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Pell Grants for Prisoners Are Coming Back Next Year, OK Legal Pot Initiative Signature-Gathering Begins, More... (5/3/22)

Signature-gathering for a marijuana legalization inititiave is underway in Oklahoma, the courts block a San Francisco effort to enact broad bans on alleged drug dealers in the Tenderloin, and more.

San Francisco. The courts are blocking the city's effort to ban alleged drug dealers from the Tenderloin. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Files Preemptive Lawsuit Over Whether It Will Appear on November Ballot. Anticipating an effort by Republican lawmakers to keep their marijuana legalization initiative off the November ballot, the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol filed a lawsuit last Friday to block the expected move. Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R) submitted petitions to the legislature on January 28, giving it until May 28 to approve the petitions calling for legalization, after which, the coalition could then do another round of signature-gathering to put the question directly before voters in November. But Republican legislative staffers have argued that because the petitions were not submitted to the legislature 10 days before the start of the session, as required by the state constitution. But the preemptive lawsuit argues there is state Supreme Court precedent for allowing a November vote.

Oklahoma Marijuana Legalization Initiative Campaign Begins Signature-Gathering. Marijuana legalization advocates have begun signature gathering for State Question 820, which would legalize adult use marijuana and levy a 15 percent excise tax on retail purchases to fund the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority. Campaigners will need 95,911 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot and have until August 1 to do so. Another pair of initiatives could also appear on the ballot. State Question 818 would create a State Cannabis Commission that would replace the OMMA and guarantee patients' medical cannabis access in the Oklahoma Constitution, while State Question 819 would legalize adult-use marijuana and guarantee medical and adult-use marijuana access in the Constitution. Because these two questions would change the state constitution, they face a higher signature-gathering threshold than State Question 820, which would only make statutory changes. The threshold for constitutional questions is 177,958 valid voter signatures.

Drug Policy

California Appeals Court Blocks San Francisco Bid to Ban Drug Dealers from Tenderloin, SOMA. In a case that began when the city sued 28 alleged drug dealers in the Tenderloin and South of Market (SOMA) neighborhoods and banned them from a 50-square-block area in those neighborhoods, which are rife with open drug dealing and drug use, a state appeals court has upheld a lower court decision last year blocking the bans from taking effect. In its ruling last Friday, the 1st District Court of Appeals held that while local governments may be entitled to narrowly target ban orders in some limited circumstances, but not such a broad one. The lower court decision held that the ban was so broad it would violate the constitutional right to travel, and that state law did not appear to authorize it.

The appeals court largely agreed: "We are mindful of, and sympathetic to, the challenges faced by the city in addressing the issues of illegal drug sales, drug use, and the drug-related health crisis and its effects on the people who live and work in the neighborhood," Justice Marla Miller wrote in Friday's 3-0 ruling. But, she continued, "although the city contends these defendants have no reason to ever even be in the 50-square-block Tenderloin neighborhood except to sell drugs there was evidence that many community resources and government agencies are located in the Tenderloin." The lower court judge was entitled to believe statements from the four people "that they were interested in taking advantage of the employment, treatment, housing, and health services available in the 50-square-block neighborhood," the appeals court added. The city said it was "disappointed" with the ruling, but had yet to decide whether to appeal.

Education

Pell Grants Will Be Available for Prisoners Again Beginning Next Year. Once upon a time, incarcerated Americans were able to try to advance themselves by using Pell Grants to pay for college tuition and textbook costs -- just like other students -- but when Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, it barred prisoners from accessing that financial aid. In 2020, though, Congress restored the eligibility for both state and federal prisoners. In the fall of 2021, the Department of Education begin developing rules for the expansion of Pell Grants to prisoners and has now announced that application forms for imprisoned students will be available on October 1 for the 2023 academic year.

International

British Virgin Islands Premier Asserts Immunity in Cocaine Case, Demands Immediate Release. British Virgin Islands (BVI) Premier Andrew Fahie, who was arrested last week in a US government sting in Miami, argued in court Monday that as the elected head of government, he is immune from prosecution and should be released immediately. No word yet on when a federal judge will decide that question, and in the meantime, Fahie remains in custody. Fahie and his ports director, Oleanvine Maynard, were busted at the Miami airport where they met what they thought were Mexican drug traffickers but were actually DEA agents seducing them into a scheme to import cocaine from South America through the BVI. Back home, Fahie already faced allegations of deep corruption, and his arrest may help propel a push to temporarily suspend the constitution and return to rule from London in an effort to clean up the government. Busting a head of state is a big deal and would have required approval at the highest levels of the Justice and State departments.

Lawmakers Press Drug Companies on Over-the-Counter Naloxone, Dem Voters Say Legal Pot a Priority, More... (4/13/22)

New polls of American and European voters show support for marijuana legalization, Massachusetts prisoners are suing over unreliable drug tests, and more. 

The opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. Lawmakers want drug companies to seek over-the-counter status for it.
Marijuana Policy

Majority of Democrats Say Marijuana Legalization Should Be a Top Priority for Congress. A new poll from Morning Consult and Politico finds that more than half (52 percent) of Democratic voters say marijuana legalization should be a top or important priority for Congress. Only 29 percent of Republican voters felt the same. Overall, 41 percent of voters now see marijuana legalization as a top or important congressional priority. The poll comes with the House having already passed a marijuana legalization bill and with the Senate waiting on Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). Meanwhile, desperately needed interim measures, such as providing industry access to financial services, languish.

Drug Testing

Massachusetts Prisoners Sue Over Prison System's "Unreliable" Drug Tests Despite Court Order. Attorneys representing state prisoners have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Correction charging that it continues to use an unreliable drug test to screen prisoners' mail, violating an earlier court order. The lawsuit alleges that prisoners have been punished for sneaking drugs through the mail based on dubious drug tests and that some of the mail improperly seized as containing drugs were sent by the prisoner's own attorneys, the courts, and the attorney general's office. A judge last December ordered the department to quit using the NARK II drug test device. The attorneys are asking a judge to hold the department in contempt of court. A hearing is set for next Tuesday. "The DOC's actions were not only interfering with the attorney-client relationships of the people whose mail was seized and photocopied, but were chilling the ability of all incarcerated people to communicate with counsel for fear of being subjected to this arbitrary and severe punishment," the complaint said.

Harm Reduction

Bipartisan Lawmakers Call on Drug Makers to Apply to FDA to Make Overdose Reversal Drugs Available Over-the-Counter. Some 30 members of the House and Senate have sent a letter to drug companies who manufacture the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone calling on them to apply to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for over-the-counter status for their products. The move comes amidst a raging opioid overdose epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans each year. "It has never been more important to adopt opioid overdose prevention and reversal strategies on a wide scale," the letter said. This includes "steps to increase access to affordable naloxone, which is a proven, effective tool to reduce medical emergencies, drug overdoses, and deaths." Signatories included Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA).

International

Poll Found Majority of Europeans Support Marijuana Legalization. A poll from  London-based Hanway Associates that surveyed eight different European countries found majority support for marijuana legalization, with 55 percent favoring it and only 25 percent opposing it. Italy led the way with support at 60 percent. Portugal, Switzerland, Spain, and the United Kingdom all polled between 55 and 59 percent, while Germany came in at 50 percent. Surprisingly, the Netherlands, which has allowed legal retail sales for more than 30 years, had the lowest level of support, at 47 percent. 

Executions of Drug Offenders Surged Last Year, Pot Industry Push for SAFE Banking Act, More... (3/21/22)

A suburban Atlanta prosecutor's big to clamp down on Delta-8 THC products runs into a judicial roadblock, the University of Michigan SSDP chapter is spearheading a municipal drug decriminalizaiton resolution, and more.

Marijuana industry execs are swarming Capitol Hill in a last-ditch bid to win passage of the SAFE Banking Act. (CC)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Industry Pushing Hard to Get Banking Measure Passed Before Midterms. More than 20 head executives of major marijuana companies have unleashed a lobbying blitz on Congress in a bid to get the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1996) passed before the November midterms. They worry that if Republicans take over after the November elections, passage of the bill would be doomed. Passage of the bill has been blocked by the Democratic Senate leadership, which is holding out for a yet-to-be finalized marijuana legalization bill from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). The marijuana companies say that while they also support legalization, they do not see the votes to pass it this year. "We want comprehensive reform, but we also recognize that with the potential for the House and Senate to change hands, we have an opportunity now to pass impactful legislation, and if we fail to do that, it could be years until we get something done," said Jared Maloof, CEO of Ohio-based medical marijuana company Standard Wellness.

Georgia Judge Blocks DA's Efforts to Ban Delta-8, Delta-10 Cannabis Extracts.  Suburban Atlanta Gwinnett County District Attorney Patsy Austin-Gaston has been blocked from enforcing a ban on cannabis extracts contained Delta-8 and Delta-10 by an order from Fulton County Superior Court Judge Craig Schwall. Last Friday, Schwall issued a 30-day restraining order barring Gwinnet County from prosecuting people for possessing or selling the extracts. The two cannabinoids are similar to THC (Delta-9 THC), but have less powerful psychoactive effects, and they inhabit a hazy legal status. In January, Austin-Gaston said that possessing, selling, or distributing such products are felony offenses and raided two distributors, seizing millions of dollars worth of product, charging at least one person with a felony. Her actions are blocked as part of a lawsuit brought by two owners of a Gwinnet County vape story chain, who are seeking to have the extracts declared legal in the state.

Drug Policy

University of Michigan Students Push Ann Arbor Drug Decriminalization Resolution. The university chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy has launched a campaign to decriminalize the possession of drugs and their small-scale distribution. After consulting with community members, the group has drafted the Ann Arbor Resolution to Advance Sensible Drug Policy, which will be put before the city council. After consultation with stakeholders, the resolution sets a suggested permitted amount of 15 grams of any drug, much higher than other decriminalization measures. While drug laws are generally set by the state and federal governments, the resolution, if adopted, would make drug possession the lowest law enforcement priority and ban the use of city funds to enforce the prohibition on drug possession.

International

Executions for Drug Convictions Surged in 2021; Most Are Kept Secret. According to a new report from Harm Reduction International, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: Global Overview 2021, at least 131 people were executed for drug offenses last year, but "this number is likely to represent only a fraction of all drug-related executions carried out globally." Even so, it is nearly four times the number of executions reported in 2020. HRI named Iran and China as definitely carrying out drug executions last year, and it suspects that Vietnam and North Korea did as well, but cannot confirm that because of government secrecy. The report identifies "High Application States" where "executions of individuals convicted of drug offenses were carried out, and/or at least 10 drug-related death sentences per year were imposed in the past five years." Along the countries mentioned above, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Singapore all make this rogue's gallery. At least 3,000 people are on death row for drugs worldwide, the report found, with at least 237 drug death sentences issued last year in 16 countries. 

MD MJ Legalization Referendum Bill Advances, SD Senate Approves Legalization, More... (2/24/22)

A California bill would provide protections to workers for off-duty marijuana use, the New Mexico Supreme Court rules medical marijuana purchases are not subject to a state tax, and more.

(Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Bill Would Protect Marijuana Users from Employment Discrimination. Assembly Member Bill Quirk (D) has filed a bill, Assembly Bill 2188, that would bar employers from punishing workers for off-duty marijuana use. The bill would end discrimination against marijuana-using employees based on testing for metabolites, the non-psychoactive substances that can be detected in drug tests for days or weeks after marijuana use. The bill is supported by California NORML, which noted that "testing or threatening to test bodily fluids for cannabis metabolites is the most common way that employers harass and discriminate against employees who lawfully use cannabis in the privacy of their own homes."

Maryland House Gives Initial Approval to Marijuana Legalization Referendum Bill. The House on Wednesday gave initial approval to House Bill 1, which, if passed, would place before voters the following question: "Do you favor the legalization of adult -- use cannabis in the State of Maryland?" If voters approved it, the General Assembly would then be charged with writing the rules covering "use, distribution, possession, regulation, and taxation of cannabis." The House also gave initial approval to House Bill 837, which includes measures to implement legalization if voters approve it. It sets 1.5 ounces as the legal possession limit for adults and decriminalizes between 1.5 and 2.5 ounces, as well as automatic expungement for past conduct made legal by the law. Final House floor votes on the two bills could happen as soon as Friday.

South Dakota Senate Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill. The state Senate on Wednesday approved a marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 3, which would let people 21 and over possess up to an ounce purchased from licensed retailers. It does not allow for home cultivation. The bill now heads to the House. South Dakota voters approved a marijuana legalization initiative in 2020, only to have it thrown out by the state Supreme Court. The organizers of that campaign are currently in a signature gathering campaign for a 2022 initiative, which would include home cultivation.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Supreme Court Rules Medical Marijuana Purchases Cannot Be Taxed. The state Supreme Court on Wednesday affirmed a lower court ruling that marijuana purchases by medical marijuana patients are not subject to the state's gross receipts tax. Producers had sought tax refunds in 2014 and again in 2018, only to be denied by the state Taxation and Revenue Department. In 2020, the state Court of Appeals ruled that medical marijuana should be treated like prescription drugs, which are not taxed. The Supreme Court upheld that ruling.

Mississippi Becomes Latest State to Legalize Medical Marijuana [FEATURE]

With the signature of Gov. Tate Reeves (R) on a compromise medical marijuana bill on Wednesday, Mississippi becomes the 37th state to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Mississippians should see dispensaries operating before year's end. (Sondra Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance)
Mississippi voters had overwhelmingly approved medical marijuana at the polls in November 2020, passing a broad medical marijuana measure, Initiative 65, with 74% of the vote (and rejecting a more restrictive legislative alternative, Initiative 65A.) But that victory was nullified by the state Supreme Court, which ruled that the state's signature gathering requirements for initiatives could not be complied with, invalidating not only Initiative 65 but also the whole initiative process in the state.

Heedful of the will of the people, both the legislature and the governor vowed to get a medical marijuana bill passed. The Supreme Court ruling was in May 2021; it took until now for the executive branch and the legislative branch to come to agreement on how to replace what the judicial branch threw out. Meanwhile, patients waited increasingly impatiently.

They got medical marijuana, but in a more restrictive form that what the voted for back in 2020. The Mississippi Medical Cannabis Act (Senate Bill 2095) allows patients to purchase smokeable marijuana, but only ¾ of an ounce per week, and there is no provision for home cultivation. Marijuana flower must be no more than 30 percent THC, while concentrates must be no more than 60 percent.

People with a specified list of conditions -- cancer, Parkinson's, Huntington's, muscular dystrophy, glaucoma, spastic quadriplegia, HIV, AIDS, hepatitis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Crohn's, ulcerative colitis, sickle cell anemia, Alzheimer's, agitation of dementia, PTSD, autism, pain refractory to opioid management, diabetic/peripheral neuropathy, spinal cord disease, or severe injury -- qualify for medical marijuana.

People with chronic medical conditions that produce wasting, severe nausea, seizures, severe muscle spasms, and chronic pain also qualify, but chronic pain is narrowly defined as "a pain state in which the cause of the pain cannot be removed or otherwise treated, and which in the generally accepted course of medical practice, no relief or cure of the cause of the pain is possible, or none has been found after reasonable efforts by a practitioner."

Doctors, certified nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and optometrists can all sign recommendations for patients if they believe the patient "would likely receive medical or palliative benefit" from medical marijuana. But before they can do that, they have to have completed eight hours of continuing medical education courses on medical marijuana (and five hours each year after that) and have performed an in-person examination of the patient.

People who want to get in the medical marijuana business can obtain licenses if they pay nonrefundable application fees ranging from $1,500 for a 1,000-square foot canopy micro-cultivator license to $100,000 for the largest operators. There is no cap on the number of medical marijuana businesses. There will be a wholesale tax of 5 percent in addition to the state sales tax of 7 percent.

Marijuana reform advocates generally praised the passage of the bill, though with some reservations.

"With this victory, tens of thousands of Mississippians with debilitating health conditions will finally be able to safely and legally access something that can alleviate their pain and improve their quality of life. Mississippi now serves as the latest example that medical cannabis legalization is possible in any state in the country. We are hopeful that this move will add to the growing momentum towards cannabis policy reform in the South," said Toi Hutchinson, president and CEO of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in a press release.

"Marijuana access is long overdue for Mississippi's patients," NORML's State Policies Manager Jax James said in a blog post. "The overwhelming majority of voters decided in favor of this policy change over a year ago, and for the past 14 months the will of the people has been denied."

But James also expressed disappointment in some of both what the bill does contain and what it does not.

"We remain concerned that lawmakers saw fit to add unnecessary taxes on cannabis products, that patients are prohibited from home-cultivating limited amounts of cannabis for their own personal use, and that those with chronic pain are restricted from accessing cannabis products until first using more dangerous and addictive substances like opioids," she said.

For MPP, though, the bottom line was that another state now allows patients access to medical marijuana.

"Despite tremendous support, Mississipians faced an uphill battle for a medical cannabis program. With this new law, justice has finally prevailed. Patients in Mississippi who are seriously ill will no longer be subject to arrest and criminal penalties for using medical cannabis and instead will be met with compassion. We applaud the legislature for working to restore the will of the voters in one of the most conservative states in the nation and Gov. Reeves for signing it into law," said Kevin Caldwell, MPP Southeast legislative manager.

The state Department of Health will begin issuing patient registry cards in 60 days, begin accepting applications from practitioners and begin licensing marijuana businesses other than dispensaries within 120 days, and licensing dispensaries within 150 days. The clock is ticking.

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.

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.

Medical Marijuana Update

The medical marijuana front remains fairly quiet this week, but there's unhappy news for New Mexico patients, and more.

New Mexico

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.

Ohio

Ohio Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Expansion. The state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would allow more dispensaries to sell medical marijuana, growers to grow more of it, and more patients to qualify for it by expanding the list of qualifying conditions to include any conditions for which a patients might "reasonably be expected" to find benefit or relief. The bill would also shift regulation of dispensaries from the pharmacy board to a new Division of Marijuana Control in the Commerce Department. The bill now heads to the House.

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."

Medical Marijuana Update

Minnesota patients will soon be enjoying edibles, a Rhode Island lawsuit aimed at protecting patients from employment discrimination gets settled, and more.

Florida

Florida Bill to Protect Patient Privacy Filed. A bill to protect patient privacy by blocking the scheduled repeal of an exemption for medical marijuana from some public records requirements was filed Thursday. HB 7005 was filed by the House Government Operations Subcommittee. A companion bill is pending in the Senate.

Minnesota

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Program to Add Edibles as New Option. The state Health Department announced Wednesday that its medical marijuana program is adding edibles as a new option for patients. The department said it is adding infused edibles in gummies and chews as approved delivery methods for marijuana. Other approved delivery methods are pills, vapor oil, liquids, topicals, powdered mixtures, and orally dissolvable products, like lozenges, but not smokeable flowers. Smokeable flowers will be allowed in March 2022, based on a law approved by the legislature this year.

Rhode Island

Rhode Island ACLU Announces Settlement of Lawsuit Protecting Medical Marijuana Patients from Discrimination.The ACLU of Rhode Island on Thursday announced the settlement of a lawsuit dealing with the rights of medical marijuana patients in employment. The settlement comes four years after Rhode Island Superior Court Justice Richard Licht ruled in the case that a Westerly fabrics company discriminated against Christine Callaghan when consideration of a paid internship was rescinded because of her participation in the state's medical marijuana program and her acknowledgment that she therefore would not be able to pass a required pre-employment drug screen.

In its decision, the court held that the state's medical marijuana law, which bars discrimination in employment against cardholders, applies to job applicants like Callaghan. Under the settlement agreement, the company has agreed to pay Callaghan $3,500 in back pay and compensatory damages, and to pay attorneys' fees. The company has also agreed to amend its drug use policy to consider applicants who are authorized medical marijuana cardholders.

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