Breaking News:Statement of ICC Prosecutor on Opening Preliminary Investigations in the Philippines and in Venezuela

Mandatory Minimums

RSS Feed for this category

Chronicle AM: Trump Wants to Execute Drug Dealers, Brazil Drug War Targets Rio Slums, More... (2/26/18)

The president makes downright scary remarks about killing drug dealers, the Brazilian army and cops roar into Rio's favelas, California's Democratic Party reaffirms its support of legal pot, and more.

Iranian drug executions -- Trump's solution to the drug problem? (
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Legalization Bill Snuffed Out. A bill that would have legalized marijuana in the state was snuffed out last week by House Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Eddie Farnswoth (R-Chandler). The measure, House Concurrent Resolution 2037 would, if passed, have put the issue directly before voters in a referendum.

California Democrats Reaffirm Commitment to Legal Marijuana, Diss Anti-Pot Feinstein. Meeting over the weekend, the California Democratic Party approved numerous platform planks in support of marijuana legalization, including one that says they "support the ongoing legalization, regulation, and taxation of cannabis in a manner similar to that of tobacco or alcohol, while prioritizing the health, education, and safety of California's communities and the country over revenue or profits." In other action, the state party failed to provide its endorsement to Sen. Diane Feinstein, who has lagged far behind other state Democrats when it comes to marijuana policy.

Maine Legalization Implementation Bill Kills Off Social Clubs, Tax Revenue Sharing. The Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee took a final vote on the overhauled implementation bill Friday. The final version of the bill contains no provision for marijuana social clubs, nor does it allow for the sharing of marijuana tax revenues to the state with localities that allow marijuana businesses. The excise tax on wholesale marijuana is set at 21.5%, or about $335 a pound at current prices. The measure will go before the whole legislature in a few weeks.

Ohio Legalization Initiative Could Be Delayed to 2019 or 2020. At a press conference last Friday, Cincinnati businessman Jimmy Gould, the man behind the failed 2015 "monopoly marijuana" legalization initiative, said his plans to get another initiative on the ballot may not come to fruition this year. He said language for the proposed measure was not yet set and the initiative may not appear on the ballot until 2019 or 2020. The deadline to hand in enough vote signatures to qualify for the ballot this year is July 4.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho CBD Medical Marijuana Bill Advances. The House Health and Welfare Committee has approved House Bill 577, which would legalize the possession of low-THC CBD oil for medical use. The bill advanced despite the opposition of law enforcement and the Idaho Office of Drug Policy. It now heads for a House floor vote.


Trump Says He Wants to Execute All Drug Dealers. President Trump has been making some disturbing authoritarian and blood-thirsty private remarks about what he'd like to do to drug dealers, according to a new report from Axios. Worse yet, his dark fulminations may foreshadow some repressive policy prescriptions not too far down the road. Trump seems obsessed with fighting drugs, according to the Axios report. It cites five sources who've spoken with Trump on the subject who say "he often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers and should all get the death penalty" and that softer approaches to drug reform will never work.

Arizona Bill Would Impose Mandatory Minimums on First Time Heroin, Fentanyl Sellers. A bill that would create five-year mandatory minimum sentences for first-time heroin and fentanyl sellers passed the House last week. House Bill 2241 now heads to the Senate.


Brazilian Army, Rio de Janeiro Cops in Massive Anti-Drug Operation. The army and the state police have launched a massive anti-drug operation in several favelas (shantytowns) on the west side of the city, military spokesmen announced last Friday. More than 3,000 soldiers and police are taking part in the operations in Vila Alianca, Coreija, and Vila Kennedy. In the latter, there have been at least 13 shoot outs between drug traffickers and police since January. The operation started just days after an army sergeant and police commander were killed there last week.

Colombia Coca-Country Clashes Are Creating Refugee Flows. Three-way fighting between rightist paramilitaries, leftist ELN guerrillas, and the Colombian military in the coca-rich Bajo Cauca region some 80 miles north of Medellin has displaced some 1,500 people already, with the prospect of more to come. "The clashes between the armed groups continue to cause fear amongst the indigenous communities and rural populations," said the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is assisting victims of the violence.

Manila Demonstrators Protest Philippines Drug War. Thousands of marchers organized by Catholic groups took to the streets of Manila Saturday in a "walk for life" to protest the thousands of killings that have occurred under President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody crackdown on drugs. "We will not tire in walking for life even if the path ahead is winding and soaked in blood," Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle.

Philippines Police Kill Ten in Night of Bloody Drug Raids. In the single bloodiest night of the country's drug war since police resumed participation in December, police said they killed 10 suspected drug dealers and arrested 63 more last Wednesday night. The operations took place in Bulacan, north of Manila, the capital. Police said the suspects were killed in eight separate towns during 45 "buy-bust" incidents.

Chronicle AM: Senate Sentencing Reform Bill Under Attack, DEA Threatens SIJs, More... (2/15/18)

The Marijuana Justice Act gets a third cosponsor, the DEA threatens to go after safe injection sites, the attorney general and leading law enforcement groups target the Senate sentencing reform bill, and much, much more.

Jeff Sessions and major law enforcement groups are trying to kill the Senate sentencing reform bill. (
Marijuana Policy

Federal Judge Suggests He Will Defer to DEA, Congress on Rescheduling Lawsuit. At a hearing Wednesday over a lawsuit seeking to have marijuana de- or rescheduled from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, US District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein suggested he would rule in the government's favor. He dismissed plaintiffs' claims that marijuana prohibition was motivated by racism and political concerns when it was passed 80 years ago and he said he didn't think he had the authority to reschedule the drug. "The law is the law," the judge said. "I'm sworn to enforce the law."

Cory Booker's Marijuana Justice Act Gets Third Sponsor. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) announced Wednesday that she had signed on as a cosponsor of Sen. Cory Booker's (D-NJ) Marijuana Justice Act (S. 1689). The bill is also cosponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Federal Bill Filed to Protect Legal Marijuana States and Businesses. Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) has filed the Sensible Enforcement Of Cannabis Act (no bill number yet), which would essentially codify the protections for state-legal marijuana embodied in the now-rescinded Cole memo. "To date, eight states have legalized recreational cannabis, and twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia, representing more than half of the American population, have enacted legislation to permit the use of cannabis," Correa said. "Attorney General Sessions' decision to rescind the 'Cole Memo' created great uncertainty for these states and legal cannabis businesses, and put citizens in jeopardy for following their state laws."

Connecticut Legalization Bills Filed. Twenty-two lawmakers filed a marijuana legalization bill Wednesday. The bill, House Bill 5112, would authorize the retail sale and taxation of the herb. Separately, House Deputy Majority Leader Rep. James Albis (D-East Haven) filed another legalization bill, House Bill 5111. Similar bills last year failed to get a floor vote in either chamber. Both bills were referred to the Joint Committee on General Law.

Massachusetts Legalization Advocates Protest "Intimidation Campaign" Aimed at Forcing Restrictive Regulations. Legalization advocates are criticizing Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and other officials, saying they have conducted a "coordinated intimidation campaign" against the state body charged with crafting rules and regulations, the Cannabis Control Commission. In a series of letters to the commission, officials from the governor's office have raised public health and safety concerns and recommended it scale back its framework of rules. Advocates took their concerns to the State House Thursday, where they held a press conference.

New Jersey Lawmakers, Wary of Legalization, File Decriminalization Bill Instead. A bipartisan group of legislators urging caution on pot legalization has filed a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Senate Bill 472 would make the possession of up to 15 grams a civil offense. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) campaigned on legalizing marijuana, and legalization bills have already been filed in the Assembly and Senate.

Jackson, Mississippi, City Council Votes to Decriminalize Weed. The city council voted unanimously Tuesday to decriminalize the possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana. Violators would face no more than a $100 fine. Under current Mississippi state law, marijuana possession is illegal, so effective implementation will depend on local law enforcement discretion. The possession of any amount of marijuana can result in up to 60 days in jail, a fine of up to $250, and a litany of collateral consequences that impacts employment, housing, family and life opportunities.

Asset Forfeiture

Alabama Senate Committee Votes to End Civil Forfeiture by Police. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to approve a bill that would end civil asset forfeiture in the state. Senate Bill 213 would require a criminal conviction before cash or property could be seized. Senators said they expected the bill to face additional negotiations before it goes to a Senate floor vote.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Bill to Block Employers from Testing for Marijuana to Be Filed. Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) said he plans to introduce a bill that would block employers from drug testing for THC or disqualifying people from jobs because of a drug test with positive results for marijuana. The bill would apply to both public and private sector workers, but not those operating heavy equipment. "Consuming THC weeks or months out from a job interview should not disqualify someone from finding employment any more than someone who drank a few beers on another date should be kept out of work" Bowen told the Isthmus in an email. "While I am in favor of the safe legalization and regulation of marijuana for both recreational and medicinal use, until that happens, people should not be stigmatized for using a substance whose effect on society is less negative than society's reaction to it."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Congressional Republicans Try to Blame Sanctuary Cities for Opioid Crisis. GOP lawmakers used a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security to try to scapegoat sanctuary cities for the country's opioid crisis. "We have heard countless stories of sanctuary practices and the havoc they wreck on public safety, national security, and the sanctity of the rule of law," said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-ID), the committee chair. "Our public safety and our public health are tied to eradicating opioids, which can never be accomplished when the force multiplier that is ICE is sidelined." But committee Democrats and analysts rejected the link. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) said There was no "factual basis in connecting so called sanctuary city policies with the opioid crisis," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA). "It would be laughable if it weren't so serious," she said. "If it weren't so hurtful to the characterization of immigrants across this country." Last month, Republicans tried to blame Obama's expansion of Medicaid for worsening the epidemic.

Harm Reduction

Trump Administration Threatens to Go After Safe Injection Sites. Several US cities are moving forward with plans to open safe injection sites, but the DEA has just fired a shot across the bow. In an interview with Buzzfeed, DEA spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff said the agency may take action against the facilities because they are federally prohibited. "Supervised injection facilities, or so-called safe injection sites, violate federal law," Pfaff said. "Any facilitation of illicit drug use is considered in violation of the Controlled Substances Act and, therefore, subject to legal action." She cited a 1980s crack house law that could be used. But in Seattle, at least, local prosecutors say they welcome a legal challenge and think they can convince the courts that public health powers are superior to criminal laws against drug dens run for profit.

New Mexico Passes Legislation to Examine Administering Pharmaceutical-grade Heroin or Other Opioids by Medical Practitioners to People Struggling with Long-term Addiction. The state House Tuesday approved House Memorial 56, which charges the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee to take testimony on supervised injectable opioid treatment as a feasible, effective and cost-effective strategy for reducing drug use and drug-related harm among long-term heroin users who have not been responsive to other types of treatment. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Deborah Armstrong (D-Albuquerque), chair of the House Health and Human Services Committee. This memorial does not need to pass the Senate or be signed by the governor.

Sentencing Reform

Attorney General Sessions Slam Senate Sentencing Reform Bill. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came out against a painstakingly cobbled-together Senate sentencing reform bill Wednesday, sparking a public food fight with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the very face of dour Corn Belt conservatism.In a letter reported by Reuters, Sessions warned the committee not to approve the sentencing reform bill, S. 1917, claiming it would reduce sentences for "a highly dangerous cohort of criminals." Passage of the bill would be "a grave error," Sessions said. The measure is actually 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, mainly aimed at nonviolent drug offenders, it also includes new mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, including some drug offenses. Those provisions provide political cover to conservatives fearful of being tagged "soft on crime," but tired of perpetuating failed drug war policies.

Police Groups Slam Senate Sentencing Reform Bill. The National Sheriffs' Association and the Fraternal Order of Police have both come out against the Senate sentencing reform bill, calling on President Trump to reject the bill and saying it will put violent drug dealers back out on the street. "Sheriffs will have to arrest most of them again at the county level and that will shift the cost and responsibility to us without fixing the underlying problems of violent crime and drug and human trafficking in the country," said a letter to Trump from the National Sheriffs' Association. "At a time when our nation is being ravaged by an epidemic of overdoses from the use of heroin and opioids, it seems at variance with common sense and sound policy to drastically reduce sentences for drug traffickers and then apply these reduced sentences retroactively," said the National Fraternal Order of Police.

Sessions vs. Grassley -- Sentencing Reform Sparks Fight on the Conservative Right

Attorney General Jeff Sessions came out against a painstakingly cobbled-together Senate sentencing reform bill Wednesday, sparking a public food fight with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the very face of dour Corn Belt conservatism.

When Chuck Grassley is coming after you from the left, you know you're pretty far right. (
In a letter reported by Reuters, Sessions warned the committee not to approve the sentencing reform bill, S. 1917, claiming it would reduce sentences for "a highly dangerous cohort of criminals." Passage of the bill would be "a grave error," Sessions said.

The measure is actually 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, mainly aimed at nonviolent drug offenders, it also includes new mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, including some drug offenses. Those provisions provide political cover to conservatives fearful of being tagged "soft on crime," but tired of perpetuating failed drug war policies.

Sessions has no qualms about hardline drug war policies, and his voicing opposition to the sentencing reform bill doesn't come as a shock. But Grassley, who has been shepherding the bill along for months, took it personally.

In an interview with Bloomberg Politics Wednesday afternoon, the rock-ribbed Republican ripped into Sessions, accusing him of being ungrateful after Grassley protected him from Democratic demands for public hearings on his contacts with the Russians and supported him when President Trump wanted to fire him.

"I think it's legitimate to be incensed and I resent it, because of what I've done for him. He had a tough nomination, a tough hearing in my committee," Grassley said. "They wanted to call him back every other day for additional hearings about his Russian connection, and I shut them off of that until we had the normal oversight hearing in October I believe it was, see? And the president was going to fire him, and I backed him, you know? So why wouldn't I be irritated?"

Grassley also took to Twitter to express his umbrage at his former colleague, tweeting: "Incensed by Sessions letter An attempt to undermine Grassley/Durbin/Lee BIPARTISAN criminal justice reforms This bill deserves thoughtful consideration b4 my cmte. AGs execute laws CONGRESS WRITES THEM!"

For Grassley and the bipartisan coalition attempting to move the bill forward, Sessions' intervention is little more than last-minute backstabbing. A hearing to mark up the draft bill is set for today (Thursday).

Again, that Sessions would try to derail sentencing reforms is no surprise. He helped kill a predecessor sentencing reform bill that also had broad bipartisan support when he was in the Senate. And since he has taken over as attorney general, he has pursued an undeviating conservative "law and order" agenda.

He regularly takes rhetorical aim at violent crime, illegal immigration, and drugs, and he also puts his policy where his mouth is. Last year, he crafted a memo to federal prosecutors instructing them to charge people with the most serious chargeable offense, a move designed to trigger mandatory minimum sentences. He also crafted another memo to prosecutors undoing Obama's laissez faire approach to state-legal marijuana, and he blames marijuana for fueling the opioid epidemic.

Grassley didn't attack Sessions for his draconian policy prescriptions; only for his ingratitude and what he saw as his usurpation of congressional prerogatives. Still, this battle of the dinosaurs shows how the Trump/Sessions crime agenda is creating fissures at the heart of the Republican Party.

In Trump and Sessions' Drug War, It's Bad Cop/Bad Cop [FEATURE]

The omens are not good. In a pair of speeches last week, the president and his attorney general made some very menacing comments about drug policy. While their last-century drug warrior rhetoric has not, for the most part, translated into regressive, repressive drug policy prescriptions -- yet -- it's probably not safe to assume that will continue to be the case.

Donald Trump, bad cop (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia)
At the same time, the Trump White House appears to be approaching key aspects of the country's opioid crisis, which contributed mightily to a record 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, with a mixture of indifference and incompetence.

Trump wants to drastically slash the budget of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), his White House opioid response is laughably led by pollster and counselor -- not drug policy or addiction expert -- Kellyanne Conway, and his budget proposals are for spending substantially less -- not more -- money on treatment and prevention.

An Obama-era law that designated a billion dollars to help states fight opioids runs out of money this year, with no sign Trump intends to ask Congress to renew it, and Trump's 2018 budget request has a $400 million cut to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the lead federal agency for treatment.

Instead of proactive responses aimed at ameliorating the crisis, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are falling back on drug war rhetoric that would have been at home in Nixon's 1970s or Reagan's 1980s. (And the budget wouldn't even have flown under Nixon.)

Trump spent barely a minute talking about the opioid crisis in his State of the Union speech last week, and now he says he's focused on law enforcement, not treatment and prevention.

In a speech last week in Cincinnati, Trump said the opioid epidemic "has never been worse. People form blue ribbon committees. They do everything they can. And frankly, I have a different take on it. My take is you have to get really, really tough, really, really mean with the drug pushers and drug dealers."

Jeff Sessions, bad cop (
Attorney General Sessions, for his part, was on the same page this week. In a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation for an event honoring Ronald Reagan's birthday, Sessions could have been channeling the Gipper himself, blaming the media, not enough drug war, and "permissive rhetoric" for problems with drug use in the US.

"We don't think illegal drug use is 'recreation,'' he said. "Lax enforcement, permissive rhetoric, and the media have undermined the essential need to say no to drug use. Don't start. That's what President Trump said to us the other day in a meeting. What did Nancy Reagan say? Just say no."

Sessions also reiterated his opposition to state-legal marijuana resorted to the discredited "gateway theory" to try to blame marijuana for the opioid epidemic.

"The DEA said that a huge percentage of heroin addictions starts with prescriptions. That may be an exaggerated number -- they had it as high as 80 percent -- we think a lot of this is starting with marijuana and other drugs," Sessions ventured.

"We are not going to pretend that there is not a law against marijuana. There is a federal law against marijuana," he said. "And we're not going to pretend that marijuana is good for you, either. I don't think it is."

bad cops
Drug war rhetoric is one thing; actual policy shifts is another. So far, despite the tough talk, about the only concrete action aimed at driving us back to the failed drug war policies of the past is Sessions' move last May to reverse an Obama-era policy of moving away from harsh mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases. Other than that, there's been a lot of sound and fury, but little in the way of actual policy proposals. Still, the remarks this week from the president and his chief law enforcement officer ought to be setting off alarm bells.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders has a better idea. The independent Vermont senator and 2016 Democratic presidential contender on Wednesday announced a petition calling on Congress to "end the failed war on drugs." "The criminal justice system is not the answer to drug abuse. Addiction is a health problem and we should start treating it that way," Sanders wrote. "While communities all across the country lack adequate resources for treatment or prevention, we are spending approximately $50 billion a year on the war on drugs. That's absurd. We need to get our priorities right."

Here is Sessions at the Heritage Foundation:

Chronicle AM: RI MedMJ Expansion Proposed, Trump's Junior Drug Czar to Step Down, More... (1/25/18)

It's the time of year for marijuana to start popping up in state legislatures, Rhode Island's governor proposes expanding the state's medical marijuana system, Trump's wet-behind-the-ears deputy drug czar is stepping down, a new poll finds support for criminal justice reforms, and more.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) wants to quadruple the number of dispensaries in the state. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

US Senators and Reps Send Trump Letter Urging Respect for State Marijuana Laws. Some 54 US senators and representatives sent a letter Thursday to President Trump expressing their "urgent concern" about threats to legal marijuana states and urging him to uphold his campaign pledge to respect state marijuana laws.

Iowa Senate Subcommittee Advances Marijuana Sentencing Reform Bill. A Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee has approved Senate File 342, which would reduce possession of five grams of marijuana or less from a serious misdemeanor to a simple misdemeanor. That would reduce possible jail time from a year to no more than 30 days and reduce fines from up to $1,000 to $65. The bill now goes before the committee as a whole.

New Mexico Marijuana Sentencing Reform Bill Filed. Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces) has filed Senate Bill 141, which would reduce the penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the bill, people caught with less than an ounce would be subject to a fine of no more than $50 for a first offense and up to 15 days in jail. Possession would remain a misdemeanor. The Senate approved a similar bill last year, but it was never taken up in the House. Cervantes is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana House Calls for Study of Medical Marijuana. The House voted unanimously Thursday in support of a resolution calling for a legislative committee to study medical marijuana. If the Senate concurs, a special council comprised of lawmakers from both parties would do the study over the summer.

Kentucky House Calls for Feds to Remove Roadblocks to Marijuana Research. The House voted 73-5 Wednesday to approve a resolution calling on the DEA and the FDA to "expedite research on the safety and effectiveness of the use of marijuana for certain health purposes."

Rhode Island Governor Proposes Medical Marijuana Expansion. As part of her 2018-2019 budget plan, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) is proposing quadrupling the number of dispensaries in the state from three to 12, adding "acute pain" to the list of qualifying conditions, and allowing Connecticut and Massachusetts cardholders to buy medical marijuana in the state.

Drug Policy

Trump's 24-Year-Old Deputy Drug Czar to Step Down. Taylor Weyeneth, the 24-year-old former Trump campaigner who was given a senior post in the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), will step down at the end of this month. Weyeneth's high-ranking position without any apparent qualifications for it, as well as the revelation that he had a habit of not showing up for work at a law firm where has was previously employed, aroused controversy earlier this month.


Poll Finds Broad Support for Reforming Criminal Justice System. A new Public Opinion Strategies poll finds that fully three-quarters of the American public believe the criminal justice system needs "significant improvements," with strong majorities in both parties in agreement on the issue. Similarly, strong majorities of both Democrats and Republicans don't want to spend money locking up nonviolent offenders and that the primary goal of the criminal justice system should be rehabilitation. Mandatory minimums for non-violent offenders are "toxic with voters across the political spectrum," the poll found, with 87% strongly supporting replacing them with a system that allows more judicial discretion.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Top Ten US Drug Policy Stories of 2017 [FEATURE]

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Tens of thousands die of drug overdoses, hundreds of thousands get arrested for drugs, yet marijuana is seeing boom times. As we bid adieu to 2017, here are the year's drug policy highlights:

Drug overdoses killed record numbers of Americans in 2017. (Wikimedia)
1.The Opioid Crisis Deepens, With Overdose Deaths at an All-Time High

The country's opioid crisis showed no signs of abating in 2017, with the Centers for Disease Control estimating 66,000 overdose deaths this year, up from 63,000 in 2016. To be clear, only about two-thirds of fatal drug overdoses are linked to heroin and prescription opioids, but opioid overdoses surged in 2016 by 28%. It's too early for final data on 2017 overdoses, but there is little reason to doubt that opioids were driving the increase this year. The high levels of overdose deaths have led to a fall in US life expectancy for the past two years, only the third time that has happened in the past century. Policy efforts to curtail the problem have sometimes included regressive moves to up drug sentences, and have generally given only limited consideration to the needs many patients have to access these substances. But public health measures like naloxone distribution and "Good Samaritan" non-prosecution policies have also advanced.

2. Fentanyl is Killing More and More People

The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl and its analogs are implicated in an increasingly large number of opioid overdose deaths. While deaths involving prescription opioids are decreasing, fentanyl-related deaths have increased by an average of 88% a year since 2013. Illicitly imported fentanyl from labs in China or Mexico is mixed with heroin with lethal results: Half of the increase in heroin-related overdose deaths is attributable to heroin cut with fentanyl, the CDC reported in September. There were nearly 20,000 deaths attributable to fentanyl and other illicit opioids in 2016; the 2017 numbers are likely to be even worse.

3. Key Federal Drug Policy Positions Remain Unfilled, and Kellyanne is In Charge

The Trump administration has not nominated anyone to head the DEA, and the agency is currently being led by Acting Administrator Robert Patterson after Chuck Rosenberg, the acting administrator when Trump took office, resigned in September, saying he didn't want to work with the administration any longer. Similarly, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) is without a permanent head after Trump's nominee, Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Tom Marino went down in flames in October in the wake of reports he steered a bill through Congress that impeded the DEA from going after pharmaceutical drug distributors. Neither the White House nor anyone else seems very interested in filling the position, in part, perhaps, because earlier in the year, Trump floated the notion of cutting ONDCP's budget by nearly 95%. But not to worry: Trump pollster, counselor, and apologist Kellyanne Conway is now leading the administration's fight against opioids -- even though she has no public health experience whatsoever.

So far, Attorney General Sessions' bark is worse than his bite when it comes to marijuana policy. (
4. Attorney General Sessions Revives the Federal War on Drugs…

Under President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder presided over a ratcheting down of harsh federal drug prosecutions and sentences, but current Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing his best to undo those reforms. In May, Sessions announced that he had directed federal prosecutors to seek the most severe penalties possible in drug cases, including mandatory minimum sentences.

5. …But Fails to Implement a War on Weed, So Far

For all the wailing, gnashing of teeth, and dire predictions of a Sessions war on weed, it hasn't happened yet. The attorney general has made no secret of his dislike for the demon weed, but that has yet to translate into any firm policy positions or federal crackdowns on marijuana in states where it is legal, for either medical or recreational use. Congressional action continues to bar the use of Justice Department funds to go after medical marijuana, although the future of that law after January 22nd remains in doubt. But there was no bar on going after state-legal recreational marijuana, yet it didn't happen. Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee in November that the Obama-era Cole memo remains in effect. That memo directs prosecutors to pretty much leave state-legal marijuana alone except for specified concerns, such as the involvement of youth, violence, or diversion. Later in November, Sessions said the Justice Department was still examining the Cole memo, so all is not safe, but today legal marijuana is still standing.

6. Legal Marijuana's $10 Billion Dollar Year

In December, marijuana market watchers Arcview Market Research estimated that retail marijuana sales would hit $10 billion in 2017, up 33% over 2016. But that's just the beginning, Arcview said. With huge recreational markets such as California (pop. 39 million) and Canada (pop. 36 million) coming online next year, the group expects North American sales to top $24.5 billion by 2021. It's hard even for a pot-hating attorney general to get in front of that economic juggernaut.

7. Pot is More Popular than Ever

Just ask Gallup. The venerable polling firm has been tracking support for marijuana legalization since 1969, when it was at just 12%. In its latest poll, from October, Gallup now has support for marijuana legalization at 64%. What is really impressive is the rapid increase in support in the past 20 years: In 1996, support was at 25%; by 2012, it had doubled to 50%; and it's gained another 14 points in the five years since. Other pollsters are reporting similar current levels of support for marijuana legalization. And this could be another reason the attorney general hesitates to crack down on weed.

8. No State Legalized Weed, But 2018 Should Be Different

After 2016 saw marijuana legalization initiatives win in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada -- losing only in Arizona, closely -- anticipation was high that 2017 would see more states come aboard. It didn't happen. There are two explanations for this: First, it was an off-off election year and no initiatives were on the ballot, and second, it's hard to move controversial legislation though the state house. Still, the Vermont legislature actually passed a legalization bill, only to see it vetoed by a Republican governor, and that governor now says he is ready to sign a legalization bill. That could happen as early as next month. Likewise, a number of other states saw legalization bills make serious progress, and we could see those efforts come to fruition in places like Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. And 2018 will most likely see at least one legalization initiative. Activists in Michigan have already handed in signatures and should have enough of a cushion to qualify for the ballot.

9. Safe Injection Sites in the US Draw Ever Nearer

The harm reduction intervention has been proven to save lives, increase public health and public safety, and get hardcore drug users in touch with medical and social service help, and the message is finally on the verge of getting though in the US. At least two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, are advancing plans to open such facilities -- although not without staunch opposition -- and, under the progressive leadership of young Mayor Svante Myrick, Ithaca, New York, is making similar plans.

10. The War on Drugs Rolls On

Despite the legalization of medical and/or recreational marijuana in various states, despite various sentencing reforms at the state and federal level, despite the growing recognition that "we can't arrest our way out of this problem," the drug war just keeps on going. The FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report in November, and while the numbers are from 2016, this year's numbers are unlikely to be any better. More than 600,000 people got arrested for marijuana offenses in 2016, 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.

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: 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.


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.


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.


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 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."


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.

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.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School