arrested, convicted, and sentenced for their criminal misdeeds in the past few years. But now, Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin Fenton, who covered the whole thing as it unfolded, wraps it all up in an ugly little package in We Own This City, the title taken from the arrogant braggadocio of one of the miscreants.

In the 2010s, Baltimore was a city battered by decades of deindustrialization and declining population, hammered hard by heroin, and with surging crime and a murder count reaching record highs. Mayors came into office with new anti-crime plans and appointed new police chiefs with new strategies, but nothing was working. And then came the death of Freddy Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died in the back of a police paddy wagon under suspicious circumstances.

As the city and the police department reeled in the face of furious outbreaks of rioting and mass protests, they turned to one of the department's stars, a self-promoting hot dog of a cop who managed to make more gun busts than anyone -- and made sure his supervisors knew it -- Sgt. Wayne Jenkins and his squad of elite plainclothes "jump out boys" in the Gun Trace Task Force.

But Jenkins and his boys were less about addressing the drugs and guns problem than exploiting it for their own ends. For years, the crew went on a rampage of unlawful traffic stops, break-ins, robberies, evidence-planting, and drug dealing as they preyed on the citizens of Baltimore -- mostly the Black citizens of Baltimore. They specialized in identifying and ripping off drug dealers and used their networks of informants to peddle the dope right back onto the same streets they took in from. Their false testimonies sent people to prison, and their reckless behavior led to the death of at least one innocent bystander.

That the Gun Trace Task Force got away with its out-of-control crime spree for years is an indictment not only of the amoral men involved, but also the public officials and police administrators who should have caught on but remained clueless until it all exploded in their faces thanks to a federal investigation that eventually cracked the case wide open. It's also a reminder that enforcing drug prohibition generates such scandals on a predictably regular basis.

Fenton does an admirable job of tying this multi-tentacled story into a neat, if disturbing little package. As a local crime reporter, he has the background and extensive contacts to provide a thorough understanding of city and state politics, the intricacies of the Baltimore Police Department, and the people of the city, both folks involved in the trade and just regular folks swept up in the task force crime wave. In so doing, he becomes the voice of the city, appalled and disgusted by the moral rot within the Gun Trace Task Force.

Drug war police corruption is an old story, but this time with a new locale and a new cast of characters, brought to life by a seasoned journalist. We Own This City is a gripping and disturbing read, carrying a lesson we still have not learned.

NC Black Man Killed By Cops Was Fleeing Drug Raid, CA Senate Approves Safe Injection Sites, More... (4/23/21)

US-Mexico law enforcement cooperation in battling Mexican drug cartels is at a standstill, a Montana marijuana legalization implementation bill is heading for House and Senate floor votes, and more.

Andrew Brown. Unarmed man killed by North Carolina police as he fled drug raid. (family photo)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Senate Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Implementation Bill. The Senate Select Committee on Marijuana Law has approved House Bill 701, which is aimed at implementing the state's voter-approved marijuana legalization law. The committee approved more than 30 amendments to the bill addressing multiple aspects of legalization implementation. The bill will now head to House and Senate floor votes.

Harm Reduction

California Senate Approves Safe Injection Site Bill. The state Senate on Thursday approved Senate Bill 57, sponsored by Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco). The bill would legalize safe injection sites as pilot programs in Los Angeles County, Oakland, and San Francisco. The bill now heads to the Assembly, and even if approved there and signed into law, it still faces federal hurdles too.

Law Enforcement

Unarmed Black Man Killed By North Carolina Cops Died Fleeing Drug Raid. Andrew Brown, the Elizabeth City, North Carolina, man killed by sheriff's deputies on Tuesday, died after being shot as he attempted to flee the scene in his vehicle. His killing by Pasquotank County deputies has sparked continuing protests, and the sheriff's office is being pressed to release deputies' body cam footage. Witnesses said deputies began shooting at Brown as he started to drive away from law enforcement. The sheriff said all three deputies on the scene fired their weapons.

US Investigations into Drug Cartels Paralyzed by Standoff with Mexico. Former and current officials in both the US and Mexico told Reuters that the fight against Mexican drug trafficking organizations has "ground to a halt" because of strained relations between the two counties. The freeze came after DEA agents arrested a Mexican general who was later released under pressure from Mexico, but that raid sparked the Mexican Congress to enact a new law requiring US drug agents to report their law enforcement contacts in the country to Mexican officials, whom the Americans regard as corrupt. As a result, investigators from both countries have paused their cooperation out of fear that cases could be compromised or informants killed.

International

Colombia Indigenous Community Attacked for Anti-Coca Stance. An indigenous community in the township of Caldono in Cauca province is under attack from armed leftist and rightist groups tied to the coca and cocaine trade. Last Tuesday, indigenous governor Sandra Liliana Peña Chocue, who opposed coca crops in indigenous lands, was assassinated, and last Thursday, at least 31 members of the community were wounded when one of the armed groups opened fire on them as they manually eradicated coca crops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MD Lawmakers Pass Major Police Reforms Through Veto Override, Tijuana Travel Warning Issued, More... (4/12/21)

An American citizen in Dubai faces three years in prison after testing positive for marijuana, Delaware marijuana legalization activists urge boycott of dispensaries that testified against legalization bill, and more.

Tijuana street scene. The State Department has issued a travel warning because of cartel violence. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Delaware Marijuana Activists Stage Boycott of Medical Dispensaries That Testified Against Legalization Bill. Marijuana legalization advocates have called a boycott of four medical marijuana dispensaries after their representatives testified against a marijuana legalization bill last month. The four companies are Columbia Care, Fresh Delaware, CannTech and EZY Venture. They testified that allowing legalization would oversaturate the market, with some even talking about how it could hurt their bottom lines. The Delaware Cannabis Policy Coalition accused the companies of "simply obstructing the progress of adult-use legislation" and added that "some patients are now staging a boycott of the regulated dispensaries."

Drug Testing

Mississippi Ban on Sale of Urine, Fake or Real, to Beat Drug Tests Signed into Law. Gov. Tate Reeves (R) signed into law Senate Bill 2569 last Friday. The bill makes it a crime to sell, market, or give away real or fake human urine to produce negative results on a drug test. A first offense can earn up to six months in jail, with a second offense earning up to a year and a third offense earning up to three years in prison.

Law Enforcement

Maryland Passes Sweeping Police Reform Legislation. Overriding a veto by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), the legislature last Saturday passed a package of three bills -- Senate Bill 71, Senate Bill 178, and House Bill 670 -- that restrict the use of no-knock warrants, limits police officers' use of force, and repeals the country's first Bill of Rights for law enforcement. Passage of the package was impelled by the nationwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd in police custody. "This is what the community wants -- they want reform, they want transparency, and they want accountability," said Caylin A. Young, public policy director of the ACLU of Maryland, which was part of a coalition of 90 groups that had backed the bills. "There needs to be a reimagining of what policing in Maryland looks like."

International

US Citizen Detained in Dubai for Marijuana-Positive Drug Test. An American man who was hospitalized in Dubai for an attack of pancreatitis and who subsequently tested positive for marijuana at the hospital has been detained for violating the drug laws of the United Arab Emirates, which consider a positive drug test as equating with possession. Peter Clark, 51, had smoked marijuana in Las Vegas before flying to Dubai. He was jailed for three days in foul conditions before being released to a hotel. He is facing up to three years in prison.

State Department Issues Travel Alert for Tijuana, Mexicali Valley. The US Embassy in Mexico City has issued a security alert warning citizens to take care when traveling in Tijuana and the nearby Mexicali Valley because of violent conflict between drug trafficking groups in Tijuana. "Travelers should exercise extra caution when traveling in and around Mexicali, the Mexicali Valley, and the western part of the state of Sonora due to the potential for increased violence between rival cartel factions. Members of the embassy community have been warned to avoid the Mexicali area until further notice," the US embassy said. The Sinaloa Cartel is attempting to fend off a takeover attempt of the Tijuana plaza by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), which has recently threatened the state governor and members of his cabinet.

CA Coerced Treatment Bill Draws Opposition, WY Committee Advances Marijuana Legalization, More... (3/15/21)

New Mexico lawmakers have less than a week to get their act together and legalize marijuana, Republican US senators target drug cartels with a new bill, a fight is brewing over no-knock raids and warrants in the Kentucky House, and more.

Magic mushrooms and other natural psychedelics are now the lowest law enforcement priority in DC. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Mexico Hits Stalemate on Marijuana Legalization. With the legislative session set to end this week, lawmakers remained at loggerheads Monday over two competing marijuana legalization bills. A hearing set for Sunday was called off minutes before it was set to begin, as lawmakers diverge on issues around taxations, licensing, and expungement for past convictions. The two measures under consideration are Senate Bill 288 and House Bill12.

Wyoming Marijuana Legalization Bill Wins Committee Vote. The House Judiciary Committee voted last Friday to approve a marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 209. That is the first time any marijuana legalization effort has advanced in the state legislature. The bill now heads to the House floor.

Psychedelics

DC Psychedelic Deprioritization Initiative Now in Effect. As of Monday, possession or use of a wide range of natural psychedelics is now the lowest priority for law enforcement in the nation's capital. That's because a voter-approved natural psychedelic initiative has gone into effect.

Law Enforcement

GOP Senators File Bill Targeting Drug Cartels. Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Tom Cotton (R-AR), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Ben Sasse (R-NE) have introduced the Significant Transnational Criminal Organization Designation Act, legislation that would subject certain foreign criminal organizations like drug cartels to sanctions, including immigration, financial, and criminal penalties. Similar legislation is being sponsored in the House by Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI). The process would be similar to the system used for designating entities as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). "Criminal organizations and drug cartels that terrorize our communities and wage war at our borders ought to be treated just like terrorist groups in the eyes of the US government. This bill would help stop cartel violence by ensuring these groups-and anyone who helps them-face dire consequences for their actions," said Cotton. The bill is not yet avialable on the congressional web site.

Sentencing

California Bill Would Allow Forced Drug Treatment for Drug Offenders. A bill that would allow a pilot "secured residential treatment program" in Yolo County, near Sacramento, is drawing increasing concern. Assembly Bill 1542, sponsored by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) would "authorize the court to divert an offender to confinement in a secured residential treatment facility if it determines that the crime was caused in whole or in part by that individual's substance abuse." The bill has drawn the ire of critics such as JusticeLA, which warned that "AB 1542 would implement a pilot program in Yolo County that could easily become a statewide model and would jail houseless community members for misdemeanors such as trespassing and minor thefts under the guise of offering treatment," the group warned. "The pilot program tries to sell punishment as treatment. Our communities call for supportive services for people with mental health conditions, including those related to substance abuse -- not a new mode of incarceration."

Kentucky Bill Restricting No-Knock Raids Faces Amendments in House. In the wake of the killing of Breonna Taylor in a botched drug raid last year, the Senate passed Senate Bill 4, which restricted no-knock warrants to cases where there is "clear and convincing" evidence of violent crime and to bar them between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Now the bill faces amendments from House Republicans and former police officers that would instead expand the use of such warrants. At the same time, House Democrats want to amend the bill to make it even more restrictive.

International

Four Mexican Police Officers Killed, Burned in Zacatecas. Presumed drug cartel gunmen opened fire on a police patrol in the north-central state of Zacatecas, killing four officers, then pouring gasoline on their patrol car and burning their bodies. State police said late last Thursday they had captured seven attackers and killed two others. Police also said they discovered a drug cartel camp nearby. The state is increasingly a battle zone as remnant Zetas, the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels and the rival Jalisco New Generation cartel fight for control.

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