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Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans: The 200-Year History of the War on Drugs by P.E. Caquet (2022, Reaktion Books, 400 pp., $35.00 HB)

The history of drug prohibition is increasingly well-trodden territory, but with Opium's Orphans, British historian P.E. Caquet brings a fascinating new perspective embedded in a sweeping narrative and fortified with an erudite grasp of the broad global historical context. Although Asian bans on opium pre-dated 19th Century China (the Thai monarchy announced a ban in the 1400s), for Caquet, the critical moment in what became a linear trajectory toward global drug prohibition a century later came when the Qing emperor banned opium in 1813 and imposed severe penalties on anything to do with it, including possessing it. Precisely 100 years later, after two Opium Wars imposed opium on the empire followed by decades of diplomatic wrangling over how to suppress the trade (and for moralizing Americans, how to win favor with China), the 1913 Hague Opium Convention ushered in the modern war on drugs with its targeting not just of opium (and coca) producers or sellers but also of mere users for criminal prosecution. It urged countries to enact such laws, and they did.

What began at the Hague would eventually grow into an international anti-drug bureaucracy, first in the League of Nations and then in United Nations bodies such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board. But it is a global prohibition regime that has, Caquet writes, straight-jacketed itself with an opium-based perspective that has proven unable or unwilling to recognize the differences among the substances over which it seeks dominion, reflexively resorting to opium and its addiction model. Drugs such as amphetamines, psychedelics, and marijuana don't really fit that model -- they are the orphans of the book's title -- and in a different world would be differently regulated.

But Opium's Orphans isn't just dry diplomatic history. Caquet delves deep into the social, cultural, and political forces driving drug use and drug policies. His description of the spread of opium smoking among Chinese elites before it spread into the masses and became declasse is both finely detailed and strangely evocative of the trajectory of cocaine use in the United States in the 1970s, when it was the stuff of rock musicians and Hollywood stars before going middle class and then spreading among the urban poor in the form of crack.

Along the way, we encounter opium merchants and colonial opium monopolies, crusading missionary moralists, and early Western proponents of recreational drug use, such as Confessions of an English Opium Eater author Thomas De Quincey and the French habitues of mid-19th Century hashish clubs. More contemporaneously, we also meet the men who achieved international notoriety in the trade in prohibited drugs, "drug lords" such as Khun Sa in the Golden Triangle, Pablo Escobar in Colombia and El Chapo Guzman in Mexico, as well as the people whose job it is to hunt them down. Caquet notes that no matter how often a drug lord is removed -- jailed or killed, in most cases -- the impact on the trade is negligible.

For Caquet, drug prohibition as a global phenomenon peaked with the adoption of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Coming as it did amidst a post-World War II decline in drug use around the world, the treaty criminalizing coca, cocaine, opium and opioids, and marijuana seemed to ratify a successful global prohibitionist effort. (In the US, in the 1950s, when domestic drug use was at low ebb, Congress passed tough new drug laws.) But before the decade was over, drug prohibition was under flamboyant challenge from the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a horde of hippie pot smokers. The prohibitionist consensus was seeing its first cracks.

And the prohibitionist response was to crack down even harder, which in turn begat its own backlash. Drug use of all sorts began rising around the world in the 1960s and hasn't let up yet, and the increasingly omnivorous drug war machine grew right along with it, as did the wealth and power of the illicit groups that provided the drugs the world demanded. As the negative impacts of the global drug war -- from the current opioid overdose crisis in the US to the prisons filled with drug offenders to the bloody killing fields of Colombia and Mexico -- grew ever more undeniable, the critiques grew ever sharper.

In recent years, the UN anti-drug bureaucrats have been forced to grudgingly accept the notion of harm reduction, although they protest bitterly over such interventions as safe injection sites. For them, harm reduction is less of an erosion of the drug war consensus than all that talk of drug legalization. As Caquet notes, perhaps a tad unfairly, harm reduction doesn't seek to confront drug prohibition head-on, but to mitigate its harms.

The man is a historian, not a policymaker, and his response to questions about what to do now is "I wouldn't start from here." Still, at the end of it all, he has a trio of observations: First, supply reduction ("suppression" is his word) does not work. Sure, you can successfully wipe out poppies in Thailand or Turkey, but they just pop up somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle or Afghanistan. That's the infamous balloon effect. Second, "criminalization of the drug user has been a huge historical blunder." It has no impact on drug use levels, is cruel and inhumane, and it didn't have to be that way. A century ago, countries could have agreed to regulate the drug trade; instead, they tried to eradicate it in an ever-escalating, never-ending crusade. Third, illicit drugs as a group should be seen "as a historical category, not a scientific one." Different substances demand different approaches.

Opium's Orphans is a fascinating, provocative, and nuanced account of the mess we've gotten ourselves into. Now, we continue the work of trying to get out of that mess.

Chronicle Book Review: "Transforming the War on Drugs" [FEATURE]

Transforming the War on Drugs: Warriors, Victims and Vulnerable Regions edited by Annette Idler and Juan Carlos Garzon Vergara (2021, Oxford University Press, 584 pp., $34.95 PB)

If you have been watching the growing fissures and fractures in the global prohibitionist consensus embodied in the United Nation's three-treaty international drug control regime (IDCR) and are expecting the whole thing to come crashing to the ground sometime soon, don't hold your breath. That is the message that comes through loud and clear in Transforming the War on Drugs, an essential collection that comprehensively analyzes the past and present of global drug policy and points the way to a different, better future.

As the contributors make clear, while the IDCR is suffering well-earned stresses, especially around its failure to succeed on its own terms -- reducing drug use and the drug trade -- and while the "Vienna consensus" may be fraying, the global reform movement that has been building since the failure of the 1998 UN General Assembly Session (UNGASS) on Drugs to meet its goal of eradicating drug use within a decade has yet to jell.

As Monica Serrano explains in "A Forward March Halted: The UNGASS Process and the War on Drugs," while Latin American nations such as Colombia and Mexico called for a reconsideration of the IDCR, paving the way for the 2016 UNGASS, they did not succeed in building alliances with other nations that could push the process forward. That was not only because of deficiencies in those countries' efforts, but also because, despite the ever-increasing calls for change, a majority of countries around the world still subscribe to the law enforcement-heavy tenets of the global drug prohibition regime.

That is despite the now quite clearly understood harms that the IDCR imposes on different countries and groups around the world. Whether it is enabling the rise of violent drug trafficking organizations, destroying the livelihoods of poor drug crop farmers, creating horrendous human rights violations, filling prisons around the world, or creating needless suffering for drug users, the international response to drug use and trafficking is creating real, calculable negative consequences.

As coeditor Annette Idler demonstrates in "Warriors, Victims, and Vulnerable Regions," the heedless harshness of the IDCR is embedded in its very DNA. From the beginning, the US "war on drugs" model and the rhetoric of drugs as "evil" and an existential threat to the security of nation-states has excused the sort of "state of emergency" measures -- criminalization, law enforcement crackdowns, militarization -- that, while not even managing to make countries more secure, manages to bring not security but insecurity to communities and drug using individuals.

Other contributors to the volume make that point in great detail in case studies of Latin America, Mexico and the Caribbean, West Africa, the Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan), the Golden Triangle, and Russia. How can one argue that drug prohibition has brought security to Mexico, with thousands of killings each year and police forces so corrupted you don't know which department is working for which cartel? Likewise, West Africa, where drug prohibition has so corrupted some governments that "the state becomes a threat to its own self"?

Given current events, the case of Russia is particularly interesting. It is one of the staunchest supporters of the current IDCR, but not just because of its inherent authoritarianism. Russia didn't really have a significant drug control regime until the post-Soviet era of the 1990s, and then it modeled its apparatus on that of the DEA. But even though it looked to the West for drug war expertise, its drug concerns were primarily domestic: It has one of the world's most serious heroin problems, one driven by supply rather than demand, contributor Ekaterina Stepanova explains. That supply is coming from Afghanistan, and Russian addicts account for about one quarter of all Afghan heroin production. One more reason for Russia to be unhappy with the US and NATO, who, in two decades of occupying Afghanistan, never effectively suppressed the poppy crop.

One of the more fascinating chapters is on rethinking the metrics of measuring success in drug policy. Instead of measuring "securitized" items such as acres of drug crops eradicated, the amount of drugs seized, the number of traffickers arrested -- all of which really measure repressive enforcement activity -- contributors Robert Muggah and Katherine Aguirre argue for new metrics for a new framework for evaluating drug policies. With broad goals of improving the health and welfare of the population and enhancing the safety and security of people who use drugs and the broader public, instead of measuring busts and seizures, we should be quantifying metrics for decriminalizing drug use (is it decriminalized, how many legislative measures are aimed at it, how many civil society groups are involved, how many people are being arrested and imprisoned) and curbing drug harms through public health measures (number of drug overdose deaths, number of other drug-related deaths, prevalence of drug-linked infectious disease). This really make sense if we are actually interested in improving lives as opposed to the quixotic quest to eliminate drug use.

There is a whole lot more to this volume. It is a comprehensive, systematic effort to theoretically, conceptually, and empirically investigate the effects of the IDCR and offer a more human alternative. Anyone seriously interested in working to understand and change the global drug prohibition regime need a well-thunbed copy of this on his bookshelf.

St. Louis Repeals Marijuana Law, Haiti President Likely Murdered by Well-Heeled Drug Traffickers, More... (12/13/21)

No more pre-employment marijuana testing in Philly starting next month, Malta is set to become the first country is Europe to legalize weed this week, and more.

assassinated Haitian President Jovunel Moïse
Marijuana Policy

Philadelphia Ban on Pre-Hire Marijuana Testing Takes Effect on January 1. An ordinance passed by the city council in April and signed into law by Mayor Jim Kenney (D) that bars employers from requiring potential hires to submit to pre-employment testing for marijuana will go into effect on January 1. The ban does not address testing of current employees, nor does it stop employers from firing people for being high on the job or having marijuana at the workplace. There are some exceptions to the ban: law enforcement positions, jobs requiring a commercial drivers license, and child care and health care workers.

St. Louis Mayor Signs Bill Repealing Marijuana Laws. Mayor Tishaura Jones (D) has singed Board Bill 132, which repeals the city's laws related to the possession of small amounts of marijuana and paraphernalia. "We are seeing a major shift in the way our country sees not just marijuana, but how it connects to public safety, incarceration, and economic opportunity in our communities," said Mayor Jones. "This law will help reduce racial disparities in our policing, make our city safer, and make St. Louis more competitive in hiring for city positions." Of 600 people arrested on marijuana charges in the city in the last three years, nearly 500 were black, the mayor's office said.

International

Haiti's Leader Kept a List of Drug Traffickers; His Assassins Came for It. Assassinated Haitian President Jovenal Moïse was moving against drug and arms smugglers, and that may be what is behind his murder, The New York Times reports: "Before being assassinated in July, he had been working on a list of powerful politicians and businesspeople involved in Haiti's drug trade, with the intention of handing over the dossier to the American government, according to four senior Haitian advisers and officials tasked with drafting the document.

The president had ordered the officials to spare no one, not even the power brokers who had helped propel him into office, they said -- one of several moves against suspected drug traffickers that could explain a motive for the assassination." When the gunmen who killed him burst into his residence, they stayed long enough to search through his files for his list of suspected drug traffickers, which one of the captured gunmen said was a key target.

"I would be a fool to think that narco-trafficking and arms trafficking didn't play a role in the assassination," said Daniel Foote, who served as the US special envoy to Haiti before stepping down last month. "Anyone who understands Haiti's politics or economics understands this." Some of the traffickers are linked to former President Michel Martelly, and his brother-in-law, Haitian businessman Charles Saint-Remy, at whom many fingers are being pointed, has been named by the DEA as a suspected drug trafficker.

Malta Set to Legalize Marijuana This Week, Would Be First in Europe. The Maltese parliament is set to approve a marijuana legalization bill Tuesday that the president has already promised to sign into law. People 18 and up could possess up to seven grams (a quarter ounce) and grow up to four plants. Home growers could possess up to 50 grams of their harvest at home. The bill does not envision commercial sales, but instead would allow for non-profit cooperatives to grow and distribute marijuana to members.

Chronicle Book Review: The Dope [FEATURE]

The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade by Benjamin T. Smith (2021, W.W. Norton, 462 pp, $30 HB)

This past weekend, top-level American officials were in Mexico City meeting with their Mexican counterparts to discuss rebuilding cooperation in the endless struggle against Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The meeting comes nearly 15 years after then-President George W. Bush and then-Mexican President Felipe Calderon initiated the Merida Initiative to fight drugs, crime, and violence. In 2007, when the Merida Initiative began, there were about 2,300 drug-related deaths in Mexico. Fifteen years and $1.6 billion in US security assistance later, the annual Mexican death toll is north of 30,000, American overdose deaths largely linked to Mexican-supplied fentanyl are at an all-time high, and despite killing or capturing dozens of "kingpins," the so-called "cartels" are more powerful than ever.

In The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Mexico historian Benjamin T. Smith relates the story of another meeting between American and Mexican officials more than 80 years ago. It was at the League of Nations in 1939, and Mexican diplomat Manuel Tello was trying to sell the assembled narcotics experts on a novel approach to opioid addiction: Post-revolutionary Mexico had just passed a new drug law that allowed for state-run morphine dispensaries. Doing that could treat addiction and allow users to get their fix without resorting to a black market, he argued.

That proposal, one much in vogue in harm reduction and public health circles these days, was shot down by none other than Harry Anslinger, head of the American Federal Bureau of Narcotics and self-appointed dope cop to the world. He made it clear to the Mexicans, who had also irked him by challenging his Reefer Madness propaganda, that no such nonsense would be tolerated. That encounter, Smith's narrative makes clear, is emblematic of the US-Mexico relationship when it comes to drugs. The US, with its insatiable appetite for mind-altering substances, has for decades leaned on Mexico to repress the trade its citizens demand, and the results have for decades been dire.

As Smith shows, US pressure on Mexico to ramp up its anti-drug efforts, particularly in the 1940s and 1970s, produced temporary results but also long-term pathologies. Where Mexican authorities had been happy to manage the trade rather than repress it, Washington demanded strict enforcement and aggressive action. Harsher enforcement, including the resort to torture and murder (with the knowledge, encouragement, and sometimes the participation of DEA agents), produced a meaner criminal underworld. Smith especially notes the American insistence on a broad strategy of relying on informants as an aggravating factor in escalating trafficker violence, as traffickers turned on each other for revenge or to protect themselves from potential rats.

Smith also clarifies that the drug trade has always been seen not just as a scourge but as a resource by elements of the Mexican state. Early on, a post-revolutionary governor in Sinaloa taxed the opium traffickers and used the proceeds for public works. Governors in border states like Baja California and Chihuahua followed suit, taxing the trade, protecting favored traffickers and making exemplary busts of those without favored status to please the Americans. Although, as he notes, the politicians increasingly tended to forget the public works and just pocket the money themselves.

Smith described the structure of the relationship between the Mexican state and the drug traffickers as more a "protection racket" than an adversarial one Prior to the 1970s, the racket was carried out at the state level, with the governors and the state police forces providing the protection. Levels of violence were generally low, but likely to spike when a change of administration meant a new set of players in the racket and a new set of favored and disfavored traffickers. The favored traffickers could get rich; the unfavored ones could get jailed or killed as sacrificial lambs to appease the Americans.

In the 1970s, though, both the repression and the protection racket went national, with the mandate to fight the drug trade (and the license to manage it) going to the dreaded federales and their masters in the Ministry of Justice and the presidential palace. The levels of violence increasingly dramatically as the federales and the armed forces pleased the Americans by arresting, torturing, and killing marijuana- and opium-growing peasants as well as traffickers. Traffickers who could once accommodate themselves to the occasional exemplary short prison sentence now fought back when faced with death or years behind bars.

But in this century, thanks largely to fabulous profits from the cocaine trade, the drug traffickers have flipped the script. They no longer work for the cops; the cops now work for them. It's a process Smith refers to as "state capture," even if the state function that is being captured is illicit. Now, cops and politicians who don/t understand who is charge end up in unmarked graves or starring in horrid torture/murder videos.

The Dope is a fascinating and sobering tale, full of colorful characters like Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, the crusading post-revolutionary physician who argued that marijuana was harmless and whose government office was behind the morphine dispensary plan, and La Nacha, Ignacia Jasso, the dope queen of Ciudad Juarez for decades, along with a veritable rogue's gallery of traffickers, cops, spooks, and politicians, all of whom vie for control of the trade and its incredible profits.

It also reveals some broad findings. First, economics is the driving force of the drug trade, and the economic opportunity it has provided (and continues to provide) to millions of Mexicans means it is not going away, Second, as noted above, authorities have sought to harness income from the drug trade, with the result that they are now harnessed to it. Third, aggressive anti-drug policies are driven more by moral panics, the need for bureaucratic fundraising, and scapegoating, and "are rarely implemented for their effectiveness." Nor do they work, even on their own terms, as our current overdose death numbers shout out. Fourth, the causes of violence originate "not from inside the drug trade, but inside the state," particularly with the churning of protection rackets with the arrival of new political leadership. "The other principal cause of violence has been the war on drugs itself."

There is an extensive mythology around the Mexican drug trade. Benjamin T. Smith has gone a long way toward dispelling those myths by providing an accurate, in-depth, well-sourced history of the trade and the domestic and international politics around it. To understand today's fearsome Mexican drug cartels, start here.

Lawmakers Urge Biden to Allow Buprenorphine Expansion, Honduran President Target of US Drug Investigation, More... (2/9/21)

A major new marijuana reform coalition has formed, a Hawaii asset forfeiture reform bill advances, so does an Idaho medical marijuana bill, and more.

buprenorphine (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Major Marijuana Coalition Forms to Coordinate Legalization Push, But Some Key Advocacy Players Are Not Involved. A bunch of industry and advocacy groups have formed a new coalition, the United States Cannabis Council, to press forward on marijuana legalization. But while the group is headed by Marijuana Policy Project executive director Steven Hawkins on an interim basis, it does not include major advocacy groups such as NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance. It does include marijuana enterprises such as Acreage Holdings, Canopy Growth, Columbia Care, Cronos Group, Curaleaf, Eaze, iAnthus Capital Holdings, LivWell Enlightened Health, MedMen, PAX Labs, Schwazze, Scotts Miracle-Gro Company and Vireo.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill that would legalize medical marijuana in the state won a vote in the House Health and Welfare Committee Monday. Although sponsored by the committee, the bill was actually written by Sgt. Jeremy Kitzhaber, a US Air Force veteran with terminal cancer, who testified before the vote Monday. "I'm here to talk with you about my desire for medical cannabis to be legalized here in Idaho, with specific limitations and controls," Kitzhaber said. "I've spent years writing and editing this legislation, to make it something that would allow medical cannabis to reach those who need it, but not necessarily reach those who just want it."

Asset Forfeiture

Hawaii Senate Advances Asset Forfeiture Reform Measure. The state Senate has approved Senate Bill 294, which would end civil asset forfeiture by requiring a conviction on a felony count before seized property could be sold or otherwise disposed of. The bill would also direct proceeds from the sale of seized property to the state's general fund instead of a fund controlled by law enforcement. Gov. David Ige (D) vetoed a similar bill in 2019, citing concerns it would hinder law enforcement.

Drug Testing

Illinois Bill Would Require Drug Screening to Receive Food Stamps. A downstate Republican, Rep. Blaine Wilhour, filed HB 658 last Friday. The bill would require recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to undergo a drug screening upon being approved for benefits. The bill would also require them to agree to random drug screening while they are receiving the benefits. The bill has not yet been referred to a committee.

Drug Treatment

Lawmakers Urge Biden to Back Buprenorphine Expansion. A group of lawmakers led by led by Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and joined by four members in the House is calling on President Biden to allow more doctors to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug used for the treatment of opioid addiction. The Trump administration had loosened rules for buprenorphine prescribing, but in an early move, the Biden administration reversed that move, saying it was premature. The lawmakers are now reintroducing legislation to eliminate restrictive rules and are calling on Biden to "deliver on your promise to expand access to medication-assisted treatment."

Foreign Policy

US Prosecutors Are Investigating the Honduran President on Drug Trafficking Charges. In new court filing last Friday in the case of an indicted Honduran drug trafficker, federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York said that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and other "high-ranking officials" were targets of a drug trafficking investigation. In another filing last month, prosecutors said that by 2013 Hernandez had "accepted millions of dollars in drug trafficking proceeds" and in return had "promised drug traffickers from prosecutors, law enforcement, and extradition to the United States." Hernandez has been a key US ally in the region.

NJ Governor, Lawmakers Reach Agreement on Marijuana Bill, Mexico Strikes Back at DEA, More... (12/7/20)

South Dakota's attorney general's office intervenes against a challenge to the state's voter-approved marijuana legalization, New Jersey's governor and lawmakers reach an agreement on their marijuana bill, and more.

No random marijuana tests for NBA players next year -- and maybe ever.
Marijuana Policy

NBA Won't Test Players for Marijuana Next Year. In a continuation of a policy adopted this year, the National Basketball Association (NBA) will not drug test players for the presence of marijuana -- and it could be moving toward a permanent suspension of such testing. "Due to the unusual circumstances in conjunction with the pandemic, we have agreed with the NBPA [NBA Players Association] to suspend random testing for marijuana for the 2020-21 season and focus our random testing program on performance-enhancing products and drugs of abuse," an NBA spokesperson said. The pause only applies to random drug tests; a player could be tested for marijuana for cause.

New Jersey Governor, Lawmakers Approve Framework for Recreational Marijuana Bill. "We're proud to announce today that we've reached an agreement on legislation providing the framework for legalization, which is a critical step in reducing racial disparities and social inequities that have long plagued our criminal justice system," the office of Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said in a statement last Friday. Among the areas of agreement are that 70% of marijuana sales tax revenues will go to social justice programs and that licenses will be issued to 37 growers for the first two years. An amendment to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms will be removed and considered separately.

South Dakota Attorney General's Office Asks Judge to Dismiss Lawsuit Challenging Victorious Legal Marijuana Initiative. State Assistant Attorney General Grant Flynn last Thursday filed a request with a district judge to throw out a lawsuit challenging the legality of the voter-approved initiative that legalizes marijuana in the state. "The State respectfully requests that Contestants' Election Contest be denied in all respects and that Contestants' Complaint be dismissed with prejudice, in its entirety, and judgement be entered in favor of the state," says the filing authored by Flynn. The plaintiffs are arguing that the measure violates the state constitution because it deals with "a multitude" of topics, not just legalizing marijuana. Those include medical marijuana and hemp. "The State denies that Amendment A includes a 'multitude' of different subjects," Flynn wrote. Attorneys representing the initiative campaign have also joined the case. All sides have until January 8 to file motions and briefs.

Foreign Policy

Mexican President Proposes Stripping Diplomatic Immunity for DEA Agents. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has proposed removing diplomatic immunity for DEA agents working in Mexico. Under the proposal, DEA agents would have to submit all the information they collect in the country to the Mexican government. Also, any Mexican government officials contacted by the DEA would have to report on that contact to the Foreign Relations Department. A DEA spokesman said, however, that sharing information with Mexico "is not going to happen," citing corruption in the Mexican government. The proposal after former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos was arrested on drug and corruption charges in Los Angeles, only to see the charges dropped weeks later by US prosecutors who cited "sensitive and important foreign policy considerations."

Mexico Marijuana Legalization Bill Advances, Senate Approves Meth "Emerging Drug Threat" Bill, More... (11/19/20)

Madison WI ends penalties for pot use and possession, Vancouver, BC to take up a drug decriminalization ordinance, Mexican marijuana legalization bill heads for a Senate floor vote, and more.

seized methamphetamine in Georgia (Warner Robbins PD)
Marijuana Policy

North Carolina's Governor Racial Equity Task Force Calls for Marijuana Decriminalization, Study of Legalization. Gov. Roy Cooper's (D) Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice has recommended that the state study marijuana legalization and enact decriminalization in the meantime. Attorney General Josh Stein (D) who co-chairs the task force, made the case succinctly: "You cannot talk about improving racial equity in our criminal justice system without talking about marijuana," he said.

Madison, Wisconsin, City Council Votes to Remove Penalties for Marijuana Use, Possession. The city's Common Council unanimously approved three marijuana-related ordinances Tuesday that should reduce pot arrests in the state's capital. One allows adults to possess up to an ounce, another allows them to consume it on public or private property, and a third decriminalizes the possession of pot paraphernalia.

Methamphetamine

Senate Approves Meth Bill by Unanimous Consent. The Senate on Monday approved SB 4612, the Methamphetamine Response Act. The bill declares meth "an emerging drug threat" and requires the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) to come with a response plan within 90 days. That plan, which must be updated annually, must include an assessment of threat, as well as treatment and prevention programs and law enforcement programs. It must also set the level of funding needed to implement the plan. The House version of the bill, HR 8210, is parked in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is where it has been since being introduced.

International

Vancouver Mayor to File Motion to Decriminalize Drug Possession. Vancouver, British Columbia, Mayor Kennedy Stewart announced Wednesday that he will file a motion to decriminalize the possession of illicit drugs in the city. "It's not a criminal issue, it's a health issue," he said, saying the move is "long overdue." If the council passes the measure, the city will ask the federal government to "decriminalize personal possession of illicit substances within the City's boundaries for medical purposes."

Mexico Denies Threatening to Expel DEA Agents After Ex-Defense Minister's Drug Arrest. President Andres Manual Lopez Obrador denied Thursday that Mexico had threatened to expel American DEA agents to retaliate for the arrest of ex-Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos upon arrival at LAX last month. At the same time, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said Mexico had threatened a review of security cooperation because the US did not provide advance notice that Cienfuegos was under investigation, but said there was no specific threat to expel DEA agents.

Mexican Senate Committees Approve Marijuana Legalization Bill. The marijuana legalization bill has been formally approved by the Senate Justice, Health, and Legislative Studies committees and is headed for a full floor vote soon. The bill would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults and allow the cultivation of up to four plants for personal use. It would also set up a taxed and regulated marijuana market.

Fed Judge Approves Purdue Pharma Settlement, US Drops Case Against Ex-Mexican Defense Minister, More... (11/18/20)

Mississuppi's higest court agrees to a hear a challenge to the voter-approved medical marijuana initiative, New York City public hospitals say no more drug testing pregnant women without their consent, and more.

Purdue Pharma will cop to serious felonies and pay $2 billion in a settlement with the DOJ. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Mississippi High Court Takes Up Challenge To Medical Marijuana Measure. Whether voters will actually get the medical marijuana program they approved at the polls earlier this month is now in question after the state Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will take up a challenge to its validity. The challenge was filed by the mayor of the town of Madison days before the election. It argues that the measure is invalid because of a state signature-gathering requirement that is impossible for any initiative to actually comply with. Initiatives are supposed to only get one-fifth of their signatures from each congressional district, but the state now has only four.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Federal Judge Approves Purdue Pharma OxyContin Settlement. A federal judge in New York has approved a settlement in a case brought by the Justice Department against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Under the agreement, the company must plead guilty to "multiple serious felonies" in coming days. It will cop to conspiracy to defraud the United States, breaking laws against kickbacks, and one other count. The settlement also includes a $2 billion payout, with the federal government getting $225 million and states getting $1.775 billion to fight opioid addiction.

Drug Testing

New York City Public Hospitals Will Stop Drug Testing of Pregnant Women. Responding to an announcement that the city's Commission on Human Rights is investigating racial bias in the drug testing and reporting to child welfare authorities of pregnant women at three major hospitals, the city's public hospitals have announced they will no longer drug test pregnant women unless they have written consent. This is a change from the previous policy of the City Health and Hospitals Corporation, under which doctors and nurses did not need to inform pregnant patients they were being drug tested.

Foreign Policy

US Abandons Drug Case Against Former Mexican Defense Minister. Federal prosecutors made the surprise announcement Tuesday that they are dropping drug charges against former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, who was arrested at LAX after arriving in the US last month. The announcement came in a joint statement with Mexican attorney general's office. "The United States has determined that sensitive and important foreign policy considerations outweigh the government's interest in pursuing the prosecution of the defendant," prosecutors said. Cienfuegos was accused of using his position to shield the H2 cartel and going after its rivals. But his arrest without prior notification of Mexican officials has strained ties between the two countries, with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador threatening to look again at agreements allowing DEA agents to operate in the country.

International

Thailand Loosens Drug Laws to Allow Sale and Possession of Drugs for Research Purposes. The Public Health Ministry has issued new regulations loosening controls on Category II drugs, such as cocaine, opiates and opioids, and ketamine. Under the new rules, such drugs can be sold and possessed for medical and scientific research, medical treatment and disease prevention, or for other government purposes. The new rules go into effect in 240 days.

Former Mexican Defense Minister Busted at LAX, MT Legal Pot Initiative Faces Late Legal Challenge, More... (10/19/20)

Missouri and Virginia both saw their first legal medical marijuana sales this past weekend, the US Sentencing Commission reports more than 3,000 federal prisoners have secured sentence reductions under the First Step Act, and more. 

Former Mexican Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda busted on US drug charges. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Montana Marijuana Legalization Initiative Faces Last-Minute Legal Challenge in State Supreme Court. Opponents of the state's twinned marijuana legalization initiatives (one would legalize it; the other would allow a change in the state constitution to allow setting the legal age at 21) are preparing a last-minute legal challenge designed to knock the measures off the ballot. The opposition group Wrong for Montana said it is preparing to file a lawsuit arguing that the initiatives violate the state constitution by specifying where revenues generated by legal marijuana would go. Voting is already underway in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Missouri Sees First Medical Marijuana Sales. Legal medical marijuana went on sale for the first time in the state over the weekend. The first dispensaries opened in St. Louis county, one in Ellisville and one in Manchester. The state has already approved 65,000 patients to use medical marijuana.

Virginia Sees First Medical Marijuana Sales. Legal medical marijuana went on sale for the first time in the state over the weekend. Dharma Pharmaceuticals opened its doors to registered patients on Saturday morning. The shop was seeing patients by appointment only as a coronavirus precaution.

Sentencing Policy

More Than 3,000 Federal Prisoners Have Received First Step Act Sentencing Reductions. The US Sentencing Commission reports that 3,363 drug offenders have been granted sentencing reductions under the 2018 First Step Act. Those granted reductions saw their sentences decreased by an average of 71 months, a nearly 25% reduction. More than 90% of those receiving sentence reductions were Black.

Pennsylvania Report Recommends Reducing Incarceration for Probationers with Drug Violations. The state Commission on Sentencing has issued a report calling for less jailing and more access to drug treatment for people on probation who get caught using drugs. The report found that about one third of all probation revocations are for drug use. "This report shows that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on providing evidence-based drug treatment for those sentenced to community supervision in order to provide better outcomes for offenders and to avoid costly incarceration," Rep. Todd Stephens (R-Montgomery) and the chairman of the commission, wrote in a release.

International

Mexico's Former Defense Minister Arrested in US on Drug and Money Laundering Charges. Former Defense Minister General Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested last Friday at Los Angeles International Airport by US authorities and is charged with taking bribes to allow a violent drug cartel to operate with impunity in Mexico. Cienfuegos was secretary of national defense from 2012 to 2018. He is charged with four counts: international heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana manufacture and distribution conspiracy, importation and distribution conspiracies, and conspiracy to launder narcotics proceeds, according to the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York.

MA Pot Shops Beginning Curbside Delivery, LA House Advances MedMJ Expansion, More... (5/19/20)

The Louisiana House votes to expand the state's medical marijuana program, the Georgia Department of Revenue gets caught mishandled seized asset forfeiture funds, and more.

Seized drug money provides temptation to ethically impaired police departments and government offices. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Pot Shops Can Start Curbside Pickup Next Week. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has announced that recreational marijuana stores can reopen on May 25 for curbside pickup only. The move is part of a comprehensive statewide plan for reopening after the coronavirus shutdown. Massachusetts was the only legal marijuana state to not designate pot shops as essential businesses.

Medical Marijuana

Louisiana House Votes to Expand Medical Marijuana Program. The House last Friday overwhelmingly approved a pair of bills that allow dispensaries to deliver medical marijuana products to patients' homes and expand the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. The bills are House Bill 792 and House Bill 819. They now head to the Senate, which has less than two weeks to act before the session ends.

Asset Forfeiture

Georgia Department of Revenue Gets Caught Mishandling Seized Funds. The state Department of Revenue has ended its practice of keeping cash and assets seized in criminal investigations and returned $2.1 million to the state treasury after being outed in March for spending millions of dollars in seized cash on "engraved firearms, pricey gym equipment, clothing, personal items, even $130 sunglasses." The office spent $2.9 million of this money over the past four years. It only returned the $2.1 million after local media exposed the shenanigans.

Oklahoma City Police Department Can't Account for Some Seized Cash. An audit of the department office that handles seized cash and other assets was unable to account for some $27,000 and found the office failed to make timely deposits of currency and lacked adequate controls to prevent theft. The audit came in response to allegations of mishandled money. It found that two envelopes holding $10,775 had gone missing and that another $16,296 could not be accounted for. The department is instituting reforms, the audit said.

Drug War Issues

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