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ND Legal Pot Initiative Qualifies for Ballot, Appalachian Senators Call for More Drug War, More.. (8/16/22)

A South Dakota marijuana legalization initatiive draws organized opposition, Mexico's week of cartel violence raises questions, and more.

North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

North Dakota Becomes Fifth State to Put a Marijuana Legalization Initiative on the Ballot This Year. The secretary of state's office announced Tuesday that a marijuana legalization initiative sponsored by New Approach North Dakota has qualified for the November ballot. Similar measures have already qualified for the ballot in Arkansas, Maryland, Missouri, and South Dakota, while an effort in Oklahoma awaits a final signature count. The initiative would legalize marijuana for people 21 and over. They would be able to purchase, possess, transport, and distribute up to an ounce and 500 milligrams of THC. There is also a home grow provision allowing for up three plants. The initiative also envisions a commercial sector licensed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

South Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaigns Sees Organized Opposition Emerge. Even as the sponsors of the IM 27 marijuana legalization initiative gear up to free the weed for the second time in two years (the 2020 victory was annulled by the state Supreme Court at the behest of GOP Gov. Kristi Noem), organized opposition is emerging. In late July, a group calling itself Protecting South Dakota's Kids filed paperwork with the state as a statewide ballot question committee. It is led by Jim Kinyon, with Fred Deutsch as treasurer. Deutsch is a Republic legislator who is fiercely anti-marijuana. "Legal marijuana will destroy our communities," says the group's website. "Protecting South Dakota Kids is a grassroots coalition made up of concerned citizens, healthcare professionals, pastors, educators, treatment providers, law enforcement, and other professionals." But IM 27 backers don’t seem too concerned: "Quite a few politicians, including Governor Noem, have realized that disrespecting the will of the people is not a great political strategy," said campaign spokesman Matt Schweich. "We want to earn every vote we can and we want to exceed the 54% outcome in 2020." 

Law Enforcement

Appalachian Senators Call for More Drug War. In a Tuesday letter to Dr.Rahul Gupta, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office), a bipartisan group of senators from Appalachian states called for "additional assistance to combat drug-trafficking in the Appalachian region." The letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (both D-VA), Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), and Sens. Marsha Blackburn and Bill Hagerty (both R-TN). They want more resources and more designations of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTAs). "These additional federal resources, allocated to areas deemed as critical drug trafficking regions, are essential in eliminating drug trafficking and its harmful consequences. ONDCP has the statutory authority to create new HIDTAs and add new counties to existing HIDTAs once it has received a formal petition from a coalition of law enforcement agencies," the senators said in a press release. "Despite the enormous need, historically the Appalachian HIDTA has only gained approval for approximately 30 percent of petitions submitted. In the most recent round of designations, no counties within the Appalachian HIDTA – which encompasses Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Southwest Virginia – received the sought-after designation. This fact, juxtaposed with the region’s manifest need, suggests strongly that the process of awarding needs to be revisited."

International

Mexico's Week of Cartel Violence Shakes Administration. Last week was a week of chaos as  Mexican drug cartels ran amok in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez as well as in the states of Coahuila, Guanajauto, and Jalisco, and that has left the government of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) looking for answers. AMLO himself suggested the attacks were part of a political conspiracy: "I don’t know if there was a connection, a hidden hand, if this had been set up,” he said. “What I do know is that our opponents, the corrupt conservatives, help in the black propaganda." And Defense Secretary Luis Crescencio Sandoval claimed the cartels lashed out because they feel they have been weakened. That may be a more plausible explanation than AMLO's. While AMLO took office in 2018 pledging "hugs not bullets" for violent drug trafficking organizations, in the past year his strategy has shifted Last year, Mexican soldiers were criticized for simply sitting in their bases and watching as cartels battled each other, but this year has seen more attempt to capture major traffickers, including the capture of Rafael Caro Quintero, and more meth lab busts. "There has been a change in the strategy in fighting drug cartels. Andrés Manuel has been very much criticized recently for his ‘hugs, not bullets’ strategy," security analyst David Saucedo said. "I think that due to pressure from Joe Biden, he is changing that and agreeing to capture high-profile drug traffickers. The narco-terrorism of the Jalisco New Generation Cartel is a reaction to the president’s change in strategy," Saucedo said. "If the Mexican president continues with this strategy of capturing high-ranking members of the Jalisco cartel, the Jalisco cartel is going to respond with acts of narcoterrorism in the states it controls as part of its vast empire."

CO Pot Sales Declining for Months, Biden Orders More Colombia Drug War, More... (8/11/22)

An Ohio harm reduction group is suing a state board over how $400 million in opioid settlement money is spent, an Uruguayan meth bust signals a possible shift in drug trafficking between Europe and South America, and more.

Joe Biden and new Colombian President Petro are not on the same page when it comes to drug policy. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Marijuana Sales Decline for Fourth Straight Month. For the fourth month in a row, marijuana sales in Colorado have declined. Sales in June were just $146 million, a 1% decline from the previous month, but a 22 percent decline from June 2021. So far this year, pot shops sold more than $906 million worth of weed, down from $1.1 billion during the same period last year. This is not the first time there has been a four-month decline in sales; it also happened between August and November 2020. The state has collected more than $30 million in sales tax revenues in only two months so far this year. It collected more than $30 million every month last year.

Opioids

Ohio Harm Reduction Group Sues State Board Over Opioid Settlement Money. Harm Reduction Ohio has filed a lawsuit against a foundation set up by the state to spend more than $400 million that it won in settlements with opioid makers and distributors for drug treatment programs. The lawsuit demands that the foundation, the OneOhio Recovery Foundation, be more transparent about how it will spend that money. The state received $808 million in settlements, and the OneOhio Recovery Foundation gets half (the rest goes to state and local governments). Harm Reduction Ohio President Dennis Cauchon said the foundation's board is not following the state's open meetings law, and that could lead to future problems. "I say preschedule the indictments because in year eleven, if you’ve got $100 million to spend in a year, don’t have to follow ethics law, you can spend on whatever you want,"Cauchon said. "It’s a formula for cronyism written all over it." Cauchon also cited the board's makeup, which consists of appointees of Gov. Mike DeWine  (R), state lawmakers, and local government leaders, saying it’s important to include people with treatment and recovery program experience. "The combination of people in this case needs to include people who have suffered from opioids, the reason this money exists, and they have essentially been excluded entirely,"Cauchon said. "If you don’t know the population and you don’t know the issue, you can’t spend a half billion dollars wisely."

Foreign Policy

Biden Orders Continuation of Colombian Drug Interdiction Assistance. President Joe Biden has issued a memo directing the State and Defense departments to continue assisting Colombia to interdict aircraft "reasonably suspected to be primarily engaged in illicit drug trafficking in that country’s airspace," given the "extraordinary threat posed by illicit drug trafficking to the national security of that country." The president noted that Colombia "has appropriate procedures in place to protect against innocent loss of life in the air and on the ground in connection with such interdiction," and which includes "effective means to identify and warn an aircraft before the use of force is directed against the aircraft." The memo was issued Wednesday, just three days after Colombian President Gustavo Petro was sworn-in. Petro has called the US-led war on drugs "a complete failure and has pledged to maintain a ban on spraying coca crops with the herbicide glyphosate, putting the two countries at odds around drug policy.

International

Uruguay Makes Historic Seizure of European Meth. Uruguayan authorities seized 43 kilograms of methamphetamine on August 5 in what is believed to be the largest-ever shipment of European meth to reach Latin America. It is a bust that marks a potential shift in the trade in synthetic drugs between the two continents. Underground labs in Europe have traditionally shipped MDMA to Latin America (among other markets), while Europe has imported cocaine and methamphetamine from Latin America. But Mexican chemists may have accompanied Mexican meth going to Europe and shared their manufacturing skills with underground chemists there. Europe's meth production is still small compared to the mountains of meth produced in Mexico, but it is now competing in South American markets. And because of high prices for European meth, it is likely it is being traded for cocaine destined for Europe. 

Biden DOJ Opposes Gun Rights for MedMJ Patients, MO Legal Pot Initiative Qualifies, More... (8/10/22)

A  Florida marijuana legalization initiative campaign aimed at 2024 gets underway, a Colorado natural psychedelic initiative comes up short, and more.

Marijuana testing is contributing to the truck driver shortage. (Creative Commons)
Report: Spike in Marijuana Positives Fueling Truck Driver Shortage, Supply Chain Disruptions. Amid chronic shortages of long-haul truck drivers, federal data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows that more than 10,000 truck drivers have been ordered off the road after testing positive for marijuana just between January 1 and April 1 of this year. That is a 33 percent increase over the same period in 2021. DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has also doubled the frequency of drug testing of truck drivers. Under federal law, CDL licensed drivers are not permitted to consume cannabis under any circumstances, regardless of whether marijuana use is legal where they live. Currently, more than 89,000 commercially licensed truck drivers are barred from the road because of positive drug tests; more than half of them are for people testing positive for marijuana.

Florida 2024 Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Launched. A group calling itself Smart & Safe Florida filed a marijuana legalization initiative aimed at the 2024 ballot Monday. The campaign is initially being bankrolled by Trulieve, the state's largest medical marijuana provider. The measure would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by people 21 and over and allow existing medical marijuana retailers to sell to the recreational market, which would benefit Trulieve. It includes a provision that allows for—but does not require—the state to issue additional retail licenses. It does not include provisions for expungement, social equity, or home cultivation. The campaign will need to come up with roughly 900,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the 2024 ballot. Previous initiative campaigns have been rejected by the state Supreme Court, but Smart & Safe Florida says its bare-bones initiative should be able to avoid or overcome legal challenges.

Missouri Marijuana Legalization Initiative Qualifies for November Ballot. A marijuana legalization initiative sponsored by Legal Missouri 2022 has qualified for the November ballot, Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft announced Tuesday. The initiative takes the form of a constitutional amendment that would remove bans on the possession, manufacturing, and sales of marijuana from the state constitution for people 21 and over. Building on an earlier medical marijuana constitutional amendment, the measure would also increase the number of retail sales licenses. It also includes a provision for the expungement of records.

Medical Marijuana

Biden DOJ Says Medical Marijuana Patients Too "Dangerous" to Own Guns. The Justice Department on Monday sought to persuade a federal court to overturn a policy blocking medical marijuana patients from buying or owning guns. The department was responding to a lawsuit filed by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and several medical marijuana users that argues that the policy deprives patients of their 2nd Amendment rights. The Justice Department told the court that it would be too "dangerous to trust regular marijuana users to exercise sound judgment"around guns. The department also argued that gun rights are reserved for "law-abiding" people, noting that marijuana remains illegal under federal law. "This memorandum uses the phrase ‘medical marijuana’ for convenience, but Congress has found that marijuana ‘has no currently accepted medical use.'’

Psychedelics

Colorado Natural Psychedelic Decriminalization Initiative Falls Short on Signatures. Campaigners for Initiative 61, "Legal Possession and Use of Entheogenic Plants and Fungi," announced Monday that the measure would not qualify for the ballot. Monday was the last day to turn in signatures, and organizers said their all-volunteer signature-gathering campaign had come up short. Another psychedelic reform measure, Initiative 58, the "Natural Medicine Health Care Act," has already qualified for the November ballot. It would decriminalize the possession of psilocybin and allow for its use in state-regulated settings.

Cheaper and More Accessible Naloxone In the Works, Colombian Drug War Critic is Now President, More... (8/8/22)

A Congressional Research Service report zeroes in on the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the Remedy Alliance is easing naloxone bottlenecks, and more.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro (Creative Commons)
Harm Reduction

Naloxone Access About to Get Easier. Thanks to an informal buyers' club for naloxone that has morphed into an entity known as the Remedy Alliance, access to inexpensive naloxone -- the opioid overdose reversal drug -- is getting easier. The Alliance credits two major developments for the urgently needed breakthrough. First, they have managed to reach agreements with drug manufacturers to get the drug at a discount rate, and second, they have restructured to a system that allows local harm reduction groups to order the drug through an online store, getting around a labyrinthine web of federal regulations that has bottlenecked the flow of the drug amidst the ongoing overdose crisis.

"We think this will totally change the landscape of naloxone in the United States,: said Nabarun Dasgupta, the nonprofit's board president and a scientist at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The group, formerly known as the Opioid Safety and Naloxone Network Buyers Club, has already reversed thousands of opioid overdoses and distributed 1.3 million doses of naloxone last year. Now, the Alliance expects to distribute 2 million doses this year.

International

Ex-Leftist Rebel, Drug War Critic Assumes Office as Colombia's President. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the leftist M-19 guerrilla army, was sworn into office Sunday, helping to cement an emerging leftist bloc around the region, consisting of Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela and, most likely, Brazil after its October election. He said Colombia was getting a "second chance" to fight violence and poverty. He also said he was preparing to start peace talks with various armed groups around the country, and he called on the United States to change its prohibitionist approach to drug policy. "It's time for a new international convention that accepts that the war on drugs has failed," he said. "Of course, peace is possible. But it depends on current drug policies being substituted with strong measures that prevent consumption in developed societies."

Jalisco New Generation Cartel Present in 27 of Mexico's 37 States, Congressional Report Finds. The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), the country's most powerful, now operates in 27 states and Mexico City, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS). The report, "Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations," says that the CJNG is the dominant criminal force in six states: Jalisco, Nayarit, Colima, Guerrero, Mexico, and Veracruz. It is weakest in Mexico's northwest, where the Sinaloa Cartel still dominates. CRS described the CJNG as an "extremely powerful cartel" that has a "reputations for extreme and intimidating violence." It also noted that the DEA "considers the CJNG a top US threat and Mexico's best-armed criminal group." "The CJNG built its dominance internationally first through extending its presence through a rapid expansion inside Mexico," CRS said. "In 2016, many analysts maintained the CJNG controlled a territory equivalent to almost half of Mexico. The group has battled Los Zetas and Gulf Cartel factions in Tabasco, Veracruz, and Guanajuato, as well as the Sinaloa… [Cartel] in the Baja Peninsula and Chihuahua." The CJNG's ambitious expansion campaign was characterized by high levels of violence, particularly in Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana.

By taking over key ports on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, the CJNG has consolidated "important components of the global narcotics supply chain," the CRS said. "In particular, the CJNG maintains reported control over the ports of Veracruz, Manzanillo, and Lázaro Cárdenas, which has given the group access to precursor chemicals that flow into Mexico from China and other parts of Latin America," the report said. As a result, according to some analysts, the CJNG has pursued an aggressive growth strategy underwritten by US demand for Mexican methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl… Despite leadership losses, the CJNG has extended its geographic reach and maintained its own cohesion while exploiting the infighting among factions of the Sinaloa organization."

Chronicle Book Review: American Cartel

American Cartel: Inside the Battle to Bring Down the Opioid Industry, by Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz (2022, Twelve Press, 400 pp., $30.00 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, with contributions from David Borden

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/americancartel.jpg
Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post investigative reporters Scott Higham and Sari Horwitz have been on the opioid beat for years, teaming up (with others) on the Post's "The Opioid Files" series, which was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2020. Now, with American Cartel, the pair provide a deeply-sourced account of how opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies waged an all-out campaign to fend off DEA efforts to stanch the flow of billions of opioid pain pills, and to evade any culpability, even as the overdose death toll mounted year by year.

The picture Higham and Horwitz paint of corporate and political malfeasance is damning. But the laser sharp focus with which they paint it, omits much of the context in which the opioid crisis has unfolded. And that context is also very important.

An article in yesterday's Guardian shows one of the reasons why. In much of the world, very few pain patients are able to access opioids at all. Much suffering results, sometimes leading to suicide attempts. Dr. MR Rajagopal, chair of Pallium India, told the Guardian, "Pain is not visible. It happens in hospital beds or patients' rooms and is not visible to the world. Addiction, on the other hand, is very visible in headlines which quote the US epidemic and overdose deaths. No one talks about the western European success over decades; all the news is about the opioid crisis in the USA. This means that when we try to have discussions, our work becomes harder because many minds are primed against opioids."

In other words, by speaking too solely to one side of an issue, one risks adversely impacting the other sides. Whether "opiophobia" is real or significant in the US is another question. Higham and Horwitz don't venture a view on this, at least not in American Cartel.

One entity that has warned about opiophobia (without using the term) is the US Centers for Disease Control. In a 2019 memo, CDC writes that a 2016 guidance the agency issued on prescribing opioids for chronic pain had seen "misapplication[s]" by some physicians that put patients at risk. The memo cites a New England Journal of Medicine commentary by the authors of the 2016 guidance. It warns against "hard limits" on opioid dosages or cutting patients off; abrupt tapering of prescriptions; applying the guidance to acute pain situations patients face in situations like active treatment for cancer or sickle cell anemia or post-operative care; and applying it to medication-assisted treatment prescriptions for addiction.

Technically the CDC memo addressed a period of a few years beginning in 2016. But the dynamics it describes are inherent risks in a situation where providers are charged with supplying a substance that's useful but also addictive and potentially deadly if misused, and for which they can be sanctioned professionally or even prosecuted and imprisoned if things go wrong or someone disagrees. Pharma-driven promotion of their new opioid products was a factor in driving up prescribing rates to where they reached. But a part of the increase was also the medical community reacting to a real problem of under-treatment or non-treatment of pain for some patients, a problem that coexists with over-prescribing to some other patients. That increase in turn came with a learning curve.

The authors also give short shrift to the impact of today's woes and inequalities in driving the so-called deaths of despair -- a concept coined by Princeton professors Anne Case and Angus Deaton -- alienation and anomie, helplessness and hopelessness afflicting many Americans who have been left behind in the modern economy, especially in the opioid use heartlands of the Midwest and Appalachia. The Midwest deindustrialized beginning in the 1970s, and both regions largely missed out on the tech boom of the '90s and '00s. Then came even more pain with the Great Recession, followed by COVID and more economic and social disruption. People there (and elsewhere) are dying not just of opioids, but of smoking, drinking, and suicide. Big Pharma is easily (and oh so deservingly) demonized, but the laser focus on the companies allows us not to have to look in the mirror about the pain our society produces.

That factors like these should play a role in the opioid crisis, though, doesn't exonerate Big Pharma. Rather, the misleading promotions of their products carried out by pharma, took an even greater toll due to the vulnerabilities those other factors had brought to the fore.

Meanwhile, the death toll continues to mount -- over 100,000 per year, and with a new record high every year. Prescription opioids still figure prominently in overdoses. But the greatest part of the problem by far is black-market fentanyl, used deliberately by some high tolerance heavy users of opioids, but primariy causing overdose as an adulterant in heroin, counterfeit prescription pills, and other street drugs, essentially a poisoning crisis. But as Higham and Horwitz note, that is part of a wave of opioid use that began with pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue Pharma taking Oxycontin onto the market in the late 1990s. The first decade of this century also saw other prescription opioids -- oxycodone, hydrocodone, Vicodin, Percocet, Opana, et al. -- hit the market.

Higham and Horwitz are fond of tossing around astounding numbers of pills produced by manufacturers or sold by certain pharmacies, such as Mallinckrodt producing 3.5 billion 30 milligram hydrocodone pills in one year, and critics could protest that those numbers need context, too. A prescription for a medication doesn't just have a number of pills to take. It specifies how large a dosage there is inside each pill. A smaller number of pills that each contain a higher dose might mean more than a larger number that each contain a smaller dose. And a higher dose prescription sometimes reflects a patient's tolerance to opioids built up through past medical (or non-medical) use. Maybe West Virginia didn't really need 81 million pain pills during a five-year span. But maybe it did. Without more information, it's just not clear what these numbers mean.

They do provide some context, though, for example by comparing pain pill sales across all drug stores in a region and pointing out anomalies not easily explainable by, say, differing rates of cancer or other serious illness. And they demonstrate that plenty of businesses -- from Big Pharma to the drug store chains and individual pharmacies -- were either in it for the money or at best screwed up, both through detailed analysis and telling anecdote. For example, there was the guileless Florida pharmacist who explains to investigators that she fills pain pill prescriptions all day long, but always keeps a certain number of pills on reserve "for my real pain patients."

When the DEA cracked down first on Wild West internet sales of opioids and then on the "pill mills," medical practices with perfunctory examinations and huge numbers of opioid prescriptions whose entire business model seemed to be writing opioid prescriptions, it succeeded in reducing access to those drugs. But the people using opioids didn't stop; they went to black market drugs, fueling first a resurgence in heroin use and now an opioid crisis driven by fentanyl.

A key figure in the tale is Joe Rannazzisi, who as head of DEA's Office of Diversion Control from 2006 to 2015 oversaw the agency's endless effort to ensure that prescribed opioids are only prescribed for legitimate medical purposes and not leaking into the black market. We are inclined to think of the DEA as a prohibitionist agency, but in this case, it is acting as a regulatory agency. And what Higham and Horwitz uncover is a case of regulatory capture -- when the industry being regulated manages to set the terms under which it is regulated, for its own benefit, not that of the public.

Rannazzisi and his team of DEA lawyers spent years going after opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacy chains who were repeatedly (administratively) busted for failing to do due diligence about just who was buying their products. The companies would pay huge fines, promise not to do it again, and then continue to pump massive amounts of opioids through the supply chain.

The companies mobilized against Rannazzissi and his campaign, forming industry front groups, undertaking lobbying efforts, hiring legions of high-priced law firms, and crafting legislation that would rein in what they saw as an out-of-control agency. As Higham and Horwitz document in great detail, it worked.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), both of whom received substantial contributions from the industry, but written by industry lobbyists, the nicely named Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act removed from the DEA tools that Ranizzisi had been using to try to force drug distributors to monitor and report suspicious orders, such as the 1.2 million oxycodone tablets one distributor bought from Mallinckrodt in one day, only to order another 1.2 million the next day.

The bill passed, only to be drastically revised amidst scandal after an earlier Post report on the opioid bill derailed then-President Trump's effort to name Marino drug czar. But Higham and Horwitz also detail rot inside the DEA, where the industry managed to get to high-ranking officials who sidelined Rannazzisi, forcing him into retirement and forcing many of his team members into bureaucratic Siberia. It's an ugly little story of money and power, the sort that is all too common in Washington.

If the first part of American Cartel reads like a detective novel, the second part is more like a legal thriller, It covers the massive wave of civil lawsuits filed against the drug companies, and it is not particularly edifying reading. You see hundreds of high-powered attorneys from the country's top litigating firms -- including dozens of former DEA attorneys working now working for the industry they regulated -- facing off against armies of lawyers for the thousands of states, cities, and counties. You see massive settlements from the companies and massive damages wrested from companies that went to court and lost. While it is unclear just how the moneys won or negotiated by the various plaintiffs is actually being used to help people who suffered from the opioid crisis, what is clear is that it has been a bonanza for the legal profession, with winnings -- excuse me, earnings -- by attorneys reaching well over a billion dollars.

They weren't all in it for the money, though. Some, like West Virginia attorney Paul Farrell, whose state was one of the epicenters of the pain pill epidemic, were sickened by the toll of addiction they saw all around them. Not willing to settle for the pittance the town and county he represented would receive under a massive settlement agreed to by most of the suing entities, he gambled on going it alone against the drug distributors. As this book went to print in April, he was still waiting for a decision. Earlier this month, he lost, with a federal judge ruling that drug distributors were not responsible for the area's opioid crisis.

The litigation goes on, and the dying goes on. Sometimes the drug companies settle, sometimes they lose and have to pay even more. But sometimes they win.

The profit-driven wave of opioids that engulfed the country in the last couple of decades is not an anomaly. The pharmaceutical companies have a historical pattern of creating and marketing drugs that later wreak havoc. That's what they did with amphetamines, that's what they did with barbiturates, that's what they did with benzodiazepines. It's almost enough to make one wonder if profit-driven capitalist enterprises should be in charge of the nation's drug supply.

Read Higham and Horwitz's book. But read Case and Deaton's too. And when you see the next "pill mill" story, don't assume that it is, or isn't, what it seems.

Russian Court Sentences American Basketball Star Brittney Griner to Nine Years in Prison

A Russian judge sentenced American basketball star Brittney Griner Thursday to nine years in a Russian penal colony after earlier being found of bringing cannabis oil into the country in her luggage. The guilty verdict was virtually a foregone conclusion in a criminal justice system that wins convictions in 99 percent of cases.

This is what got Brittney Griner a nine year sentence.
Russian authorities detained Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) star, just a week before Russia invaded Ukraine, and she is widely viewed as having become a pawn in the conflict between Washington and Moscow over the war. Griner's attorneys say they will appeal the verdict.

President Biden, who has been under pressure to win her release from her wife and the athletic community and whose administration is attempting to negotiate a prisoner swap for Griner, called her sentence "unacceptable," and vowed to continue to make every effort to free her.

The US has offered a prisoner swap of Griner and another imprisoned American, Paul Whelan, in return for Russian arms dealer Victor Bout, who is currently serving a 25-year sentence in the US for conspiring to sell arms to Colombia's leftist rebels, the FARC. But the Russians have so far demurred, first saying that Griner's trial had to finish and, more recently, showing littler interest in the matter.

While Griner's sentence seems stiff to Western sensibilities, it is in line with Russia's draconian, zero-tolerance drug laws. Drug offenders make up a quarter of the country's prison population. As Penn State University law professor William Butler noted: "To many in the US, nine years' imprisonment may seem like a harsh penalty for cannabis possession. But in Russia, it is par for the course for this crime."

Another American citizen, 61-year old Marc Fogel, is currently serving a 14-year sentence in Russia for marijuana possession. Fogel and his wife were returning to Russia for the last year of a ten year teaching stint, when he was caught. According to family, Fogel uses marijuana to treat chronic back pain.

Feds Charge Four Louisville Cops in Fatal Breonna Taylor Drug Raid, Thai Cannabis Tourism, More... (8/4/22)

Arkansas election officials knock a marijuana legalization initiative off the ballot -- at least for now -- San Francisco's new DA cracks down on drug dealers, and more.

Kentucky did not do it, but maybe the federal government can obtain justice for Breonna Taylor.
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Panel Rejects Marijuana Legalization Initiative. The state Board of Election Commissioners on Wednesday blocked a marijuana legalization initiative from Responsible Growth Arkansas from appearing on the ballot in November. The board rejected the popular name and ballot title for the measure, which has already accumulated enough voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. Responsible Growth Arkansas says it will appeal to the state Supreme Court. The board said it rejected the measure because members believed the ballot title didn't fully explain the measure's impact, but Responsible Growth Arkansas said the amount of detail demanded would make the ballot title "thousands and thousands of words long."

Law Enforcement

Feds Charge Four Louisville Cops in Breonna Taylor Case. The FBI has charged four Louisville police officers for their actions leading up to and during a March 2020 drug raid on the apartment of medical worker Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police gunfire after her boyfriend shot at what he believed to be intruders trying to break into the residence. Those charged include former Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) officers Joshua Jaynes, Brett Hankison, and Kelly Hanna Goodlett, as well as current LMPD sergeant Kyle Meany was also arrested Thursday by the feds. The feds are charging the four with civil rights violations, which include charges of obstruction of justice for actions they took after the raid. The four officers largely escaped justice at the state level, with only one charged, and later acquitted -- not for shooting Taylor but for endangering the lives of neighbors by wildly shooting several rounds into the building. The killing of Taylor became a major rallying cry in the summer of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

San Francisco DA Cracks Down on Drug Dealers. Newly-elected District Attorney Brooke Jenkins on Wednesday announced tougher new policies to hold drug dealers accountable, saying anyone caught with more than five grams of drugs would no longer be referred to the city's drug court, that she will make use of sentencing enhancements for drug dealing within a thousand feet of a school, and will seek pretrial detention of fentanyl dealers in "extreme" cases. The move comes as Jenkins replaces former progressive prosecutor Chesa Boudin, who was recalled amidst rising public concern over crime and squalor in the city. But the city's Public Defender called Jenkin's approach "regressive," saying it will disproportionately affect communities of color. "If District Attorney Jenkins truly wants to address the issues facing our city, she should not be relying on outdated and politically expedient soundbites about harsher enforcement," said Public Defender Mano Raju.

International

Brittney Griner Sentenced to 9 Years in Russian Penal Colony for Possessing Small Quantity of Cannabis Oil. American basketball star Brittney Griner was sentenced Thursday to nine years in a Russian penal colony after earlier being found of bringing cannabis oil into the country in her luggage. The guilty verdict was virtually a foregone conclusion in a criminal justice system that wins convictions in 99 percent of cases. Griner was detained by Russian authorities just a week before it invaded Ukraine, and her case is widely seen as part of the broader conflict between Russia and the United States over that conflict. Griner's attorneys say they will appeal the verdict. President Biden, who has been under pressure to win her release from her wife and the athletic community and whose administration is attempting to negotiate a prisoner swap for Griner, called her sentence "unacceptable," and vowed to continue all-out efforts to get her home.

Cannabis Cafes Emerge in Thailand. "Several" cannabis cafes have opened in Bangkok since the country decriminalized cannabis in June, despite the government's warning that the law's relaxation did not include recreational marijuana use. Recreational use has exploded under the new law, something that government officials have tried to discourage. Now, a parliamentary committee is working on a bill that could rejigger the rules and possibly impact the cannabis cafes. In the meantime, one café owner said his place had "hundreds" of customers every day. "Europeans, Japanese, Americans -- they are looking for Thai sativa. Cannabis and tourism are a match," he said.

Poll Finds Support for Psychedelic Research for Military Members, Federal Marijuana Expungement Bill Filed, More... (8/1/22)

Last weekend's Lollapalooza festival in Chicago featured not only music but harm reduction measures, a new poll finds support for federal -- as opposed to state-level -- marijuana legalization, and more.

Chicago officials handed out Narcan and fentanyl test strips at last weekend's Lollapalooza festival. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Bipartisan Federal Marijuana Expungement Bill Filed. Reps. Troy A. Carter, Sr. (D-LA) and Rodney Davis (R-IL) filed a bill last Friday that would pave the way for federal misdemeanor marijuana offenses to be expunged. The bill is the Marijuana Misdemeanor Expungement Act. "These misdemeanors -- even without a conviction -- can result in restrictions to peoples' ability to access educational aid, housing assistance, occupational licensing and even foster parenting," said Carter. "Delivering justice for our citizens who have been impacted by marijuana-related misdemeanors is a key component of comprehensive cannabis reform."

Americans Favor Federal Marijuana Legalization Mandate in Polling. Support for marijuana legalization remains high, but a new poll from The Economist and YouGov.com shows an increasing number of people want legalization to come from the federal government. Some 45 percent said the federal government should legalize it, while another 21 percent said legalization should primarily be left up to the states. Between them, that's two-thirds support for some form of freeing the weed. Only 20 percent thought "marijuana should be banned nationally."

Psychedelics

Poll Finds Majority Support Psychedelic Research for Military Members. A new poll from YouGov.com finds that 54 percent of respondents said they support "allowing research into the therapeutic potential of certain psychedelic substances for active-duty military members with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)." Support was strongest among Democrats (60 percent), followed by independents (54 percent) and Republicans (45 percent). Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) both sponsored psychedelic research amendments that made it into the 2023 Fiscal Year National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which passed the House earlier this month.

Opioids

City of Chicago Warned Lollapalooza Festivalgoers About Fentanyl. The city's Department of Public Health last Friday issued an alert on its social media accounts warning fans of the massive Lollapalooza music festival that ended Sunday that fentanyl can easily cause an overdose and that they should take steps to know what is in their drugs. The city cautioned that fentanyl is being found not only in heroin, but also non-opioid drugs such as meth, Ecstasy, and cocaine. "Every year, we see young people end up admitted to the hospital because they've experimented -- at a time when we really want people to have fun, but have fun safely," said Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady.

AR Legalization Init Has Enough Signatures, UN Experts Criticize Singapore Drug Executions, More... (7/29/22)

Marijuana seizures at the US-Mexican border are down again, Colombia's Gulf Clan is escalating its attacks on police as it jockeys for position in upcoming negotations, and more.

San Francisco could become the largest US city to decriminalize psychedelics. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Feds Report Significant Year-Over-Year Decline in Marijuana Seizures at the US Border. The amount of marijuana seized at the US-Mexico border has dropped dramatically this fiscal year, with seizures averaging 408 pounds a day, down from an average of 874 pounds a day during FY 2021, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Other drug seizures at the border are up, but the decline in marijuana seizures is part of a consistent downward trend in recent year. As the DEA has noted, "In US markets, Mexican marijuana has largely been supplanted by domestic-produced marijuana."

Arkansas Marijuana Legalization Initiative Set to Qualify for Ballot. State officials have confirmed that a marijuana legalization initiative from Responsible Growth Arkansas has submitted enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot. But the state Board of Election Commissioners must first approve the popular name and ballot title of the measure. It would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by people 21 and over, but not home cultivation. It would also set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce.

Psychedelics

San Francisco Psychedelic Decriminalization Resolution Filed. Supervisors Dean Preston (D) and Hillary Ronen (D) have filed a resolution to decriminalize psychedelics such as psilocybin and ayahuasca. The resolution also calls for broader statewide reform. If the resolution is passed, San Francisco would be the most populous city in the country to decriminalize psychedelics.

International

Colombia's Gulf Clan Trafficking Group Stepping Up Attacks on Police. The Gulf Clan, the country's most powerful drug trafficking organization, is stepping up a campaign of violence against police that began in May, when its leader, Dario Antonio Usuga, known as "Otoniel," was extradited to the United States to face trafficking charges. But now, as the country approaches the transfer of power from conservative President Ivan Duque to leftist former guerrilla Gustavo Petro, is ratcheting up the violence, apparently in a bid to bolster its prospects in potential negotiations with the new government. At least 25 police officers have been killed by the Gulf Clan, 12 of them in the last month, and three in just the past week.

UN Experts Call for Immediate Moratorium on Singapore Executions for Drug Offenses. UN experts have condemned the execution of Nazeri Bin Lajim, a 64-year-old Malay Singaporean national convicted of drug offenses and urged the Government of Singapore to halt plans to execute individuals on death row for drug-related charges. There has been a sharp rise in execution notices issued in Singapore this year.

Nazeri Bin Lajim was arrested in April 2012 and convicted for trafficking 33.39 grams of diamorphine under the 1973 Misuse of Drugs Act in September 2019. The mandatory death penalty was subsequently imposed in his case and enforced on 22 July 2022. "Under international law, States that have not yet abolished the death penalty may only impose it for the 'most serious crimes', involving intentional killing," the experts said. "Drug offences clearly do not meet this threshold."

The experts reiterated that, as per the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention's report on arbitrary detention relating to drug policies andits subsequent jurisprudence, imposing the death penalty for drug-related offenses is incompatible with international standards on the use of the death penalty.

White House Preps for MDMA Therapy Approval, MO Legalization Init Could Come Up Short, More... (7/28/22)

South Dakota's first state-licensed medical marijuana dispensary opens, the FDA is moving toward approval of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD, and more.

Psilocybin mushrooms. Legalizing them could be on the ballot in Medford, Oregon, this November. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Missouri Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Needs More Signatures as Deadline Looms. Legal Missouri, the group behind an initiative to legalize marijuana in the state, handed in more than twice the number of signatures needed to qualify for the November election, but may still come up short because of the state's requirement that it meet signature thresholds in each of the state's congressional districts. The group is 1,144 signatures short in the 7th Congressional District and 1,573 short in the 6th. The campaign says it is double-checking signature counts from local election authorities in hopes of making up the shortfall. Secretary of State John Ashcroft (R) will announce by August 9 whether or not the campaign has qualified.

Medical Marijuana

South Dakota's First State-Licensed Medical Marijuana Dispensary Opens. The Unity Road Dispensary in the small town of Hartford opened its doors for business Wednesday, becoming the first state-licensed dispensary to open after voters approved a medical marijuana initiative in 2020. But it is not the first dispensary in the state: The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe opened Native Nations Cannabis in July 2021, saying it did not need to wait for the state to license it because it is on sovereign Native American territory. Another has since opened on the Pine Ridge reservation.

Psychedelics

Biden Administration Preparing for FDA Approval of MDMA-Assisted Therapy for PTSD. The Department of Health and Human Services released a letter Wednesday that described the Food and Drug Administration's "anticipated approval… within approximately 24 months" of psychedelic-assisted therapies. The letter said that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is exploring establishment of a Federal Task Force to address the complex issues associated with the commercialization of psychedelic medicines, including clinical, regulatory, and public policy matters.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which has pioneered clinical trials on MDMA, was pleased: "We applaud the Biden Administration for taking psychedelic-assisted therapies, and their potential to treat life-threatening mental health conditions, seriously. A Federal Task Force on psychedelic-assisted therapies should take a multidisciplinary approach to ensuring that red tape, administrative delays, or insurance coverage questions don't leave Americans suffering as they seek to access approved treatments," said MAPS founder and executive director Rick Doblin.

Doblin continued, "For the first time, research that has been driven by philanthropists could additionally be supported by the same types of Federal grants that have funded other health care revolutions and develop patient access strategies that prioritize public benefit over profit. For decades, we have been making the case for what the Administration is now acknowledging: psychedelic-assisted therapies may become a key in addressing the most urgent mental health challenges of our time and reducing needless suffering."

Medford, Oregon, City Council Ponders Psilocybin Legalization. In a surprise move, the city council has scheduled a study session about psilocybin for tonight's meeting. No vote on an ordinance is expected, but the city council said it wants the study session to make an informed decision about putting an ordinance on the November ballot.

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