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Senate Dems Seek Input on Marijuana Legalization Bill, Senate Groups Calls for Police Reform Efforts by Biden, More... (2/11/22)

Chuck Schumer is trying to get his marijuana legalization bill finalized, an Illinois bill would fix a bizarre situation around expungement of past marijuana offenses, and more.

Ten senators have asked the Biden administration to get moving on demilitarizing the police. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Top Senate Democrats Seek Input on Finalizing Marijuana Legalization Bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) have sent a letter to their fellow senators inviting them "into the drafting process as we work to finalize this legislation." The senators called on committee chairs and ranking members of relevant committees, as well as senators from legalization states to provide input. The letter comes after Schumer announced this week that he is working to introduce a bill in the spring. He, Booker, and Wyden released a draft of their proposed bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act last July.

Illinois Bill to End Drug Test Requirement for Marijuana Expungement Advances. It is a bizarre situation: In a state where marijuana is legal, people who hope to get their marijuana arrest records expunged must first pass a drug test showing that they are not using marijuana. A bill that would fix that, House Bill 4392, was filed by Rep. Carol Ammons (D-Urbana), and passed out of the House Judiciary Criminal Committee Thursday on a partisan 11-8 vote. However, Ammons plans to hold the bill on second reading and bring it back to the committee when the amendments are ready.

Harm Reduction

Drug Policy Alliances Criticizes Biden Administration Over "Crack Pipe" Kerfluffle. In response to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Office of National Drug Control Policy's statement that they will no longer be allowing federal funding to go towards putting pipes in safer smoking supplies, the Drug Policy Alliance criticized the administration for "backtracking" in the face of rightwing social media firestorm.

"Backtracking on providing critical evidence-based resources that could greatly improve the health of people who consume drugs through smoking is a huge missed opportunity that will disproportionately be felt in Black and Indigenous communities, especially as these communities have experienced some of the sharpest increases in overdose deaths involving fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine," said DPA executive director Kassandra Frederique. "Despite nearly identical rates of drug use in Black and white communities, Black, Indigenous, and communities of color have long been disproportionately criminalized and treated with handcuffs and rap sheets -- as we remember all too well from the 80s and 90s with the 'rack epidemic' -- instead of the public health tools they need to live healthier and more stable lives."

"Health policy must be driven by evidence, not by clickbait," Frederique continued. "We applaud the Biden administration for the steps they have taken to advance harm reduction and advocate for the funding needed to supply needed resources and save lives, but they must stand firm against misinformation and continue the course to deploy all evidence-based solutions, including all forms of safer smoking supplies, to save lives now."

Law Enforcement

Senators Urge Biden to Step Up Efforts to Demilitarize Police. Led by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), a group of 10 senators has released a letter urging the Biden administration to step up efforts to demilitarize the police. "We urge you to prioritize the demilitarization of law enforcement by limiting the transfer or purchase of certain military equipment for federal, state, tribal, territorial, and local law enforcement agencies," the senators wrote in their letter to the president. "This should include reforms to the Department of Defense's (DoD) program to transfer surplus military equipment to law enforcement agencies -- known as the '1033 program' -- as well as DoD's program to allow law enforcement agencies to purchase military equipment -- known as the '1122 program.' Militarized law enforcement increases the prevalence of police violence without making our communities safer. Now is the moment to make these necessary reforms."

In their letter to the president, the senators cite reports showing that police militarization fails to reduce rates of violent crime or change the number of officers assaulted or killed. Instead, arming police departments with military equipment has led to an increase in officer-involved shootings and civilian deaths.

DOJ Signals Openness to Safe Injection Sites, Congressional Commission Issues Overdose Strategy Report, More... (2/8/22)

Pennsylvania sees its first ever legislative debate on marijuana legalization, Tennessee sees a slew of marijuana-related bills, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Pennsylvania Sees First Legislative Debate on Marijuana Legalization. For the first time ever, Keystone State lawmakers took up the topic of marijuana legalization as the Senate Law & Justice Committee held a hearing on Monday. The hearing was on a proposal from committee Chair Sen. Mike Regan (R-York County), but focused largely on unsafe practices in the industry and products going through existing black markets. The committee heard from lawmakers, medical marijuana industry representatives, and law enforcement officials. Another, bipartisan marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 473, which includes expungement and social equity provisions, is also before the committee. No votes were taken. Regan said the committee would hold another hearing in coming months to see what "trials and tribulations" other states had endured.

Tennessee Marijuana Legalization, Medical Marijuana Bills Filed. Lawmakers in the Volunteer State are facing a slew of marijuana legalization, decriminalization, and medical marijuana bills filed this session. So far, the legislative web site shows at least 28 bills, most of them addressing legalization. The state is one of seven that have allowed for the use of CBD cannabis oil, but that is as far down the road as the legislature has gone so far. An attempt to decriminalize marijuana possession was killed last session, as was a broader medical marijuana bill.

Opioids

Congressional Commission Urges Five-Pronged Strategy to Confront Overdose Crisis. A bipartisan congressional commission. the Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking released a report Tuesday calling for a multipronged strategy to confront the nation's overdose crisis. The commission called for the strategy to be based around five pillars: Restoring the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to cabinet rank, disrupting the drug supply through better coordinated law enforcement, demand reduction through treatment and harm reduction measures, using diplomatic means to cut off the supply of fentanyl precursor chemicals, and developing surveillance tools to monitor new drug trends. In other words, new, improved drug war, albeit with a slightly gentler touch regarding harm reduction.

Harm Reduction

Justice Department Signals It Could Allow Safe Injection Sites. In a statement to the Associate Press, the Justice Department said it is "evaluating" the harm reduction intervention and seeking guidance from regulators on "appropriate guardrails." That is a drastic change from the Trump administration, under which the department successfully sued to block a Philadelphia safe injection site, and is the first hint, after months of silence, that DOJ is open to safe injection sites. "Although we cannot comment on pending litigation, the Department is evaluating supervised consumption sites, including discussions with state and local regulators about appropriate guardrails for such sites, as part of an overall approach to harm reduction and public safety," DOJ said in the statement last Friday.

DOJ isn't the only federal government entity to edge closer to supporting safe injection sites. In December, the National Institutes of Health mentioned them in a call for harm reduction research, and that same month, Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Dr. Rahul Gupta said he was "interested in looking at the science and data behind all of the emerging harm reduction practices."

Schumer Says Marijuana Legalization Bill Coming in April, Study Questions Reliability of Maternal Drug Testing, More... (2/7/22)

Wisconsin's governor vetoes a bill that would have dramatically hiked criminal penalties for butane marijuana extraction, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is now making bombs to deploy against the military, and more.

Marijuana legalization could be coming to the Senate in April. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Schumer Says He Aims to File His Marijuana Legalization Bill in April. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced last Friday that he plans to formally introduce his marijuana legalization bill in April. "In the coming weeks, we're ramping up our outreach -- and we expect to introduce final legislation. Our goal is to do it in April," Schumer said. "Then we begin the nationwide push, spearheaded by New York, to get the federal law done. As majority leader, I can set priorities. This is a priority for me." Schumer's bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), was first released in draft from last July, and advocates had grown increasingly impatient with the lack of movement since then, especially after he blocked passage of the SAFE Banking Act, which the House had approved and attached to a defense spending bill. But now, Schumer has signaled movement ahead.

Wisconsin Governor Vetoes Bill to Ramp Up Penalties for Marijuana Extraction. Gov. Tony Evers last Friday vetoed a bill that would have significantly increased criminal penalties for people using butane or similar fuels to process marijuana for extracts. The measure, Assembly Bill 440, would have made using butane to extract marijuana a Class E felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. It is currently a Class I felony with a maximum 3 ½ year sentence. In his veto message, Evers said, "I am vetoing this bill in its entirety because I object to increasing criminal offenses or penalties related to marijuana use," adding that "marijuana criminalization has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color, especially in Wisconsin." Evers supports marijuana legalization, but has made no headway with the Republican-led legislature.

Drug Testing

Study Questions Reliability of Maternal Drug Testing. A study presented at 2022 Pregnancy Meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine last Friday is raising more questions about the drug testing of pregnant women after it found that maternal urine samples and samples of the meconium from their newborn babies frequently produce different results. That disagreement (or "discordance") could trigger inappropriate interventions by child protective services, including separation of infants from their mothers, the researchers said.

"There's a very big debate right now in the obstetrics and perinatology communities about the utility of biochemical testing and the identification of high-risk women," said lead author Cassandra Heiselman, DO, MPH, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, New York, told Medscape Medical News. "We know that each biochemical test has limitations, which can include basically the inability to detect all substances, especially synthetic opioids like fentanyl, [and] the possibility for false results."

Ironically, marijuana use was the most common factor associated with a positive meconium test. "Some studies have shown cannabis use in the second trimester can show up in meconium testing even if the mother has stopped that behavior," Heiselman said. "Then there is also cross-reactivity with other substances that can lead to higher false positive results, especially in the urine toxicology."

International

Mexican Drug Cartel Turns to IEDs to Use Against Army as Drug War Rages On. In a first in Mexico's drug wars, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel has deployed homemade bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against the Mexican military. The attacks came on Saturday in Tepalcatepec in the western state of Michoacan, which has been riven with criminal conflicts for months. The bombs were described as pipe bombs with a cone-shaped cap to direct the explosion. Local self-defense forces fighting the cartel said the bombs did extensive damage to a military armored vehicle. This is just the latest escalation for the cartel, which last month resorted to dropping bombs from drones on its rivals.

House Passes Bill With SAFE Banking, Psilocybin Rescheduling Petition Filed, More... (2/4/22)

A key Maryland legislator rolls out a marijuana legalization bill, the Utah legislature approves employment protections for medical marijuana cardholders, and more.

The ACLU and NAPW are sticking up for pregnant women subjected to non-consenual drug testing again. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Passes Manufacturing, Technology Bill That Includes SAFE Banking Act. For the second time this session, the House has voted to include the SAFE Banking Act in a larger bill it passed. It passed earlier as part of a defense spending bill only to be stripped out by Senate leaders seeking instead to promote full-on marijuana legalization legislation. The House approved the America COMPETES Act, complete with the SAFE Banking Act amendment, Thursday night by a vote 222-210, mainly along party lines. The Senate has already passed its version of the America COMPETES Act, which does not include the SAFE Banking Act language. It will now be up to House and Senate negotiators to decide whether to include it in the final bill.

Maryland Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. A key member of the legislature, House Judiciary Committee Chair Luke Clippinger (D-Baltimore) filed a marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 837, on Thursday. Under the bill, Marylanders could possess up to 1.5 ounces of marijuana for recreational use. The bill would also automatically expunge convictions for simple possession. The bill also creates a plan for implementation of legalization, which is seen as a bridge to the House, whose leaders support a voter referendum on the issue. "While I feel strongly that the voters should decide this issue, it is the General Assembly that is charged with making sure we have a legally defensible, equity-driven plan in place should they choose legalization," said House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County).

Virginia Coalition to Oppose Legal Marijuana Commerce Emerges. The usual suspects are back. A group of parents, substance abuse professionals, and law enforcement have created a coalition to try to block the state from establishing a legal marketplace for marijuana, as envisioned under the marijuana legalization bill passed last year. The doomsayers are being joined by Project SAM, a group that consistently opposes marijuana legalization. The new coalition claims that allowing legal marijuana sales will endanger Virginians. Their efforts may gain some traction in the legislature, which is now controlled by Republicans, as opposed to last year, when the Democrat-controlled body approved legalization.

Medical Marijuana

Utah Legislature Approves Bill Affirming That Medical Marijuana Should Be Treated Like Any Other Prescription Drug. With a final vote in the House on Wednesday, the legislature has approved Senate Bill 46, which reaffirms that medical marijuana cardholders are entitled to protections from job actions related to their medical marijuana use. The bill came after the Utah Patients Coalition complained that some first responders were having problems with local governments for even having a medical marijuana card. It is now up to Governor Spencer Cox (R) to sign or veto the measure.

Psychedelics

Seattle Doctors Files DEA Petition to Reschedule Psilocybin for Medical Use. Dr. Sunil Aggarwal, a Seattle end-of-life care specialist, has filed a formal petition with the DEA seeking to remove psilocybin from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. The petition asks the DEA to reschedule as a less-restricted Schedule II drug. The substance has a low potential for abuse and shows "exceptional promise in relieving debilitating symptoms in those with intractable and otherwise untreatable illness," including the severe anxiety and depression that can result from a terminal illness. "The original placement of psilocybin," the document says, "was the result of a substantial overestimation of the risk of harm and abuse potential, not rigorous science."

Joining the suit, attorneys general from eight US states and the District of Columbia filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the patients, noting the therapeutic potential of not only psilocybin but also other currently illegal drugs, including as MDMA. "Here, dying patients seek access to promising new treatments still in the investigative process -- access expressly permitted under both state and federal law -- to help them live in peace," the amicus brief said.

Utah Psychedelic Study Bill Wins House Committee Vote. The House Health and Human Services committee on Thursday approved House Bill 167, which would create a task force to study the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs and make recommendations for their lawful use. The measure passed on a 10-1 vote and now heads for a House floor vote.

Drug Testing

Groups File Human Rights Complaint on Behalf of New Mother Over Non-Consensual Drug Test and False Positive. National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) and the ACLU of Illinois filed a charge of discrimination against Saint Alexius Hospital last week with the Illinois Department of Human Rights over a non-consensual drug test of a first-time mother before she went into labor. The test came back positive because of an Easter cake made with poppy seeds that the mother ate before entering the hospital, leading to the hospital initially holding the newborn in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit and then requiring the family to have someone besides the mother with the child at all times for three months.

"Saint Alexius violated [this mother's] civil rights by subjecting her to a non consensual and medically unnecessary drug test," said Emma Roth, staff attorney at NAPW. "She will never be able to get back those precious first months with her baby. The fact that Ms. F. was reported on the basis of a false positive due to poppy seed consumption highlights the absurdity of Saint Alexius's non consensual testing and reporting practices. Yet routine drug testing and reporting of pregnant patients is never justified in light of the harmful consequences for families."

House Advances SAFE Banking Act (Again), MI Psychedelic Legalization Initiative Filed, More... (2/3/22)

Mountains of meth are being cooked up in Myanmar's Shan state, UNODC reports. (dea.gov)
Marijuana Policy

House Approves Marijuana Banking on Voice Vote, Final Approval with Roll Call Vote Expected Today. The House on Wednesday gave preliminary approval to a marijuana banking amendment to a science and technology bill, with a roll call voice vote expected Thursday. The amendment is the SAFE Banking Act, which is aimed at providing access to financial services for state-legal marijuana businesses. The measure has repeatedly been approved by the House, most recently as part of a defense appropriations bill, but Senate negotiators more interested in passing a full-on marijuana legalization bill killed it then.

Bipartisan Coalition of House Members Call for Quick Vote on Marijuana Legalization. A bipartisan group of House members sent a letter to congressional leaders Wednesday demanding that Congress move "expeditiously" to pass a bill to legalize marijuana. The bill in question is the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617), which passed the House in 2020 and passed the House Judiciary Committee this session, but has yet to be scheduled for a floor vote.

The MORE ACT is "is foundational in righting systemic injustices and removing barriers for families and individuals nationwide" and so it should be "expeditiously considered by the House and Senate," the letter said. The letter was led by Rep. Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) and cosigned by Reps. Nikema Williams (D-GA), Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Marie Newman (D-IL), Ted Lieu (D-CA), Dina Titus (D-NV), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Salud Carbajal (D-CA), Lou Correa (D-CA), Angie Craig (D-MN) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ).

Drug Policy

Grassley, Whitehouse Implore Biden Administration to Quickly Release National Drug Control Strategy for 2022. On Wednesday, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), co-chairs of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, pushed the Biden administration to finish its work on and release the 2022 National Drug Control Strategy. Their bipartisan letter comes after Dr. Rahul Gupta -- Director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) -- indicated last week that their 2022 strategy could be delayed until the end of June, far past the statutorily required date of February 7, 2022.

"We are pleased that your office is taking a thoughtful look and share your sentiments, especially in light of the record overdose deaths. Despite this, we are disappointed in the delay. The Strategy is critical in informing the federal government's approach to drug enforcement, prevention, and treatment. Now more than ever, a timely and whole-of-government Strategy is necessary," the senators wrote.

Psychedelics

Michigan Activists File Psychedelic Legalization Ballot Initiative. The national group Decriminalize Nature, its state affiliate, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) have filed paperwork for an initiative to legalize the possession, cultivation, and non-remunerated sharing of psychedelics, as well as setting up a system to enable therapeutic and spiritual use. The measure would legalize a broad range of psychedelics for people 18 and over. Sales would be allowed to provide psychedelics to people whose doctors have issued written recommendations for them.

International

Colombian Army Kills Nine in Raid on Gulf Clan Cartel. Defense Minister Diego Molina announced late Tuesday evening that at least nine people were killed in an army raid on the Gulf Clan Cartel in northwest Colombia. The raid took place in Ituango, a Gulf Clan stronghold. The Gulf Clan is a major drug trafficking organization, considered responsible for about a third of the cocaine being smuggled out of the country. It's leader, Dario Antonio Usuga, also known as Otoniel, was arrested in October in a raid involving 500 police and military, an event that President Ivan Duque said marked "the end" of the Guld Clan. Apparently not quite yet.

Myanmar Illicit Drug Production Surges Since Coup. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said this week that political turmoil and instability in the wake of a military coup has resulted in massive increases in drug production and trafficking in the country. Last month alone, authorities in Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar seized a mind-boggling 90 million methamphetamine tablets and 4.4 tons of crystal meth, with the bulk of it reportedly produced in Myanmar's Shan state. "Meth production increased last year from already extreme levels in northern Myanmar and there is no sign it will slow down," said Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC's regional representative in Southeast Asia.

SAFE Banking Act Gets Another Chance in the House, Opioid Makers Settle with Native American Tribes, More... (2/2/22)

An Arizona judge upholds social equity provisions in the state's marijuana law, the SAFE Banking Act will get another House floor vote, and more.

Marijuana Policy

SAFE Banking Act Heading for Another House Floor Vote. The House Rules Committee has cleared the way for the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act to get another chance at passage. The bill, which aims to provide protections for financial institutions doing business with state-legal marijuana businesses, had passed out of the House as part of a defense appropriations bill but was killed by Senate negotiators who favored a vote on marijuana legalization first. Last week, bill sponsor Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) offered it as an amendment to a large-scale tech and manufacturing research and innovation bill, and on Tuesday, the Rules Committee determined the proposal to be in order, meaning it will be taken up by the House as part of that larger bill.

Arizona Judge Upholds Rules for Social Equity Marijuana Licenses. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner on Tuesday threw out a lawsuit challenging the state's rules implementing a program aimed promoting social equity in the marijuana industry. The program is reserving 26 marijuana business licenses for "people from communities disproportionately impacted by the enforcement of previous marijuana laws." The lawsuit filed by the Greater Phoenix Urban League and a business argued that the rules lack a means to prevent license transfers and to ensure that profits remain in communities, but Judge Randall held that the rules satisfied the broad mandates under the state's voter-approved marijuana legalization law.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Patients Can Buy Buds Beginning in March. Patients registered in the state's Medical Cannabis Program will be eligible to buy dried cannabis flower for smoking from the state's medical cannabis dispensaries starting March 1. In preparation for the change, registered patients interested in smokable cannabis can make an appointment for a consultation with a medical cannabis dispensary pharmacist beginning Feb. 1 so they will be pre-approved to buy pre-packaged dried flower and pre-rolls once available. Consultations, which can be in-person or virtual, are required when a patient changes the type of medical cannabis they receive. Smokable cannabis may be available a few days before March 1, if the state's relevant administrative rules are finalized early. Patients should check with their medical cannabis dispensary for further details. The sale of smokable cannabis is limited to patients and caregivers who are 21 years or older and who are registered with the Medical Cannabis Program.

Opioids

Drug Distributors, Johnson & Johnson Settles with Native American Tribes Over Opioid Distribution. Three drug distributors -- McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen -- and drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson have reached a $665 million settlement with Native American tribes regarding the flood of prescription opioids into Native communities. More than 400 tribes sued the companies for producing and shipping opioids to the tribes regardless of concerns about overdoses and other health issues. The companies maintain they followed federal law and did nothing wrong but agreed to the settlement anyway. The lawsuit is part of a broader push-back after an expansion of opioid prescribing in the late 1990s and early 200s that has seen numerous lawsuits against drug companies, as well as reductions in opioid prescribing, which has left some chronic pain patients in the lurch.

New Bid for SAFE Banking Bill, OH Activists' MJ Legalization Measure Heads to Legislature, More... (1/31/22)

South Dakota medical marijuana patients will get to enjoy their edibles after all, a New Hampshire subcommittee kills one marijuana bill but more are coming, and more.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) is trying once again to propel the SAFE Banking Act forward. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Congressman Files New Marijuana Banking Reform Amendment to Major Spending Bill. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), the sponsor of the SAFE Banking Act, announced Friday that he is bringing forth an amendment to a major technology and manufacturing research and innovation bill that would incorporate the measure aimed at protecting the state-legal marijuana industry. The SAFE Banking Act has cleared the House five times by now, only to die in the Senate. Most recently, Senate negotiators pushing for full legalization stripped it from a defense spending bill that had passed the House.

"The SAFE Banking Act is the best opportunity to enact some type of federal cannabis reform this year and will serve as the first of many steps to help ensure cannabis businesses are treated the same as any other legal, legitimate business," Perlmutter said. "I will continue to pursue every possible avenue to get SAFE Banking over the finish line and signed into law."

New Hampshire House Subcommittee Kills Marijuana Legalization Bill. The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety voted 16-1 last Friday to kill a marijuana legalization bill. But more marijuana bills are coming, including one related to home cultivation, one setting fines for possession, and another legalization bill. The bill killed last Friday was House Bill 1468-FN.

Ohio Activists Have Enough Signatures to Force Legislative Vote on Marijuana Legalization. The secretary of state's office announced last Friday that the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol had handed in enough valid voter signatures to force the legislature to act on marijuana legalization -- or give voters a shot at it. The legislature now has four months to approve marijuana legalization. If it votes not to or neglects to act at all, the Coalition would then be able to place the issue directly before voters by gathering another 133,000 valid voter signatures.

Medical Marijuana

South Dakota House Kills Bid to Ban Edibles. The state House of Representatives voted last Thursday to defeat House Bill 1058, which would have blocked medical marijuana patients from using edibles, concentrates, and extracts. The measure had been approved in committee, but died on a 47-21 vote.

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2021 [FEATURE]

Whew! Another year to put in the rear view mirror, but not before we reflect on the year that was. It was a year of tragic overdose death numbers and groundbreaking responses; it was a year of advances on marijuana reform in the states but statemate in Congress; it was a year of psychedelic advance in the states and cities -- but not enough political will to reform policing, at least not federally.

As always, there was a lot going on in the realm of domestic drug policy, and here are ten of the year's most important stories. Check back next week for our Top Ten International Drug Policy Stories of 2021.

1. Fentanyl, Pandemic Drive Drug Overdose Deaths to Record High

The nation either neared or surpassed the one millionth drug overdose death since 1999 in 2021. Driven largely by two factors -- pandemic-related isolation and lack of access to treatment services, and the increasing presence of the highly potent opioid fentanyl in the unregulated drug supply -- overdose deaths hit an all-time high in the year ending in March 2021, with 96,779 overdose deaths reported.

That's an increase of nearly 30 percent over the previous 12-month period, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report in October. And as if that were not bad enough, CDC reported in November provisional estimates that drug overdose deaths had topped 100,300 in the period from May 2020 to April 2021 -- the highest one-year overdose death toll ever.

As for that million overall dead figure, the CDC reported that through 2019 the toll had reached 841,000. We are now two years past that, and while that figure hasn't been officially recorded, just adding up the numbers makes it likely that we have already reached that horrific benchmark.

2. Nation's First Official Safe Injection Site Opens in New York City

The legality of safe injection sites -- where drug users can consume their substances in a clean, well-lit place under medical supervision -- remains unsettled under federal law, but officials in New York City decided they couldn't wait. In November, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who began calling for them in 2018, and the city Health Department announced that "the first publicly recognized Overdose Prevention Center [safe injection site] services in the nation have commenced."

The move was quickly lauded by editorials in leading newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, and by Christmas Eve, the city reported that 59 overdoses had already been reversed amid 2,000 visits to the facilities. Meanwhile, a safe injection site in Philadelphia whose opening was blocked in January by a federal appeals court after the Trump administration Justice Department moved against it, is awaiting a March filing by the Biden administration to see if it will take a more positive position allowing the facility to open.

Bills to allow safe injection sites were introduced in a number of states, including California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Utah, although only the Rhode Island bill passed and was signed into law. Still, the opening of the New York City facilities is a historic harm reduction first for the United States, and a likely harbinger of more to come.

3. Marijuana Reform Progress in the States

Nearly half the population now lives in legal marijuana states after five states this year joined the 13 others that had previously done so, mostly at the ballot box. But the states that legalized it this year all did so via the legislative process. Those are Connecticut (Senate Bill 1201), New Jersey (Assembly Bill 21/Senate Bill 21 and Assembly Bill 897), New Mexico (House Bill 2), New York (Senate Bill S854A), and Virginia (House Bill 2312/Senate Bill 1406).

This movement comes as marijuana legalization continues to garner strong public support, with a November Gallup poll reporting "a new high" of 68 per cent report. There was other marijuana-friendly legislative action in the states as well: Louisiana decriminalized it, four states (Colorado, Delaware, New Mexico, Virginia) passed expungement laws, Alabama approved medical marijuana (although not in smokeable form), and 17 states approved medical marijuana expansion laws. Weed is on a roll.

4. Democrats Haven't Got Federal Marijuana Legalization Done, and It's Not Looking So Great for Next Year, Either

With Democrats in control of Congress after the November 2020 elections, hopes were high that this could be the year federal marijuana prohibition would be ended. The House had already passed a legalization bill at the end of the last Congress, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) was pushing for it, and even if President Biden opposed full legalization and would only go as far as supporting decriminalization, that was a bridge that could be crossed when we came to it.

Now, at the end of 2021, that bridge is still a ways down the road. The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (HR 3617), sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chair Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), passed the House of Representatives a year ago. But that was a different Congress, meaning it has to pass the House again. In this Congress it's only passed the Judiciary Committee, in late September, and hasn't moved since. On the Senate side, Schumer and Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) rolled out an initial draft of their legalization bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act in mid-July, but have yet to formally file legislation.

One big reason for the impasse is that Democrats are at odds among themselves, tussling over whether to hold out for full legalization replete with social equity measures, or to go for incremental measures in the meanwhile, such as banking access for state-legal cannabusinesses through the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996). That bill passed the House and was inserted into the annual defense funding bill, only to be removed at the insistence of Senate leadership in the former camp, including Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY).

The fight over how to approach marijuana reform federally has split not only the Democrats, but also the drug reform movement, with groups like the Drug Policy Alliance calling for not passing banking except as part of a full legalization bill, while NORML and the Marijuana Policy Project lobbied hard for the SAFE Act.

As the year came to an end, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) told the Congressional Cannabis Caucus that Congress would take up marijuana reform in the spring. But with an election year looming, Congress evenly divided, and not even all Democratic senators sure votes on marijuana legalization, Congress looks more likely to be nibbling at the edges of federal pot prohibition rather than ending it -- or perhaps to do nothing. There are dozens of marijuana-related bills filed, from expungement to veterans' access to easing research barriers and more. In 2021, nibbling at the edges may be the best we can do.

Meanwhile, in November, a GOP legislator, Sourth Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace filed her own bill, the States Reform Act, which would legalize marijuana at the federal level. It would do so by removing marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, leaving it up to the states to set their own marijuana policies. The bill would also set a three percent federal excise tax, and release and expunge the records of those convicted of federal marijuana offenses. Mace said her bill represented a compromise that could gain support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Last year's mass mobilization around George Floyd's death has yet to translate to new laws restraining police misbehavior. (CC)
5. Even in the Wake of George Floyd, Police Reform Can't Move in the Senate

Following the death of George Floyd while being arrested by Minneapolis police and the massive mobilizations it generated, the impetus grew to reexamine and reform police practices. The spirit of reform in response to the crisis took root in both houses and both parties, with Republican South Carolina Senator Tim Scott filing a tepid Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act last year. But that bill lacked key provisions demanded by Democrats, such as an end to qualified immunity for police officers in civil lawsuits, and it died at the end of the last session.

That spirit of reform was embodied in February, when the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (HR 1280), sponsored by Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA). That bill would make it easier to convict a police officer for misconduct in a federal prosecution and limit qualified immunity as a defense against liability in a private civil action against an officer. It also restricts the use of no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and carotid holds and creates a National Police Misconduct Registry, among other provisions.

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) envisioned something similar in the Senate when in June he announced his framework for comprehensive police reform legislation. Like the House bill, it too reformed qualified immunity so that people could actually recover damages from police who violate their constitutional rights. It too would make it easier to federally prosecute police misconduct. And it too would create a National Police Misconduct Registry, as well as banning racial profiling and providing incentives for states to adopt policies banning no-knock warrants, chokeholds, and other airway-restrictive holds in their use-of-force policies.

Booker and Scott would become the point men in a month's long effort to craft a police reform bill with bipartisan support over the course of the summer. But by September, the negotiations had hit a dead end, with Booker telling reporters: "We weren't making progress -- any more meaningful progress on establishing really substantive reform to America's policing," he said. And with that, federal police reform was dead for the year.

One of the irresolvable issues was qualified immunity, on which Scott and the Republicans refused to budge. Instead, in a statement noting the end of negotiations, Scott claimed "Democrats said no because they could not let go of their push to defund our law enforcement" and then, with a complete unawareness of irony, complained about using "a partisan approach to score political points."

So far in the Congress, it has been justice delayed. Will it end up being justice denied? There is still a year left in the session, so stay tuned.

6. The Biden Administration's Partial Embrace of Harm Reduction

From the outset, the Biden administration is proving to be the friendliest ever toward harm reduction, even though it has yet to acknowledge one of the most effective harm reduction interventions: safe injection sites (or "supervised consumption sites" or "overdose prevention centers"). The first signal came in March, when the administration included nearly $4 billion for substance abuse disorder and mental health, including funding for harm reduction activities such as needle exchange services in the coronavirus relief bill. The bill allocated $30 million in community-based funding for local substance use disorder services like syringe services programs and other harm reduction interventions.

Then, on April 1, the 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. That document contains a heavy dose of drug prevention, treatment, and recovery, but also prioritizes "enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts." The same month, it allowed federal funds to be used to buy rapid fentanyl test strips.

After a quiet summer, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra made news in October when he announced the department's overdose prevention strategy and committed to more federal support for harm reduction measures, such as needle exchanges, increased access to naloxone, and test strips to check drugs for the presence of fentanyl. He even suggested the agency might be open to safe injection sites, but in a sign of the delicacy of the subject in this administration, HHS quickly walked back the comments: "HHS does not have a position on supervised consumption sites," the statement read. "The issue is a matter of ongoing litigation. The Secretary was simply stressing that HHS supports various forms of harm reduction for people who use drugs."

In November, the administration released model naloxone legislation. The administration on Wednesday released model legislation to help states improve access to naloxone treatment for opioid overdoses. The model bill encourages people to obtain naloxone, protects them from prosecution when administering it, requires health insurance to cover it, and provides increased access to it in schools and correctional facilities.

Also in November, that $30 million from the coronavirus relief bill got real when SAMHSA announced it had launched $30 million harm reduction grant funding opportunity 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."

The Biden administration is clearly moving in the direction of harm reduction, but where it comes down on safe injection sites is still muddy. The Justice Department is preparing a brief in the case of Safehouse, a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site that was blocked from opening after the Trump administration Justice Department persuaded the 3rd US Circuit Court of appeals that it violated the Controlled Substance Act's "crack house" provision. That brief will be a key indicator of whether the administration is prepared to fully embrace harm reduction, but we are going to have to wait until next year to find out.

7. Oregon Leads the Way on Drug Decriminalization, Others Are Vying to Follow

With the November 2020 passage of Measure 110 with 59 percent of the vote, Oregon became the first state to decriminalize drug possession, and by year's end, the initial results were looking pretty good. Because the measure tapped into marijuana tax revenues to fund treatment and harm reduction services, those programs are getting a hefty $302 million in much needed funding over the next two years.

While the numbers are not in yet for this first year of decriminalization, there were roughly 9,000 drug arrests a year prior to passage of Measure 110, and thousands of Oregonians who would have been arrested for drug possession this year have instead faced only their choice of a $100 fine or a health assessment. It won't be 9,000 fewer drug arrests, though, because some felony drug possession arrests (possession of more than the specified personal use amounts) have been downgraded to still arrestable misdemeanors. Still, it will be thousands fewer people subjected to the tender mercies of the criminal justice system and all the negative consequences that brings.

In the wake of the Oregon vote, a number of other states saw decriminalization bills introduced -- Florida, Kansas, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia and Washington -- and so did Congress, when Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Cori Bush (D-MO in June filed the Drug Policy Reform Act (DPRA), whose most striking provision is drug decrim. DPRA is the first time decriminalization bill to be introduced in Congress.

Also on the decrim front this year, efforts are underway in Washington, DC and Washington state to put initiatives on the ballot next year. The public seems to be ready: A summer poll from Data for Progress and The Lab found that 71 percent of respondents said federal anti-drug policies aren't working and reform is needed and 59 percent supported decriminalizing drug possession. A slightly earlier ACLU/Drug Policy Alliance poll around the same time had even stronger results, with 83% saying the war on drugs had failed and 66% supporting decrim. Decriminalization is starting to look like an idea whose time has come.

8. Conservative State Supreme Courts Negate the Will of the Voters

The November 2020 elections resulted in a clean sweep for drug reform initiatives, with marijuana legalization being approved in four states and medical marijuana in two states. But in two cases, marijuana legalization in South Dakota and medical marijuana in Mississippi, Republican-dominated state Supreme Courts moved to effectively negate the will of the voters.

In South Dakota, Constitutional Amendment A won with 54 percent of the vote, but acting at the behest of South Dakota anti-marijuana Republican Governor Kristi Noem, a county sheriff and the head of the Highway Patrol sued to block the measure. They won in circuit court and won again when the state Supreme Court threw out Amendment A, ruling it unconstitutional because it violated a provision limiting constitutional amendments to one subject. Noem's victory may prove ephemeral, though: The activists behind Amendment A are already collecting signatures for a 2022 initiative, and the state legislature didn't even wait for the Supreme Court decision to decide it is ready to legalize marijuana in the next session.

In Mississippi, Initiative 65 won with 74 percent of the vote, but a Republican local official successfully challenged it, and in May, the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court threw it out -- managing to wipe out the state's initiative process as it did so. Under the state constitution, initiative campaigns are required to get one-fifth of signatures from each of five congressional districts, which seems straightforward enough. The only problem is that since congressional reapportionment after the 2000 census, the state only has four districts, making it impossible for any initiative to comply with the constitutional language.

The state has seen numerous initiatives since 2000, with none of them challenged. When faced with the conundrum, the Supreme Court could have found that constitutional language "unworkable and inoperable on its face," but instead pronounced itself bound to find Amendment 65 "insufficient" because it cannot meet the five-district requirement.

The legislature has been working to craft a medical marijuana bill, but Republican Governor Tate Reeves is not happy with the legislative language and has refused to call a special session on medical marijuana. Mississippians will have to wait for 2022.

9. House Votes to End Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity, But Senate Dallies

In September, in an effort to undo one the gravest examples of racially-biased drug war injustice, the House voted to end the federal sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine. HR 1693, the Eliminating a Quantifiably Unjust Application of the Law (EQUAL) Act of 2021, passed on a vote of 361-66, demonstrating bipartisan support, although all 66 "no" votes came from Republicans. Amidst racially-tinged and "tough on drugs" political posturing around crack use in the early 1980s, accompanied by significant media distortions and oversimplifications, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, cosponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) and signed into law by Ronald Reagan. Under that bill, people caught with as little as five grams of crack faced a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, while people would have to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner the same sentence.

While race neutral on its face, the law was disproportionately wielded as a weapon against African-Americans. Although similarly small percentages of both Blacks and Whites used crack, and there were more White crack users than Black ones, Blacks were seven times more likely to be imprisoned for crack offenses than Whites between 1991 and 2016. Between 1991 and 1995, in the depths of the drug war, Blacks were 13 times more likely to be caught up in the criminal justice meat grinder over crack. And even last year, the US Sentencing Commission reported that Black people made up 77 percent of federal crack prosecutions.

After years of effort by an increasingly broad alliance of drug reform, racial justice, human rights, religious and civic groups, passage of the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act took a partial step toward reducing those disparities. The FSA increased the threshold quantity of crack cocaine that would trigger certain mandatory minimums -- instead of 100 times as much powder cocaine than crack cocaine needed, it changed to 18 times as much.

The 2018 FIRST STEP Act signed by President Trump allowed people convicted before the 2010 law was passed to seek resentencing. And now, finally, an end to the disparity is in sight. The Senate version of the bill is S. 79, introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and cosponsored by fellow Democrat Dick Durbin (IL) and GOP Senators Rand Paul (KY), Rob Portman (OH), and Thomas Tillis (NC). After the vote, they prodded their Senate fellows to get moving. But the Senate bill has yet to move after being filed 11 months ago.

10. Psychedelic Reform Movement Broadens in States and Cities

The movement to ease or undo laws criminalizing psychedelic substances continued to broaden and deepen in 2021. Detroit and Seattle joined Denver and Oakland in the ranks of major cities that have embraced psychedelic reform, with the Seattle city council approving a psychedelic decrim measure in October and Detroit voters approving a psychedelic decrim measure in November.

A number of smaller towns and cities went down the same path this year too, including Cambridge, Massachusetts in February, Grand Rapids, Michigan, in September (joining Ann Arbor), Easthampton, Massachusetts in October (joining Cambridge, Northampton, and Somerville), and Port Townsend, Washington, in December.

Psychedelic reform bills are now making their way to statehouses around the country, with bills showing up in eight states by March and a handful more by year's end. Most of them have died or are languishing in committee, and a much-watched California psychedelic decriminalization bill, Senate Bill 519, has been pushed to next year after passing the state Senate only to run into obstacles in the Assembly. Two of them passed, though: New Jersey S3256, which lessens the penalty for the possession of any amount of psilocybin from a third degree misdemeanor to a disorderly persons offense punishable by up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine, became law in February. Then Texas House Bill 1802, which would expand research on therapeutic psychedelics, became law in June.

Meanwhile, building on Denver's pioneering psilocybin decriminalization in 2019, a national advocacy group, New Approach PAC, has filed therapeutic psychedelic and full psilocbyin legalization initiatives aimed at 2022. Oakland activists have announced a "Go Local" initiative under which people could legally purchase entheogenic substances from community-based local producers. The move aims to build on the city's current psychedelic decriminalization ordinance, passed in 2019.

CO Psychedelic Initiatives Filed, San Francisco State of Emergency Over Drugs & Crime in Tenderloin, More... (12/20/21)

Joe Manchin thinks his constituents would use child tax credit payments to buy drugs, a state of emergency in San Francisco could clear the way for a safe injection site, and more.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) apparently doesn't think too highly of his constituents. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Congress Will Take Up Marijuana Reform in the Spring. In a memo to the Congressional Cannabis Caucus last Thursday, Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and Barbara Lee (D-CA) wrote that so-far stalled marijuana reform legislation would be taken up in the spring. "The growing bipartisan momentum for cannabis reform shows that Congress is primed for progress in 2022, and we are closer than ever to bringing our cannabis policies and laws in line with the American people," they said. There are dozens of marijuana-related bills before Congress, ranging from full-out legalization to bills seeking to ease access to financial services for state-legal marijuana enterprises, as well as narrower bills dealing with topics such as legal marijuana sales in Washington, DC, and opening up opportunities for research on PTSD, among others.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Judge Rules Medical Marijuana Patients Can't Buy as Much Marijuana as Recreational Users. Second Judicial District Court Judge Benjamin Chavez ruled last Thursday that medical marijuana patients cannot purchase the same amount as non-patients when recreational-use sales begin. In so ruling, he rejected a claim from a medical marijuana patient that he should be able to buy as much marijuana as a non-patient consumer. "Petitioner has failed to establish that he, as well as qualified patients, qualified caregivers, and reciprocal patients, have a clear legal right to purchase an additional two-ounces of medical cannabis, tax free, at this time, under the Cannabis Regulation Act," Chavez wrote. Under the state's medical marijuana program, patients are allowed to purchase just over seven ounces in a 90-day period. The state Medical Cannabis Program has proposed upping that limit to 15 ounces.

Psychedelics

Colorado Activists File Psychedelic Therapeutic and Full Psilocybin Legalization Initiatives. A national advocacy group, New Approach PAC, has filed two separate psychedelic reform initiatives -- both with the same title, the Natural Medicine Healing Act -- one of which would legalize the possession and personal cultivation of psilocybin mushrooms and the other which would create a system of licensed businesses to produce natural entheogens for therapeutic use at "healing centers." The campaign builds on psilocybin decriminalization in Denver in 2019, the first such move in the country. Meanwhile, Oregon voters approved therapeutic psilocybin last year.

Drug Policy

Joe Manchin Privately Told Colleagues Parents Use Child Tax Credit Money on Drugs. Among Sen. Joe Manchin's (D-WV) reasons for announcing he would not support President Biden's Build Back Better bill was one that he didn't say out loud: That "he thought parents would waste monthly child tax credit payments on drugs instead of providing for their own children," the Huffington Post has reported, citing "two sources familiar with the senator's comments." The child tax credit has provided families with $300 a month per child, cutting childhood poverty rates nearly in half. The Post reported that "Manchin's comments shocked several senators," but are in line with other reported comments that he thought people would use proposed sick leave to go hunting. It also echoes long-standing conservative talking points about welfare.

Law Enforcement

San Francisco Mayor Declares State of Emergency in the Tenderloin. Mayor London Breed (D) declared a state of emergency in the city's Tenderloin district last Friday aimed at combatting rising crime, drug use, and homelessness there. The declaration allows city officials to suspend zoning laws to create a site that would offer shelter and mental health services to people suffering from drug addiction. Fully one quarter of all overdose deaths in the city last year took place in the Tenderloin. The move comes after the city Board of Supervisors approved the purchase of a building in the Tenderloin to house a proposed safe injection site. The declaration also takes aim at crime in the neighborhood. "We are in a crisis and we need to respond accordingly," Breed said. "Too many people are dying in this city, too many people are sprawled on our streets."

Should Marijuana Banking Wait for Legalization? [FEATURE]

The Senate passed the defense spending bill this week without the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) languge, after Senate leaders stripped the provision aimed at allowing state-legal marijuana businesses access to financial services from the bill. The senators, led by Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY), had made it clear for weeks that they wanted to hold off on the banking bill until after Congress passes marijuana legalization.

Surveillance video of robbers hitting an Oakland dispensary in November.
Schumer, along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NY) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) is pushing his yet-to-be-filed Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, while the House has its own version of a legalization bill, the MORE Act (HR 3617). But while they managed to remove the SAFE Banking Act from the defense bill, the fight to enact it is not over -- nor is the MORE Act or any other legalization bill poised to get a vote in the Senate, much less to pass it. And therefore the increasingly contentious debate surrounding how best to advance marijuana reforms at the federal level isn't over either.

Debby Goldsberry has been a marijuana reform activist since the late 1980s, as well as being involved in the marijuana industry as a founder of the Berkeley Patients Group (BPG), one of the Bay Area's most successful dispensaries in 2000. She was director of BPG for 11 years before moving on to other dispensaries.

She is currently a consultant with Green Rush Consulting in Oakland and a compliance officer with the Hi-Fidelity marijuana shop in Berkeley, and she says the lack of access to financial services is a problem.

"It is incredibly burdensome," she told the Chronicle. "It's basically destroying the industry. With a lack of access to capital, we have to go to the private market, which gouges us. And having to deal with cash -- there are so many cash transactions -- makes even simple things like accounting more time consuming. You have to do cash counts, cash audits, and of course, more security. It's just more worries."

Being robbed is one of those worries. That's because marijuana dispensaries make attractive targets for burglars, thieves, and robbers. One reason is because they are cash businesses due to being locked out of the banking system. They also stock a valuable commodity -- marijuana -- and they advertise their locations.

Sometimes the attacks come in waves, such as Colorado in 2014 in and in Oklahoma and Oregon last year -- including one robbery in Portland that left a dispensary worker shot dead. And California pot businesses were targeted last summer when at least 40 dispensaries were hit by caravans of burglars in the midst of the protests over the George Floyd killing.

More recently, Northern California has seen dozens of marijuana businesses suffer burglaries or attempted burglaries, including a half dozen in San Francisco's Bayview in October and 15 in Sacramento going into November. That month, it was Oakland's turn, with more than two dozen operators hit, with losses reaching about $5 million.

And it is ongoing. Just last week, Amber Senter, whose marijuana incubator EquityWorks, was targeted in late November, reported that: "The robberies of cannabis businesses in Oakland are still happening. Multiple armed robberies last night."

"It's not just marijuana businesses," longtime California NORML head Dale Gieringer told the Chronicle. "They're going after all sorts of high-end shops, too."

Gieringer said he supported enacting the SAFE Banking Act because he sees that as the most achievable.

"You should take what you can get," he said, adding that he was pessimistic about legalization in this Congress and beyond. "Those bills with social equity provisions won't pass because they won't get a single Republican vote and not even all the Democrats. And they will probably be dead in the next Congress, too."

"I'm a Fabian," Geiringer said. "I believe we can advance incrementally and build on the progress."

"Cash is part of the reason why" the dispensaries are being hit, said Goldsberry, but she said that isn't the only reason.

"There's a lack of equity in the cannabis industry," she said. "Oakland has a long history of rioting based on inequalities and inequities and injustices linked to the war on drugs. As Martin Luther King said, it's the language of the voiceless. Now we have a cannabis industry where the people in the legacy industry can't gain access and it's all run by capitalists. They've taken historical inequality and made it even more unequal. It's not just the cash -- it's easy to store cash in safes you can't steal -- but the perspective is these are people who don't care about us, so we don't care about them, and we rob them."

Still, despite qualms about the evolving nature of the industry, Goldsberry also supports advancing the SAFE Banking Act.

"A change that would allow banking wouldn't just be incremental," said Goldsberry. "It's an essential next building block we need to bring an end to cannabis prohibition. It's too much to ask for it all at once; we're going to have to piecemeal this thing."

Both Goldsberry and Gieringer live in a state where marijuana consumers generally haven't haven't had to worry about federal marijuana prohibition for a quarter-century, since the passage of Proposition 215 and its wide-open language regarding who was eligible for medical marijuana (just about anyone who wanted it). That could make them a bit more sanguine about federal marijuana prohibition even as they bemoan its negative impacts on their industry.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has strongly insisted that legalization should be prioritized over access to banking for marijuana businesses, however, remains adamant that the SAFE Banking Act is no substitute for legalization. And it is not even willing to concede that pot shops are a target because of the restrictions on banking.

"While it is true that marijuana businesses have been the recent targets of some high-profile robberies, it is also true that many other businesses with valuable merchandise have also been the victims of robberies in recent weeks," Maritza Perez, director of the DPA's Office of National Affairs, told the Chronicle. "Whether it has been jewelry stores, the Apple Store, or marijuana retailers, the common denominator is not a lack of access to banking services, but rather valuable inventory."

Perez also rejected the notion that passing the SAFE Banking Act could be seen as "getting half a loaf is better than none."

"The implication that SAFE Banking is the equivalent of half of the MORE Act is not something that I agree with," she said. "SAFE does nothing to remove criminal penalties for marijuana or expunge the records of those with marijuana arrests. SAFE does not create a Community Reinvestment Fund to help social equity entrepreneurs and begin to repair communities that have been the targets of generations of racist enforcement of marijuana prohibition. SAFE does not protect immigrants from deportation for engaging in legal marijuana conduct."

Perez also argued that even if the SAFE Banking Act were to pass, the industry would not be out of the financial woods, and that the MORE Act has provisions that the SAFE Banking Act doesn't address.

"Even from a purely industry-focused lens, it would be absurd to say SAFE is half of MORE," she said. "There is no tax relief for regulated marijuana businesses under SAFE, while the MORE Act would effectively end the application of Section 280E, significantly reducing the tax rate for marijuana businesses. Additionally, SAFE would merely provide safe harbor for banks to work with marijuana businesses, but because marijuana would still be federally illegal, banks are unlikely to offer commercial loans to most marijuana businesses. Under SAFE, only multistate operators would likely qualify as credit-worthy for commercial lending, which would widen the existing gap between MSOs and social equity entrepreneurs."

Lacking foreseeable prospects for passing the MORE Act, though, not every advocate will consider such arguments relevant to whether to press for banking access at least in the meanwhile. And so the debate over whether to accept partial reforms, worth "half" of what the MORE Act would be worth or not, will continue. Stay tuned.

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