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Chronicle AM: NM MJ Legalization Bill Filed, San Francisco Heroin/Fentanyl ODs Double, More... (1/24/20)

A New Mexico marijuana legalization bill backed by the governor has been filed, Montana activists file a second legalization initiative, San Francisco authorities report a doubling of heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths last year, and more.

Heroin and fentanyl overdose deaths doubled in San Francisco last year. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Sees Second Marijuana Legalization Initiative Filed. The activist group MontanaCan filed a marijuana legalization initiative, Ballot Issue 13, on Monday. That makes two potential legalization initiatives that could be on the ballot in November. The MontanaCan initiative would legalize marijuana for people 18 and up and cap the tax rate at 5%. That contrasts with the New Approach Montana initiative, which sets the age of consumption at 21 and the tax rate at 20%. Both are waiting to be cleared for signature gathering.

New Hampshire Legislature Has Marijuana On Its Mind. As the legislative session gets underway, lawmakers are confronting at least a dozen marijuana bills that have already been filed. Some have to do with medical marijuana, including one that would allow patients to grow their own medicine. Similar legislation has passed the General Assembly in previous years, only to be vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu (R). Also on the agenda is a marijuana legalization bill, HB 1686, which was set for a public hearing Friday. That bill would legalize the possession of up to ¾ ounce of marijuana and the cultivation of up to six plants, but does not envisage a legal commercial market.

New Mexico Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed. Reps. Javier Martínez (D-Albuquerque) and Antonio "Moe" Maestas (D-Albuquerque) filed marijuana legalization legislation, HB 160, on Thursday. The bill would create a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce, as well as emphasizing social equity and local entrepreneurship. There would be a 9% excise tax on sales. The bill heads first in the House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee and then in the House Judiciary Committee. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) is pushing for the bill to be passed during the current 30-day legislative session.

Austin, Texas, City Council Walks Away from Marijuana Arrests. The city council approved a resolution Thursday directing city police to not spend city funds on newly necessary lab tests to distinguish marijuana from low-THC hemp. The measure passed unanimously, and effectively ends arrests and prosecutions for small-time pot busts in most cases.

Chicago Housing Authority Relaxes Policy on Evicting Marijuana Users. The Chicago Housing Authority has relaxed its hardline approach to marijuana after the state legalized weed this year. Under federal law, people living in subsidized housing are subject to eviction for any drug law violations, and the CHA last year sent letters to its 63,000 households warning that families could be evicted for marijuana violations. But under pressure from Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D), the CHA has revised its policy to now say that each marijuana complaint would lead to "consideration of relevant facts on a case-by-case basis."

Pine Ridge Oglala Sioux Reservation Will Vote on Marijuana Legalization in March. Members of South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation will vote on legalizing medical and recreational marijuana and allowing alcohol in casinos in May. The move comes after council members voted in favor of a referendum earlier this month.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

San Francisco Opioid Overdose Deaths Doubled Last Year. Preliminary statistics gathered by city officials show that overdose deaths involving heroin, fentanyl, or the two drugs together hit 290 last year, more than double the 134 reported in 2018. Of those 290 deaths, 234 resulted from fentanyl alone. Just a decade ago, the number of city residents who overdosed on fentanyl and/or heroin was only 17. "It's devastating. It's awful. It's the most deadly epidemic that we've seen in our city since the HIV/AIDS crisis was killing thousands of people," said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin district where the opioid crisis has hit the city hardest. "It is painful that this is not something being talked about every day at City Hall."

Drug Testing

Iowa Bill Would Make Cheating on a Drug Test a Crime. A bill that would make it a misdemeanor crime to cheat on a drug or alcohol test in a private-sector workplace has passed its first legislative hurdle, being approved Thursday by a Senate Commerce subcommittee. SSB 3013 is being advanced by business interests concerned about the use of synthetic urine and urine additives to beat drug tests.

Chronicle AM: US Revokes Visa of Philippines Drug War Chief, VT Psychedelic Decrim Bill Filed, More... (1/23/20)

Connecticut and New York begin grappling with getting marijuana legalization passed, a Vermont bill would legalize several natural psychedelics, the Mexican Senate will take up marijuana legalization in the coming weeks, and more.

Mass Murderers: Duterte with his former police chief, now a senator, Bato dela Rosa (King Rodriguez/PPD via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Senate Democrats Prioritize Marijuana Legalization as Session Looms. Senate Democrats said Thursday that marijuana legalization was among their top agenda items in the upcoming General Assembly session that begins February 5. "There are very high numbers of Connecticut residents already traveling regularly to Massachusetts to buy this product and bring it home with them. I don't think we want to put our heads in the sand," said State Senator Martin Looney (D), Senate President Pro Tempore. "I think the time has come. There is broad base public support for it. We need to recognize it and find support for it."

New York Marijuana Legalization Must Include Social Justice, Drug Policy Alliance Says. Responding to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget proposal including marijuana legalization, the Drug Policy Alliance is reiterating its call for social justice. "We are pleased to see Governor Cuomo's commitment to passing comprehensive marijuana legalization in the state budget this year, and to see him include social equity and small business incubator programs," said Kassandra Frederique, the group's state director. "We are disappointed Governor Cuomo doesn't clearly guarantee that a portion of funds from marijuana sales will be reinvested into the communities most harmed by New York's marijuana arrest crusade. Without this necessary component, the Governor's proposal will not truly right the wrongs done to communities of color by disproportionate enforcement of marijuana."

Psychedelics

Vermont Psychedelic Decriminalization Bill Filed. Rep. Brian Cina (P/D) filed a bill Wednesday that would decriminalize psilocybin (magic mushrooms), ayahuasca, peyote, as well as kratom. Cina said he believes that "plants are a gift from nature and they're a part of the web of life that humans are connected to. Plants, especially plant medicines, should be accessible to people," he said. "Use of plant medicine should be considered a health care issue, not a criminal issue." The bill is HB 878. It currently has three cosponsors and has been referred to the Judiciary Committee.

Foreign Policy

US Revokes Visa of Philippine Drug War Architect. The US government has revoked the travel visa of Senator Ronald Dela Rosa, the former police chief who led the Duterte government's bloody crackdown on drugs, Dela Rosa confirmed Wednesday. The State Department has the authority to deny visas to people implicated in gross human rights violations, and Dela Rosa has been implicated in extrajudicial killings. The Philippines Commission on Human Rights estimates that more than 27,000 people have been killed in Duterte's and Dela Rosa's drug war. [Ed: Note that this move appears to have preceded passage by Congress of appropriations language barring officials involved in the incarceration of Philippine drug war critic Senator Leila de Lima. If so, the State Department must have done unpublished designations of one or more Philippine officials to ban, under existing authority it already had.]

Harm Reduction

South Carolina Bill Would Increase Access to Overdose Reversal Drug. State Rep. Russell Fry (R-Columbia) has filed HB 4711 to increase access to naloxone, the overdose reversal drug. The bill would require prescribers to offer a naloxone prescription to patients who have a history of a substance use disorder or have overdosed in the past. It's been referred to the Committee on Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs.

International

Mexico Senate Leader Seeks to Legalize Marijuana This Spring. The Mexican Senate will debate a marijuana legalization bill coauthored by Senate Majority Leader Ricardo Monreal once the legislative session begins next month, his office said. The bill would set up an Institute for the Regulation and Control of Cannabis to create rules for legal marijuana commerce.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of StoptheDrugWar.org.

Chronicle AM: Federal Marijuana Prosecutions Drop, Drug Czar Touts Reduced Overdoses, More... (1/17/20)

A New Mexico pot legalization bill gets filed, Rhode Island's governor calls for legalization, the drug czar touts a drop in drug overdose deaths, and more.

Federal marijuana prosecutions declined significantly last year, a new report finds. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Federal Prosecutions Decline. Federal marijuana prosecutions declined by 28% from September 30, 2018 to September 30, 2019, according to a report from Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. The year-end report also found that total federal filings for drug crimes was up 5% over the same period, with some 83,000 cases.

New Mexico Legalization Bill Filed. State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D) and Rep. Javier Martinez (D) have filed a bill, Senate Bill 115, that would allow adults in the state to possess and purchase cannabis from licensed retailers. The move comes just a day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) signaled that she supported legalizing marijuana this year. The bill would also automatically expunge prior possession convictions and promote participation by small and tribal-owned businesses. The bill would not allow home cultivation, but would decriminalize the growing up of to three plants and six seedlings.

Rhode Island Governor Includes Marijuana Legalization Proposal in State Budget Plan. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has included marijuana legalization as a priority in the state budget plan she released Thursday. The plan envisions state-contracted private marijuana retailers with the state controlling location, price, potency, and quantity of sales. Revenues would be divvied up among the state (61%), the private contractors (29%), and local communities (10%). This is the second year Raimondo is including adult-use cannabis legalization in the state budget; she introduced a similar proposal last year, which was ultimately unsuccessful.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Drug Czar Touts Decline in Overdose Deaths. Jim Carroll, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), said Friday that the country had seen a decline in drug overdose deaths for the first time in 30 years. "For the first time in almost 30 years, we've seen a decline in the number of Americans dying from an overdose -- it's a 5 percent reduction," he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 70,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2017, with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl being the main driver behind those deaths.

Foreign Policy

US, Mexico Agree on Plan to Reduce Illegal Guns, Drug Trade. The Mexican government said Thursday it had reached agreement with the United States on a plan to combat the illicit trafficking of arms, drugs, and money. The announcement came after a meeting between US Attorney General William Barr and Mexican officials. The two countries said they agreed to cooperate on reducing drug consumption and combating addiction. The agreement came after President Trump threatened in November to designate Mexican drug cartels as terrorist organizations, prompting Mexican officials to quickly seek talks.

International

Canadian Health Minister Says Time Not Right for Drug Decriminalization. Health Minister Patty Hadju said Thursday that talk about decriminalizing drugs to deal with the country's opioid crisis is premature until people have enough help to fight their addictions. "My personal perspective on decriminalization is that it can't be done in a broad sweep," she said. "I think that having a comprehensive kind of approach that includes things like prevention, treatment, harm reduction, enforcement, housing, those are the kind of things that are actually going to start to move the needle," Hajdu said. "It's too premature to have a conversation about full decriminalization of substances until we get to the place where we have comprehensive support for people to get well."

The Top Ten Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2019 [FEATURE]

As the clock ticks down toward 2020, it's worth taking a moment to look back and reflect on what has gone on in the world of drug policy this year. From marijuana to psychedelics to the lingering overdose crisis to the emergence of a new vaping-related illness, a lot happened. Here are ten of the biggest highs and lows of 2019, in no particular order:

It was a big year for marijuana in Congress. Less so in the states.
1, For the First Time, Marijuana Legalization Wins a Congressional Vote

In November, the House Judiciary Committee made history when it approved the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act (H.R. 3384). The bill would effectively legalize marijuana at the federal level by removing it from the Controlled Substance Act's drug schedules. It would also require federal courts to expunge prior convictions and conduct resentencing hearings for those still doing federal marijuana time. And it would assess a five percent tax on marijuana sales to create a fund to aid to people and communities most impacted by prohibition.

There's a good chance the MORE Act will get a House floor vote before the end of this Congress, but even if it does, its prospects in Sen. Mitch McConnell's Senate are dim at best. Still, step by step, Congress by Congress, the end of federal marijuana prohibition is drawing nearer.

2. Marijuana Banking Bill Passes the House

In September, the House passed the SAFE Banking Act, which would allow state-legal marijuana businesses to get access to banking and other financial services. The vote was 321-103, with near unanimous support from Democrats, as well as nearly half of Republicans.

The vote came although some civil rights and drug reform groups had called for it to be put off until more comprehensive marijuana or criminal justice reform, such as the MORE Act (see above) could be enacted. They argued that passage of a narrowly targeted financial services bill could erode momentum toward broader reforms. The MORE Act did win a House Judiciary Committee vote, but has yet to get a House floor vote.

And while SAFE passed the House, it must still get through the Senate, where it is not clear whether it will be allowed to a vote, much less whether it can pass. A companion version of SAFE, S.1200, was introduced in April by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and a bipartisan group of 21 original cosponsors. It currently has 33 total cosponsors. In September, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo (R-ID) said his committee would take up the cannabis banking issue this year and is working on preparing a new bill, but now it's December and little has happened.

3. Legalization in the States Didn't Have a Great Year

At the beginning of 2019, prospects looked good for as many as a half-dozen states to get legalization bills passed, but the year turned out to largely be a dud. Hopes were especially high in New Jersey and New York, where Democratic governors supported legalization, but it didn't come to pass this year in either state. In Albany, they'll be back at it next year, but in Trenton, it looks like the legislature is going to punt, opting instead to put the issue directly to the voters next year in a legislative referendum.

One state did make it all the way to the finish line: Illinois. After a legalization bill sailed through the legislature in the spring, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed it into law in late June. With that signature, Illinois became the first state to create a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce through the legislative process, rather than through a voter initiative. (Vermont's legislature legalized possession and cultivation but not sales in early 2018.)

Getting bills through a state legislature is hard work, and it sometimes takes years. Still, that hard work that didn't quite make it over the top this year, is laying the groundwork for legalization in places like New Jersey and New York -- and maybe more -- next year. And next year is an election year, which means initiative campaigns that can bypass legislative logjams will be in play. There are already active campaigns in Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota and South Dakota, although none have yet qualified for the ballot. Look for 2020 to be a better year when it comes to freeing the weed.

4. Pot Prohibition Isn't Dead Yet: Despite Legalization, Marijuana Arrests Up in Latest FBI Crime Report

In late September, the FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report for 2018, and once again, marijuana arrests were on the rise -- despite legalization in 11 states and DC, and decriminalization in 15 more states. There were some 663,367 marijuana arrests in 2018, up from 659,700 in 2017 and 653,249 in 2017. In all three years, simple possession cases accounted for about nine out of ten pot busts. Before 2016, marijuana arrests had been going down for more than a decade. Clearly, there is still work to do here.

5. US Supreme Court Unanimously Reins in Asset Forfeiture

In a February victory for proponents of civil libertarians, the US Supreme Court ruled in Timbs v. Indiana that the Eighth Amendment's Excessive Fines Clause applies to states, thereby prohibiting state and local governments from collecting excessive fines, fees and forfeitures. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion. "The protection against excessive fines guards against abuses of government's punitive or criminal law-enforcement authority," Ginsburg wrote. The case involved the seizure of a $42,000 Land Rover over a drug sale of $225.

There was more progress on the asset forfeiture front on the state level, too: Bills to either end civil asset forfeiture entirely or to restrict it passed this year in Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, and North Dakota, and in September, a South Carolina circuit court judge ruled civil asset forfeiture unconstitutional, setting up a fight in state appeals courts there.

6. Thousands of Federal Drug Prisoners Go Free Under First Step Act

President Trump signed the First Step Act into law at the end of last year, but the sentencing reform measure's true impact was felt in July, when the Bureau of Prisons released more than 3,000 prisoners and reduced the sentences of nearly 1,700 more. Almost all of those released were drug offenders. The First Step Act was aimed at redressing harsh sentences for federal prisoners excluded from the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the infamous crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, but which did not include prisoners sentenced before its passage. Three states -- Florida, South Carolina and Virginia -- accounted for a whopping 25 percent of sentence reductions, and more than 90 percent went to African-American men.

A movement to decriminalize natural psychedelics emerged this year. (Greenoid/Flickr)
7. Psychedelic Decriminalization Becomes a Movement

After emerging in 2018, the movement to decriminalize natural psychedelics mushroomed this year. In May, voters in Denver narrowly approved the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Decriminalization Initiative, making clear that they wanted to "deprioritize, to the greatest extent possible, the imposition of criminal penalties on persons 21 years of age and older for the personal possession of psilocybin mushrooms." The measure also "prohibits the city and county of Denver from spending resources on imposing criminal penalties on persons 21 years of age and older for the personal use and possession of psilocybin mushrooms."

That surprise victory sparked interest across the country, and the following month Oakland followed suit, only this time it was the city council -- not the voters -- who decriminalized magic mushrooms and other natural psychedelics. In September, Chicago became the next city to get on board, with the city council unanimously passing an advisory resolution expressing support for research on the potential use of psychoactive plants and pledging support for adult use of the substances. Meanwhile, activists in three more major cities -- Berkeley, Dallas, and Portland -- were pushing psychedelic decriminalization measures, either through ballot initiatives or city council actions. By December, Decriminalize Nature, the group behind the movement, reported that more than 100 cities across the country are now seeing efforts to open up to psychedelics.

And it's not just cities. In two states, psychedelic reformers have filed initiatives aimed at the November 2020 ballot. In the Golden State, the California Psilocybin Mushroom Initiative, which would decriminalize the possession, use, and gifting of magic mushrooms and the chemical compounds -- psilocybin and psilocin -- has been cleared for signature gathering. It has until April 21 to come up with 623,212 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2020 ballot. Just across the border to the north, the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin, is in the midst of signature gathering. It needs 112,020 valid voter signatures by July 2 to make the ballot. The Oregon measure in October got a nice $150,000 donation from Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps.

8. Overdose Deaths Decline Slightly, But Are Still Way Too High

In July, the CDC reported 2018 drug overdose death numbers and found that they had declined from 2017's record high of more than 70,000 to just under 68,000, a five percent decrease. The latest data from CDC, which measured drug deaths in the 12-month period ending in April 2019 showed deaths at 67,000, suggesting that the decline continues, but at a glacial pace. Still, the number of overdose deaths is about seven times higher than it was in 1995, at the start of the prescription opioid epidemic.

The recent decline has been driven by a decrease in heroin and prescription opioid overdoses, although overdoses involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl increased, as did those involving the stimulant drugs cocaine and methamphetamine. Many overdoses involved more than one drug, with benzodiazepines often implicated.

If some researchers are right, fentanyl overdoses could balloon to an even higher level, if distribution of the highly potent substance takes hold in the western US. Most users take fentanyl unknowingly, after it's been used to cut street heroin or counterfeit pills.

9. Vaping-Linked Illness Emerges, Sparking Broad Anti-Vaping Backlash

In the summer, reports of vaping or e-cig users being struck down by a mysterious, lung-damaging condition began to emerge. By the end of October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported more than 1,600 cases of lung-damaged vapors, with the death toll rising to 34. (That number has since risen to 47.) The CDC also gave the condition a name: e-cigarette or vaping product use associated lung injury (EVALI).

A likely culprit soon emerged: black market THC vaping cartridges contaminated with new additives, particularly thinners including propylene glycol (PG) and polyethylene glycol (PEG), vitamin E acetate, and medium chain triglycerides (MCT oil). The FDA has begun investigating vitamin E acetate, while public health officials in New York have found the substance in a majority of seized vape cartridges there. The FDA also announced in August that it is proposing adding propylene glycol as a "respiratory toxicant" in its list of harmful tobacco product ingredients.

While the CDC and the FDA responded to the outbreak with recommendations targeting the suspect products, elected and public health officials in a number of states responded by going after not black market marijuana vaping cartridges but legal flavored tobacco vaping products.

Massachusetts banned all vaping products, Michigan banned flavored nicotine products, New York banned flavored e-cigarettes, Oregon banned all flavored vaping products for six months, as did Rhode Island, while Washingtonissued a four-month ban on flavored vaping products. President Trump threatened to move toward a national ban on flavored vaping products, but has since changed course, even making an anti-prohibitionist argument to do so.

In its latest update, the CDC reports the number of EVALI cases has risen to nearly 2,300 and the death toll has climbed to 47. But unlike those state governments that reacted with flavored vaping bans, the CDC takes a different approach: It points the finger strongly at vitamin E acetate, recommends that people not use THC vaping products at this point -- especially if obtained informally or in the black market -- and also warns people not to add any products to vaping cartridges that are not intended by the manufacturer.

10. Safe Injection Sites Win an Important Preliminary Legal Battle

In a case involving a proposed safe injection site in Philadelphia, a federal judge ruled that it would not violate federal law. With the backing of city officials and former Gov. Ed Rendell (D), the nonprofit group Safehouse pressed forward with plans for the facility even though the Justice Department had warned that it would not allow any safe injection sites to move forward. The Justice Department sued in February to halt the project, arguing that it violated the federal "crack house law."

But US District Judge Gerald McHugh ruled that the "crack house" provision of the Controlled Substances Act does not apply to the group's bid to assist opioid users. "No credible argument can be made that facilities such as safe injection sites were within the contemplation of Congress" when that body wrote the law in 1986 or amended it in 2003, McHugh wrote. "I cannot conclude that Safehouse [the safe injection site] has, as a significant purpose, the objective of facilitating drug use. Safehouse plans to make a place available for the purposes of reducing the harm of drug use, administering medical care, encouraging drug treatment and connecting participants with social services."

While the Justice Department has appealed the ruling, it is a good omen, and the case is being carefully watched in cities such as Denver, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, all of which are pursuing similar plans.

West of the Mississippi, Meth -- Not Fentanyl -- Is the Deadliest Drug [FEATURE]

According to a report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released last week, while fentanyl, heroin, and cocaine continue to account for most fatal drug overdoses in the Eastern US, it's a very different story once you cross the Mississippi River. Throughout the Western US, more people are dying from methamphetamines than those other three drugs.

crystal methamphetamine (Creative Commons)
The report, which examined the more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, identified fentanyl as the deadliest drug nationwide, followed by heroin. Between them, the two opioids accounted for about 60 percent of all fatal overdoses. The third leading killer drug, cocaine, was involved in slightly more than 20 percent of overdoses. Meth came in fourth, accounting for 13.3 percent of overdoses nationwide.

Of the five geographic regions in the report east of the Mississippi, fentanyl was the leading killer, with heroin and cocaine alternating in second and third places. Meth never made it higher than fifth place among killer drugs in the East. It didn't even make the top 10 in Region 1 (New England) or Region 2 (New York and New Jersey), was in 7th place in Region 3 (the Mid-Atlantic states), and 5th place in Region 4 (the South) and Region 5 (the Midwest).

In the West, though, Region 7 (Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska) was the only region where meth wasn't the leading cause of overdose deaths. There, it came in second behind fentanyl. But from Houston to Honolulu and San Diego to Sioux Falls, meth reigned supreme. In both Region 7 and Region 6 (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas), meth accounted for more than one-fifth of all overdose deaths, while in Region 8 (Northern Plains and Rockies), it accounted for more than a quarter of all ODs. In Region 9 (Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada) and Region 10 (Pacific Northwest and Alaska), meth was responsible for more than a third of all ODs.

Overall, the East has a significantly higher rate of drug overdose deaths. The age-adjusted death rate per 100,000 ranges from a low of 9.1 in the Southeast to a high of 22.5 in New England, while in the West, all regions except Region 7 had death rates of 1.7 or lower.

Clearly, many, many more drug users per capita are dying in the east, and the situation there, especially with fentanyl, requires and deserves serious attention. If some researchers are right, the western US is at risk of developing bigger fentanyl problems too, which could balloon opioid overdoses to even greater levels. Nevertheless, if anything is to be done about drug overdose deaths in the western US, dealing with methamphetamine is a key issue.

How to Legalize Ecstasy -- and Why [FEATURE]

Every weekend, hundreds of thousands of young club- and concert-goers buy and consume black market pills and powders they hope are MDMA, the methamphetamine relative with a psychedelic tinge known on the streets as Ecstasy or Molly. A tiny percentage of them -- a few dozen each year in the United States or Britain -- die. It doesn't have to be that way.

Ecstasy pills (Erowid.org)
Granted, those numbers are miniscule when compared with the tens of thousands who die each year in the US using opioids, benzos, and stimulants like cocaine and meth, much less from the legal substances alcohol and tobacco. But that relative handful of deaths could almost certainly be eliminated by bringing Ecstasy in from the cold -- making it legal and regulated instead of subjecting its users to black market Russian roulette.

And now somebody has a plan for that. The British Beckley Foundation, which has been advocating for research into psychoactive substance and evidence-based drug policy reform for the past two decades, has just released a new report, Roadmaps to Regulation: MDMA, that takes a good, hard look at the drug and charts a path to a saner, less harmful way of handling Ecstasy than just prohibiting it, which, the report notes, "has never meaningfully disrupted its supply, nor its widespread use."

That's because, despite it being illegal, for many, many people, Ecstasy is fun. And the Beckley report does something rare in the annals of drug policy wonkery: it acknowledges that. "Hundreds of thousands of people break the law to access its effects, which include increased energy, euphoria, and enhanced sociability," the report says.

The authors concede that Ecstasy is not a harmless substance, and take a detailed dive into acute, sub-acute, and chronic harms related to its use. They point to overheating (hyperthermia) and excess water intake (hypnoatraemia) as the cause of most Ecstasy deaths, and they examine the debate over neurotoxicity associated with the drug, very carefully pointing out that "there is evidence to suggest that heavy use of MDMA may contribute to temporary impairments in neuropsychological functions."

But they also point out that most of the problems with Ecstasy are artifacts of prohibition: "Our evidence shows that many harms associated with MDMA use arise from its unregulated status as an illegal drug, and that any risks inherent to MDMA could be more effectively mitigated within a legally regulated market," they write.

The most serious harmful effect of treating Ecstasy use and sales as a criminal matter is that users are forced into an unregulated, no-quality-control black market and they don't know what they're getting. Tablets have been found with as little as 20 milligrams of MDMA and as much as 300 milligrams. And much of what is sold as MDMA is actually adulterated with other substance, including some much more lethal ones, such as PMA (paramethoxyamphetamine) and PMMA (paramethoxymethamphetamine). This is how people die. As the authors note:

"The variability in MDMA potency and purity is a direct result of global and national prohibitionist policies. Recent developments around in situ drug safety testing are an attempt to mitigate the risks of such variability. These risks, such as overdose and/or poisoning, are by no means inevitable or inherent to the drug. If MDMA were clinically produced and legally distributed, users would be assured of the product content and appropriate dosage and be able to make more informed decisions regarding their MDMA use. In this way the principal risks we associate with MDMA use would be greatly reduced."

But the report also addresses a whole litany of other prohibition-related harms around Ecstasy that exacerbate the risks of its use. From making users less likely to seek medical help for fear of prosecution to making venues adopt "zero tolerance" policies that actually increase risks (such as drug dog searches that encourage users to take all their drugs at once before entering the venue) to the rejection of pill testing and other harm reduction measures, prohibition just makes matters worse.

In addition to harms exacerbated by prohibition, there are harms created by prohibition. These include "a lucrative illegal MDMA market that generates wealth for entrenched criminal organizations," the saddling of young users with criminal records, the risk that people who share or sell drugs among their friends could be charged as drug dealers, and the development of black markets for new psychoactive substances (NSPs), many of which are more dangerous than Ecstasy. Also not to be forgotten is the loss of decades of research opportunities into the therapeutic use of MDMA, research that was showing tremendous potential before the drug was prohibited in the mid-1980s.

Prohibition of Ecstasy is not only not working but is making matters worse. So what should we do instead? Beckley is very clear in its conclusions and recommendations. First, these preliminary steps:

  • Reschedule MDMA from Schedule I to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act (the Misuse of Drugs Regulations in Britain) in order to reduce barriers to research and to improve our understanding of its physiological effects.
  • "Decriminalize the possession of MDMA and all drugs to remove the devastating social and economic effects of being criminalized for drug possession or limited social supply."
  • Use decriminalization to comprehensively roll out drug safety testing (pill testing) and other proven harm reduction measures.

Once those preliminary steps are done, it's time to break big:

  • Award licenses to selected pharmaceutical manufacturers to produce MDMA under strict manufacturing requirements.
  • Allow licensed MDMA products to be sold at government licensed MDMA outlets. The report suggests pharmacies in the first instance.
  • For harm reduction purposes, retail outlet staff would need to be specially trained to educate users on the risks associated with MDMA.
  • Users who wish to purchase licensed MDMA products would be required to obtain a "personal license" to do so. Such a license would be granted after an interview with trained sales staff demonstrates that the would-be user understands the risks and how to reduce them.
  • Develop adults-only MDMA-friendly spaces where the risks associated with the drug can be combatted with the full panoply of harm reduction measures.
  • "User controls" to encourage responsible MDMA use. These would include "a strictly enforced age limit, pricing controls, mandated health information on packaging and at point of sale, childproof and tamperproof packaging, a comprehensive ban on marketing and advertising, and a campaign to minimize the social acceptability of driving under the influence of MDMA and to promote alternatives such as designated drivers."
  • "Sales of MDMA would be permitted to adults over 18 years of age. Prohibitive penalties would be in place to restrict underage sales."
  • Education campaigns focusing on MDMA safety and responsible use that would cover sales outlets and schools and universities. Such campaigns would include information about how to recognize and manage adverse events related to MDMA products.
  • Monitor and evaluate the impact of these changes to continue an evidence-based approach and allow feedback into policymaking.

There you have it, a step-by-step plan to break with prohibitionist orthodoxy and create a legal, regulated market for a popular recreational drug. Whether you or I agree with every plank of the plan, it is indeed a roadmap to reform. The evidence is there, a plan is there; now all we need is the political pressure to make it happen somewhere. It could be the United Kingdom, it could be the United States, it could be the Netherlands, but once somebody gets it done, the dam will begin to burst.

The Vaping Crisis is Real, But the Response by States Misses the Point [FEATURE]

According to the October 18 update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1,299 cases of severe lung injury associated with the use of vaping products have now been reported since cases first started appearing this summer. They've been reported in 49 states and the District of Columbia. And 26 people have died.

The update also provides this new syndrome with a name: E-cigarette or Vaping, product use Associated Lung Injury (EVALI).

In the update, the CDC notes that "all patients have reported a history of using e-cigarette, or vaping, products" and that "most patients report a history of using THC-containing products."

As EVALI cases began piling up this fall, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers early this month to "stop using THC-containing vaping products and any vaping products obtained off the street." The CDC was on the same page, recommending that people "should not use e-cigarette or vaping products that contain THC," buy black market vaping or e-cig products, especially those containing THC, or modify or add any substances to e-cig and vaping products.

Something new is going on. Marijuana and nicotine vaping products have been around for more than a decade by now -- who remembers the massive Volcano vape from early in this century? -- and the most popular nicotine vaping brand, Juul, has been on the market for more than four years. Yet this wave of vaping-related illness only broke out this summer.

The culprit increasingly appears to be black market THC vaping cartridges contaminated with new additives, particularly thinners including propylene glycol (PEG), Vitamin E acetate, and medium chain triglycerides (MCT oil). The FDA has begun investigating Vitamin E acetate, while public health officials in New York have found the substance in a majority of seized vape cartridges there. The FDA also announced in August that it is proposing adding PEG as a "respiratory toxicant" in its list of harmful tobacco product ingredients.

While federal health officials have been busy trying to find the actual cause of the EVALI outbreak, elected and public health officials at the state level have typically responded with much broader restrictions on vaping products overall, especially flavored vaping products for both nicotine and marijuana.

In doing so, they are conflating two separate concerns -- youth vaping and this new vaping illness -- and coming up with responses that use the latter to take broad aim at the former. The problem with vaping illness increasingly appears to be not flavored vapes nor legal THC vapes; it's black market THC vapes using specific additives. Nonetheless, here's how governments have responded:

  • In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) last month declared a public health emergency and banned all vaping products and devices. "The use of e-cigarettes and marijuana vaping products is exploding, and we are seeing reports of serious lung illnesses, particularly in our young people," Baker said as he announced the ban. Medical marijuana patients can still vape, though.
  • In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) used emergency administrative regulatory powers to make Michigan the first state to announce a ban on flavored nicotine products. "As governor, my No. 1 priority is keeping our kids safe," Whitmer said in a statement. "And right now, companies selling vaping products are using candy flavors to hook children on nicotine and misleading claims to promote the belief that these products are safe. That ends today."
  • In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in September, citing both the outbreak of lung injury and concerns over teenage e-cig vaping. But that ban has been temporarily blocked in the courts in response to a challenge from the vaping industry.
  • In Oregon, Gov. Kathleen Brown (D) ordered a six-month ban on all flavored vaping products early this month. In a joint statement, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (which regulates marijuana) and the Oregon Health Authority said the emergency rules "are significant steps toward stemming the well-documented tide of e-cigarette use and vaping by youth, as well as keeping products that may expose people to unsafe chemicals and other contaminants off store shelves." But a state appeals court last week temporarily blocked the ban on nicotine vaping product, but not marijuana ones.
  • In Rhode Island, state health officials issued emergency health regulations at the end of September banning all flavored vaping products. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) said she was concerned about the spread of e-cigarette use among teens and wanted to end the sale of flavored vaping products.
  • In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) issued an executive order in late September banning flavored nicotine and marijuana vaping products for four months. "We need to act for the public health of our people," said Inslee. "I'm confident this executive order will save lives."

One state, though, has had a more reasoned and measured response. In Colorado, regulators this month proposed a ban not on flavored vape products or THC vape products, but one specifically targeting the additives that are in question: PEG, MCT Oil, and Vitamin E acetate. The move came after public hearings and consultations with industry stakeholders.

The plan also includes requiring labels that identify any additives to vaping products and vaping cartridge packaging for products that include additives will have to say "Not FDA Approved."

Drug reform advocates, while acknowledging the seriousness of the vaping illness, are critical of what they see as exaggerated and heavy-handed responses and suggest that the outbreak is all the more reason to legalize marijuana.

"All the vape bans really accomplish is to stoke more fear and stigma around yet another substance," Matt Sutton, director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in an emailed statement. "What we are seeing play out right now is a real-life drama of how various substances are criminalized without justified reasoning and reliable research to do so. Taking this approach, we fail to consider the harm that may result from its removal from the marketplace, such as people turning to the black market or more harmful substances."

"Banning vapes will only stop legal vapes, with no known problems," said Dale Gieringer, long-time head of California NORML. "Illegal vapes won't be affected. There is a concerted campaign by public health officials, led by the FDA, the CDC, and the California Department of Public Health trying to demonize vaping in general, even though there's strong evidence that vaping in general is much safer than smoking, for all sorts of obvious reasons," said Gieringer. "In other countries, such as Britain, public health authorities are encouraging vaping to reduce smoking."

For concerns about vaping marijuana products, the policy prescription is obvious, said Sutton: "For THC, the issue is undoubtedly the lack of regulation, which cannot be put in place so long as it remains illegal at the federal level," he argued. "At this point, with these illnesses becoming a growing concern, it is incumbent on policymakers to legalize marijuana in the interest of public health."

For CANORML's Gieringer, the current vaping panic is just that -- a sort of moral panic that creates a demand for action, whether or not that action addresses the actual problem and whether or not that action leads to negative consequences.

"During this entire scare, teen vaping goes up and up and up, but teen smoking has gone down, down, down. There's no public health crisis evident, but the anti-smoking crowd is trying to misinform the public, and they've succeeded. Polls now show over 50 percent believe vaping is as dangerous as smoking. They've succeeded in panicking the public and misinforming it about the advantage of vaping over smoking," he argued.

"Another irony of this current hysteria is the resort to policies that ban flavored nicotine vapes when one of the attractions of vaping is flavor," said Gieringer. "Losing flavored vapes could drive people back to menthol cigarettes. If they're smart, they would at least keep menthol or some flavors on the market. The FDA could ban menthol cigarettes and smokers would go to vapes, which is a public health benefit."

Amidst all the concern about THC vaping, Gieringer had some simple advice for pot vapers: "Don't use underground products," he suggested. "There are also herbal vaporizers with no additives, just pot. And vape pens that operate on pure cannabis oil are also safe. That's the safest bet. There are a lot of reputable manufacturers who do nothing else."

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of both Drug Reporter and Drug War Chronicle.

Chronicle AM: Nation's First Cannabis Cafe Opens Doors, Dutch Supreme Court Rules Against Ayahuasca, More... (10/2/19)

Los Angeles sees the nation's first legal cannabis cafe, the Arizona legalization initiative draws industry opposition, the Justice Department says DEA didn't adequately regulate opioid manufacturing, and more.

Ayahuasca-inspired art. The Dutch Supreme Court has ruled the substance illegal. (Pinterest)
Marijuana Policy

Senators Introduce Federal Student Financial Aid Bill. US Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced new bipartisan legislation Tuesday they say would allow students with a felony drug conviction access to the American Opportunity Tax Credit for higher education. The Eliminating Discrimination and Creating Corridors to Expand Student Success Act of 2019 (ED ACCESS Act) would fix this inequity by repealing the lifetime ban. The measure does not yet have a bill number.

Arizona Legalization Initiative Campaign Draws Industry Opponents. A new marijuana industry group has formed to fight the Smart and Safe Arizona Act, which itself is backed by other industry groups. The new group calls itself the Arizona Cannabis Chamber of Commerce and has its own ideas about what legalization should look like. The group complains that the initiative is tailored to the needs of existing dispensary owners, that there wouldn't be enough licenses available, and that the proposed 16% sales tax rate is too high.

Pennsylvania Bill Filed to Legalize via State-Run Model. State Rep. David Delloso (D) on Monday filed a bill that would legalize marijuana and allow adults 21 and older to possess, consume, cultivate and purchase marijuana through a state stores system run by the Liquor Control Board. Retail pot shops would be taxed at 19%, and all of that revenue would go toward the state general fund. The bill would also create a distinct regulatory scheme for industrial hemp. The bill is not yet available on the state legislative web site.

Tennessee Steps Back from Marijuana Enforcement. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has announced that it will no longer test amounts of marijuana less than a half ounce, making it virtually impossible for prosecutors to build a case against small-time possessors.

Nation's First Cannabis Café Opens in Los Angeles. The first-ever licensed cannabis café in the US has opened in Los Angeles. The Lowell Café opened its doors to the public in West Hollywood on Tuesday. The café is a hybrid marijuana lounge and restaurant where you can order some weed along with your meal.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Justice Department Says DEA Failed to Properly Regulate Opioids. In a new report from the agency's inspector general, the Justice Department found that the DEA fell short in regulating the supply of prescription opioids in the past two decades. The agency continued to raise manufacturing quotas for opioids with little regard to oversupply or misuse, the report found. The DEA "ill-equipped to effectively monitor ordering patterns for all pharmaceutical opioids, which could enable the diversion of these prescription drugs and compromise public safety." Although alarm bells were already ringing by the turn of the century, the DEA allowed manufacturing levels of oxycodone -- sold as OxyContin by Purdue Pharma -- to nearly quadruple between 2000 and 2013.

International

Dutch Supreme Court Rules Ayahuasca Illegal. The Dutch Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that ayahuasca falls under the country's hard drug laws and that its import is illegal. The ruling came in the case of a woman who had imported about 70 pounds of ayahuasca tea from Brazil for use in Santo Daime church rituals. Because the substance contains DMT, which is covered by Dutch drug laws, ayahuasca is covered as well.

Mexican Marijuana Legalization Bill Would Create State-Run System. Diputado Mario Delgado Carrillo, coordinator of the ruling MORENA Party's bench in the Chamber of Deputies, filed a bill Tuesday that would legalize marijuana through a government-run system. Under the bill, a regulatory body called Cannsalud would be in charge of the legal market, which would be the "exclusive property of the federal government, with a technical, operational and management autonomy for the realization of its primary purpose" to create a legal, regulated system. "With this, the cannabis market is not left to autonomous regulation by individuals, but the state is involved as a constant supervisor and controller of the activity of this substance within a margin of legality that guarantees a benefit for all," Delgado said. "This is a first step towards the opening of a new lawful market, and a public company is proposed as an obligatory intermediary in order to identify and contain the risks inherent in the establishment of a new market, when there are already international commercial interests that seek to maximize its utilities above the protection of people's health," he said.

Chronicle AM: House MJ Banking Bill to Get Floor Vote, Purdue Pharma Files for Bankruptcy, More... (9/16/19)

A bill to open up financial services for the marijuana industry will get a House floor vote this month, the maker of OxyContin files for bankruptcy, the marijuana industry places the blame for vaping deaths on marijuana prohibition, and more.

Is marijuana prohibition to blame for vaping deaths? The industry is pointing a finger. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

House Will Vote This Month on Marijuana Banking Bill. The office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has confirmed that he intends to bring the SAFE Banking Act to the House floor for a vote this month. Hoyer announced the move at a whip meeting last Thursday. The bill passed out of the House Financial Committee in March on a 45-15 vote. It would provide protections for banks that work with marijuana companies since the substance is still illegal under federal law, despite several states having legalized medical or recreational marijuana.

Marijuana Industry Blames Vaping Deaths on Failed Prohibition Policies.The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) has blamed the recent wave of vaping deaths -- a total of six so far -- on "failed prohibition policies" and called on Congress to legalize and regulate marijuana. "These unfortunate illnesses and deaths are yet another terrible, and largely avoidable, consequence of failed prohibition policies," said NCIA Executive Director Aaron Smith. "Current federal laws interfere with research, prevent federal regulatory agencies from establishing safety guidelines, discourage states from regulating cannabis, and make it more difficult for state-legal cannabis businesses to displace the illicit market. It is now the responsibility of Congress to end prohibition and regulate cannabis without delay," Smith added. "By removing cannabis from the schedule of controlled substances and instituting a clear regulatory framework through existing agencies, the federal government can provide helpful guidance to states that have or wish to establish regulated cannabis control systems while helping put irresponsible illicit market producers out of business for good."

Medical Marijuana

Utah Lawmakers Meet to Revise Medical Marijuana Law. Legislators returned to the state capitol Monday to once more amend the state's medical marijuana law. One issue is how and where patients will obtain medical marijuana products. The state had contemplated a central government-run pharmacy that would distribute the drug to a system of private pharmacies, but local leaders have balked at having government employees distributing a federally illegal drug.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Purdue Pharma Files for Bankruptcy. Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, filed for bankruptcy on Sunday, the first step of a tentative agreement the company and its owners, the Sackler family, reached last week to settle thousands of lawsuits blaming it for its involvement in the opioid epidemic. The deal is estimated at between $10 and $12 billion, with $3 billion coming from the Sacklers' personal fortunes.

Psychedelics

Ann Arbor Group Wants to Decriminalize Natural Psychedelics. A local group calling itself Decriminalize Nature Ann Arbor is planning to ask the city council to decriminalize natural psychedelics, such as peyote and magic mushrooms. They are calling on the council to approve a resolution to prohibit the use of city funds to investigate, arrest, or prosecute anyone for use or possession of such plants.

International

British Labor Party Wants Royal Commission on Drug Policy, Would Follow Its Recommendation to Decriminalize Drugs. A Labor government would consider decriminalizing all drugs if that was recommended by a royal commission, shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said. "There is nothing more important than preserving the life of our citizens," she said. "Our current approach to drugs is simply not doing that." Safe injection sites would also be considered, she added.

Thailand Bill Would Allow for Six Marijuana Plants for Personal Use. A member party in the country's ruling coalition government has proposed a bill that would let Thais grow up to six marijuana plants per household for medicinal use. "The principle is for medical use, you can have it at home for ailments, but not smoke it on the street," said Bhumjaithai Party lawmaker Supachai Jaisamut. The bill would also allow the sale of plants to institutions licensed by a Plant-based Drug Institute that would have the authority to purchase, extract, and export CBD.

Chronicle AM: No CBD for Military Members, Hawaii Decriminalizes Pot Possession, More... (8/22/19)

The Defense Department makes it crystal clear that service members can't use CBD products, Hawaii's governor fails to veto a decriminalization bill -- thus allowing it to become law -- and more.

The drug czar's office has announced new moves against fentanyl. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Hawaii Decriminalizes as Governor Fails to Veto Bill. A decriminalization bill passed earlier this year by the legislature became law on Tuesday without the signature of Gov. David Ige (D). Ige didn't sign the bill, but neither did he veto it, so now it has become law. The bill decriminalizes the possession of up three grams of marijuana with a fine of up to $130. The new law will go into effect on January 11, 2020.

Hemp

Defense Department Bars Service Members from Using Hemp-Derived CBD. The Defense Department is making crystal clear that members of the armed forces are not allowed to use cannibidiol (CBD). "It's completely forbidden for use by any service member in any of the services at this point of time," said Patricia Deuster, director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

White House Announces Actions to Crack Down on Trafficking of Fentanyl and Synthetic Opioids. The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) announced Wednesday that it had sent a series of advisories to help domestic and foreign businesses protect themselves from being used to traffic illicit fentanyl and "foster deeper public-private collaboration to curb the production and sale of illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and other synthetic opioids." The advisories are focused on four facets of the trafficking of illicit fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and synthetic opioids destined for the United States: manufacturing, marketing, movement and money. It also announced that it is "identifying two Chinese nationals and a China-based Drug Trafficking Organization as significant foreign narcotics traffickers pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act (Kingpin Act) and designated one associate and a China-based entity for being owned or controlled by one of the Chinese nationals."

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