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Chronicle AM: CA Licenses First Legal Pot Shops, US ODs at Record High, More... (12/15/17)

California starts rolling out recreational marijuana business licenses, Maryland approves more dispensaries, Michigan starts accepting dispensary applications, the Mexican Senate approves a bill letting the military keep playing a policing role, and more.

Marijuana Policy

California Issues First Recreational Marijuana Business Licenses. The state's Bureau of Cannabis Control issued 20 retail marijuana business licenses Thursday, paving the way for consumers to buy legal weed at pot shops as early as January 1. On the list were medical and recreational adult use distributors, retailers, and "microbusinesses." Among first day retail licenses were KindPeoples in Santa Cruz, 530 Cannabis in Shasta Lake, and Torrey Holistics in San Diego.

Denver Arrests 12, Shutters 26 Pot Shops in Criminal Investigation. Police in Denver shut down 26 Sweet Leaf pot shops Thursday and arrested 12 people in an ongoing criminal investigation related to allegations the shops were selling larger amounts of marijuana than allowed under state law. The shops involved all received orders to close the business, the first time the city has issued an open-ended suspension to a legal pot business. The DEA was not involved.

Medical Marijuana

Maryland Regulators Approve A Dozen More Dispensaries. The state's Medical Cannabis Commission has given the go-ahead for another 12 dispensaries to open their doors. The state currently has 10. Another 60 dispensaries that have received preliminary licenses are still awaiting final approval. The state has more than 10,000 registered patients and existing dispensaries have had a hard time keeping up with demand.

Michigan Starts Accepting Medical Marijuana Applications. The state's Medical Marihuana Licensing Board is now accepting applications for medical marijuana businesses under the new regime approved by the legislature earlier this year. Existing dispensaries will not have to shut down while their licenses are approved, a process that could take three or four months.

Drug Policy

Drug Overdose Deaths Continue to Rise. At least 66,324 people died of drug overdoses during the 12-month period ending in May 2017, up 17 percent from the 56,488 who died between May 2015 and May 2016, according to data released this week by the National Center for Health Statistics. Fentanyl and other synthetics overtook heroin as the leading killer, accounting for some 23,000 deaths compared to heroin's 15,525 and another 14,467 deaths from prescription opioids.

International

Mexico Senate Votes to Keep the Military in Police Role. Despite soaring violence and human rights abuses, the Mexican Senate voted early Friday to approve the "internal security law" even as protestors surrounded the Senate to decry the measure, which they say will militarize the country and harden a failed strategy of using soldiers to fight drug cartels. The bill now returns to the lower house, where passage is expected to be a formality. "We are concerned that the bill gives the armed forces a leadership and coordination role in certain circumstances, rather than limiting their role to aiding and assisting civilian authorities," said a statement issued by the UN high commissioner for human rights. "[It] does this in the absence of solid control mechanisms to ensure that operations are carried out with full respect for human rights." The proposal comes as Mexico suffers its most murderous year on record—despite having the military involved in the fight against the cartels for the past 11 years. 

Chronicle AM: Norway Moves Toward Drug Decrim, WHO Gives Thumbs Up to CBD, More... (12/14/17)

Norway moves down the path toward drug decriminalization, a New Hampshire legislative committee votes down a legalization bill, the WHO gives a thumbs up to CBD, and more.

CBD ointment. The World Health Organization has declared CBD non-addictive and non-toxic. (Pinterest)
Marijuana Policy

Illinois' Cook County to Vote on Non-Binding Legalization Referendum. The county commission voted Wednesday to put an advisory referendum on whether marijuana should be legalized on the March primary ballot. While the vote is only advisory, a strong "yes" vote in the state's most populous county would send a signal to state legislators in Peoria, who will be considering legalization next year.

New Hampshire House Committee Votes Down Marijuana Legalization Bill. The House Criminal Justice Committee voted 13-7 Tuesday to kill a legalization bill, House Bill 656.

International

World Health Organization Declares CBD Non-Addictive, Not-Toxic. In a recent report, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared cannabidiol (CBD) non-addictive and non-toxic. "In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential," WHO concluded. The organization's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) found "no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD." The committee also found that clinical trials showed CBD could be useful for treating epilepsy and "a number of other medical conditions."

Norway Begins Move to Drug Decriminalization. A majority of the parliament has moved to begin shifting the country's drug policies toward decriminalization. "The majority in the parliament has asked the government to prepare for reform," a spokesperson for the Storting told Newsweek. "It has started a political process," he said. But he cautioned that "it's just the starting point," and that there's no legislation yet. Parliamentarians will be heading to Portugal in the spring to see how the Portuguese did it.

Global Coalition Calls for International Criminal Court to Intervene in Philippines. A coalition of dozens of groups and individuals worldwide led by Help Not Handcuffs has sent an open letter to the International Criminal Court urging it to investigate the Duterte government for crimes against humanity for the wave of killings of suspected drug users and sellers that has left thousands of people dead in the last year.

How Bigoted Pennsylvania Drug Warriors Turned This New York Man's Life into a Living Hell [FEATURE]

In June, 2014, Wilfredo Ramos was driving back to his Brooklyn home after visiting his mother in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when two Pennsylvania State Police troopers detoured him into a Kafkaesque nightmare from which he emerged only five months later.

The traffic stop from hell happened to Wilfredo Ramos -- and happened, and happened. (Sonoma County Sheriff's Office)
In the meantime, Ramos rotted in jail on bogus charges, losing his job, his car, and his apartment. Now, in a small gesture of redress, the State Police have agreed to pay Ramos $150,000 for his travails in a taxpayer-funded settlement, but the cops still admit no fault or liability.

According to the lawsuit that ended in the settlement, Ramos' nightmare began when he was pulled over by Troopers Justin Summa and Kevin Vanfleet on June 6, 2014. Neither trooper said why they stopped Ramos, and the suit alleged they were engaged in racial profiling because Ramos is Hispanic and was driving a car with New York plates.

Summa claimed he smelled alcohol, and Ramos replied that he had not been drinking. Summa then challenged Ramos, citing his ethnicity and place of residence. "We know you have drugs," Summa told him, "just tell us where they are." Ramos denied possessing any drugs.

Summa then administered a Breathalyzer test, which came back negative for alcohol, and ordered Ramos to perform field sobriety tests, which he completed without any problem. The encounter should have ended at that point, with Ramos being thanked for his cooperation and sent on his way, since there was no evidence he had committed any crime.

But that's not what happened. Instead, although Ramos had cleared all the tests and although they lacked probable cause, Troopers Summa and Vanfleet arrested Ramos for driving under the influence, giving them a pretext to search his vehicle in their quest to make a drug bust. Their search turned up nothing.

The troopers then took Ramos to state police headquarters where they administered yet another Breathalyzer test, which they described as "inconclusive." The next stop was the Lehigh County DUI center, where Ramos consented to have his blood drawn to be tested.

According to the lawsuit, typical practice in Lehigh County is that people arrested under suspicion of drunk driving who have no prior drunk driving arrests and where there was no accident or injuries are released pending blood test results. That didn't happen with Ramos. Instead, he was held under $10,000 cash bail -- an amount he could not raise.

As Ramos rotted in jail, his blood sample was tested twice by the Lehigh Valley Health Network Laboratory, which found on June 18, 2014, that it contained no drugs or alcohol. Trooper Summa then ordered a third test of the sample, this time for a broader spectrum of substances, but again the results were negative.

On the same day the test results came in, Summa testified in a preliminary hearing on Ramos' case that the results were not yet in. He did not tell the court about the negative test results. Ramos remained in jail for 158 days until he was found not guilty in Lehigh County Court after blood tests showed no illegal substances or alcohol in his system.

While Ramos was jailed, he was fired from his job and lost his home. He lost his car, too: The tow truck operator notified Ramos by mail about a deadline to retrieve his vehicle, but because Ramos was in jail, no one was at his residence to receive the letter.

Ramos' lawsuit charged that Troopers Summa and Vanfleet conspired to falsely arrest him despite finding no evidence that he was impaired or had drugs in his car. The lawsuit also named five state police supervisors, from the troop commander to former state police Commissioner Francis Noonan, as liable for racially motivated misconduct, unlawful seizure, violations of due process of law, denial of equal rights, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, and other Civil Rights Act violations.

While the State Police admitted no fault or liability, their willingness to settle the case speaks for itself.

Attorney Joshua Karoly, who represented Ramos in the lawsuit, was magnanimous after the settlement was announced. "It was a mistake that this happened, and this resolution is going to go a long way toward getting his life back on track to where it was before this happened," Karoly told the Lancaster Morning Call. "It makes mistakes like that much less likely when they're brought to the public's attention."

Medical Marijuana Update

The Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment stays alive (for now) in the stopgap spending bill, Honolulu's police chief backs away from seizing patients' guns, and more.

National

Last Thursday, federal medical marijuana protections got a two-week reprieve. The passage of a stopgap spending bill means the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment ban on spending federal funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal remains in force for at least another two weeks. That's good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough, said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) in a statement: "While we are pleased that these critical protections will continue, two weeks is not enough certainty for the millions of Americans who rely on medical marijuana for treatment and the businesses who serve them," Blumenauer said. "As Congress works out a long-term funding bill, it must also include these protections. And ultimately, Congress must act to put an end to the cycle of uncertainty and permanently protect state medical marijuana programs -- and adult use -- from federal interference."

Hawaii

Last Wednesday,the Honolulu police chief admitted the department erred in trying to take guns from patients. Chief Susan Ballard acknowledged to the Honolulu Police Commission that the department's abortive move to make medical marijuana patients turn in their firearms "was incorrect." She said the department will return two guns to people who turned them in voluntarily, but she also said the department will continue to deny new gun permits to cardholders.

Nevada

Last Thursday, the state's highest court okayed the state's medical marijuana registry. The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the state's medical marijuana registry does not violate constitutional provisions of due process, equal protection, and the right against self-incrimination. "We conclude Nevada's medical marijuana registry does not impinge upon a fundamental right," said the opinion written by Justice Ron Parraguirre. "We further conclude the registry is rationally related to the legitimate state interest of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public."

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM: WI Dem Governor Contender Rips Walker on Food Stamp Drug Tests, More... (12/13/17)

The Hartford, CT, city council says legalize it, a Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial canddate attacks Scott Walker over food stamp drug testing, Colombia meets coca eradication goals, and more.

Gov. Walker wants Wisconsin to be the first state in the country to drug test food stamp recipients. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Hartford, CT, City Council Calls for Legalizing and Taxing Marijuana. The city council voted unanimously Monday night to approve a resolution calling for the legalization and taxation of marijuana. The resolution also calls on the city to conduct an economic impact study and hold public hearings on the issue, as well as measures to "ensure racial equity in ownership and employment."

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Democratic Governor Candidate Rakes Walker on Food Stamp Drug Testing. Democratic gubernatorial contender Matt Flynn slammed Gov. Scott Walker's (R) plan to impose drug screening and testing on food stamp recipients Tuesday: "I condemn this in the strongest terms. First, it is hypocritical. Walker and his Republican allies claim to be against intrusive big government, but there has never been a more intrusive, big-government administration in our state's history," he said. "Second, this is foolishly wasteful of our state's limited resources. By the administration's own admission, fewer than one-third of one percent of all food stamp recipients will likely be identified as drug users. Numerous states have passed similar 'reforms' and have actually found that recipients of these programs test positive at a lower rate than the general population. These 'reforms' always cost more money than they save. Third, and most importantly, this policy is offensive in the extreme. It demeans people experiencing poverty. It is unconscionable."

Law Enforcement

Kansas Couple Whose Home Was Raided in Bungled Marijuana Search Loses Lawsuit. The couple, a pair of former CIA employees who were growing tomato plants hydroponically, were raided by Johnson County sheriff's deputies searching for marijuana. Deputies zeroed in on the couple after spotting them at a hydroponics store, then searched their trash and mistook discarded tea leaves for marijuana leaves. The couple sued, alleging deputies violated their Fourth Amendment rights, but a federal jury disagreed. The couple says they will appeal.

International

Colombia Says It Met Coca Eradication Deadline, Hints at Shift to Crop Substitution. Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said the country had eradicated some 125,000 of coca planting ahead of a deadline agreed to with the US. He said the target for forced eradication next year would decline to 100,000 acres. This year's forced eradication program was five times larger than last years' and led to clashes between troops, eradicators, and growers that left at least ten coca farmers dead.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

An NYPD counterterrorism officer gets caught trying to smuggle smack, a Virginia cop gets nailed for downloading dirty photos from a drug suspect's phone, a Homeland Security officer heads to prison after getting caught taking bribes from a Cali cartel capo, and more.

In New York City, an NYPD counterterrorism officer was arrested last Thursday on charges he tried to bring three kilos of heroin into the city from New Jersey. Officer Reynaldo Lopez went down after meeting with an undercover officer to bring in what he thought was heroin to the Bronx. He is charged with attempted narcotics trafficking, as well as access device fraud for an unrelated counterfeit credit card operation.

In Colonial Heights, Virginia, a former Colonial Heights police officer was arrested last Friday for pilfering explicit photos from the phone of a drug suspect. Bryan Glinn Drake, 30, went down after the man who owned the phone noticed activity on his iCloud account while police had his phone and he was incarcerated. He went to the police about it, and investigators found that Drake had downloaded explicit photos of a woman from the phone. Drake now faces three counts each of misdemeanor embezzlement and obstruction of justice.

In Terre Haute, Indiana, a federal prison guard was arrested Monday on charges he took bribes, including prescription pills, to allow inmates to leave the prison grounds, have sex on the grounds with unauthorized visitors, and brought contraband into the prison. Leon Perry III, 41, is charged with conspiracy for an officer to permit escape, conspiracy to bribe public officials, officer permitting escape, public official accepting a bribe and providing contraband in a prison.

In Miami, a former Homeland Security Investigations agent pleaded guilty last Thursday to accepting cash, prostitutes, restaurant meals, and a hotel room from a Colombian drug lord in return for making his name vanish from a federal cocaine trafficking indictment. Christopher Ciccione, 52, helped Cali cartel boss Jose Bayron Piedrahita escape an indictment by deploying a web of lies to convince prosecutors to dismiss Piedrahita from a massive indictment for cocaine trafficking. Ciccione copped to conspiring to commit fraud and obstruction of justice. Under the terms of the plea agreement, he's looking at five years in prison when sentenced in February.

In Toms River, New Jersey, an Ocean County sheriff's officer was sentenced last Thursday to three years in prison for stealing cocaine that was supposed to be used to train drug-sniffing dogs. John C. Adams, a 16-year veteran, had been the commander of the canine unit when he was charged with stealing more than a kilo of cocaine and using it himself. In a plea bargain, he copped to one count of official misconduct and one count of theft.

Looking Back: The Biggest Domestic Drug Policy Stories of the Past 20 Years [FEATURE]

As Drug War Chronicle marks the publication of its 1,000th issue (with yours truly having authored 863 of them going back to 2000), we reflect on what has changed and what hasn't in the past couple of decades. This piece recounts our domestic drug policy evolution in the US; a companion piece looks at the international picture.

A lot has happened. We've broken the back of marijuana prohibition, even if we haven't killed it dead yet; we've seen medical marijuana gain near universal public acceptance, we've seen harm reduction begin to take hold, we've fought long and hard battles for sentencing reform -- and even won some of them.

But it hasn't all been good. Since the Chronicle began life as The Week Online With DRCNet back in 1997, more than 30 million people have been arrested for drugs, with all the deleterious consequences a drug bust can bring, and despite all the advances, the drug war keeps on rolling. There's been serious progress made, but there's plenty of work left to do. 

Here are the biggest big picture drug stories and trends of the past 20 years:

1. Medical Marijuana

It was November, 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, five years after San Francisco became the first city in the country to pass a medical marijuana measure, thanks in large part to the efforts of activists who mobilized to make its use possible for AIDS patients. Two years later, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington came on board, and three years after that, Hawaii became the first state to allow it though the legislative process. Now, 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico allow for the use of medical marijuana, and public support for medical marijuana reaches stratospheric levels in polls.

But the battle isn't over. The federal government still refuses to officially recognize medical marijuana, potentially endangering the progress made so far, especially under the current administration, efforts to reschedule marijuana to reflect its medical uses remain thwarted, some of the more recent states to legalize medical marijuana have become perversely more restrictive, and in some of the more conservative states, lawmakers attempt to appease demands for medical marijuana legalization by passing extremely limited CBD-only laws.

2. Marijuana Legalization: In the War on Weed, Weed is Winning

Twenty years ago, pot wasn't legal anywhere, and Gallup had public support for legalization at a measly 25%. A lot has changed since then. It took repeated tries, but beginning in 2012, states started voting to free the weed, with Colorado and Washington leading the way, Alaska and DC coming on board in 2014, and California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada joining the ranks last year. Now, about a fifth of the country has legalized weed, with more states lining up to do so next year, including most likely contenders Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, and Vermont.

Now, Gallup has support for legalization at 64% nationwide, with even a slight majority (51%) of Republicans on board. The only demographic group still opposed to pot legalization is seniors, and they will be leaving the scene soon enough. Again, the battle is by no means over. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and congressional efforts to change that have gone nowhere so far. But it seems like marijuana has won the cultural war, and the rest is just cleaning up what's left of the pot prohibition mess.

3. Marijuana, Inc.: The Rise of an Industry

State-legal marijuana is already a $10 billion dollar a year industry, and that's before California goes on line next month. It's gone from outlaws and hippie farmers in the redwoods to sharp-eyed business hustlers, circling venture capitalists, would-be monopolists, and assorted hangers on, from accountants, lawyers, and publicists to security and systems mavens, market analysts, and the ever-expanding industry press.

These people all have direct pecuniary interests in legal marijuana, and, thanks to profits from the golden weed, the means to protect them. Marijuana money is starting to flow into political campaigns and marijuana business interests organize to make sure they will continue to be able to profit from pot.

Having a legal industry with the wherewithal to throw its weight around a bit is generally -- but not entirely -- a good thing. To the degree that the marijuana industry is able to act like a normal industry, it will act like a normal industry, and that means sometimes the interests of industry sectors may diverge from the interests of marijuana consumers. The industry or some parts of it may complain, for instance, of the regulatory burden of contaminant testing, while consumers have an interest in knowing the pot they smoke isn't poisoned.

And getting rich off weed is a long way from the justice-based demand that people not be harassed, arrested, and imprisoned for using it. Cannabis as capitalist commodity loses some of that outlaw cachet, some ineffable sense of hipster cool. But, hey, you're not going to jail for it anymore (at least in those legal states).

4. The Power of the People: The Key Role of the Initiative Process

The initiative and referendum process, which lets activists bypass state legislatures and put issues to a direct popular vote, has been criticized as anti-democratic because it allows special interests to use an apathetic public to advance their interests, as both car insurers and tobacco companies have attempted in California. It also gets criticized for writing laws without legislative input.

But like any political tool, it can be used for good or ill, and when it comes to drug reform, it has been absolutely critical. When legislatures refuse to lead -- or even follow -- as has been the case with many aspects of drug policy, the initiative process becomes the only effective recourse for making the political change we want. It was through the initiative process that California and other early states approved medical marijuana; it was five years later that Hawaii became the first state where the legislature acted. Similarly with recreational marijuana legalization, every state that has legalized it so far has done it through the initiative process; in no state has it yet made its way through the legislature, although we're hoping that will change next year.

And it's not just marijuana. The initiative process has also been used successfully to pass sentencing reforms in California, and now activists are opening the next frontier, with initiatives being bruited in California and Oregon that would legalize psychedelic mushrooms.

The bad news: Only 24 states have the initiative process. The good news: The ones that do lead the way, setting an example for the others.

Drug prohibition can't be separated from the larger struggle for racial and social justice. (Creative Commons)
5. The Glaring Centrality of Race

It took Michelle Alexander's 2010 publication of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to put a fine point on it, but the centrality of race in the prosecution of the war on drugs has been painfully evident since at least the crack hysteria of the 1980s, if not going back even further to the Nixonian law-and-order demagoguery of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We've heard the numbers often enough: Blacks make up about 13% of the population and about 13% of drug users, but 29% of all drug arrests and 35% of those doing state prison time for drugs. And this racial disparity in drug law enforcement doesn't seem to be going away.

Neither is the horrendous impact racially-biased drug law enforcement has on communities of color. Each father or mother behind bars leaves a family exploded and usually impoverished, and each heavy-handed police action leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The drug war conveyor belt, feeding an endless number of black men and women into the half-life of prison, is clearly a key part of a system of racially oppressive policing that has led to eruptions from Ferguson to Baltimore. If we are going to begin to try to fix race relations in this country, the war on drugs is one of the key battlefronts. Thanks in part to Alexander's bestseller, civil rights organizations from the traditional to newer movements like Black Lives Matter have devoted increasing focus to criminal justice, including drug policy reform.

6. Harm Reduction Takes Hold

We don't think teenagers should be having sex, but we know they're going to, anyway, so we make condoms available to them so they won't get pregnant or STDs. That's harm reduction. So is providing clean needles to injection drug users to avoid the spread of disease, making opioid overdose drugs like naloxone widely available so a dosing error doesn't turn fatal, passing 911 Good Samaritan laws to encourage and OD victims' friends to call for help instead of run away, and providing a clean, well-lit place where drug users can shoot or smoke or snort their drugs under medical supervision and with access to social service referrals.

Two decades ago, the only harm reduction work going on was a handful of pioneering needle exchanges, thanks to folks like Dave Purchase at the North American Syringe Exchange Network (founded in 1988), and early activists faced harassment and persecution from local authorities. But it was the creation of the Harm Reduction Coalition in 1993 that really began to put the movement on the map.

In this century, harm reduction practices have gained ground steadily. Now, 33 states and DC allow needle exchange programs to operate, 40 states and DC have some form of 911 Good Samaritan laws, and every state in the county has now modified its laws to allow greater access to naloxone.

The next frontier for American drug war harm reduction is safe injection sites, and on the far horizon, opiate-assisted maintenance. There is not yet a single officially sanctioned operating safe injection in the country, but we are coming close in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. And let's not forget drug decriminalization as a form of harm reduction. It should be the first step, but that's not the world we live in -- yet.

7. Sentencing Fever Breaks

Beginning in the Reagan years and continuing for decades, the number of prisoners in America rose sharply and steadily, driven in large part by the war on drugs. The phenomenon gained America infamy as the world's biggest jailer, whether in raw numbers or per capita.

But by early in the century, the fever had broken. After gradually slowing rates of increases for several years, the number of state and federal prisoners peaked around 2007 and 2008 at just over 1.6 million. At the end of 2015, the last year for which data is available, the number of prisoners was 1.527 million, down 2% from the previous year. And even the federal prison system, which had continued to increase in size, saw a 14% decline in population that year.

But most drug war prisoners are state prisoners, and that's where sentencing reform have really begun to make a difference. States from California to Minnesota to Texas, among others, enacted a variety of measures to cut the prison population, in some cases because of more enlightened attitudes, but in other cases because it just cost too damned much money for fiscal conservatives.

Current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions would like very much to reverse this trend and is in a position to do some damage, for instance, by instructing federal prosecutors to pursue tough sentences and mandatory minimums in drug cases. But he is hampered by federal sentencing reforms passed in the Obama era. Sessions may be able to bump up the number of people behind bars only slightly; the greater danger is that his policies serve as an inspiration for similarly inclined conservatives in the states to try to roll back reforms there.

8. The Rise (and Fall) of the Opioids

In 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced Oxycontin to the market. The powerful new pain reliever was pitched to doctors as not highly addictive by a high pressure company sales force and became a tremendous market success, generating billions for the Sackler family, the owners of the company. Opioid prescriptions became more common.

For many patients, that was a good thing. Purdue Pharma's marketing push coincided with a push by chronic pain advocates -- patients, doctors and others -- to ease prescribing restrictions that had kept many patients in feasibly treatable pain. And which in many cases still do: A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine found that while "opioid prescriptions for chronic noncancer pain [in the US] have increased sharply . . . [tlwenty-nine percent of primary care physicians and 16 percent of pain specialists report they prescribe opioids less often than they think appropriate because of concerns about regulatory repercussions." As the report noted, having more opioid prescriptions doesn't necessarily mean that "patients who really need opioids [are] able to get them."

While it's popular to blame doctors and Big Pharma for getting a bunch of pain patients addicted to opioids, that explanation is a bit too facile. Many of the people strung out today were never patients, but instead obtained their pain pills on the black market. Through a perverse system of incentives, people on Medicaid could obtain the pills by prescription for next to nothing, then resell them for $40 or $60 apiece to people who wanted them. Some pain management practices were on the cutting edge of relieving pain for patients who needed the help. But others were little more than shady pill mills, popping up in places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida -- places that would become the epicenter of an opioid epidemic within a few years.

When the inevitable crackdowns on pain pill prescribing came, legitimate prescribers of course got caught in the crossfire sometimes, especially those who served the poor or the patients who in the worst chronic pain. Their being targeted, or others reining in their prescribing practices, left many patients in the lurch again. And the closure of pill mills left addicted people in the lurch. But there was plenty of heroin to make up for the missing pills the addicted used to take. Mexican farmers have been happy to grow opium poppies for the American market for decades, and Mexican drug trafficking organizations know how to get it to market.

The whole thing has been worsened by the arrival of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid dozens of times stronger than pure heroin, which seems to be coming mostly from rogue Chinese pharmaceutical labs (although the Mexicans appear to be getting in on the act now, too).

And now we have a drug overdose crisis like the country has never seen before, with around 60,000 people estimated to die from overdoses this year, most of them from opioids (by themselves or in combination with alcohol and/or other drugs). The crisis is inspiring both admirable harm reduction efforts and an execrable turn to harsher punishments, while making things harder again for many pain patients. While many argue that the gentle side of the response to this epidemic is because the victims are mainly white, I would suggest that argument pays short shrift to all the years of hard work advocates and activists of all ethnicities have put in to creating more enlightened drug policies.

9. Policing for Profit: The Never Ending Fight to Rein in Asset Forfeiture

Twenty years ago, pressure was mounting in Washington over abuses of the federal civil asset forfeiture program, just as it is now. Back then, passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) of 2000 marked an important early victory in the fight to rein in what has tartly described as "policing for profit." It was shepherded though the house by then Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican.

How times have changed. Now, with federal agents seizing billions of dollars each year though civil forfeiture proceedings and scandalous abuse after scandalous abuse pumping up the pressure for federal reform, the Republican attorney general is calling for more asset forfeiture. And Jeff Sessions isn't just calling for it; he has undone late Obama administration reforms aimed at reining in one of the sleaziest aspects of federal forfeiture, the Equitable Sharing program, although he is having problems getting Congress to go along.

In the years since CAFRA, a number of states have passed similar laws restricting civil asset forfeiture and directing that seized funds go into the general fund or other designated funds, such as education, but state and local police have been able to evade those laws via Equitable Sharing. Under that program, instead of seizing money under state law, they instead turn it over to the federal government, which then returns 80% of it to the law enforcement agency -- not the general fund and not the schools.

This current setup, with its perverse incentives for police to evade state laws and pursue cash over crime, makes asset forfeiture reform a continuing battlefield at both the state and the federal levels. A number of reform bills are alive in the Congress, and year by year, more and more states pass laws limiting civil asset forfeiture or, even better, eliminating it and requiring a criminal conviction before forfeiture can proceed. Fourteen states have now done that, with the most recent being Connecticut, New Mexico and Nebraska. That leaves 36 to go.

10. Despite Everything, the Drug War Grinds On

We have seen tremendous progress in drug policy in the past 20 years, from the advent of the age of legal marijuana to the breaking of sentencing fever to the spread of harm reduction and the kinder, gentler treatment of the current wave of opioid users, but still, the drug war grinds on.

Pot may be legal in eight states, but that means it isn't in 42 others, and more than 600,000 people got arrested for it last year -- down from a peak of nearly 800,000 in 2007, but still up by 75,000 or 12% over 2015.

It's the same story with overall drug arrests: While total drug arrest numbers peaked at just under 1.9 million a year in 2006 and 2007 -- just ahead of the peak in prison population -- and had been trending downward ever since, they bumped up again last year to 1.57 million, a 5.6% increase over 2015.

There are more options for treatment or diversion out of jail or prison, but people are still getting arrested. Sentencing reforms mean some people won't do as much time as they did in the past, but people are still getting arrested. And the drug war industrial complex, with all its institutional inertia and self-interest, rolls on. If we want to actually end the drug war, we're going to have to stop arresting people for drugs. That would be a real paradigm shift.

Chronicle AM: OR Magic Mushroom Init Coming in 2020, MI MedMJ Rules Set, More... (12/5/17)

A proposed Oregon initiative would legalize psilocbyin for medicinal use, Michigan regulators release emergency medical marijuana rules in the nick of time, Wisconsin takes another step toward drug testing welfare and job training participants, and more.

A proposed Oregon initiative would legalize psilocybin for medical use. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Michigan Releases Medical Marijuana Business Rules. The state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has released emergency rules governing medical marijuana facilities with just two weeks to go before the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation begins taking applications. "The emergency administrative rules are designed to preserve patient protections and provide them with access to safe medical marihuana," said Bureau of Medical Marihuana Regulation Director Andrew Brisbo. "These rules also allow growers, processors, secure transporters, provisioning centers, and safety compliance facilities to operate under clear requirements."

Psychedelics

Oregon 2020 Initiative Would Legalize Psilocybin Mushrooms. A husband and wife team calling themselves the Oregon Psilocybin Society are working on putting a psilocybin legalization initiative on the state's 2020 ballot. The measure doesn't call for legal recreational use, but would create a highly regulated system to allow use for medical purposes. Next door in California, a similar initiative aimed at 2018 would legalize magic mushrooms.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Governor Approves Plan to Drug Test Welfare, Job Training Participants. Gov. Scott Walker (R) has approved a plan to implement drug screening for able-bodied adults participating in the FoodShare Employment and Training (FSET) program, sending the rule change measure to the State Legislature for review. The rule is part of the policy amendments included in 2015 Wisconsin Act 55. The legislature now has 120 days to review the measure. Once approved by the legislature, it will become effective the first day of the following month.

International

Leading Mexican Presidential Candidate Suggests Amnesty for Drug Cartel Kingpins. Leading presidential contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has caused controversy by suggesting that he is open to amnesty for drug cartel leaders as part of a dialog aimed at ending that violence that has seen an estimated 200,000 people killed in the last decade. "If it is necessary… we will talk about granting amnesty so long as the victims and their families are willing," he said. "We'll propose it. I'm analyzing it. What I can say is that we will leave no issue without discussion if it has to do with peace and tranquility." Lopez Obrador currently has a more than 10-point lead in presidential polls, and his foes in the political and business classes are trying to use the remarks against him.

Chronicle AM: MD Sees First MedMJ Sale, PA Pays for False Drugged Driving Arrest, More... (12/4/17)

Lots of medical marijuana news today, plus Pennsylvania has to pay out for a bogus drugged driving arrest that saw a man jailed for five months, and more.

Medical marijuana sales started last Friday in Maryland. (Creative Commons)
US Surgeon General Says Medical Marijuana Should Be Treated Like Other Drugs. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said last Friday that marijuana should be treated and studied like other pain relief drugs, but that he was opposed to recreational legalization. "Under medical marijuana, I believe it should be like any other drug," he said. "We need to let the FDA vet it, study it, vet it. The FDA has actually approved cannabidiol oil and some derivatives of marijuana, Marijuana is not one substance. It's actually over 100 different substances, some of which benefit, some of which are harmful."

Arkansas Regulators Set Timeline. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission announced last Friday that medical marijuana cultivation licenses would be issued in about three months, and dispensary licenses would be issued three months after that. The date for announcing cultivation licenses is February 27; a firm date for dispensary licenses isn't set yet. The commission anticipates medical marijuana on dispensary shelves by the middle of next year.

Maryland Medical Marijuana Sales Begin. The first legal medical marijuana sale in the state took place last Friday, after years of delays. A handful of dispensaries have received shipments of medical marijuana, while others said they expected to come online soon. The state's first legal pot crop was grown this fall.

Montana Medical Marijuana Providers, Patients Oppose New Regulations. At a hearing last Thursday at the Department of Public Health and Human Services, patients and providers complained that proposed regulations would place significant cost and time burdens on them. Among provisions criticized were high licensing fees and requirements for extensive product-safety testing.

Ohio Gets Sued Over Commercial Grower Application Process. One day after the state announced its choices for a second batch of commercial cultivation licenses for medical marijuana, one of the losers in the process has filed a lawsuit challenging the scoring process for applications. The state law allowing medical marijuana sets a September 8, 2018 deadline for sales to begin, the timetable is already tight, and any further delays could put that date in doubt.

Hemp

Wisconsin Governor Signs Hemp Bill. Gov. Scott Walker (R) last Thursday signed into law a bill that allows farmers in the state to grow hemp. Under the bill, hemp plants can't contain more than 0.3% THC, and no one with a drug conviction can be a hemp farmer.

Law Enforcement

Pennsylvania Pays $150,000 for Falsely Jailing Man as Suspected Drugged Driver. The State Police will pay $150,000 to a New York Hispanic man who was jailed for five months even though he passed Breathalyzer and field sobriety tests and subsequent blood testing showed no presence of alcohol or illegal drugs. Wilfredo Ramos sued for false imprisonment and false arrest. He lost his car, his job, and his apartment while sitting in the Lehigh County Jail for months even after test results came back.

International

Australia Federal Government Gives Up on Welfare Drug Testing Scheme. Federal Social Services Minister Christian Porter confirmed Monday that he was removing drug testing of welfare recipients from the government's welfare reform bill in the face of stiff opposition from experts and elected officials. Porter said he didn't want to sacrifice the entire welfare piece to controversy over the drug testing provision.

Swedish High Court Rejects Medical Necessity Defense for Growing Marijuana Plant. The Supreme Court has ruled against a man who grew marijuana to treat neuropathic pain from a motorcycle accident, as well as for anxiety and depression. The man had been acquitted of cultivation charges in August by a lower court, but an appellate court reinstated the conviction, and now the Supreme Court has echoed that decision. The court did suggest that the parliament could amend laws to allow for medical marijuana, and it went relatively lightly on the patient, fining him $616 and giving him no jail time.

Chronicle AM: MA Drops 6,000 More Tainted Drug Cases, German MJ Petition Scores, More... (12/1/17)

Washington state ponders allowing home marijuana cultivation, Michigan legalizers are drawing organized opposition, Ohio's medical marijuana program takes another step forward, and more.

The Michigan legalization initiative is getting organized opposition, including from medical marijuana interests.
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Legalization Initiative Drawing Organized Opposition. At least two groups are gearing up to fight the legalization initiative that now looks very likely to qualify for the November 2018 ballot. One group, Healthy and Productive Michigan, is led by a Republican-connected political consultant and claims to represent business, faith, and law enforcement groups opposed to legalization. The other group, the Committee to Keep Pot Out of Neighborhoods, appears to have a purely pecuniary interest: It is funded by the Michigan Responsibility Council, a group of businessmen who want to get into the medical marijuana business.

New Jersey Lawmaker Files Bill to Require Blood Samples of Suspected DUID Drivers. Assemblyman Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) has filed a bill that would require police officers to take blood samples from anyone arrested for drug-impaired driving. "This bill will be a useful tool for law enforcement in their efforts to prosecute and convict people who refuse to be tested and who are likely driving while impaired," Bucco said in a statement. "Driving under the influence of marijuana should be treated no differently than driving under the influence of alcohol." The move comes as a push for legalization is about to get underway in the legislature.

Washington State Regulators Release Report on Home Grow Issues. The state Liquor and Cannabis Board released a report Wednesday on the potential costs and challenges associated with allowing personal marijuana cultivation. Washington is the only legal marijuana state that does not allow for home cultivation. The report doesn't make any recommendations, but includes a list of concerns lawmakers will need to address if they do try to change the law.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Licenses Another Dozen Large Medical Marijuana Grow Ops. State regulators licensed a final 12 medical marijuana cultivators Wednesday. They licensed a first dozen cultivators earlier this year. Each of the large growers can grow up to 25,000 square feet. They now have nine months to get up and running, with sales set to begin in September.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

West Virginia Seeks Public Input on Opioid Policy. The state Department of Health and Human Resources Office of Drug Control Policy announced Thursday it had developed a plan to combat the opioid epidemic, but it is asking state residents to help develop the plan through public comment and recommendations through December 15. The office is also coordinating with a panel of public health experts from West Virginia University, Marshall University and Johns Hopkins University.

Law Enforcement

Massachusetts Prosecutors Drop Another 6,000 Tainted Drug Cases. Local prosecutors have dropped more than 6,000 drug cases tainted by former state public chemist Sonja Frank. The move comes months after prosecutors dropped another 21,000 cases tainted by another state public chemist, Annie Dookhan.

International

German Activist Petitions Will Force Bundestag Debate on Marijuana Legalization. A petition from the German Hemp Association has reached the required threshold of 50,000 signatures to trigger a debate in the Bundestag. That doesn't mean the Bundestag will legalize marijuana, but it does mean it will have to put the issue on its agenda.

. Scottish Parliamentarians Call for New Approaches to Stop Overdoses. Members of parliament from all five Scottish parties united to call on Scotland's Futures Forum, parliament's independent think tank, to come up with fresh policy solutions to stem a rising overdose toll. "Drugs and drugs policy is one of the biggest issues facing communities across Scotland," said Labor MP Neil Findlay. "None of the signatories to this letter has the answer but we are willing to say that whatever we are doing at the moment just isn't working."

Drug War Issues

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