Harm Intensification

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British Columbia Set to Begin "Safe Supply" of Drugs for Street Users, Biden Nominates New Drug Czar, More... (7/13/21)

Marijuana protections are advancing in congressional appropriations bills, former Drug Police Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelman starts a provocative new podcast on drugs, and more.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, nominated by President Biden to serve as drug czar. (March of Dimes)
Marijuana Policy

Congressional Committees Advance Marijuana Protections for Medical Programs and Universities in New Spending Bills. The House Appropriations Committee will take up a spending bill Thursday that includes riders that provide protections for states with medical marijuana programs and universities that conduct marijuana research after they were approved in subcommittee on Monday. The rider protecting has been approved in each Congress since 2014. The House in 2019 and 2020 also approved a rider protecting state recreational marijuana programs, but it is not clear yet whether that will be the case this year. Meanwhile, the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill now includes a longstanding provision barring the DEA from interfering in hemp programs and a new provision that bars certain law enforcement grants to states and localities if they allow no-knock searches in drug cases.

Drug Policy

Biden Nominates Former West Virginia Health Official Rahul Gupta as Drug Czar. Ending months of speculation, President Biden has nominated Dr. Rahul Gupta to lead the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP—the drug czar's office). Currently the top health official at March of Dimes, Gupta is a primary care physician who previously served as West Virginia health commissioner. Drug reformers applauded his role in implementing and overseeing that state's medical marijuana program as head of the state Bureau for Public Health, but some harm reductionists have criticized him for overseeing the decertification of a needle exchange program that aimed to reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases, such as Hepatitis C and AIDS. Others, though, do not hold him responsible for the circumstances that led to the shutdown. He has not taken a public position on marijuana legalization.

Ethan Nadelman's New Podcast on Drugs Set to Begin. Ethan Nadelman, the founder and former longtime executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance before stepping down in 2017, is rolling out a new podcast series on drug policy, Psychoactive. The aim of the podcast is to open a deep national conversation about drugs, drug policy, and the human experience. The podcast, on IHeartRadio, launches on Thursday.

International

British Columbia Will Provide "Safe Supply" of Illicit Drugs to Street Users. A provincial policy directive in British Columbia will require all local health authorities to develop programs to provide pharmaceutical quality opioids and stimulants to street drug users in a bid to reduce overdose deaths. But which drugs are offered and who gets them will be at the discretion of local programs and doctors, which could be a barrier to expanding access. And they can only be provided in clinical or programmatic settings—no takeaway drugs. There are also signs some health care providers are reluctant to participate. 'Some key partners, including some prescribers, have expressed reservations about the approach outlined in this document, and others have noted that an approach that begins with programmatic settings will not provide broad access for people who use substances," the directive says. "We recognize that we have been unable to address all concerns, but we also recognize that we must start somewhere." The drugs will be covered by the province's prescription drug plan and will not be forced to enter into drug treatment. Safe supply is the idea that health care providers can lower or eliminate a person's dependence on illicit black market drugs and thus reduce overdose deaths and other harms.

CA Safe Injection Site Bill Delayed to Next Year, Drug Czar's Office Seeks Input on Harms of Drug Policies, More... (7/7/21)

The punishment of Olypmic athlete Sha'carri Richardson for testing positive for marijuana draws intense interest and criticism, New Mexico drug dogs are getting laid off in the wake of legal pot, and more.

New Mexico drug dogs are being forced into retirement by marijuana legalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Mexico Drug Dogs Face Retirement in Wake of Marijuana Legalization. Drug-sniffing police dogs in the state are being forced into retirement because they have been trained to alert on any drug, including marijuana, and cannot be retrained. As the Tucumcari Police Department noted as it announced the retirement of its drug dog, Aries: "With the legalization of recreational marijuana, K9 Aries is unable to continue his function as a narcotics detection dog." Other cities and towns are doing the same thing, and so is the State Police, which will be retiring all nine of its current drug dogs. "Once the new canines are trained, the handlers will have the option of retiring their current assigned canine to their home, or we will look at other options to the likes of donating them to other law enforcement entities outside of the state of New Mexico who have yet to legalize marijuana," the State Police said.

Drug Policy

Drug Czar's Office Seeks Comment on How Drug Policies Create Systemic Barriers for Underserved Communities. In a notice published in the Federal Register Wednesday, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) said it is seeking comment on whether existing federal drug control policies create "systemic barriers to opportunities for underserved communities" and to better promote equity in future programs. Although the agency has embraced some progressive drug policy positions, such as pushing for broader access to buprenorpine, this level of acknowledgment of harms caused by drug policy marks a change of direction.

The agency didn't take the action independently. Rather, it is part of a broader executive order requiring agencies to seek feedback and "assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups. Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all," ONDCP explained. Comments on how ONDCP can better achieve equity are being accepted at [email protected] through August 6.

Drug Testing

Sha'Carri Richardson Out of Olympics After Positive Marijuana Test. Star athlete Sha'Carri Richardson was disqualified last week from the Tokyo Olympics' women's 100 meter race after testing positive for marijuana after the qualifying run, and now will completely miss the games after being left off the team chose for the women's relay race. Her disqualification has caused howls of outrage, with some commentators calling it racist, and even President Biden, who initially responded with "the rules are the rules," suggesting the rules need to change. Richardson said she smoked marijuana to cope with the death of her biological mother and did so in Oregon, where it is legal, but she took responsibility for her actions: "I know what I did," Richardson said. "I know what I'm supposed to do... and I still made that decision."

Harm Reduction

California Safe Injection Site Bill Delayed to Next Year. The Assembly Health Committee has informed Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) that his bill to allow a safe injection site pilot program, Senate Bill 57, which is billed as an "overdose prevention program," will not get a hearing until January. The state is in the first year of its two-year legislative session, so the bill is not dead, just delayed. "While I'm extremely disappointed that we are experiencing another delay in passing this life-saving legislation -- which has passed both the Senate and Assembly twice in different forms over the past five years -- I continue to be optimistic that we'll pass SB 57 and get it signed into law," said Weiner. "San Francisco and other California cities are experiencing record overdose deaths, and safe consumption sites are a proven strategy to save lives and help people into recovery. I am deeply committed to this legislation -- as is our broad coalition -- and I look forward to moving SB 57 forward in January." The bill has already passed the Senate.

Federal Appeals Court Taps the Brakes on Drug Induced Homicide Prosecutions of Drug Users [FEATURE]

A woman who bought heroin with a pair of friends, one of whom shortly afterward suffered a fatal overdose on the drug, is not a murderer, at least according to the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. That was the June 1 ruling in US v. Semler, a case that may not set binding precedent, but does send a signal to the prosecutors and the judiciary that the federal courts do not want to see a federal law aimed at so-called drug kingpins applied to mere drug users.

As described in the decision, the case began when two heroin-addicted Philadelphia women, Emma Semler and her old drug rehab buddy Jennifer Werstler, went to score heroin together at Wertsler's request. They were joined by Semler's sister Sarah, who drove them to the West Philadelphia locale where they bought their heroin. It is unclear who actually purchased and then shared the heroin. The trio then shot up in the restroom of a nearby KFC restaurant. Werstler began to show signs of overdosing, and the Semler sisters "attempted to revive Werstler by splashing cold water on her, then left the bathroom and called their mother for a ride home. They did not call 911 or alert anyone to Werstler's condition."

Werstler was later discovered by a KFC employee, who called 911, but EMTs arrived too late to save her and she was pronounced dead. Her official cause of death was "adverse reaction to heroin."

Semler was then indicted by a federal grand jury in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania with "distribution of heroin resulting in death," punishable by a 20-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. As an added bonus, she was also charged with doing so within 1,000 feet of a school, as well as aiding and abetting on both counts. She was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 21 years in prison.

Semler appealed, arguing that friends sharing jointly procured drugs did not qualify as drug distribution and that the district court had erred in refusing to allow a jury instruction to that effect, as well as erring in failing to instruct the jury that there had to be a "proximate cause" for it to convict.

Scott Burris, JD, is a professor of both law and public health at Temple University and directs Temple's Center for Public Health Law Research. He is also Semler's appellate counsel and coauthor of an amicus curiae brief supporting Semler, which nicely laid out the issues at play.

"This case presents the Court with an opportunity to determine the proper scope of the Drug Distribution Resulting in Death (DDRD) sentencing enhancement provision," the abstract explains. "The provision, its parent statute, and the totality of modern federal law and policy to stem the overdose crisis are intended to target major drug traffickers. Research suggests that DDRD prosecutions routinely pervert this intent, indiscriminately deploying DDRD and similar provisions to target end consumers of illicit drugs affected by addiction. Rather than deterring drug trafficking, such prosecutions deter help-seeking during overdose events and interfere with overdose prevention measures. This cuts at cross purposes to overdose crisis response, leading to more, not fewer deaths."

The 3rd District Court of Appeals agreed, vacating Semler's conviction and sending her case back for retrial using proper legal instructions for jurors. "We hold that the definition of 'distribute' under the Controlled Substances Act does not cover individuals who jointly and simultaneously acquire the possession of a small amount of a controlled substance solely for their personal use," wrote Judge Jane Richard Roth.

It was a victory, if not a complete exoneration, for Emma Semler and any other drug user federal prosecutors in the 3rd Circuit might have been thinking about charging under that statute. Hopefully it also serves as a distant early warning signal for states that have passed drug induced homicide laws, as well as for state-level prosecutors, who are zealously embracing them to convict low-level drug users as murderers.

The Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University School of Law reported that the number of states with such laws jumped from 15 to 25 in from 2009 to 2019, while the number of drug induced homicide prosecutions hovered at near zero from the 1970s until the early 2000s. Then, as overdose deaths jumped, so did prosecutions, rising to 100 per year by 2011 before skyrocketing to nearly 700 per year by 2018.

In a 2019 Utah Law Review article, Northeastern law professor and faculty director of the Health in Justice Action lab faculty adviser Leo Beletsky found while the laws are ostensibly aimed at drug dealers, "half of those charged with drug induced homicide were not, in fact, 'dealers' in the traditional sense, but friends and relatives of the deceased." He also found that in cases that involved a traditional "drug dealer," half of those prosecuted were black or brown people who sold drugs to whites -- a fact he noted does not fit the demographics of the United States or of drug dealers.

"In view of that context," he wrote, "these findings suggest that drug-induced homicide charges are being selectively and disproportionately deployed to target people of color. This disparate application can further reinforce already dire racial disparities, particularly in the enforcement of drug laws and the length of sentencing for drug-related crimes."

And, as the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) pointed out in its 2017 report, An Overdose Death is Not a Murder: Why Drug Induced Homicide Laws Are Ineffective and Inhumane, those laws don't work to reduce overdoses: "Prosecutors and legislators who champion renewed drug induced homicide enforcement couch the use of this punitive measure, either naively or disingenuously, as necessary to curb increasing rates of drug overdose deaths. But there is not a shred of evidence that these laws are effective at reducing overdose fatalities. In fact, death tolls continue to climb across the country, even in the states and counties most aggressively prosecuting drug-induced homicide cases."

"The Semler case is one more example of how the Drug War has warped our legal system and led to mass incarceration," DPA senior staff attorney Grey Gardner told the Chronicle in an email exchange. "Prosecutors twisted the law to criminalize this young woman and subject her to a more than 20-year sentence after several friends bought drugs to use together and one suffered a tragic fatal overdose. Urging the jury to convict one of them of drug distribution when each of these users were suffering from substance use disorder and using together was not only overreaching, it highlights the arbitrary nature of our drug laws."

It is also counterproductive, he added: "This prosecution and those like it do nothing to make people safer, but instead put people in greater danger. By elevating the threat of prosecution, they make it less likely that people close to an overdose victim will call for help," he pointed out.

"Thankfully in this case the Court of Appeals rejected the prosecution's overbroad definition of distribution, but what's clear is that we need an entirely new approach," said DPA's Gardner. "Instead of the failed War on Drugs, we need to stop turning to the criminal legal system and spending billions on these ineffective policing strategies. Instead we need better approaches -- such as investments in drug checking, overdose prevention centers, and expanded access to naloxone -- to protect those who are experiencing addiction and are at the greatest risk."

"The court seemed sympathetic to the view that criminal law is not the best way to get at substance use disorder and the behavior of people coping with it," Burris told the Chronicle in an email exchange.

The appeals court labeled its decision as non-precedential, meaning it is not binding on federal district courts in its region, but it still may have a broader impact in the federal courts, Burris explained.

"I think her lawyers are going to ask the court to reconsider that," he said. "It is at least what we call 'persuasive authority' in that its reasoning may be adopted voluntarily by other courts."

As for impact on state and local prosecutions, not so much, he added.

"It has no impact other than as persuasive authority," Burris said. "The state attorney general and local district attorneys pursuing these cases seem to think they are sensible and just, and they are hard to shake," he confessed.

"The overdose crisis is just one symptom of the fundamental disease of inequality and inequity in our country," was Burris's bottom line. "Getting at that root cause requires a sea change in policy such that government at all levels -- and the people who elect the government -- commit to ensuring the basics of decent life to everyone: good work, good housing, good education, good transportation, and a place of respect in the community. In this the 'deaths of despair' idea seems to be to get the problem just right. Of course, short of that, there are many things to do: stop criminalizing drug use; create safe injection sites everywhere they are needed; eliminate regulations that make methadone and buprenorphine harder to get than the drugs whose use they are meant to reduce."

CT Becomes Latest State to Legalize Marijuana, DEA Denies FL Church's Ayahuasca Exemption, More... (6/23/21)

House Democrats look to end the ban on legal marijuana sales in the nation's capital, the Rhode Island Senate approves a marijuana legalization bill, and more.

The InSite safe injection site in Vancouver. The Los Angeles city council supports a similar effort in California. (vch.ca)
Marijuana Policy

House Democrats File Bill to End DC Marijuana Sales Ban. House Appropriations Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) Subcommittee Chairman Mike Quigley (D-IL) filed a wide-ranging bill Wednesday that would lift the ban on legal marijuana sales in the District of Columbia, as well as providing protection to financial institutions doing business with state-legal marijuana firms. The ban, in the form of a rider to the annual DC appropriations bill in Congress, was imposed in 2014, with the effort led by Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD), before city residents even voted for marijuana legalization later that year. It has remained in place ever since.The move comes even though President Biden specifically did not remove the congressional rider banning sales in his budget proposal last month. The bill is set to be voted on in the subcommittee Thursday, with the full Appropriations Committee taking it up next Tuesday, setting up a potential conflict with the Biden administration.

Connecticut Legalizes Marijuana. Gov. Ned Lamont (D) on Tuesday signed a marijuana legalization bill, Senate Bill 1201, making the state the 19th to end marijuana prohibition and the fourth to do this year, after New Mexico, New York, and Virginia. The bill legalizes the possession of up to one and a half ounces by people 21 and over, as well as setting up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce with strong social equity provisions. The law takes effect on July 1, when using recreational marijuana becomes legal, but marijuana business licenses are not expected to be issued until the end of next year.

Rhode Island Senate Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill. The state Senate voted Tuesday night to approve an amended version of Senate Bill 568, which would legalize the possession, purchase, and cultivation of cannabis for personal use for adults 21 and older.The bill would also create a Cannabis Control Commission to regulate the legal marijuana market, tax marijuana sales at 20%, and create a social equity program to aid communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition. A House marijuana legalization bill filed at the end of May remains stuck in the House Judiciary Committee. The clock is ticking: The session ends in one week on June 30.

Ayahuasca

DEA Denies Religious Use Exemption to Florida Ayahuasca Church. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has officially denied the Soul Quest Church's request for a religious exemption allowing it to continue to legally provide ayahuasca, a substance containing the Schedule I drug DMT, for religious purposes. The church has been distributing ayahuasca and other substances to paying customers and gained unwanted scrutiny after a man died during an ayahuasca retreat in 2018. After that death, the DEA ordered the church to shut down its ayahuasca distribution, but the church has refused, instead fighting the order in the courts. Now, after the DEA decision, a federal judge is expected to rule soon on that decision, which could end the church's run. The church is relying on a generous interpretation of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, under which both peyote use by the Native American Church and ayahuasca use by the Brazil-based church the Union of the Vegetable has been allowed. 

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Harm Reduction

Los Angeles City Council Endorses Statewide Safe Injection Site Bill. The city council on Tuesday approved a resolution supporting a bill that would legalize pilot safe injection sites in a number of California cities, Senate Bill 57. The support comes as the city faces a drug overdose crisis, especially among the homeless, for whom the overdose rate jumped 33% in the first six months of last year. The bill has already passed the state Senate and is now before the Assembly Public Safety and Health committees. Even if the bill were to become law, it faces possible federal obstacles. When harm reductionists in Philadelphia sought to open a safe injection site, the Trump administration successfully blocked them in federal district court. The Biden administration has not made clear what its stance on the issue is.

Making a Better Good Samaritan Law in North Carolina [FEATURE]

The push is on in Raleigh to overhaul the state's Good Samaritan law, which protects from prosecution people who report a drug overdose to medical authorities. The state passed a limited Good Samaritan bill in 2013, but the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition calls it "currently one of the weakest in the country."

The current Good Samaritan law is unclear on whether its protective provisions apply to the person actually suffering the overdose, and as a result, people like Jordan Dean end up being arrested for suffering a heroin overdose. Dean, 27, and a buddy were both passed out in a car in a grocery store parking lot, an employee called it in, and although both EMS and police came to the scene, Dean ended up in the back of a squad car on the way to jail.

As North Carolina Health News reported, his case is not the only one. The state-level health media outlet cited similar cases of overdoses followed by arrests in Vance and Franklin counties.

Groups such as the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition (NCHRC) and the North Carolina AIDS Action Network (NCAAN) are now getting behind an effort to strengthen the law with House Bill 852. The bill specifies that immunity from prosecution applies to the overdose victim as well as the person who reports the overdose.

Similar legislation passed the Senate in 2019, but failed to get through the House.

HB 852 also extends that immunity to include all drug possession offenses. Under the current law, people who overdose and are in possession of more than one gram of heroin or cocaine can still be charged with drug possession. And it includes a broader range of substances, including most significantly, fentanyl, that would be subject to those same protections.

"Our [current] law is actually one of the most limited in the country," said NCAAN executive director Lee Storrow, who, along with members of the Department of Health and Human Services opioid overdose prevention team, is helping lead the push for the bill. "When the Good Samaritan Law was enacted, our drug supply looked very different," he added. "Right now the main case of drug overdose in North Carolina is fentanyl -- but possession of fentanyl is not protected under our Good Samaritan Law, so it's a real barrier for people calling 911."

Another provision in the bill applies those same protections to overdose calls involving underage drinking.

The two groups joined with family members of overdose victims for a press conference and rally outside the General Assembly on Tuesday to call on lawmakers to save lives by advancing the bill.

"If people fear that they're still going to be arrested, the idea that they're protected from prosecution doesn't necessarily feel all that helpful," said Lee Storrow, head of the North Carolina AIDS Action Network.

Families who have suffered overdose deaths also spoke out.

"There can't be any question when people are together and someone overdoses of whether or not they should dial 911," said Randy Abbott, who lost his 24-year-old daughter to a drug overdose in 2015, when her friends panicked instead of seeking help.

"We know they panicked, and we know the things that happened when they panicked, like getting stuff out of the house, putting it in her car, lots of different things that the detectives were able to figure out," Abbott said. "But they didn't dial 911."

"As a nurse practitioner that works in addiction medicine and who lost my younger brother to overdose, I felt called to come to the General Assembly to support HB 852. This bill would save countless lives," said Charlotte resident Elisa Edgerton.

NCHRC and the other advocates at the Tuesday press conference are working to make it so. After the media event, they headed inside to lobby members of the House Judiciary Committee.

LA House Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana, Vancouver Drug Decriminalization Battle, More... (5/12/21)

The Louisiana House votes to decriminalize pot possession, a Connecticut marijuana legalization effort may require a legislative special session, and more.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is prioritizing marijuana legalization over a marijuana banking bill. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Congress Must Pass Marijuana Legalization Before Taking Up Pot Banking Bill, Schumer Says. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in an interview Tuesday that he is prioritizing a marijuana legalization bill that is still being drafted over a marijuana banking bill, the SAFE Banking Act (HR 1677), that has already passed the House. Biden said he and colleagues will be "introducing our [marijuana legalization] bill shortly" and that the banking bill should wait because "we're not going to bargain against ourselves."

Connecticut Key Players Say Marijuana Legalization May Get Bumped to Special Session. House Majority Leader Jason Rojas (D) said Tuesday that a marijuana legalization bill may be taken up in a special session later this year as the regular session faces a looming deadline. "It’s just one of those issues that we’re working through some of the details that were of concern to everyone over the past couple months, but we’re making progress," Rojas said. told a reporter from CT News Junkie during a press conference. House Speaker Matt Ritter (D) added "if we can find a path to a deal, it’s the kind of thing that I think you could always go into overtime if you had to," and that "we’d all be comfortable coming to special session for that issue."

Louisiana House Approves Marijuana Decriminalization. The House voted 67-25 Tuesday night to approve a marijuana decriminalization bill, House Bill 652. The bill would make possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana a misdemeanor punishable only by a $100 fine, even for repeat offenses. The bill now goes to the Senate, where its prospects are unclear.

International

Vancouver Drug Decriminalization Gets Harsh Criticism from Advocates Over Personal Possession Limits. The city is embarking on a plan to decriminalize drug possession but is getting serious flack from drug user advocates who say that the amount of drugs people can possess without criminal charges are too low and do not reflect the realities of drug use. They warn that setting the limits too low could encourage drug users to seek out synthetic opioids and benzodiazepines, setting the stage for more drug overdoses. The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) has announced that it is withdrawing from talks with the city, and it and other drug policy advocates complain that drug users were largely excluded from the decriminalization process and that police have to large a role.

Ecstasy Shown to Help with PTSD When Paired with Therapy, LA Smokable MedMJ Bill Advances, More... (5/4/21)

The Maryland Court of Appeals rules that the smell of marijuana is not sufficient probable cause to justify an officer stop, the DC city council ponders reserving some medical marijuana licenses for formerly incarcerated drug offenders, and more.

Pain pill distributors went on trial in Huntington, WV, Monday over their role in the opioid crisis. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Maryland Appeals Court Rules Smell of Marijuana Doesn't Justify Officer Stops. The state Court of Special Appeals ruled last week that simply smelling the odor of marijuana does not justify a police officer stopping and investigating someone. The court held that police need "reasonable suspicion" that a crime has been committed and that just smelling marijuana doesn't meet that standard. The state decriminalized the possession of up to 10 grams back in 2004, and the court held that since possession of less than that amount is not a crime and since the "odor of marijuana alone does not indicate the quantity, if any, in someone's possession," police cannot rely solely on the odor to conduct a stop and investigation.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana House Approves Bill to Allow Patients to Use Smokable Marijuana. The House on Monday voted 73-26 to approve  House Bill 391, which would expand the state's limited medical marijuana program to allow patients to purchase whole-flower marijuana. The measure now heads to the Senate.

DC Council Considers Legislation to Reserve Some Business Licenses for Formerly Incarcerated Drug Offenders. The city council on Tuesday is taking up legislation that would reserve some new medical marijuana licenses for people who have done time for drug offenses. It is the latest move by the District to try to increase equity in the industry. The bill instructs the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, which regulates the industry, to reserve at least one dispensary license, one cultivation center license, and one testing lab license for ex-offenders.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Drug Distribution Companies Go on Trial for Allegedly Fomenting Opioid Addiction Crisis. A federal lawsuit targeting a trio of big drug distribution companies for their role in the ongoing opioid addiction crisis got underway Monday in Huntington, West Virginia. The city of Huntington is suing AmerisourceBergen Drug Company, Cardinal Health Inc, and the McKesson Corporation and alleging they pumped 1.1 billion opioid pain pills into the state, leading to widespread addiction and more than 1,700 opioid overdose deaths statewide. The lawsuit does not address the need of chronic pain patients to have access to sometimes large amounts of prescription opioids. It is one of hundreds filed against drug makers and distributors over the opioid crisis.

Psychedelics

Ecstasy Shown to Help with PTSD When Paired with Therapy. A study about to be published in Nature Medicine found that people with sever post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who were given MDMA (Ecstasy) in conjunction with talk therapy experienced a significantly greater reduction in symptom severity than those who got therapy and a placebo. The study also reported no serious adverse effects, although some participants experienced mild nausea and loss of appetite.

MedMJ for Vets Bill in Congress, Pfizer Donating One Million Naloxone Doses, More... (4/16/21)

A medical marijuana bill moves in Tennessee, Idaho lawmakers defeat an anti-drug legalization constitutional amendment, and more.

the opioid overdose antidote naloxone (gov.pa)
Medical Marijuana

Bipartisan Bill to Legalize Medical Marijuana for Military Vets Filed in Congress. A bill that would federally legalize medical marijuana for veterans was refiled in Congress Thursday. Reps. Barbara lee (D-CA) and Dave Joyce (R-OH), both co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, and nine other original cosponsors filed the Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act on the House side, while in the Senate, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) is leading the proposal, and he's joined by five other lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The bill would allow vets in states with legal medical marijuana programs to use it with a physician's recommendation, and it would allow doctors at Department of Veterans Affairs to make such recommendations.

Idaho House Kills Bill That Would Have Blocked Medical Marijuana. The House on Thursday defeated a proposed constitutional amendment that would have blocked the state from ever legalizing any illicit drug by requiring a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to do so. House Joint Resolution 4 failed after a half-dozen House Republicans voted against it saying Idahoans want medical marijuana.

Tennessee Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill to allow for the use of medical marijuana, Senate Bill 667, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday and now heads for the Senate Calendar Committee. Companion legislation, House Bill 880, is also moving, having passed out of one House Health subcommittee and scheduled for a House Health Committee vote net week.

Harm Reduction

Pfizer to Donate One Million Doses of Naloxone in a Bid to Blunt Overdose Deaths. Responding to a record number of drug overdose deaths in the United States, Pfizer has made a commitment to Direct Relief to donate 1 million doses of the drug naloxone, which saves lives by reversing opioid overdoses.The newly committed 1 million doses are in addition to the more than 1 million doses Pfizer has donated since 2017, which Direct Relief has distributed at no cost to nonprofit, community-based organizations across the United States. Deaths and emergency room visits from opioid overdoses have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to preliminary data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 87,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in September 2020 -- the highest number of deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

Drug Policy

Washington Senate Approves Bill to Make Drug Possession a Misdemeanor. The Senate voted Thursday to approve Senate Bill 5476, which would make drug possession a misdemeanor. The bill comes after the state Supreme Court threw out the state's felony drug possession law, leaving drug possession decriminalized. Some legislators argued for decriminalizing drug possession; others argued for refelonizing it but making it a misdemeanor is what the Senate passed.

International

Canada Opposition MP Files Drug Decriminalization Bill. New Democratic Party Member of Parliament Don Davies, who also serves as the party's health critic, has filed a private member's bill to remove provisions criminalizing drug possession from the Criminal Code. "Decades of criminalization, a toxic illicit street supply and a lack of timely access to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services have caused this ongoing catastrophe. It's time to treat substance use and addiction as the health issues they truly are," he said at a news conference. A Liberal bill to reform drug laws filed in February doesn't go far enough, Davies said.

Biden's Drug Policy Priorities Are a Small Step in the Right Direction, But Old Attitudes Linger [FEATURE]

On April 1, the Biden 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. The result is a definite mixed bag: a heavy dose of drug prevention, treatment, and recovery, along with an acknowledgement of harm reduction and a nod in the direction of racially-sensitive criminal justice reform, but also a reflexive reliance on prohibitionist drug war policies both at home and abroad.

And nothing about the most widely used illicit drug by far: marijuana. The word "marijuana" appears not once in the heavily annotated 11-page document, and the word "cannabis" only once, in the title of an academic research paper about the onset of teen drug use in the footnotes. That's perhaps not so surprising, given that, in response to a reporter's question, Vice President Harris said last week the administration was too busy dealing with other crises to worry about making good its campaign pledges about marijuana reform.

What is on the administration's mind is "the overdose and addiction crisis." Citing ever-increasing drug overdose deaths, the statement says "addressing the overdose and addiction epidemic is an urgent priority for [the] administration." But the solution is not to imprison drug users, with the statement noting that "President Biden has also said that people should not be incarcerated for drug use but should be offered treatment instead." (Underlying that seemingly humane approach is the errant presumption that all or most drug users are addicts in need of treatment when, depending on the drug, only between one in five and one in 10 drug users fit that dependent or problematic drug user description.)

Here are the Biden administration's drug policy priorities, all of which are gone into in detail in the statement:

  • Expanding access to evidence-based treatment;
  • Advancing racial equity issues in our approach to drug policy;
  • Enhancing evidence-based harm reduction efforts;
  • Supporting evidence-based prevention efforts to reduce youth substance use;
  • Reducing the supply of illicit substances;
  • Advancing recovery-ready workplaces and expanding the addiction workforce; and
  • Expanding access to recovery support services.

Prioritizing treatment, prevention, and recovery is bound to be music to the ears of advocacy groups such as Faces and Voices in Recovery (FAVOR), whose own federal policy and advocacy priorities, while focusing on specific legislation, lean in the same direction. But the group also advocates for harm reduction practices the administration omits, particularly supervised consumption sites. FAVOR noted the administration's statement without comment.

As with the failure to even mention marijuana, the Biden administration's failure to include supervised consumption sites in its embrace of harm reduction -- it is wholeheartedly behind needle exchanges, for example -- is another indication that the administration is in no hurry no rush down a progressive drug reform path. And its prioritizing of supply reduction implies continued drug war in Latin America ("working with key partners like Mexico and Colombia") and at home, via support of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) and "multi-jurisdictional task forces and other law enforcement efforts to disrupt and dismantle transnational drug trafficking and money laundering organizations." Prohibition is a hard drug to kick.

Still, naming advancing racial equity issues as a key priority is evidence that the Biden administration is serious about getting at some of the most perverse and corrosive outcomes of the war on drugs and is in line with its broader push for racial justice, as exemplified by Executive Order 13985, "Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government," issued on Biden's first day in office. And it is in this context that criminal justice system reform gets prioritized, although somewhat vaguely, with the promise of the creation of an "interagency working group to agree on specific policy priorities for criminal justice reform."

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has some specific policy priorities for criminal justice reform, too, and they go far beyond where the administration is at. In its 2020 Roadmap for the incoming administration released in November, the group calls for federal marijuana legalization, drug decriminalization, and a slew of other criminal justice and policing reforms ranging from ending mandatory minimum sentencing and the deportation of non-citizens for drug possession to barring no-knock police raids, ending the transfer of military surplus equipment for counter-narcotics law enforcement, and dismantling the DEA. And the federal government should get out of the way of supervised consumption sites, or in DPA's politically attuned language "overdose prevention centers."

"We're glad the administration is taking important steps to address the overdose crisis -- by increasing access and funding to harm reduction services and reducing barriers to life-saving medications -- especially as people are dying at an alarming rate. We also appreciate their commitment to studying how to advance racial equity in our drug policies and best implement innovative practices on the ground. But it's clearly not enough. We need action," DPA Director of the Office of National Affairs Maritza Perez said in a statement responding to the administration's statement. "Black, Latinx and Indigenous people continue to lose their lives at the hands of law enforcement in the name of the drug war, and yet, the administration has chosen to prioritize increased funding for law enforcement. We need supervised consumption sites, not more money for police."

"And while we commend the Administration for taking steps to reduce employment discrimination, unless we address the biggest barrier for people trying to get a job -- past drug convictions and arrests -- we will still be left with significant inequities and racial disparities in the workplace," Perez continued. "It's time we get serious about saving lives and repairing the damage that has been caused by the drug war, particularly on Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities. We can start by passing federal marijuana reform and ending the criminalization of people for drugs in all forms."

Young drug reformers also had a few bones to pick with the administration's priorities. In their own statement in response to the administration, Students for Sensible Drug Policy applauded priorities such as more access to treatment and more research on racial equity, it complained that the administration priorities "fail to provide adequate support to Young People Who Use Drugs (YPWUD) in this country" -- especially those who use drugs non-problematically.

"There are no steps being taken to support YPWUD that do not want to and will not stop using drugs," SSDP said. "Young people have feared and faced the consequences of punitive drug policies and shouldered the burden of caring for their peers who use drugs for far too long. Young leaders calling for drug policy reform recognize that simply using drugs is not problematic and that we can support the safe and prosperous futures of People Who Use Drugs (PWUD) without forcing them to stop as a pre-condition for compassion, care, and opportunity."

Although only time will tell, for drug reformers, the Biden administration is looking like a step in the right direction, but only a step, and its policy prescriptions are limited by a vision of drug use rooted in the last century. Perhaps they can be pressured and prodded to plot a more progressive drug policy path.

Record Support for MJ Legalization in Quinnipiac Poll, CA Psychedelic Decrim Bill Advances, More... (4/15/21)

A Minnesota marijuana legalization bill continues to move in the House, the acting drug czar pledges more funds for drug treatment and greater access to overdose reversal drugs, and more.

Coca and cocaine are on the mind of the Colombian government this week. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Quinnipiac Poll Has Record High Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new Quinnipiac University poll has support for marijuana legalization at 69%, the highest number ever reported in the poll. That's an increase of 18 points since Quinnipiac first polled the question in 2012. There was majority support for legalization in every demographic group, even people over 65 (51%) and Republicans (62%).

Minnesota Marijuana Legalization Bill Wins 6th Committee Vote. A marijuana legalization bill, House File 600, won a sixth House committee vote Wednesday in the Judiciary Finance and Criminal Law Committee. It now goes to the State Government Elections and Finance Committee.

Drug Treatment

Acting Drug Czar Pledges to Expand Drug Treatment as Overdose Deaths Rise. Regina M. LaBelle, acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) told House lawmakers Wednesday the administration is moving to muster significant federal resources to close gaps in drug treatment availability and make overdose reversing medications more available. She noted that the administration last week submitted its proposed budget to Congress, which included more than $10 billion for addiction programs, an increase of 57% from current funding levels.

Psychedelics

California Psychedelic Decriminalization Bill Wins Another Committee Vote. The Senate Health Committee voted 6-2 Wednesday to a bill to decriminalize the possession of a variety of psychedelics, Senate Bill 519. The legislation sponsored by Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

International

Colombia Government Issues Decree Setting the State for Resumption of Aerial Fumigation of Coca Crop. In a joint message this week, Justice Minister Wilson Ruiz and Defense Minister Diego Molano announced Presidential Decree 380, which sets guidelines for the "program for the eradication of illicit crops by aerial spraying." While ministers clarified that the framework "does not automatically reactivate the Program," it is another step in Conservative President Ivan Duque's long-desired effort to reactivate the program, which was halted by former President Juan Manuel Santos in 2015 after the World Health Organization (WHO) deemed it "probably carcinogenic to humans."

Colombia Congress Debates Bill to Regulate Coca and Cocaine. The Congress has begun debate on a bill that would regulate coca and its derivatives. The bill is from two opposition parties, the Green Alliance and the Indigenous and Social Alternative Movement (MAIS). "Ending the drug trafficking business implies turning drug trafficking into a bad business for the mafias, and this is achieved by regularizing the business by the State. Let's remove it from the logic of violence," said Liberal Senator Luis Fernando Velasco. The debate continues.

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