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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.

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.

Drug-Induced Homicide Charges Draconian and Ineffective, Study Finds [FEATURE]

A new report from the Drug Policy Alliance shines a harsh spotlight on a strategy that some police, prosecutors, and elected officials are embracing in response to the opioid overdose crisis -- charging sellers with drug-induced homicide -- which the evidence suggests is intensifying, rather than helping, the problem.

James Linder, 28 years for drug induced homicide. (DPA)
The opioid overdose crisis is real enough -- a record of more than 60,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, most of them from opioids -- but claims that charging drug sellers with murder is an effective deterrent are unproven, according to the report, An Overdose Death Is Not Murder: Why Drug-Induced Homicide Laws Are Counterproductive and Inhumane.

Instead, such laws actually deter people not from selling drugs but from seeking life-saving medical assistance in case of overdose. That's because drug-induced homicide prosecutions typically don't target high-level "kingpins," but zero in on the very people best positioned to actually save lives in the event of an overdose: family, friends, and low-level drug sellers, often addicts themselves.

Like Amy Shemberger. In August 2014, she took a ride to score some heroin for herself and her boyfriend, Peter Kucinski. She snorted one bag on the way home and gave the other to Peter when she got home. Suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal, he needed the heroin to feel better. He snorted a $10 bag, then stopped breathing. Amy called 911, but it was too late, and her boyfriend of 18 years was gone -- and then so was their 5-year-old son, taken into custody by child protective services.

Two months later, Amy was charged with drug-induced homicide for sharing her score with her life partner. She's now serving seven years in state prison.

Amy Shemberger is not an outlier. Police and prosecutors routinely abuse their discretion by going after the people best positioned to actually save the lives of overdose victims -- their friends, family members, fellow drug users, and small-time drug sellers. The report offers several examples: In New Jersey, 25 of 32 drug-induced homicide prosecutions in the 2000s targeted friends of the victims who were not involved in significant drug sales. In Wisconsin, 90% of the most recent cases targeted friends or relatives of the victim. In Illinois, a study of these prosecutions found that prosecutors typically charged the last person known to be with the victim.

And, as with everything else in the war on drugs, it's worse if you're not white. Hampered by a felony record, when James Linder, 36, lost his job at a bakery, he resorted to selling small amounts of drugs, making enough money to get a haircut for his son and to help out his sister. But in January 2015, he sold three packets of heroin to Cody Hillier. Hillier's girlfriend, Danielle Barzyk died of an overdose later that same day. Despite never even metting Barzyk, Linder was charged with drug-induced homicide in her death. He was sentenced by an all-white jury in rural Illinois. Unlike Shemberger, he didn't get seven years; he got 28 years in prison.

Linder and Schemberger are by no means alone. Drug-induced homicide laws, originally passed in the depths of 1980s drug war excess, lay largely dormant until rising drug overdose numbers led police and prosecutors to revive them. Currently 20 states -- Delaware, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming -- have drug-induced homicide laws on the books. Other states without such laws also manage to charge these people with the offense of drug delivery resulting in death under various felony-murder, depraved heart, or involuntary or voluntary manslaughter laws.

"This is a wasteful, punitive policy that compounds the tragedy of an overdose by locking up even more people in the name of the failing war on drugs," said Lindsay LaSalle, senior staff attorney at the Drug Policy Alliance and author of the report. "By placing the blame for an overdose death on the single person who supplied the drugs, all the structural factors that lead to addiction and overdose are ignored, as are the solutions that could actually make a difference. While there's no evidence in support of the effectiveness of drug-induced homicide laws, the good news is that there are proven health and harm reduction interventions that can save lives."

Those include policies and practices such as 911 Good Samaritan laws, which protect people reporting drug overdoses from arrest; expanded access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan), expanded access to opioid-assisted treatment, and expansion of harm reduction programs such as supervised drug injection sites, where users can shoot up under medical supervision and be connected with social service agencies.

There is no national database of drug-induced homicide prosecutions, so the Drug Policy Alliance report relied on media mentions of such cases to chart their spread. It found 363 articles mentioning such cases in 2011, but by 2016, that number had jumped to 1,178, a 300% increase in just five years. And this without any evidence of their effectiveness in reducing drug use or sales or preventing overdose deaths.

The resort to drug-induced homicide charges varies from state to state. Midwestern states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Minnesota have been the most aggressive in prosecuting drug-induced homicides, with northeastern states Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York and southern states Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee rapidly expanding their use of these laws. And the move remains politically popular: This year alone, elected officials in at least 13 states -- Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia -- introduced bills to create new drug-induced homicide offenses or strengthen existing drug-induced homicide laws.

But the increased criminalization of people who use and sell drugs only exacerbates the very problem prosecutors are supposedly trying to address. It increases stigma, drives people away from needed care, and will likely result in the same racial disparities now synonymous with other drug war tactics.

"This is no time to ratchet up enforcement responses to addiction and overdose -- we can't afford to repeat the mistakes of the past," warned LaSalle. "Overdose deaths are skyrocketing and it could be your loved one who dies from a preventable drug overdose, simply because someone was too scared to call 911."

Chronicle AM: NJ Elects MJ-Friendly Gov, Canada NDP Head Calls for Drug Decrim, More... (11/8/17)

Election day brought good news for marijuana reformers in New Jersey, Detroit, and an Ohio town; Canada's NDP leader calls for drug decriminalization, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Maine Republicans Threaten to Block Pot Bill If Not Overhauled. The Republican House Minority Leader, Rep. Ken Fredette (R-Newport), says that after Gov. LePage (R) vetoed the bill to regulate marijuana commerce, it must be altered or it will face another veto. Fredette and the Republicans want tougher penalties for impaired driving, removing "loopholes" from the medical marijuana program, and killing a tax-sharing provision for locales that host marijuana businesses. "If they don't, they'll get more of the same: they'll get another veto," said Fredette on Tuesday. "Rank-and-file House Republicans are frustrated. Our districts think this is moving too fast. If they don't reach out to House Republicans, who have been the most powerful force in Augusta for the past five years and the only group that is willing to work closely with the governor, they'll end up with another veto, and we will sustain that one as easily as we did this one." Meanwhile, it remains legal to possess and grow marijuana for personal use.

Democratic Victory in New Jersey Governor Race a Good Omen for Legalization. Voters elected a pro-marijuana legalization Democrat to replace Gov. Chris Christie (R) on Tuesday. Governor-elect Phil Murphy made marijuana legalization part of his campaign and has said he will sign a legalization bill if it reaches his desk. A legalization bill sponsored by Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Union), S3195, has already been filed, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who controls which bills move, said his goal was to get the bill passed within the first 100 days of the Murphy administration.

Athens, Ohio, Depenalizes Marijuana. Voters in the Ohio city approved The Athens Cannabis Ordinance (TACO) on Tuesday with 77% of the vote. TACO removes all penalties for the possession, cultivation, and gifting of up to 200 grams of marijuana. Last November, four other communities passed similar measures. Under state law, though, marijuana possession remains a minor misdemeanor, with fines, but no jail time.

Cook County, Illinois, Commissioner Wants Marijuana on the March Primary Ballot. Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey said on Tuesday he plans to let county residents hold a non-binding vote on marijuana legalization in the March primary election. Fritchey said he already has enough support for the idea from other commission members to get the measure on the ballot. Cook County, the home of Chicago, contains 40% of Illinois voters.

Medical Marijuana

South Dakota Medical Marijuana Initiative Turns in Signatures. Sponsors of an initiative to legalize medical marijuana turned in 15,000 raw signatures Tuesday, the deadline day for initiatives to turn in signatures. The state requires 14,000 valid voter signatures for the measure to qualify for the ballot, and initiative campaigns typically have an invalid signature rate of between 10% and 30%, so it still looks like an uphill battle to get the measure before the voters. A marijuana legalization initiative failed to gather enough signatures to pass this first hurdle.

Detroit Voters Approve Medical Marijuana Ballot Proposals. Voters in the Motor City approved two ordinances to loosen zoning restrictions and other rules around the city's medical marijuana industry. The ordinances are a popular response to tight zoning laws and rules passed by the city council last year. The marijuana facilities ordinance won with 60.15% of the vote and the marijuana zoning ordinance won with 58.85% of the vote.

International

Canada New Democratic Party Leader Calls for Drug Decriminalization. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh Tuesday called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to consider drug decriminalization as a response to the country's opioid crisis. Trudeau has previously dismissed such pleas. Singh argued that the majority of Canadians struggling with opioids also struggle with mental health issues and poverty and that the solution to the crisis lies in social justice, not criminal justice.

South Africa's Highest Court Considers Marijuana Legalization. The country's Constitutional Court heard arguments Tuesday on the government's appeal of a case from the Western Cape High Court, which had held in March that arrests for growing marijuana for personal use at home violated citizens' right to privacy and gave the government two years to amend the Drug Trafficking Act to incorporate that decision. A decision on the appeal is expected by next March.

Chronicle AM: CA Magic Mushroom Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering, More... (11/7/17)

The Maine legislature fails to override the governor's veto of the pot regulation bill, a California initiative to legalize magic mushrooms gets the okay for signature gathering, North Dakotans will wait another year for their medical marijuana, and more.

These could be legal in California soon if an initiative makes the ballot and is approved by voters. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Maine House Fails to Override Veto of Marijuana Regulation Bill. The House voted Monday to sustain Gov. Paul LePage's (R) veto of a bill providing a legal regulatory framework for marijuana commerce. What happens next is unclear. A moratorium on recreational sales expires on February 1. The legislature reconvenes in January, but there is little indication political dynamics will change between now and then. If the moratorium is not extended and a new bill passed, the law as passed by voters in 2016 would go into effect. "I feel like we legalized gasoline, but not gas stations," Rep. Martin Grohman told the Portland Press-Herald.

Medical Marijuana

North Dakota Says Medical Marijuana Still a Year Away. The state Health Department Monday announced proposed administrative rules for such things as lab testing, security requirements, and transportation regulations, and added that the proposed rules will be open for public comment until December 26. The department also said it doesn't expect the drug to be available for sale to patients for another year -- two years after it was approved by voters.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Florida's Largest Insurer Stops Covering Oxycontin. The state's largest health insurance company will stop covering OxyContin, the brand name prescription opioid, beginning January 1, in a bid to reduce overdoses and opioid dependence. Instead, Florida Blue will start covering an alternative opioid that isn't crushable for injection or snorting, reducing its potential for abuse, the company said Monday. That other drug is Xtampza ER, which also contains oxycodone, but which is designed to deter abuse because the pills cannot be crushed for snorting or injection.

Psychedelics

California Magic Mushroom Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. An initiative that would legalize psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been approved for signature gathering by state officials. The California Psilocybin Legalization Initiative needs 365,880 valid voter signatures by April 30 to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.

Sentencing

Massachusetts Sentencing Reform Bill Filed. House leaders Monday proposed sweeping changes to the state's criminal justice and sentencing laws. It's a mixed bag: Some provisions would allow for the expungement of marijuana offenses and end some mandatory minimum drug sentences, but others would increase sentences for dealing in opioids. The bill also includes pre-trial diversion programs and bail reforms. The House will debate the measures next week. The Senate has already passed its own version of a criminal justice reform bill.

International

Canada's Newest Safe Injection Site Approved in Ottawa. Health Canada has given final approval for a safe injection site in Ottawa, which will be housed in a trailer in a hospital parking lot. Operators said they expected to begin welcoming clients today.

Dutch Localities Line Up for Regulated Marijuana Cultivation Pilot Project. Some 25 of the country's 380 local authorities have applied to participate in pilot schemes to allow the regulated growth of marijuana to supply the nation's fabled cannabis cafes. Among those councils which have come forward are Breda, the Noord-Brabant town of Cuijk, and Rotterdam, where mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb wants the experiment to cover distribution as well. The government is expected to announce which locales win spots in the pilot program next year.

Chronicle AM: Trump Declares Opioid Emergency, SF SIJ Could Come Soon, More... (10/26/17)

The president declares the opioid crisis an emergency, but not enough of one to actually need funding; lawmakers go after the DEA over West Virginia pain pill deliveries, a St. Louis alderman files a marijuana legalization measure, the US Sentencing Commission issues a report on mandatory minimums, and more.

President Trump declares a public health emergency, but not a national emergency, on opioids. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

St. Louis Ordinance Would End Local Marijuana Prohibition. Alderman Megan Green has filed an ordinance that would end enforcement of any laws that allow "the civil or criminal punishment for the use or possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia against any individual or entity," with some specified exceptions. Under the bill, pot could be used, sold, and grown in the city. The bill gets a first reading Friday, and Green says she's confident it can pass in coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Medical Marijuana

Lawmakers Call for VA to Research Medical Marijuana for Veterans. A group of lawmakers who sit on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee wrote a letter Thursday to Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin urging him to use his agency to research medical marijuana. The VA "is uniquely situated to pursue research on the impact of medical marijuana on veterans suffering from chronic pain and PTSD given its access to world class researchers, the population it serves, and its history of overseeing and producing research resulting in cutting-edge medical treatments," the lawmakers wrote. Shulkin has yet to respond.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Trump Declares Opioid Crisis a Public Health Emergency, But Provides No Funds. President Trump announced Thursday that he had directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency around the opioid crisis. But he declined to declare a national emergency, which would have allowed for the rapid allocation of monies to address it. Trump's declaration carries no funding with it, but would allow some grant money to be used to combat opioid abuse.

Lawmakers Take DEA to Task Over Spread of Opioids. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee threatened to subpoena the DEA over its slow response to their questions about how wholesale drug distributors poured millions of opioid pain pills into West Virginia. Members said the committee had been waiting six months for answers from the DEA about which companies had sent nine million pills to the town of Kermit, WV (pop. 392), over a two-year period. Members did not express any concerns about how a crackdown on pain pill prescribing might impact chronic pain patients.

Harm Reduction

San Francisco Could See Safe Injection Sites Within a Year, Official Says. Safe injection sites in the city could be open in eight to 12 months if a proposal to create them gets approved, Department of Public Health Director Barbara Garcia told supervisors on Wednesday. Even if the plan was approved immediately, it would take time to obtain funding, establish protocols, hire and train staff, and set up the program, she said.

Sentencing

Sentencing Commission Issues Report on Mandatory Minimums. The US Sentencing Commission has issued a report on the use and impact of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. The report finds, among other things, that mandatory minimums continue to be imposed and result in long sentences in the federal system, but that they were being used less often last year. The report also noted that mandatory minimums may be applied more broadly than Congress intended, but that laws allows for departures from the harsh sentences "result in significantly reduced sentences when applied."

International

Colombia Will Move to Decriminalize Small-Time Coca Farming. The government will introduce legislation that would make the cultivation of up to just under ten acres of coca a non-punishable offense. More than 100,000 families earn a living from coca farming, with the average planting being less than an acre. This move would provide some breathing room for farmers caught between drug gangs on one hand and police on the other. The move was part of the peace deal agreed to with the leftist rebels of the FARC, but this is the first step toward actually implementing it.

Chronicle AM: Iran Restricts Death Penalty in Drug Cases, Belize MJ Decrim Move, More... (10/23/17)

Iran has approved dramatic changes in the use of the death penalty in drug cases, an Indiana county ends needle exchange and cites the Bible to do so, Jamaica issues its first marijuana business licenses, and more.

In an historic move, Iran has dramatically restricted use of the death penalty in drug cases. (handsoffcain.info)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Credit Union Sues Federal Reserve Over Cannabis Banking. The Fourth Corner Credit Union has filed a lawsuit against the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City over its refusal to grant the business a master account because Fourth Corner wants to provide financial services to groups in the marijuana business. Fourth Corner received a state banking charter in 2014 and even altered its business plan to only serve marijuana advocacy groups -- not pot businesses -- but the Fed still refuses to issue a master account.

Medical Marijuana

Montana Scores $300,000 in Medical Marijuana Taxes. The state collected medical marijuana taxes at the rate of $100,000 a month for the three months ending in September, the Department of Revenue reported. The proceeds are coming from a 4% tax on provider's gross revenue. The tax went into effect on July 1.

Utah Poll Shows Continuing Strong Support for Medical Marijuana Initiative. A new Salt Lake Tribune/University of Utah Hinckley School of Politics poll has support for a 2018 medical marijuana initiative at 75%. That result mirrors a July poll that had 77% support.

Harm Reduction

Indiana County Ends Needle Exchange Program, Cites Biblical Morality. County commissioners in Lawrence County voted last week to end a needle exchange program, with commissioners citing the Bible and morality as reasons for doing so. "It was a moral issue with me. I had severe reservations that were going to keep me from approving that motion," County Commissioner Rodney Fish, who voted against the program, told NBC News. "I did not approach this decision lightly. I gave it a great deal of thought and prayer. My conclusion was that I could not support this program and be true to my principles and my beliefs." Before voting, Fish quoted a Bible verse about people turning from their "wicked ways."

International

Belize House Passes Marijuana Decriminalization. The House last Friday approved a marijuana decriminalization bill that would allow the possession of up to 10 grams of pot. It would also legalize industrial hemp. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Colombia Prosecutor General Calls for Reconsideration of Aerial Fumigation of Coca Crops. In an interview with the newspaper El Tiempo, Prosecutor General Nestor Humberto Martinez called on the government to consider resuming aerial spraying of coca groups with herbicides. The call comes amid rising concerns over the government's ability to rein in coca production in the wake of its peace treaty with the leftist rebels of the FARC.

Indonesia Drug Czar Threatens Philippines-Style Killings of Drug Dealers. National Narcotics Agency (BNN) head Commander General Budi Waseso said last Thursday that police should be prepared to shoot drug dealers on the spot. "People said that the BNN cannot shoot on the spot. Why not?" Waseso said, in remarks reported by the Jakarta Post. "Stern actions" are justified because "there are too few drug dealers who are dead, while they have killed thousands of people."

Iran Limits Death Penalty in Drug Cases. The Islamic Republic's Guardian Council last Wednesday approved amendments to the country's Law Against Drug Trafficking that will greatly reduce the imposition of the death penalty for drug offenses. In past years, Iran has executed hundreds of people each year for drug trafficking offenses, but the amendment limits imposition of the death penalty to drug lords, armed traffickers, people with significant prior convictions, and people who use children to sell drugs.

Jamaica Issues First Marijuana Licenses. The Cannabis Licensing Authority of Jamaica issued the first two licenses for marijuana businesses last Wednesday. One went to Everyting Oily Labs for processing, and the other went to Epican for cultivation. "Although it has taken some time to get to this historic occasion, we have remained committed to getting it right and to ensure that Jamaica's stake in the global medicinal cannabis industry is never compromised and remains sustainable," said Authority Chairwoman Hyacinth Lightbourne in a press release. "During the process, we have endeavored to remain in dialogue with our applicants every step of the way, and we are confident that they have satisfied the rigors of the regulations," she said.

Chronicle AM: New Zealand to Vote on MJ Legalization, Peru Congress OKs MedMJ, More... (10/20/17)

A new doctors' group is calling on the medical community to be open to marijuana legalization, kratom activists file a FOIA on the DEA, New Zealand's new prime minister says she will hold a referendum on marijuana legalization, and more.

Marijuana Policy

New Doctors' Group Advocates for Marijuana Legalization. A newly formed physicians' group is calling on organized medicine to be open to legalizing and regulating marijuana. Doctors for Cannabis Regulation includes as members former US Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders and former US Center for Substance Abuse Treatment Westley Clark.

Maine Governor Wants to Delay Legal Marijuana Sales. Gov. Paul LePage (R) has proposed that lawmakers delay recreational marijuana sales instead of trying to pass a legislative rewrite of the voter-approved 2016 legalization initiative. LePage is proposing pushing the sales date back to January 2019. Lawmakers have already pushed the sales date back to February 2018.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Trump's Vow to Deliver Emergency Opioid Proclamation Is News to His Advisors. When President Trump announced Monday he would deliver an emergency proclamation on the opioid crisis next week, he blindsided his advisors, who are now scrambling to actually develop a plan. Despite Trump's remarks, it is unclear how or if it will be done, when it will be announced, and whether there is permanent leadership in place to execute it. "They are not ready for this," a public health advocate told Politico, which reported that top officials were "stunned" by Trump's off-script remarks.

Kratom

Citing DEA "Shadow Campaign," Kratom Backers File FOIA Request. Charging that the DEA is involved in a "shadow campaign" against the herb, the American Kratom Association has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all records of kratom-related communications between the DEA and state lawmakers, law enforcement officials, coroners, and medical examiners. The association believes a recent claim of a "kratom-related death" by a local coroner is "part of a larger behind-the-scenes push against kratom by the DEA in the wake of its decision last year to suspend an emergency scheduling push that would have effectively banned the legal botanical product," according to its press release.

Criminal Justice

In Speech to Oklahoma Sheriffs, Sessions Praises Asset Forfeiture, Denies Need for Sentencing Reform. Addressing the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association in Midway City Wednesday, Attorney General Sessions praised President Trump as a "law and order president," defended federal asset forfeiture, and denied that the country has a mass incarceration problem. "If you want to bring down our prison population, then we should bring down crime," Sessions said in prepared remarks.

International

Colombia Coca Farmers, Social Organization Call General Strike. Upset by the government's failure to fully implement peace accords signed with the leftist FARC rebels 11 months ago, dozens of groups, including the National Coordinator for Coca, Poppy, and Marijuana Growers; the National Coordinator of Communities and Afrodescendant Organization, and the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples have called an indefinite strike. "This national strike is to demand compliance with the agreement. We hope that the Government respects our right to protest, "said the spokesman of the National Association of Peasant Reserve Zones, Cesar Jerez, in a statement issued by Patriotic March.

New Zealand Will Hold Referendum on Marijuana Legalization. Incoming Prime Minister Jacinda Arden has said the country will hold a referendum on marijuana legalization at some point in the next three years. She has not taken a position on the issue herself, but said she wanted to hear the view of the public.

Peru Congress Passes Medical Marijuana Bill. The Congress approved a bill Thursday that would legalize medical marijuana in the Andean nation. The move has the support of President Pablo Kuczynski, who proposed it after a scandal erupted when police cracked down on a group of mothers making cannabis oil in a home factory to treat their epileptic children.

Senate Heavyweights File Sentencing Reform Bill [FEATURE]

A bipartisan group of Senate heavy-hitters have filed a bill aimed at reducing the swollen federal prison population by moving away from harsh mandatory minimum drug sentences, among other reforms. But it's not completely reformist.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley -- the face of sentencing reform? (Official photo)
The measure is a mixed bag, a product of lengthy discussions among senators seeking a compromise that could actually pass the Senate. While it has a number of progressive sentencing reform provisions, it also includes new mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, including some drug offenses. Those provisions will provide political cover to conservatives fearful of being tagged "soft on crime," but tired of perpetuating failed drug war policies.

The federal prison system has swollen dramatically since President Reagan reinvigorated Nixon's war on drugs. According to the federal Bureau of Prisons, the federal prison population has increased eight-fold since 1980, and while it peaked in 2012 and 2013, before Obama era sentencing reforms began to bite, there are still 192,000 people currently behind bars in the federal system.

The federal incarceration boom has largely been driven by the war on drugs. While the prison population jumped eight-fold, the number of drug prisoners jumped nearly 25-fold during the same period, according to the Sentencing Project. The nearly 81,000 people currently doing federal time for drug crimes constitutes nearly half (46.2%) of all federal prisoners.

The reform bill, S. 1917, was rolled out Wednesday by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), ranking committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Democratic Senate Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), along with cosponsors senators Mike Lee (R-UT), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tim Scott (R-SC), and Roy Blunt (R-MO).

"Our justice system demands consequences for those who choose to run afoul of the law, and law enforcement works hard to keep our communities safe," said Grassley. "This bipartisan compromise ensures that these consequences fit their crimes by targeting violent and career criminals who prey on the innocent while giving nonviolent offenders with minimal criminal histories a better chance to become productive members of society. This bill strikes the right balance of improving public safety and ensuring fairness in the criminal justice system. It is the product of much thoughtful deliberation, and we will continue to welcome input from stakeholders as we move forward."

"This compromise represents more than five years of work on criminal justice reform," said Durbin. "The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth. Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done."

Given who is behind it and the senatorial compromise it represents, the measure actually has a chance of moving in the Republican-controlled body. Still, even if it were to pass there, sentencing reform faces murkier prospects in the House and, if the first months of the Trump administration are any indication, implacable hostility from the White House and the Justice Department.

According to a summary from the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill:

  • Reduces enhanced mandatory minimums for certain non-violent drug offenders and eliminates the mandatory life provision for third strike offenders.
  • Increases judicial discretion by expanding existing the "safety valve" allowing judges to sentence beneath federal guidelines to include offenders with broader criminal histories, including people with prior felonies or violent or drug trafficking offenses if a court finds those offenses overstate a defendant's criminal history and recidivism risk. The bill also creates a second "safety valve" allowing judges to sentence some low-level drug offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum.
  • Reforms sentences for drug offenses with firearms to clarify that enhanced mandatory minimums only apply for people who have previously been convicted and served a sentence for such an offense and gives judges the discretion to order lesser sentences if the firearm wasn't brandished or discharged during the commission of a drug or violent crime. This provision would prevent abominations like the case of Weldon Angelos, the Salt Lake city music producer who got nailed for selling $350 worth of marijuana to a police informant, but ended up being sentenced to 55 years because he had a pistol in an ankle holster when he did his pot deals. (He was released last year after winning a sentence reduction.)
  • Makes the Fair Sentencing Act and certain other sentencing reforms retroactive, which would allow some nonviolent offenders current serving time to seek sentence reductions upon a judicial review.
  • Establishes programs to reduce recidivism, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Prisoners who successfully complete those programs could get to serve up to the final quarter of their sentences under home confinement or in a reentry center.
  • Limits solitary confinement for juveniles in federal custody.
  • Creates a national criminal justice commission to undertake a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system.
  • Creates new mandatory minimums for interstate domestic violence and providing weapons and defense materials to prohibited countries or designated terrorist groups, and creates a five-year sentencing enhancement for trafficking heroin containing fentanyl.

There's plenty in there to appeal to sentencing reformers, and some sops to conservatives, but from a drug reform and anti-prohibitionist perspective, this is just some fixes on the back end. From that vantage point, instead of haggling over how many months to shave off some poor sap's sentence, we should be questioning why he was even arrested and prosecuted in the first place.

But you have to start somewhere, and ameliorating some of the cruelest injustices of the drug war is a good place to get going.

Amidst Controversy Over Anthem Protests, NFL Endorses Drug Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

Caught up between players who insist on exercising their right to call out racial injustice in a manner of their choice and a scapegoating president who demands the league stifle what he deems unpatriotic protest, the National Football League has reacted in a surprising and progressive way: In a Monday letter to leading senators, the NFL endorsed a federal sentencing bill aimed at reducing the number of drug offenders.

The bill is the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917), rolled out earlier this month by such Senate heavy hitters as Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA), ranking Democratic member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), minority whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), among others.

"We are writing to offer the National Football League's full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 (S. 1917)," said Commissioner Roger Goodell and Seattle Seahawks owner Doug Baldwin, Jr. in the letter. "We want to add our voice to the broad and bipartisan coalition of business leaders, law enforcement officials, veterans groups, ci vii rights organizations, conservative thought leaders, and faith-based organizations that have been working for five years to enact the changes called for in this comprehensive legislation."

The subject of years of negotiation in the Senate, the bill would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenders, give judges greater discretion to sentence below federal sentencing guidelines, reform sentencing enhancements around weapons possession (to allow departures from mandatory minimums if the weapon wasn't used or brandished), make Fair Sentencing Act of 2012 reforms retroactive, and create programs to reduce recidivism.

As compromise legislation, the bill isn't all reform. It also includes provisions creating new mandatory minimum sentences -- for interstate domestic violence and providing weapons to terrorists -- and harshly punishing the sale of heroin cut with fentanyl. Still, overall, the bill would be a big step toward reducing the federal prison population overall and the federal drug prisoner population in particular.

NFL player takes a knee. (PxHere)
More than two thirds of NFL players are black. And just like the rest of us, they understand that pro football isn't the only place blacks are overrepresented: As the by now numbingly familiar refrain goes, African-Americans make up only 13% of the population and use drugs at roughly the same rate as other groups, but constitute 40% of all prisoners and a whopping 72% of federal drug prisoners.

With racial justice issues bubbling up in the NFL since then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem before a game last season to protest racial injustice in general and police killings of black men in particular, and reaching a fever pitch when President Trump used anthem protests to throw red meat to his base this season, the NFL has been desperately searching for a way to get over the anthem controversy and back to the business of pro football. Endorsing federal sentencing reform could be a way to do that, but it leaves the league trying to appease players on one hand while trying to give props to the cops on the other.

"Football and community are the twin pillars of the NFL," Goodell and Baldwin added. "Over the last two seasons, one particular issue that has come to the forefront for our players and our teams is the issue of justice for all."

For the NFL, they wrote, the challenge is "ensuring that every American has equal rights and equal protection under the law, while simultaneously ensuring that all law enforcement personnel have the proper resources, tools, and training and are treated with honor and respect."

For the team owners, however, the challenge is whether this move will quell the controversy, get the players back to concentrating on football, and get President Trump back to concentrating on anything -- anything! -- other than the NFL.

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