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Culture Shock: American Activists Confront Compassionate Portuguese Drug Policy [FEATURE]

The American activists couldn't wrap their heads around it. Sitting in a dingy office in a nondescript building in central Lisbon, they were being provided a fine-grained explanation of what happens to people caught with small amounts of drugs in Portugal, which decriminalized the possession of personal use amounts of drugs 17 years ago.

partial view of Lisbon, looking toward the Tagus River (Wikimedia)
The activists, having lived the American experience, wanted desperately to know when and how the coercive power of the state kicked in, how the drug users were to be punished for their transgressions, even if they had only been hit with an administrative citation, which is what happens to people caught with small quantities of drugs there.

Nuno Capaz was trying to explain. He is Vice Chairman of the Lisbon Dissuasion Commission, the three-member tribunal set up to handle people caught with drugs. He had to struggle mightily to convince the Americans that it wasn't about punishment, but about personal and public health.

"The first question," he explained, "is whether this person is a recreational user or an addict."

If the person is deemed only a recreational user, he may face a fine or a call to community service. If he is deemed an addict, treatment is recommended -- but not required.

"But what if they don't comply?" one of the activists demanded. "Don't they go to jail then?"

No, they do not. Instead, Capaz patiently explained, they may face sanctions for non-compliance, but those sanctions may be little more than a demand that they regularly present themselves to a hospital or health center for monitoring.

In a later hallway conversation, I asked Capaz about drug users who simply refused to go along or to participate at all. What happens then? I wanted to know.

Capaz shrugged his shoulders. "Nothing," he said. "I tell them to try not to get caught again."

Welcome to Portugal. The country's low-key, non-headline-generating drug policy, based on compassion, public health, and public safety, is a stark contrast with the US, as the mind-boggled response of the activists suggests.

Organized by the Drug Policy Alliance and consisting of members of local and national groups that work with the organization, as well as a handful of journalists, the group spent three days in-country last month seeing what an enlightened drug policy looks like. They met with high government officials directly involved in creating and implementing drug decriminalization, toured drug treatment, harm reduction, and mobile methadone maintenance facilities, and heard from Portuguese drug users and harm reduction workers as well.

The Portuguese Model and Its Accomplishments

They had good reason to go to Portugal. After nearly two decades of drug decriminalization, there is ample evidence that the Portuguese model is working well. Treating drug users like citizens who could possibly use some help instead of like criminals to be locked up is paying off by all the standard metrics -- as well as by not replicating the thuggish and brutal American-style war on drugs, with all the deleterious and corrosive impacts that has on the communities particularly targeted for American drug law enforcement.

Here, according to independent academic researchers, as well as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the European Monitoring Center of Drugs and Drug Abuse, is what the Portuguese have accomplished:

Drug use has not dramatically increased. Rates of past year and past month drug use have not changed significantly or have actually declined since 2001. And Portugal's drug use rates remain among the lowest in Europe, and well below those in the United States.

Both teen drug use and "problematic" drug use (people who are dependent or who inject drugs) have declined.

Drug arrests and incarceration are way down. Drug arrests have dropped by 60% (selling drugs remains illegal) and the percentage of prisoners doing time for drug offenses has dropped from 44% to 24%. Meanwhile, the number of people referred to the Dissuasion Commission has remained steady, indicating that no "net-widening" has taken place. And the vast majority of cases that go before the commission are found to be non-problematic drug users and are dismissed without sanction.

More people are receiving drug treatment -- and on demand, not by court order. The number of people receiving drug treatment increased by 60% by 2011, with most of them receiving opiate-substitution therapy (methadone). Treatment is voluntary and largely paid for by the national health system.

Drug overdose deaths are greatly reduced. Some 80 people died of drug overdoses in 2001; that number shrunk to just 16 by 2012. That's an 80% reduction in drug overdose deaths.

Drug injection-related HIV/AIDS infections are greatly reduced. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of new HIV cases shrank from nearly 1,600 to only 78. The number of new AIDS cases declined from 626 to 74.

"We came to the conclusion that the criminal system was not the best suited to deal with this situation," explained Capaz. "The best option should be referring them to treatment, but we do not force or coerce anyone. If they are willing to go, it's because they actually want to, so the success rate is really high. We can surely say that decriminalization does not increase drug usage, and that it does not mean legalizing drugs. It's still illegal to use drugs in Portugal, it's just not considered a crime. It's possible to deal with these users outside the criminal system."

Dr. Joao Goulao, who largely authored the decriminalization law and who is still General Director for Intervention on Addictive Behaviors -- the Portuguese "drug czar" -- pointed to unquantifiable positives resulting from the move: "The biggest effect," he said, "has been to allow the stigma of drug addiction to fall, to let people speak clearly and to pursue professional help without fear."

They Take the Kids! (with them to treatment)

The American activists know all about fear and stigma. And the cultural disconnect -- between a country that treats drug users with compassion and one that seeks to punish them -- was on display again when a smaller group of the activists met with Dr. Miguel Vasconcelos, the head psychologist at the Centro Taipa, a former mental hospital that now serves as the country's largest drug treatment center.

As Dr.Vasconcelos explained the history and practice of drug treatment in Portugal, one of his listeners asked what happened to drug users who were pregnant or had children.

"They take the kids," Vasconcelos said, smiling. But his smile turned to puzzlement as he saw his listeners react with resignation and dismay.

For the Americans, "they take the kids" meant child protective services swooping in to seize custody of the children of drug-using parents while the parents go to jail.

But that's not what Vasconcelos meant. After some back and forth, came clarity: "No, I mean they take the kids with them to treatment."

Once again, the Americans, caught firmly in the mind set of their own punishing society, expected only the worst of the state. But once again, light bulbs came on as they realized it doesn't have to be like that.

Now that cadre of activists is back home, and they are going to begin to try to apply the lessons they learned in their own states and communities. And although they had some abstract understanding of Portuguese drug decriminalization before they came, their experiences with the concrete reality of it should only serve to strengthen their desire to make our own country a little less like a punitive authoritarian state and bit more like Portugal.

Chronicle AM: UN Sec Gen Touts Portugal Drug Decrim, NH House Derails Legal Pot Bill, More... (3/13/18)

A New Hampshire pot legalization bill gets derailed, the UN Secretary General touts Portugal's drug decriminalization policy, North Dakota takes another step forwared with its nascent medical marijuana program, and more.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres talks up Portugal's drug decriminalization at the CND. (Flickr)
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire House Committee Nixes Legalization Bill. The House Ways and Means Committee voted Monday to delay any action on a marijuana legalization bill, instead sending House Bill 656 to "interim study." The bill is now effectively dead, but debate on marijuana legalization will continue as a separate commission studies legalization, regulation, and taxation. Its report is due on November 1.

Medical Marijuana

North Dakota Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Rules. The legislature's Administrative Rules Committee signed off Monday on rules for the state's nascent medical marijuana program. While the committee took no formal vote, it also did not call for any changes or delay in implementing the rules. The next step is for the state Health Department to announce an application period for growers and manufacturers, which should happen by the end of next week, according to the department's Medical Marijuana Division.

Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Bill Fails as Initiative Vote Looms. The sponsor of a limited medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 1120, has held up the measure after it failed to get enough votes to pass. That clears the playing field for the passage of a medical marijuana initiative, State Question 788, which goes before the voters in June.

Virginia Governor Signs CBD Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill into Law. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) last Friday signed into law House Bill 1251, which allows doctors to recommend CBD cannabis oil for any patient they see fit. Previously, state law only allowed the use of CBD for epilepsy. The new law also increases the amount of CBD cannabis oil each patient can buy at a time, from a 30-day supply to a 90-day supply.

International

UN Secretary General Talks Up Portugal's Drug Decriminalization. Addressing the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres touted the success of Portugal's 18-year-old experiment with drug decriminalization, which began when he was Portuguese prime minister. "Current efforts have fallen short of the goal to eliminate the illicit drugs market," said Guterres. "We can promote efforts to stop organized crime while protecting human rights, enabling development and ensuring rights-based treatment and support. I am particularly proud of the results of the reforms I introduced in Portugal when I was prime minister almost 20 years ago."

Chronicle AM: DC Demo on Philippine Drug War Next Week, BC Drug Decrim March, More... (2/21/18)

Ohio's medical marijuana program may have just hit a bump, hemp could be coming to Utah, drug users march for decriminalization in Vancouver, demonstrators will gather in DC next week to protest the Philippines drug war, and more.

Demonstrators call for an end to the Philippines drug war and the freedom of of one of Duterte's leading critics. (Facebook)
Medical Marijuana

Ohio Lawsuit Challenges Grow License Process. A lawsuit filed Tuesday by would-be medical marijuana grow operators who weren't picked for the large grow licenses issued by the state Department of Commerce threatens to disrupt the rollout of the program. The growers are suing the department, the officials involved in grading application, and all the businesses that won licenses. They charge they weren't treated fairly in the licensing process.

West Virginia Regulators Will Recommend Allowing Smokeable Medical Marijuana. The state medical marijuana board announced Tuesday that it plans to recommend to lawmakers that some patients be allowed to use marijuana in a smokeable form. The board will also recommend removing or increasing the cap on the number of growers, processors, and dispensaries in the state and allowing one company to take on more than one of those roles.

Industrial Hemp

Utah Hemp Bill Advances. A bill that would allow the production and sale of hemp products in the state is headed for a House floor vote after being approved Tuesday by the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee. House Bill 302 authorizes the state Department of Agriculture and Food to provide a hemp-growing license to "a person who wishes to participate in an industrial hemp research pilot program," according to a summary attached to the bill. The bill also allows those who would like to produce and sell hemp-based products "to distribute the registered hemp product in the state" if they obtain the license from the state to do so.

Asset Forfeiture

Wisconsin Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill Passes Senate. The state Senate has approved Senate Bill 61, which does not end civil asset forfeiture, but puts limits on how long police can hold property before someone is charged and reduce the amount of money police can keep when they sell seized property. The measure now heads for the Assembly.

Foreign Policy

Trump Budget Would Cut Aid to Colombia in Half. The White House's proposed Fiscal Year 2019 budget would slash foreign assistance to Columbia by nearly half, even as the country struggles to implement a peace deal with leftist FARC rebels and address a record-breaking level of coca planting and cocaine production. The budget would reduce funds "to implement sustainable peace" in the "most affected zones" of the country's drug prohibition-fueled armed conflict from $180 million to $100 million. The budget also seeks a reduction of one-third in funding for the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program. Colombia is a major recipient of aid under that program, too. The Washington Office on Latin America said the budget proposal would "squander an historic opportunity to help Colombia avoid a resurgence of criminal violence, while Insight Crime noted that "large cuts in aid could prove detrimental to efforts aimed at improving security conditions in… crime-wracked countries" like Colombia.

International

Vancouver Drug Users March to Demand Drug Decriminalization. Several hundred drug users and supporters took to the streets of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside to demand that the federal government change its drug policies and embrace drug decriminalization. The protest, part of a national day of action across the country, was organized by the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs (CAPUD), the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and other groups. Decriminalization would "allow people to use drugs more safely without fear of arrest and detention," said Caitlin Shane, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society who specializes in drug policy.

DC Demonstration Against Philippine Drug War Killings Set for Next Wednesday. On Wednesday, February 28th, please join Filipino Americans, drug policy reformers and other human rights defenders to call for an end to extrajudicial killings and for Senator de Lima to be freed. We will rally from noon to 1:00pm in front of the Philippines Embassy, 1600 Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington, DC. Among other things, the event will feature a street theater performance in which attendees will symbolically free a Senator de Lima figure from a realistic mobile model of a prison cell. Please email David Borden at [email protected] to get involved in preparations for this demonstration or for other information, and please spread the word!

Chronicle AM: Canada Legal Marijuana Delayed, Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Advances, More... (2/16/18)

Conservative senators slow down Canada's move to marijuana legalization, the Senate Judiciary Committee passes the sentencing reform bill, an Arizona bill would make felons of doctors who are lax about medical marijuana rules and laws, and more.

We'll have to put that flag back in the closet for a few more weeks. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

GOP Senator Ends Hold on DOJ Nominees Over Sessions Policy. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) announced Thursday he had ended a two-month hold on some Justice Department appointments he began to protest Attorney General Jeff Sessions' move to rescind Obama-era policies largely leaving state-legal marijuana alone. The announcement came after Gardner received unspecified assurances from DOJ officials about the enforcement of federal drug law. When asked what he got for lifting the holds, Gardner told the Denver Post: "We've had very good, positive conversations about protecting states' rights and protecting the voters of Colorado's wishes."

Philadelphia DA Enacts No Prosecution Policy for Small-Time Possession. District Attorney Larry Krasner has dropped about 50 outstanding marijuana possession cases and announced that he will no longer charge people caught with small amounts. Krasner cited racial disparities in making the move: "Because we all know that these laws are not getting enforced at the Wawa in Chestnut Hill. These laws are getting enforced in neighborhoods that are poor and predominately black and brown," said Krasner.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona House Committee Approves Bill to Make Felons of Lax Pot Docs. The House Health Committee voted 6-3 Thursday on party lines to approve a bill that would make doctors who sidestep rules for medical marijuana recommendations guilty of a felony. Under the bill, doctors who violate any rule or law could get up to a year in prison. Under current law, they face only discipline from county medical boards. The measure, backed by arch-foe of medical marijuana Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, is House Bill 2067.

Sentencing Reform

Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Wins Committee Vote. In a rebuff to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who on Wednesday urged the bill's defeat, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved the federal sentencing reform bill, S. 1917. The question now is whether Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will allow a floor vote.

International

Canada Postpones Marijuana Legalization a Few Weeks. The Pierre Trudeau government's plan to have legal marijuana up and running by July 1 has hit a bump, and the anticipated date for legal commerce to begin has been pushed back by a matter of a few weeks. The bump occurred in the Senate, which set a schedule to consider the legalization bill that would not allow the government to hit the July 1 date.

Chronicle AM: Trump Drug Budget, NH Marijuana Bill Hearing, OR Opioid Emergency, More... (2/13/18)

The proposed FY 2019 Trump budget features more drug war and cutting the drug czar's office, a legal marijuana bill gets a hearing in New Hampshire, Oregon's governor declares a public health emergency over opioids, and more.

The president's proposed budget has billions for more drug war. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Georgia Bills to Reduce Penalties Filed. A pair of bills filed in the legislature seek to reduce the criminalization of marijuana users. House Bill 865 would make possession of up to two ounces a misdemeanor. Under current law, possession of more than one ounce is a felony. Senate Bill 105 would decriminalize the possession of up to a half ounce. Legalization bills were filed earlier in the session, but they are not expected to go anywhere.

New Hampshire Legalization Bill Gets Hearing Today. The House Ways and Means Committee is holding a hearing on a limited legalization bill today. House Bill 656 would legalize the possession of up to a quarter ounce of weed and grow up to six plants, but would not set up a system of legal marijuana commerce.

Virginia Senate Approves Arrest Expungement Bill. The Senate voted 38-2 on Monday to approve Senate Bill 954, sponsored by Sen. Tommy Noment (R-James City). The bill would allow people charged with first-time possession to later pay $150 to have the charge expunged. The measure must now be approved by the House.

Medical Marijuana

Iowa Poll Has Overwhelming Support for Medical Marijuana. A new Selzer & Company poll has 78% in favor of medical marijuana, with 19% opposed, figures that are roughly unchanged over the past couple of years. What has changed is support for recreational marijuana, now at 39%, up from 28% four years ago.

New Mexico Lawmakers Eye Marijuana in Fight Against Opioids. Lawmakers and supporters gathered at the state capitol in Santa Fe Monday to urge state officials to add opioid addiction to the list of disorders qualifying for medical marijuana. And advisory panel has twice considered petitions seeking to add medical marijuana as a tool against opioid abuse, the most recent last November, but the state Health Department has yet to act.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Oregon Governor Declares Addiction a Public Health Crisis. Gov. Kathleen Brown (D) on Tuesday released an executive order declaring opioid addiction to be a public health crisis in the state. She said she would soon set a deadline for the state Alcohol and Drugs Policy Commission to come up with a plan to fight the problem.

Drug Policy

Trump Budget Doubles Down on Drug War. The Trump administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2019 budget is heavy on drug war spending, with an additional $400 million for the DEA, $334 million in the law enforcement-oriented Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program, $50 million for the once-discarded anti-drug media campaign, $43 million for drug courts, and a cut of $20 million in offender reentry programs. The budget includes $18 billion over two years for the Mexico border wall, which Trump justifies on both drugs and immigration grounds, which is more than the $13 billion the administration says it is allocating to fight opioid abuse.

Trump Budget Would Gut Drug Czar's Office. The Trump FY 2019 budget would also dramatically slash funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), primarily by moving two grant programs elsewhere. Under the proposal, the Drug Free Communities Support Program and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program would be moved into the Health and Human Services Department and Justice Department, respectively. The move is opposed by some lawmakers and a coalition of more than 150 advocacy organizations, but more radical critics on both the left and the right would like to see the agency go away altogether.

Sentencing

New Jersey Governor Revives Sentencing Commission. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is reviving the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, which was created by the legislature in 2009 to examine racial disparities in sentencing, but remained dormant under former Gov. Chris Christie (R). Christie never appointed any members to the commission. "We can and must do better," Murphy said in a statement. "A Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission can undertake the important review of our sentencing laws and recommend reforms necessary to ensure a stronger, fairer, and more just state." Murphy has already appointed two people to the commission's 13-member board, which must issue a report within a year of its first meeting.

Chronicle AM: CA MJ Bank Plan, Israel Decrim Draft, No Drug Testing SD Lawmakers, More... (1/31/18)

California's treasurer wants to create a public bank for pot businesses, a New Jersey poll on legalization has mixed results, the Indiana House passes a CBD bill, Israel takes another step toward marijuana decriminalization, and more.

Marijuana decriminalization is coming to Israel.
Marijuana Policy

California Treasurers Lay Out Plan to Create Public Marijuana Bank. State Treasurer John Chiang on Tuesday laid out a plan to create a public bank for marijuana businesses, a defiant move in the face of the Trump administration's opposition to legal marijuana. "We are contending with the emergence of a multibillion-dollar cannabis industry that needs banking services, and a private banking industry that is stymied by federal law in meeting the needs of the new industry," said Chiang, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. "The current administration is out of step with the will of the people, not only those in California, but the 29 states that have legalized either or both medicinal and recreational-use cannabis."

New Jersey Pot Poll Has Mixed Results. A new poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University has strong support for further marijuana law reforms in the state, but only a minority in favor of outright legalization. The poll found 42% said legalize it, 26% said only decriminalize it, and 27% said it should be legal only for medical purposes. The poll comes as Gov. Phil Murphy (D) champions the cause of legalization and with one legalization bill already filed in the Senate and another set to be filed in the House.

Medical Marijuana

Indiana House Approves CBD Bill. The House voted 93-0 Tuesday to approve House Bill 1214, which would allow anyone to buy and use CBD cannabis oil, provided it contains less than 0.3% THC. The bill also gets around federal controlled substance prohibitions by designating CBD oil as an exempt hemp product. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Drug Testing

Maine Employers Must Ignore Off-Work Marijuana Use, Cease Testing Applicants. As of Thursday, Maine becomes the first state to protect workers from adverse employer action because of their use of marijuana. The state Department of Labor has removed marijuana from the list of drugs for which employers can test in its model drug policy. The legalization initiative passed by voters bars employers from refusing to employ or otherwise penalizing any person age 21 or older based on that person"s "consuming marijuana outside the … employer's property. Employers can still discipline workers who are high on the job, but a positive drug test will not be deemed sufficient to conclude that a worker was under the influence at work.

South Dakota Lawmakers Reject Drug Testing Themselves. The House State Affairs Committee voted Wednesday to kill House Bill 1133, which would have required lawmakers to be drug tested within two weeks of taking office. The committee "deferred the bill to the 41st day," of the legislature's 40-day legislative session.

International

Israeli Ministry Releases Marijuana Decriminalization Draft Legislation. The Public Security Ministry on Tuesday published draft legislation to decriminalize the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the proposal, being caught with pot would lead to a $265 fine on a first offense, a $530 fine on a second offense, and possible prosecution for a third offense. The draft language doesn't specify the amount of marijuana being decriminalized, but it will likely be up to 15 grams. The draft legislation will be submitted to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation on February 18.

Chronicle AM: CA MJ Tax Bonanza, Mexico Legal MJ for Tourists, Corruption and Violence in Central American Drug Trade, More... (1/26/18)

California looks set to make big bucks from legalizing weed, Mexico's tourism minister suggests legalizing it at some of the country's biggest tourist beach resorts, the new Honduran national police chief has some explaining to do, and more.

Legal green will make the Golden State a bit more golden. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

California Will Reap $643 Million in Pot Taxes Next Year, Governor Estimates. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) estimated Wednesday that the state will take in $643 million in marijuana taxes in Fiscal Year 2018-2019, more than 10 times the cost of issuing licenses and enforcing new rules. The estimate comes in the governor's budget proposal for the next fiscal year. This year, with only five months remaining in the fiscal year and with sales just getting underway, the budget estimates $175 million in pot taxes. The high tax proceeds estimates are leading to calls from some consumers and the California Growers Association to lower the taxes.

Virginia House Panel Kills Decriminalization Bill. A subcommittee of the House Committee on Courts and Justice voted 7-1 Wednesday to kill a decriminalization bill, House Bill 1063. A bill that would lessen penalties for a first marijuana offense remains alive.

Medical Marijuana

Idaho CBD Bill Filed. Conservative Republican state Rep. Dorothy Moon has filed a bill that would allow the CBD cannabis oil for medicinal purposes. House Bill 410 would limit cannabis oils to less than 0.3% THC. It is now before the House Health and Welfare Committee.

International

Mexico Tourism Minister Calls for Legal Marijuana at Major Beach Resorts. Tourism Minister Enrique de la Madrid said Thursday that Mexico should legalize marijuana at two of the country's major beach resorts, Cancun and Los Cabos, in a bid to reduce criminal violence. "It's absurd we're not taking this step as a country," he told reporters in Mexico City. "Even if there's work to be done in the whole of the country, I'd like to see that it might be done in Baja California and Quintana Roo," the states where Los Cabos and Cancun, respectively, are located.

Mexican Military on Patrol in Reynosa in Wake of Cartel Violence. The military is out in force, on the ground and in the air, in the Mexican border city of Reynosa after days of gun battles between rival factions of the Gulf Cartel left at least a dozen people dead. The military patrols will continue indefinitely, the governor of Tamaulipas state said.

Honduras National Police Chief Reportedly Helped Cartel Rescue Cocaine Load. The new chief of National Police, Jose David Aguilar Moran, promised to continue reforming an agency stained by corruption and complicity with drug cartels, but the Associated Press reports that he helped a cartel leader successfully retrieve and deliver nearly a ton of cocaine after lower-ranking police stopped the truck it which it was being transported. That report is based on confidential Honduran government security reports obtained by the AP.

Georgian Protesters Demand Drug Law Reforms. Hundreds of people gathered outside the parliament building in Tbilisi Thursday to reiterate their demand that the country liberalize its drug laws. The rally was sparked by the Monday sentencing of actor Giorgi Giorganashvili to eight years in prison on drug charges. The protestors representing 20 civil society groups said the sentence "once again legitimized the inhumane and repressive drug policy in Georgia." The action comes as the parliament is considering a bill that would decriminalize the use and possession of small amounts of drugs.

Chronicle AM: NJ Governor Says Legalize It, Canada Liberals Want Drug Decrim, More... (1/17/18)

Incoming New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) becomes the first to call for marijuana legalization in his inauguration speech, the VA rejects calls to study marijuana for PTSD, Canada's Liberals push for drug decriminalization, and more.

Incoming New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) calls for marijuana legalization in his inaugural address. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

State Attorneys General Support Marijuana Banking Access Bill. Some 19 state attorneys general signed onto a letter sent Tuesday to congressional leaders urging them to move on the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act (HR 2215), which would "provide a safe harbor" for banks and other financial institutions that provide services to state-legal marijuana businesses. The bill was filed by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO). The bill has been stuck in the House Finances Committee and the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations.

Maine Legislators Vote to Delay Social Marijuana Clubs Until 2023. In a concession to Gov. Paul LePage (R), the Marijuana Legalization Implementation Committee voted 5-1 Tuesday to delay the licensing of social use clubs for five years. The move is aimed at winning support for an implementation bill after opposition last year stopped progress. A final vote on implementation legislation isn't expected until next month.

New Jersey's New Governor Vows to Legalize Marijuana. Incoming New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (D) made history yesterday as the first elected governor to commit to legalizing recreational marijuana in an inauguration speech. "A stronger and fairer New Jersey embraces criminal justice reform comprehensively, and that includes a process to legalize marijuana," Murphy pledged shortly after being sworn in as New Jersey's 56th governor.

Medical Marijuana

VA Won't Study Marijuana's Effects on PTSD. The Department of Veterans Affairs will not begin a study into marijuana's effects on PTSD despite pleas from congressman, veterans, and the nation's largest veterans' service organization. The news came in a letter to House Democrats from VA Secretary David Shulkin. The letter was actually written in late December, but only released Tuesday. "VA is committed to research and developing effective ways to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain conditions," Shulkin wrote. "However, federal law restricts VA&#=39;s ability to conduct research involving medical marijuana, or to refer veterans to such research projects." The letter said a review of existing research found a link between marijuana use and increased risk of suicide, as well as mania and psychotic symptoms, a response Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN), a signer of the letter, called "disappointing" and "unacceptable."

Illinois Judge Orders State to Add Intractable Pain as Qualifying Condition. Cook County Judge Raymond Mitchell has ordered the Department of Public Health to add intractable pain as qualifying condition for medical marijuana use. The decision comes after the department declined to add it, and the department says it will appeal the ruling. The state Medical Cannabis Advisory Board had recommended added the condition in January 2016, but the health department demurred, saying there was "a lack of high quality data" from clinical trials to establish that the benefits outweighed the risks.

International

Canada Liberals Push for Drug Decriminalization. A resolution developed for the ruling Liberal Party's national convention in April calls for decriminalizing the use and possession of all illicit drugs. The Liberal caucus resolution calls on the government to adopt the model instituted in Portugal in 2001, where criminal penalties for personal use and possession of drugs were eliminated and treatment and harm reduction services ramped up.

Thailand Prepares for Medical Marijuana. The government has announced that it is pondering the nation's first legal marijuana cultivation facility, a move that presages changes to the country's drug laws that will soon allow the medicinal use of marijuana. "For medical purposes, they will be able to get the marijuana, but only on a doctor's orders. They can't grow it on their own," Narcotics Control Board director Sirinya Sitdhichai said Tuesday Sirinya. "This is what we have put in the draft."

From Bloody Drug War to Legal Pot: Ten Global Drug Policy Highlights (and Lowlights) of 2017 [FEATURE]

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has unleashed a drug war that has killed thousands. (Wikimedia)
1. In the Philippines, Duterte's Bloody Drug War Rages On

Undeterred by international criticism, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte continued his murderous war on small-time drug users and sellers throughout 2017, with Human Rights Watch estimating that some 12,000 people -- almost all poor -- have been killed since Duterte unleashed the killers in June 2016. Poor neighborhoods have also been subjected to warrantless searches and door-to-door drug testing, and thousands more people have been imprisoned in insalubrious conditions.

2. Indonesia Starts Going Down Duterte's Path

Indonesian President Joko Widodo must have liked what he was seeing one archipelago over because in July, he started sounding like his Filipino counterpart. To fight the country's "narcotic emergency," he said, police should "gun down" foreigners suspected of drug trafficking if they "resist arrest." At year's end, the National Narcotics agency proudly reported it had killed 79 people in drug raids during 2017, and arrested more than half a million, of whom 1,523 were declared rehabilitated after drug treatment. In 2016, Widodo had ordered that a 100,000 people receive drug treatment, but there don't seem to be any resources for that.

3. Norway Moves to Decriminalize All Drug Use

In December, the Norwegian parliament sent a strong signal that it wants to decriminalize drug use and possession. It voted to pursue such a path, directing the government to begin making changes in the laws to reflect that vote. Legislation that would actually enact the changes has yet to be drafted, but Norway is on the way.

4. Uruguay Legal Marijuana Sales Begin

It took more than three years after the country legalized marijuana before it happened, but it happened this year: Pharmacies began selling marijuana direct to customers in July, making Uruguay the first country in the world to permit the legal production and sale of marijuana.

5. Nevada Becomes 5th US State to Allow Legal Marijuana Sales, More Coming Online Soon

Uruguay may be the first country to legalize marijuana, but now, eight US states and the District of Columbia have done it, and the first four -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- all allow recreational marijuana sales. Four states legalized it in November 2016, but only Nevada got legal sales up and running in 2017. But watch out -- a tidal wave is coming: Legal sales begin in California, with its population of nearly 40 million, on January 1. Oh, and Maine and Massachusetts will begin legal sales sometime in 2018, too.

6. Mexico Drug War Mayhem at Record Levels

Eleven years after then-President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels and sent in the military, things are worse than ever. According to government crime statistics, 2017 was the bloodiest year yet with more than 27,000 murders as splintering drug trafficking organizations fight a multi-sided war among themselves and against the police and military (when the police and military aren't acting on behalf of cartel factions). The year brought other grim milestones as well: More than 200,000 dead, an estimated 30,000 missing, more than 850 clandestine graves uncovered. All to keep Americans well supplied with the drugs we love to hate -- or is it hate to love?

7. Iran Moves to Drastically Reduce Drug Executions

The Islamic Republic has long been one of the world's leading executioners of drug offenders, but that could be about to change. In August, the Iranian parliament approved an amendment that significantly raises the bar for mandatory executions for certain drug offenses. The amendment dramatically increases the quantities of drugs needed to trigger a sentence of death or life in prison and should result in hundreds of people being spared execution each year. But it's not a done deal yet: It still must be approved by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 Islamic jurists, to ensure it complies with the Iranian constitution and their interpretation of sharia law.

Breaking Bad: Kim Jung Un (Flickr)
8. US Heightens Afghan Drug War, First Round of Bombing Campaign Kills Dozens

In August, President Trump authorized new rules of engagement for American forces in Afghanistan, allowing them to target the Taliban directly with air strikes. Previously, air strikes had been allowed only in support of Afghan troop operations or to protect US or NATO troops under attack. In November, US military commanders made the first use of that authority by bombing ten Taliban-controlled opium production facilities in Helmand province, leaving a toll of at least 44 dead. The aim is to disrupt Taliban funding, but it looks like there's plenty more work to do: The Pentagon says the Taliban have another 400 to 500 heroin labs. And with bumper opium crops in 2017, they have plenty of work to do, too.

9. Colombia's Bumper Coca Harvests Prompt US Pressure to Resume Aerial Eradication

Colombia just came off a bumper year for coca and cocaine production, but that's largely an artifact of the peace settlement between the FARC and the government, which offered assistance to coca growers wishing to transition to other crops, thus encouraging farmers to grow coca so they could qualify for the program. But such nuances matter little to the Trump administration, which is pressuring the Colombian government to reinstate the aerial fumigation of coca crops with potentially carcinogenic herbicides.

10. In Sanctions-Busting Move, North Korea Ups Meth Production

The regime in Pyongyang has long been accused of resorting to drug trafficking to help finance its oft-sanctioned military activities, and it looks like it's up to it again. In August came reports that state-affiliated companies and universities were "ramping up" the production of methamphetamine as a means of obtaining desperately needed foreign currency. With more sanctions, expect more North Korean meth.

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.

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