Breaking News:Dangerous Delays: What Washington State (Re)Teaches Us About Cash and Cannabis Store Robberies [REPORT]

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This Year's Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories [FEATURE]

The good, the bad, and the ugly in US domestic drug policy this year.

Drug overdoses hit a record high in 2022, but may have peaked. (Creative Commons)
1. Overdose Deaths Appear to Have Peaked but Are Still at Horrid Levels

According to Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in December, the nation's fatal drug overdose epidemic has peaked. After reaching a record high of more than 110,000 fatal overdoses in the 12-month period ending in March, that number declined to 107,735 in the 12-month period ending in July, the last month for which data is available. That is a two percent decline from the March high.

While the decline is welcome, drug overdose numbers are still 25 percent higher than they were two years ago and double what they were five years ago. According to the CDC, synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, were implicated in more than two-thirds of overdose deaths and stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine were involved in nearly one-third. But some fraction of stimulant-implicated overdose deaths are not caused by the stimulants themselves but by stimulant users being exposed to drugs cut with fentanyl.

2. Neither Marijuana Legalization nor Banking Access Pass Congress

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) vowed to make passage of a marijuana legalization bill a priority in this Congress, but it didn't happen. While the House passed a legalization bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617) in April, Schumer and congressional allies didn't even roll out a draft version of their Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act until this July -- 18 months after this Congress began -- and it never exhibited enough bipartisan support to go anywhere in the evenly divided Senate.

Schumer and his Senate allies also repeatedly blocked efforts to get a bill to allow state-legal marijuana businesses access to financial services through the Senate. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act (HR 1996) passed the House in April, and Senate allies tried repeatedly to attach it as an amendment to various spending bills, only to be stymied by Schumer and his holdouts for full-blown legalization. At year's end, though, while Schumer was finally ready to move forward with it, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) came out in opposition, helping to scuttle one last effort to tie it to a defense appropriations bill.

3. With Biden's Signature, A Standalone Marijuana Reform Bill Becomes Law for The First Time Ever

For the first time ever, Congress passed and in December the president signed into law a stand-alone marijuana reform bill, the bipartisan Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act (HR 8454). Some marijuana reform measures have been passed before, but only as part of much broader appropriations bills. The aim of the bill is to facilitate research on marijuana and its potential health benefits. The bill will accomplish this by streamlining the application process for scientific marijuana studies and removing existing barriers for research by allowing both private companies and research universities to seek DEA licenses to grow their own marijuana for research purposes.

4. Three More States Legalize Marijuana

In May, Rhode Island became the 19th state to legalize marijuana when the General Assembly passed and Gov. Dan McKee signed into law the Rhode Island Cannabis Act. Sales to any adult over 21 at medical marijuana dispensaries that acquired "hybrid retail licenses" began in December.

And in November, voters in Maryland and Missouri approved marijuana legalization initiatives. Maryland's Question 4 came not from the people but from the legislature and amends the state constitution and mandates that the General Assembly "shall provide for the use, distribution, possession, regulation and taxation of cannabis within the state." Missouri's Amendment 3 overcame multi-sided opposition not only from the usual suspects in law enforcement and the political establishment but also from civil rights groups and marijuana industry insiders to eke out a narrow victory. As of December 8, possession of up to three ounces by adults is no longer a crime, but sales to adults will not begin until next year.

But there were also losses at the ballot box this year. The Arkansas Adult Use Cannabis Amendment garnered only 43.8 percent of the vote, while North Dakota's Initiated Statutory Measure No. 1 managed only 45.1 percent, and South Dakota's Initiated Measure 27 came up short with only 46.6 percent of the vote. The South Dakota defeat was especially bitter, given that just two years ago, voters there approved a broader marijuana legalization initiative with 54 percent of the vote only to see it invalidated by the state Supreme Court.

5. The Year of Fentanyl Test Strip Decriminalization

Fentanyl test strips, which detect the presence of the powerful synthetic opioid in all different kinds of drugs (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, etc.) and formulations (pills, powders, and injectables) are recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a valuable harm reduction strategy and are increasingly seen by the states as a crucial tool in the fight to reduce drug overdose deaths. When the Biden White House first endorsed their use in 2021, they were considered illegal drug paraphernalia in a majority of states.

Not anymore. As of the end of 2022, 31 states have now legalized or decriminalized fentanyl test strips, with Alabama, Georgia, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Wisconsin doing so this year alone. But that leaves 19 states, mostly in the South and including Florida and Texas where they remain banned.

6. Colorado Becomes Second State to Approve Natural Psychedelic Reforms

Three years after voters in Denver opened the door to psychedelic reform by approving a municipal initiative that made possession of psilocybin mushrooms the lowest law enforcement priority, voters statewide have approved an initiative that decriminalizes plant- and fungi-derived psychedelics and creates a program for the therapeutic administration of such substances. On Election Day, voters approved Proposition 122, the Natural Medicine Health Act, with 53.55 percent of the vote. The victory makes Colorado the second state to enact reforms decriminalizing a natural psychedelic and setting up a program for therapeutic use. Oregon voters led the way on that by approving Measure 109 in 2020.

Proposition 122 has two main prongs: First, it decriminalizes the personal use, possession, and cultivation by people 21 and over of dimethyltryptamine (DMT), ibogaine, mescaline (not derived from peyote), psilocybin, and psilocyn, as well as providing for the sealing of conviction records of people who have completed sentences for the use or possession of those substances. The measure sets no personal possession limits. Second, it creates a "natural medicine services" program for the therapeutic administration of the specified psychedelics and creates a rubric for regulated growth, distribution, and sales of those substances to entities within the program. Only psilocybin and psilocin would be okayed for therapeutic use until 2026. Then regulators could decide on whether to allow the therapeutic use of DMT, ibogaine, and mescaline.

7. Marijuana Social Consumption Lounges Spread

Ever since the first states legalized marijuana a decade ago, one question for users was where to go to smoke their newly legal product. Most states ban smoking outdoors in public or indoors pretty much anywhere except one's home -- and even that can be an issue if your landlord isn't down with it. One solution is allowing places for marijuana users to toke up in a convivial setting, the marijuana social consumption lounge, whether as part of a retail shop or as a standalone business.

Social consumption lounges are now legal in 11 states -- Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Nevada -- although they are not actually up and running yet in some of them. Massachusetts has two lounges now operating; in New Jersey, regulators just approved rules for them; in Nevada, regulators just issued 20 provisional licenses; in New York, they're still waiting for regulators to act; and in California, the state's dozen or so lounges are set to double in number as more localities okay them. Meanwhile, the nation's capital could be next: In the District of Columbia, the city council just approved a bill allowing them.

8. Safe Injection Sites Are Operating in the United States

Safe injection sites, the harm reduction intervention proven to save lives after years of operation in more than a hundred cities in Australia, Canada, and Europe, are finally getting a toehold in the US. New York City's two safe injection sites have just celebrated their first birthdays after opening in late 2021, and in Rhode Island, a two-year pilot program is underway.

But there will be no safe injection sites in California after Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) vetoed a bill that would have allowed pilot programs in major cities across the state. And the fate of a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site -- and the Biden administration's attitude toward them -- remains in doubt. That facility was initially blocked by the Trump Justice Department, and two years later, the Biden Justice Department has yet to substantively respond to lawsuit from the site's would-be operators. Just this month, a federal judge gave DOJ just 30 more days to respond. A positive response would remove the obstacle to further expansion of such sites that fear of federal prosecution brings. Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service has thoughtfully released a report about other options for getting them up and running, such as passing budget amendments similar to those blocking the Justice Department from interfering in marijuana laws.

9. In DC and New York City, Gray Market Weed Finds a Way

In both the nation's capital and the nation's largest city, unregulated marijuana vendors have popped up to supply pent up demand as both cities endure legalization without legal marijuana sales. In New York City, it's only a matter of time before taxed, licensed, and regulators marijuana retailers are able to open, but in the interregnum between legalization and legal access, the pot scene has gone hog wild with marijuana being sold everywhere -- head shops, bodegas, even from folding tables on street corners -- with one particularly hysterical estimate putting the number at "likely tens of thousands of illicit cannabis businesses." The market isn't waiting for the regulators, and its emergence could undercut the legal businesses waiting in the wings. The city has undertaken limited enforcement efforts, but to little effect so far.

In Washington, DC, a congressional rider barring taxed and regulated marijuana sales has seen something similar, but with a DC twist: a multitude of shops that will "gift" you marijuana when you purchase some other item. The stores call themselves I-71 shops, after the 2014 initiative that legalized marijuana in the city and they even have their own industry association, which estimates there are a hundred or so of them. The city vowed a crackdown in August, but put that on hold the following month.

10. For the First Time, SAMSHA Funds Harm Reduction

In December 2021, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) announced that it would for the first time ever make grants available to harm reduction groups to "help increase access to a range of community harm reduction services and support harm reduction service providers as they work to help prevent overdose deaths and reduce health risks often associated with drug use." SAMSHA would make available $10 million a year in grants for the next three years.

And this year, the first tranche went out. Some 25 different programs from the Lost Dreams Awakening Center in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, to the Mile High Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse in Denver, to the Los Angeles County Health Department got grants this year, almost all of them for $398,960. It's a drop in the bucket compared to federal spending on prohibition -- and compared to harm reduction's full funding needs -- but it's a start.

Crack Sentencing Bill Left out of Spending Bill, SAFE Banking Act Will Be Back Next Year, More... (12/22/22)

New York legal recreational marijuana sales are set to begin next week, Maryland's incoming Democratic governor says expunging past pot convictions will be a priority, and more.

crack cocaine (Argv0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44743583)
Marijuana Policy

SAFE Banking Act Plus Effort Set for Next Year. Supporters of the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) struck out in this Congress, but are determined to get an enhanced version of the bill passed next year. The SAFE Banking Act Plus will contain "important expungement and second amendment rights provisions," said bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Although the last chance to get the bill passed this year was blocked by Republican Senate leaders, Merkley said, the SAFE Banking Act Plus was a "must pass" in 2023. "We've made so much progress on forging bipartisan consensus," Merkley said, adding that he "won't rest until we get it done."

Maryland Governor-Elect Says Marijuana Expungements Will Be a Top Priority. In November, state voters approved marijuana legalization and elected a new governor, Democrat Wes Moore. The legislation goes into effect July 1, 2023 and includes provisions for the expungement of thousands of past marijuana convictions. Governor-Elect Moore is now saying getting those expungements done will be a priority of his administration.

New York Governor Announces First Recreational Marijuana Sales Will Begin Next Week. Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) announced Wednesday that the first adult use marijuana sales will begin one week from today. State regulators had pledged to get the recreational market launched before year's end, and they will just barely meet that goal.

"We set a course just nine months ago to start New York's adult-use cannabis market off on the right foot by prioritizing equity, and now, we're fulfilling that goal," Hochul said. "The industry will continue to grow from here, creating inclusive opportunity in every corner of New York State with revenues directed to our schools and revitalizing communities. The first shop to open will be run by Housing Works, a nonprofit that provides HIV/AIDS services. Thirty-five more shops have also received licenses to begin operations.

Sentencing Policy

Bill to End Federal Crack Cocaine Sentencing Disparity Left Out of Last Chance Spending Measure. A bill that would have permanently eliminated the sentencing disparity for federal crack and powder cocaine offenses, the EQUAL Act (HR 1963) is dead after it was left out of a must-pass omnibus funding bill that was approved this week. The long-lived 100:1 sentencing disparity was reduced to 18:1 by Congress in 2010, and last week, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo that instructs prosecutors to effectively end the disparity by not charging mandatory minimum offenses.

Senators thought they had a deal to include the act in the omnibus bill, but Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) blamed Garland's action for getting the bill scuttled. "That hard-won compromise has been jeopardized because the attorney general inappropriately took lawmaking into his own hands," Grassley said. But Garland's memo does not have the force of law and could be reversed by a future attorney general.

SAFE Banking Act Dead in This Congress, CA Natural Psychedelic Bill Refiled, More... (12/20/22)

The marijuana industry will remain without access to many services after Congress failed to act this year, the GAO looks at how the drug czar's office is performing, and more.

Marijuana Banking Reform Dead in This Congress. Efforts to provide state-legal marijuana businesses with access to banking and financial services have come to naught in this Congress. The push has been on to get the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) through the Senate after it passed the House on seven different occasions, most recently in July. But Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) never called it for a vote and he and his Senate allies repeatedly blocked it from being attached to various spending bills as they held out for a full-blown legalization bill. One last chance for the act was the omnibus spending bill passed Tuesday, but it didn't include the act, either. This time, though, it was blocked not by Schumer but by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

Psychedelics

California Psychedelic Decriminalization Bill is Back. Four months after state Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) pulled his bill to decriminalize certain psychedelics when it was gutted in committee, the bill has been refiled. Senate Bill 58 would decriminalize magic mushrooms and ayahuasca -- but not LSD or MDMA -- and is being backed by veterans and mental health professionals. The bill decriminalizes only plant- or fungi-based psychedelics.

Drug Policy

GAO: Office of National Drug Control Policy Met Some Strategy Requirements but Needs a Performance Evaluation Plan. The Government Accountability Office reported Monday on the performance of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) and found that the 2022 strategy "fully met some legal requirements, including setting long-range, measurable goals to address drug misuse. The Strategy partially met others related to identifying the resources to treat substance use disorders. But, it didn't include a systematic plan for increasing data collection."

Also, "The 2022 Strategy and accompanying documents vary in their level of compliance with selected statutory requirements. The Strategy fully met some requirements, including those related to comprehensive, long-range, quantifiable goals, and targets to accomplish those goals. The Strategy partially met other selected requirements, including those related to identifying resources for the treatment of substance use disorders. The Strategy does not address some statutory requirements, including some related to future planning. For example, the Strategy is to contain a systematic plan for increasing data collection, including to enable real time surveillance of drug control threats. However, as of December 2022, ONDCP has not created such a plan. GAO recommended in 2019 that ONDCP routinely implement an approach to meet the requirements for the 2020 Strategy and future iterations. Doing so will better position ONDCP to ensure that future strategies completely address all of the statutory requirements."

AG Garland Moves to End Cocaine Sentencing Disparities, BC Decriminalization Granted, More... (12/19/22)

Kansas City, Missouri, dismisses open marijuana cases, Colombia Congress advances marijuana legalization bill, more...

Attorney General Merrick Garland (DOJ)
Marijuana Policy

Tennessee Lawmaker Will File Marijuana Legalization Bill. State Sen. Heidi Campbell (D-Nashville) said last Friday she plans to cosponsor a marijuana legalization bill with Rep. Bob Freeman (D-West Nashville) in the coming session. Previous attempts at passage of such a bill have come up short, but Campbell is ready to try again: "We're filing a full legalization bill," Campbell said. "We are in the process of modifying our last bill and haven't filed it yet."

Kansas City Dismisses Hundreds of Marijuana Cases Following Statewide Legalization Vote. Municipal court workers in the Missouri city have "dismissed over 500" open marijuana cases since statewide marijuana legalization took effect on December 8. Voters statewide approved legalization in the November election. City officials depenalized pot possession in 2020 and had already dismissed over 2,400 marijuana cases. They now report no remaining open marijuana misdemeanor cases in the city.

Opiates and Opioids

Senate Passes END FENTANYL Act in Bid to Reduce Drug Smuggling. The Senate last Thursday passed SB 4460, the "Eradicating Narcotic Drugs and Formulating Effective New Tools to Address National Yearly Losses of Life (END FENTANYL) Act." This legislation would require the Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to update agency policies at least once every three years, and require the Commissioner of CBP to review and update the Office of Field Operations' policies and handbooks at least once every three years. It would also require the Commissioner to report to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the Senate and the Committee on Homeland Security of the House of Representatives about the changes.

Sentencing Policy

US Attorney General Moves to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparities. In a memo to federal prosecutors last Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland instructed them to file charges that avoid mandatory minimum sentences that are triggered by small amounts of crack cocaine in small-time, nonviolent cases. For decades, crack has been treated more harshly in federal sentencing even though there is no scientific basis for it, and that has led to "unwarranted racial disparities," Garland wrote. "They are two forms of the same drug, with powder readily convertible into crack cocaine."

But Garland's move could last only as long a his tenure in office. To permanently end sentencing disparities between the two forms of the drug, Congress would have to act. The House passed such a bill last year, and there are still hopes that the Senate will pass its version of the bill, S.2156, as part of an omnibus appropriations bill before the current session ends.

International

British Columbia Drug Decriminalization to Last for Three Years. The decriminalization of the possession of up to 2.5 grams of drugs such as heroin, methamphetamine, an cocaine in the Canadian province, which was granted by the federal government as an emergency measure in the face of an overdose epidemic, has now been set to begin on January 31, 2023, and will be extended until January 31, 2026. The BC Coroners Service reports 1,827 fatal drug overdoses so far this year.

Colombia House and Senate Agree on Marijuana Legalization Bill. The Chamber of Representatives and the Senate have both voted to reconcile their differing versions of a marijuana legalization bill, clearing the way for final votes to come early in the new year. The bill must again pass both chambers because it is a constitutional amendment, and a key Senate sponsor of the bill says it should be formally enacted by June. In final negotiations, lawmakers agreed to limit marijuana consumption and marketing in public spaces and near school zones. They also agreed to have the law go into effect 12 months after final passage.

Last Minute Push for SAFE Banking ACT, NH Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed, More... (12/15/22)

Some Texas town officials are trying to run roughshod over the will of the voters on marijuana enforcement, sponsors of the SAFE Banking Act are not giving up hope yet, and more.

State-legal pot businesses seek access to financial services through the SAFE Banking Act. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Last Minute Push for SAFE Banking Act. With the curtain about to close on the current Congress, Senate sponsors of the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) are still trying to get the bill passed. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Steve Daines (R-MT) tried and failed to get the bill attached to the National Defense Authorization Act, but now they're trying to get it attached to the omnibus funding bill, but again face Republican opposition, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Nine Republicans have previously sponsored the bill, but it would need 10 votes to overcome a filibuster. Earlier in the session, the bill was blocked by the Democratic leadership, which was holding out for a comprehensive marijuana legalization bill.

New Hampshire Lawmakers Filed Marijuana Legalization Bill. Incoming Democratic House leader Matt Wilhelm (D-Manchester) is a main sponsor of a new marijuana legalization bill filed in the House last week. The bipartisan bill would legalize marijuana for people 21 and over and set up a system of taxed and regulated retail sales. While similar bills have failed in years past, Wilhelm said it is "long past" time for the state to stop "wasting scarce tax dollars and valuable local and state policing resources by continuing a restriction that has failed for decades and needlessly ruined the lives of many young and poor Granite Staters."

Texas Towns Seek to Undo Will of Voters on Marijuana Ordinances. Voters in five Texas towns and cities approved ending criminal enforcement of marijuana prohibition by voting for local ballot measures that ban arrests and tickets for possessing less than four ounces of weed. But elected officials in those localities are balking, with some saying the effort violates state laws and hinders police officers.

In Harker Heights, the city council repealed the ordinance two weeks after the vote. In Killeen, the Bell County DA attempted to undo the ordinance, but the city council approved it anyway. In San Marcos, the Hays County Criminal DA has asked for the state attorney general's opinion about enforceability of the ordinance, while in Denton, the city council certified the initiative, but the city manager opposes implementing part of it.

Study of Pot Shop Robberies Points to Need for SAFE Banking Act Now [FEATURE]

As the lame duck congressional session ticks down toward its final days, not only have prospects for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's marijuana legalization bill faded into misty nothingness, even the more incremental but much clamored-for effort to provide state-legal marijuana businesses with access to the banking system remains undone.

marijuana shop robbery in Seattle (KOMO screen grab)
Despite being passed on multiple occasions in the House, the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) has not managed to get a vote in the Senate, either as a standalone bill or attached to an omnibus appropriations bill. While Schumer and his pro-legalization Senate allies blocked consideration of the bill earlier in the session as they tried to build support for the further-reaching legislation, this week it was Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell who kept it out of the annual defense appropriations bill.

While Congress dithers, marijuana retailers, especially in the West, have been paying the price of having to operate with extremely limited access to the banking sector. As a new report from StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter) executive director David Borden demonstrates, that price is paid not only in stolen cash and traumatized employees and customers, but sometimes in lost lives. The report, Dangerous Delays: What Washington State (Re) Teaches Us About Cannabis Store Robberies analyzes some 165 armed robberies of marijuana shops in the state beginning in 2017, including a spate of nearly 100 reported robberies in a 4 ½ months beginning in late 2021.

"While SAFE was stalling in the Senate [last year], Washington State's cannabis community was in the grip of an unprecedented surge in armed robberies of cannabis stores," the report notes. "This occurrence, which began in November 2021 and lasted 4 ½ months, saw nearly 100 reported robberies affect roughly 80 cannabis stores, and ended with three people dead."

One of those killed was a marijuana shop employee; two were armed robbers.

The data on robberies comes from a unique resource, the "Uncle Ike's i502 Robbery Tracker." Uncle Ike's is a Seattle-area marijuana shop chain that has seen two of its stores victimized, one in White Center in 2018 and one in Lake City in 2021. Its list is compiled from media reports, police reports, and direct communication with store robbery victims.

The study analyzed robberies by whether they targeted cash or product or both; and for those that targeted cash, whether they aimed only at cash registers (front of the store) or safes (back of the store). It also examined the relationship between robbery targets and levels of aggression by robbers.

"Our analysis confirms that cash dominates as the target for cannabis store robberies," the report's executive summary says. "Product also plays an important role, but almost always in combination with cash; whereas cash on its own gets targeted in roughly 50 percent of the time, during the incidents for which we could determine what was targeted. Most burglaries, by contrast, appear to only target product."

The report also concluded that:

  • Based on current incentives, there is little reason to believe that robberies targeting the back of a store will continue (as opposed to burglaries), or continue at the same level, if cash is removed from the equation. The great majority of such robberies are aimed at accessing cash in the safe, and without cash or with much less of it, that will no longer be lucrative.
  • There will also be much less incentive to target the cash register at the front of the store, in the absence of strong profits there. Those are roughly half of the documented front-store robberies on Uncle Ike's. There's little reason to believe that front-store robberies targeting only cash will continue in that scenario.
  • Data finds few examples of product-only robberies (as opposed to burglaries which are mainly product-only). That may suggest product alone does not provide enough incentive to sustain interest in doing robberies, particularly because burglary is a viable option to obtain the same product.

"Given what happened in Washington -- which could happen again -- it would be wholly unjustifiable for Congress to again put off enacting some form of the SAFE Banking Act," said Borden. "But there will be more left to do after Congress passes SAFE, for the robberies problem to be thoroughly addressed," Borden continued. "One remaining piece is to specifically greenlight purchase transactions, which is how cash enters the system. The current language of SAFE explicitly addresses only depository banking."

While the prospects for passage of the SAFE Banking Act grow dimmer each day, there remains the chance that the SAFE Banking Act Plus, which Schumer has been negotiating for the past several months and which also includes social equity provisions demanded by activists and some lawmakers, could move as a standalone measure before the session ends.

But if it doesn't move, the marijuana shops will remain at risk. There are steps that can be taken to ameliorate that risk, the report says.

"Security, worker training, and likely other factors, will continue to have importance for cannabusinesses, regardless of what happens with SAFE or further measures," the report states. "In the meanwhile, the cannabis community in other states can help, by duplicating the tracking effort pioneered in Washington by Uncle Ike's." Also, stores should improve employee training "with respect to emphasizing the reasons for cooperating with robbers and how to avoid escalating tensions in robbery situations."

States, for their part, should "provide funding for security measures to small and midsize cannabis stores," the report adds, and at the state and federal level, regulators should "review their policies with an aim toward facilitating greater adoption of electronic payment for cannabis stores."

Or Congress could just legalize marijuana.

12/16 report launch webinar:

Marijuana Banking Language Again Bumped from Approprations Bill, DC MedMJ Reforms, More... (12/7/22)

Marijuana is legal in Missouri as of tomorrow, Indiana voters are ready for marijuana legalization, and more.

Access to banking services for state-legal marijuana businesses remains stalled on Capitol Hill. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

SAFE Banking Act Language Excluded from Defense Spending Bill. The effort to somehow pass legislation that would provide state-legal marijuana businesses with access to the banking system has been thwarted once again as SAFE Banking Act language was excluded from the 2023 defense reauthorization bill. While Democratic Senate leadership, which had been holding out for a full legalization bill, blocked earlier efforts to attach the language to various appropriations bills, this time, Republican Senate leadership was the obstacle, with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) criticizing Democrats for trying to include the banking provision. "We're talking about a grab bag of miscellaneous pet priorities, like making our financial system more sympathetic to illegal drugs, or permitting reform in name only that's already failed to pass the Senate earlier this year," McConnell said in a floor speech. "If Democrats wanted these controversial items so badly, they had two years to move them across the floor." 

Indiana Poll Has Majority Support for Marijuana Legalization. For years, marijuana reform has gone nowhere in the Republican-dominated state legislature, but a new poll shows how out of touch the lawmakers are with their constituents. A Ball State University poll has support for legalization at 56 percent and support for medical marijuana at 85 percent. Only 15 percent of respondents did not think it should be legal in either case.

Missouri Marijuana Legalization Goes into Effect Tomorrow. As of Thursday, December 8, possession of up to three ounces of marijuana by adults will no longer be a crime. This after voters last month approved Amendment 3. There's just one hitch: While adults can legally possess the herb, they won't be able to buy it at a dispensary without a medical marijuana card until next year. That is when existing medical marijuana dispensaries will be able to acquire comprehensive licenses allowing them to sell to any adult. The result will be a short-term boon for the state's black and gray market marijuana sellers. State residents will be able to grow up to six plants on their own beginning in February, but they will have to register with the state and pay $150 for the privilege.

Medical Marijuana

DC Council Approves Bill to Eliminate License Caps, Promote Equity, Provide Tax Relief, More. The city council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to a bill that broadly reworks the city's medical marijuana program. The measure needs to pass a second reading at a yet unspecified date before going to the mayor's desk. The bill would eliminate caps on licenses for marijuana businesses, provide tax relief to operators, encourage greater social equity, create new businesses categories for on-site consumption lounges, and provide a pathway for current gray market "gifting" operators to enter the licensed market. The Medical Cannabis Amendment Act would also codify that adults can self-certify as medical marijuana patients. The bill was carried by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on behalf of Mayor Muriel Bowser (D).

Biden Signs Marijuana Research Bill into Law [FEATURE]

The White House announced last Friday that President Biden (D) had signed into law the bipartisan Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act (HR 8454). The signing was historic; it marked the first time a president has signed a standalone marijuana reform bill into law. Some marijuana reform measures have been passed before, but only as part of much broader appropriations bills.

In a historic move, President Biden has signed a standalone marijuana reform bill into law. (whitehouse.gov)
With lead sponsors Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), head of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in their respective chambers, the bill passed by unanimous consent, first in the House and then late last month in the Senate.

The aim of the bill is to facilitate research on marijuana and its potential health benefits. The bill will accomplish this by streamlining the application process for scientific marijuana studies and removing existing barriers for researchers that frequently slow the research process. It will broaden marijuana research by allowing both private companies and research universities to seek DEA licenses to grow their own marijuana for research purposes.

The bill calls on the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to study potential therapeutic benefits of the plant, which could have an impact on a rescheduling review Biden ordered in October. But that HHS mandate also includes language requiring research on how marijuana may affect one's ability to drive and the impact of its use on teenage brains.

"Today marks a monumental step in remedying our federal cannabis laws," said Blumenauer and Cannabis Caucus co-chairs Dave Joyce (R-OH), Barbara Lee (D-CA), and Brian Mast R-FL) in a statement after the signing."We celebrate the enactment of this critical and long-overdue legislation, and we know there is much more to do to remedy the ongoing harms of the failed war on drugs."

Among the bill's cosponsors in the Senate was Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA). Both he and Sen. Feinstein have been among the Senate's most ardent drug warriors going well back into the last century. While this bill is fairly conservative -- it does not directly address rescheduling marijuana or take up the question of access to financial services, let alone legalization -- that both Feinstein and Grassley back it is a sign of how far we've come.

"I've heard directly from Iowans who are desperately in search of treatment options for conditions like child epilepsy," Grassley said in a statement "Unfortunately, many families have resorted to using untested, unregulated derivatives from the marijuana plant as a last resort to treat these conditions. Since 2015, I've pushed to expand medical research into marijuana derivatives such as cannabidiol to better understand their benefits and potential harms. This research is a critical step toward ensuring safe and effective therapies are also consistently regulated like any other prescription drug."

"There is substantial evidence that marijuana-derived medications can and are providing major health benefits," Sen. Feinstein said in a statement. "Our bill will make it easier to study how these medications can treat various conditions, resulting in more patients being able to easily access safe medications. We know that cannabidiol-derived medications can be effective for conditions like epilepsy. This bill will help refine current medical CBD practices and develop important new applications. After years of negotiation, I'm delighted that we're finally enacting this bill that will result in critical research that could help millions," she added.

Now is the time to press for more reform, said Blumenauer.

"Finally, the dam is starting to break," he said in a separate statement. "The passage of my Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act in the House and Senate represents a historic breakthrough in addressing the federal government's failed and misguided prohibition of cannabis."

"As we have seen in state after state, the public is tired of waiting for the federal government to catch up. Nearly half of our nation's population now live in states where adult-use of cannabis is legal. For far too long, Congress has stood in the way of science and progress, creating barriers for researchers attempting to study cannabis and its benefits. At a time when more than 155 million Americans reside where adult-use of cannabis is legal at the state or local level and there are four million registered medical marijuana users with many more likely to self-medicate, it is essential that we are able to fully study the impacts of cannabis use."

"The passage of this legislation coming just weeks after the change in President Biden's posture towards cannabis is extraordinarily significant. We must capitalize on this momentum to move subsequent common-sense House-passed bills like the SAFE Banking Act, which finally allows state-legal dispensaries to access banking services and reduce their risk of violent robberies."

There are, indeed, moves afoot to get the SAFE Banking Act passed during the remainder of the lame duck session, but time is running short and the clock is ticking.

NV On-Site Pot Smoking Lounges, Mexican President Wants to Know Where "La Barbie" Is, More... (12/2/22)

Sen, John Hickenlooper (D-CO) has filed a bill to prepare for federal marijuana legalization, the Nevada Supreme Court rules in favor of a medical marijuana patient fired for off-duty use, and more.

Edgar Valdez Villarreal, "La Barbie," in custody in Mexico in 2012. (CNN screen grab)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Bill to Create Commission to Prepare for Legalization Filed. Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) on Thursday filed the Preparing Regulators Effectively for a Post-Prohibition Adult-Use Regulated Environment Act (PREPARE) Act, which would direct the attorney general to set up a commission to make recommendations for how federally legal marijuana should be regulated. "A decade after Colorado pioneered marijuana legalization, Americans overwhelmingly support the same at the federal level,"Hickenlooper said in a press release. "This bipartisan, bicameral framework, based on Colorado’s Amendment 64 Task Force, will replicate our success nationally." Companion legislation has been filed in the House."

Nevada Awards 20 Provisional Licenses for Marijuana Consumption Lounges. The state's marijuana regulatory agency, the Cannabis Compliance Board, has issued 20 provisional licenses for marijuana consumption lounges, with half of them reserved for social equity applicants. The licenses were handed out via a random drawing. Social equity licensees who have a nonviolent marijuana conviction and who live in an underprivileged neighborhood are eligible for discounted fees. The board approved consumption lounges in June and estimates that an additional 40-45 licenses will be issued.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Program Adds New Qualifying Conditions. The state Department of Health has announced it is adding irritable bowel syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder to the list of qualifying medical conditions for the state's medical marijuana program. The changes will go into effect on August 1, 2023. "We are adding the new qualifying conditions to allow patients more therapy options for conditions that can be debilitating,"said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm. Two other conditions, gastroparesis and opioid use disorder were not approved.

Nevada Supreme Court Rules Workers Fired for Off-Duty Medical Marijuana Use Can Sue Former Employers. The state's highest court ruled Thursday that workers who are medical marijuana patients can sue their former employers if they have been fired for off-duty marijuana use. The ruling came in the case of Jim Roushkolb, a registered patient who used medical marijuana to ease PTSD, anxiety, and other mental health issues arising from a 1995 assault. His former employer, Freeman Expositions, fired him in 2018 after he tested positive for THC in the wake of a workplace incident where a plexiglass sheet fell and shattered. All employees at the scene were ordered to take drug tests, and Roushkolb was fired even though the company knew he was a medical marijuana patient.

Ohio Bill Would Expand Medical Marijuana Access. A measure that has already passed the Senate, Senate Bill 261, would add new qualifying conditions but more importantly would also let doctors recommend medical marijuana for any condition they deem necessary. Proponents are now trying to get in through the House in what is left of the state legislature's lame-duck session . "I think that that’s the best path we can go on,"said bill sponsor Sen. Nicki Antonio (D-Lakewood). "I think there’s a lot of value in being able to have this treatment opportunity available to people as an alternative to all kinds of things that may have other side effects."

Foreign Policy

Mexican President Wants to Know Whereabouts of "La Barbie, Convicted Cartel Chief Now Missing from American Prison. Notorious drug kingpin Edgar Valdez Villarreal, nicknamed La Barbie for his fair complexion and blond hair, was sentenced to 49 years in US federal prison in 2018, but now no longer appears in the Bureau of Prisons databases that have details of all prisoners doing time in federal prisons, and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants to know where he is. "What is happening in the United States with Mr. Villarreal is strange," López Obrador said during a press conference on Wednesday. "Someone has made it known that he is no longer in the registry of prisoners and we want to know where he is." López Obrador asked Washington for transparency and said the situation needed to be clarified as quickly as possible. "There is no reason for him to leave prison because his sentence is for many years, unless there has been an agreement." While the explanation for La Barbie's absence could be as innocent as that he is hospitalized for a medical condition, there is rising speculation that he may have struck a deal with US authorities around the looming trial in New York of former Mexican Secretary of Public Security Genaro Garcia Luna, who is accused of collaborating with drug cartels. La Barbie was arrested in 2012 in an operation orchestrated by Garcia Luna and has repeatedly accused him of working with the cartels.

Report on Options for Safe Injection Sites, Berkeley Could Decriminalize LSD, More... (11/28/22)

Irish opposition parties are talking drug reform, the Congressional Research Service issues a report on how to get around legal proscriptions on safe injection sites, and more.

LSD in blotter acid form. There is a proposal in Berkeley to decriminalize it. (Creative Commons)
Psychedelics

Berkeley Ponders Becoming First City to Decriminalize Not Just Natural Psychedelics But LSD, Too. A proposed ordinance to decriminalize natural psychedelic drugs such as magic mushrooms that has been under study in the city for the past three years may be expanded to include the synthetic hallucinogen LSD as well. A pair of Berkeley community health commissioners are promoting the move, saying that LSD meets the definition of a psychedelic and that "nobody deserves to go to jail for having a psychedelic experience." They have now rewritten the 2019 proposed ordinance to include LSD, prompting Decriminalize Nature, the original sponsors o the ordinance to now oppose it. The Community Health Commission is set to vote Tuesday on whether to refer the rewritten ordinance to the city council. At least 15 towns or cities across the US have passed natural psychedelic decriminalization or lowest priority ordinances, but Berkeley's would be the first to include LSD.

Harm Reduction

Congressional Research Service Provide Options for Allowing Safe Injection Sites The service, a nonpartisan agency that provides information on all kinds of issues to Congress, has issued a report highlighting the "uncertainty" of the federal government's position on safe injection sites, but also pointing out that the facilities could operate securely if Congress passed legislation barring the Justice Department from interfering with them, similar to actions it has taken to allow state medical marijuana laws to be implemented. The Trump administration Justice Department filed a lawsuit to block a Philadelphia safe injection site from opening, and the Biden Justice Department has so far shown much less enthusiasm for attacking the harm reduction facilities, but their fate remains uncertain. While the Biden administration is evaluating the legality of the facilities, CRS said: "Congress could resolve that uncertainty by enacting legislation. If Congress decided to allow supervised consumption sites to operate, it could consider the breadth of such authorization. One option would be to exempt supervised consumption sites from CSA control entirely" Or Congress could approve a temporary spending bill rider "to exempt from federal prosecution facilities operating in compliance with state and local law, as it has done with state-sanctioned medical marijuana activities." A third option "would be for Congress to impose specific registration requirements for supervised consumption sites under the CSA, as it has done for entities that administer medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction," CRS continued. The report is Recent Developments in Opioid Regulation Under the Controlled Substances Act.

International

.Two opposition parties are championing major reforms in drug policy, albeit with two distinct proposals. People Before Profit's Gino Kenny has filed a private members' bill to decriminalize the possession of up to seven grams of marijuana, while the Labor Party is proposing a broader drug decriminalization bill. Kenny said marijuana prohibition is "a waste of time and resources" and that "there is a groundswell of opinion for a different narrative and a different status quo." The Labor Party, meanwhile is set to file its drug decriminalization bill Wednesday, with proponents arguing again that persecuting drug users was a waste of the police and the courts' time. But Minister of State at the Department of Health Frank Feighan said that the current government follows a drug strategy that embodies a "health-led rather than a criminal justice approach to drug use," it has no plans to decriminalize any drugs. 

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