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Chronicle AM: Fed Sentencing Reform Bill Filed, Colombia Coca Clashes, More... (10/6/17)

Leading senators roll out a federal sentencing reform bill, Jeff Sessions ramps up the Safe Neighborhoods program, the VA doubles down against medical marijuana, more clashes erupt in Colombia's coca producing areas, and more.

A newly filed Senate bill seeks to address prison overcrowding. (supremecourt.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Just Keeps On Selling More and More Legal Weed. The state broke its marijuana sales record for the sixth consecutive month in August, a trend that officials expect to continue when September figures come in. Farmers sold 734 pounds of buds and 444 pounds of other marijuana plant parts to retailers in August, generating nearly $700,000 in taxes for the state.

Kentucky State Senator Calls for Legalization to Ease Budget Crunch. With the state facing a $200 million budget deficit this year, state Sen. Dan Seum (R-Fairdale) has suggested that legalizing marijuana could help. "My argument is before any new taxes, let's explore the potential of new monies," he told WKYT Thursday.

Maine Legalization Bill Now Requires Town to Opt In, Not Opt Out. Under the latest iteration of the legislature's bill to implement voter-approved marijuana legalization, localities would have to act affirmatively to allow medical marijuana businesses. That's the opposite of what the legalization initiative intended, which was to make localities opt out of participation if they didn't want pot businesses. The latest version of the bill is now headed for a floor vote on October 23.

San Diego Sets Legal Marijuana Business Rules. California's second largest city has made itself ready for legal marijuana. The city has finalized rules for pot growing and manufacturing ahead of the scheduled January 1 start date for legal marijuana sales. It will allow both indoor cultivation and manufacturing, as well as testing labs.

Medical Marijuana

Veterans Department Reiterates Opposition to Medical Marijuana Use. VA policy has been to disallow government doctors from recommending medical marijuana, but now, the agency has updated its website to state that opposition more firmly -- and inaccurately. As Tom Angell at Marijuana Majority noted, the website's claim that "as long as the Food and Drug Administration classifies marijuana as Schedule I drug, VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist veterans to obtain it" is not technically true. There is no law barring the VA from allowing its doctors to recommend medical marijuana.

WADA No Longer Considers CBD a Prohibited Drug. The World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) has removed CBD from its 2018 list of prohibited substances. "Cannabidiol is no longer prohibited," WADA said. But it emphasized that THC, the euphoric psychoactive chemical in marijuana, remains banned and that CBD products could contain actionable amounts of THC. "Cannabidiol extracted from cannabis plants may contain varying concentrations of THC," WADA noted.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Federal Bill to Increase Opioid Prescribing Requirements Filed. Rep. David Roe (R-TN) Thursday filed House Resolution 3964, "to amend the Controlled Substance Act to establish additional registration requirements for prescribers of opioids." The bill text is not yet available on the congressional web site.

Law Enforcement

Justice Department Ramps Up Safe Neighborhoods Program. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday plans to ramp up efforts against drug trafficking and violent gangs through the Project Safe Neighborhoods initiative. In a memo, the country's top cop ordered federal prosecutors to emphasize violent crime reduction and develop plans to work with local police and prosecutors in the effort.

Sentencing

Senate Heavyweights File Sentencing Reform Bill. A bipartisan group of senators today reintroduced the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017 to recalibrate prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, target violent and career criminals and save taxpayer dollars. The legislation permits more judicial discretion at sentencing for offenders with minimal criminal histories and helps inmates successfully reenter society, while tightening penalties for violent criminals and preserving key prosecutorial tools for law enforcement. It is led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and 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), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Roy Blunt (R-MO). The bill is S. 1917. Check back for a Chronicle feature on the bill.

International

Four Killed in Colombia Clashes Between Coca Growers, Eradicators. Four people are dead and 14 wounded after somebody attacking protesting coca farmers in the municipality of Tumaco, along the Pacific Coast. The government blamed members of a dissident FARC faction that has refused to lay down its arms, but local activists blamed government security forces for opening fire. Clashes between coca growers and security forces have become more frequent as production of cocaine in Colombia surged to record levels in recent years.

Chronicle AM: MA Advocates Push for No Pot Tax $$$ for Towns That Ban Pot Ops, More... (10/5/17)

It's all marijuana today, with Washington state considering personal grows, Delaware pondering legalization, Massachusetts activists trying to put the screws to towns that ban stores, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Delaware Marijuana Task Force Meets, Hears Concerns. The state's Adult Cannabis Use Task Force met for the second time Wednesday and heard from the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. The department unsurprisingly wants strict regulations on marijuana if legislators decide to legalize it. Homeland Security Director John Yeomans said the department was against allowing personal cultivation because it could lead to a "grey market" and edibles should not be allowed because they could appeal to kids. The Chamber of Commerce also weighed in, expressing concerns about workplace injuries, unemployment claims, and how impairment would be defined. The task force will continue to meet on a monthly basis for the rest of the year and then make policy recommendations.

Massachusetts Advocates Say Towns With Pot Bans Shouldn't Enjoy Pot Tax Revenues. Pro-legalization advocates are working on a bill that would prevent towns that ban commercial marijuana operations from collecting a share of marijuana tax revenues. The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council is talking to legislators about the proposal, which comes as more than a hundred municipalities in the state have enacted bans, moratoria, or other tough restrictions on pot businesses. "Any sensible person would agree, why should you get tax money if you don't have it in your town, it just doesn't make any sense," council vice-president Kamani Jefferson said in remarks reported by the Daily Free Press. "I think it will catch on even to the people who may not be in love with marijuana. If you don't put any work in, you shouldn't get any benefits is what we're really proposing to the Commonwealth."

Washington Regulators Get Earful at Hearing on Allowing Personal Cultivation. A three-member panel of the state Liquor and Cannabis Board held a hearing Wednesday on allowing home grows in the only legalization state that doesn't allow them. Most of the three dozen people who testified support home cultivation, but not the options being studied because they have too many restrictions and allow localities to ban personal grows even if legalized in the state. The panel must issue a report with recommendations to the legislature by December 1.

International

Canada Legalization Bill Sheds Language Restricting Plant Height. The Commons Health Committee on Tuesday scrapped a clause in the bill that would have made growing a plant taller than one meter a criminal offense. The provision had been criticized as arbitrary and difficult to enforce, with even the Ontario police and corrections ministry noting that "people could be criminalized for small amounts of overproduction." Others pointed out that someone could have a legal plant, go on vacation for a couple of weeks, and come back to an illegal plant. The limit of four plants per household remains intact, though.

Chronicle AM: Alaska Towns Reject Marijuana Bans, DEA Names Acting Head, More...(10/4/17)

The DEA names an in-house acting administrator, the Massachusetts high court takes up the question of whether judges can order addicts to remain drug-free, Canada advances on looming marijuana legalization, and more.

Voters in Fairbanks and other Alaska towns rejected bans on commercial marijuana operations Tuesday. (Flickr)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Towns Reject Marijuana Bans. Voters in Fairbanks and several towns on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage rejected bans on commercial marijuana growing operations in local votes on Tuesday. The state legalized marijuana in 2014.

California Governor Signs Bill Making Smoking Pot While Motoring a $70 Ticket. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Monday signed into law a bill barring the use of marijuana or marijuana products while driving or riding in a motor vehicle. The maximum penalty is a $70 fine. But drivers who operate while impaired could still be nailed for that.

Hemp

Farm Bureau Endorses Federal Hemp Bill. The American Farm Bureau Federation has formally endorsed the Industrial Hemp Farming Act, House Resolution 3530, which would exclude industrial hemp from the Controlled Substances Act definition of marijuana.

Law Enforcement

DEA Veteran Named Acting Administrator. The Justice Department has named veteran DEA official Robert Patterson as acting administrator of the agency. He has been DEA's principal deputy administrator since last November, where he oversaw all of the agency's enforcement, intelligence, administrative, and regulatory activities worldwide. He is the highest ranking career special agent at DEA.

Massachusetts Court Ponders Whether Courts Can Require Addicts to Remain Drug-Free. The state's Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments Monday on whether judges can require people under their supervision who suffer from substance use disorder to remain drug-free. The case involves a woman who was sent to jail for failing a drug test while on probation for a larceny charge, but has large implications for how judges in the state deal with drug-using defendants. A decision in the case is expected around year's end.

International

Canadian Prime Minister Proposes 10% Marijuana Excise Tax. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proposes an excise tax on retail marijuana sales of $1 for sales of up to $10, and 10% on sales over that amount. Provinces and territories would receive half the revenues under the proposal he made Tuesday, but some provinces argue that isn't enough. Trudeau responded that the details are still open to negotiation.

Alberta Proposes Minimum Age of 18 for Pot Use. The Alberta provincial government's draft plan for marijuana legalization sets the minimum age at 18. The province says it hasn't yet decided on whether to have government-run or private sales. The draft proposal also includes provisions for use in public areas where smoking is allowed and sets a public possession limit of 30 grams.

Colorado County's Marijuana Tax Program Will Provide $420,000 in College Scholarships This Fall

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

More than 200 graduating high school students in Colorado's Pueblo County will head off to college in a few weeks thanks to legal marijuana. The 210 students will receive scholarships worth $2,000 each for a total of $420,000 -- a very appropriate aggregate figure, given that the scholarships are being funded by excise taxes on state-legal marijuana grown in the county.

CSU Pueblo will see the nation's first pot tax college scholarships. (CSU Pueblo)
>Happy local officials described the pot-fueled Pueblo County Scholarship Fund as "the country's first cannabis-funded college scholarship." It was created after voters in the sun-filled county, which is building a reputation as a center of the outdoor and greenhouse-grown pot trade,approved an excise tax on commercial cannabis cultivation in 2015.

Colorado pot taxes have already provided funding for the state's public school system and homeless population, and the Pueblo County scholarships are demonstrating once again the economic and fiscal benefits accruing to states that have legalized marijuana.

And for Pueblo County high school students, there's more to come. The pot cultivation excise tax was 2% last year, but will increase by 1% annually until it tops out at 5%. With rising commercial cultivation and a rising tax rate, the scholarship fund appears set to expand, allowing even more students in the county, where nearly 20% live below the poverty line and where more than 40% of residents are Hispanic, to take advantage of educational opportunities.

But they'll have to stay near home. The scholarships only pay for tuition and fees at Pueblo Community College or Colorado State University-Pueblo. That latter school is also benefiting from marijuana in other ways: Thanks to $900,000 from the state's marijuana tax fund and $270,000 in county pot excise taxes to be used for "community enhancement," CSU-Pueblo last year opened the Institute of Cannabis Research to study topics such as the impact of legalization on local economies, industrial hemp cultivation, and the efficacy of cannabidiol.

Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace gave the credit to weed. He told the Cannabist in June the county's abundant sunshine was its greatest natural resource, and taxes on sun-grown weed made both the institute and the scholarships possible.

"There are vast opportunities in cannabis -- from growing to research -- and we want to make sure all Coloradans benefit, not just a select few," he said. "For years, our community has discussed creating local scholarships that could provide opportunity and help break cycles of poverty. The Pueblo County Scholarship Fund will change lives, families and benefit generations to come."

Smoking weed may not help your academic career, but the taxes on growing it are helping some Colorado kids have an academic career. That's one economic impact of legalization you don't need an institute to figure out for you.

Pueblo, CO
United States

Chronicle AM: Orrin Hatch Punningly Files MedMJ Bill, DOJ #2 Speaks Out on Pot, More... (9/14/17)

What got into Orrin Hatch? Plus, Nevada could be the first state to allow pot lounges, the US Deputy AG says DOJ is still pondering marijuana policy, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Deputy Attorney General Says DOJ Still Reviewing Marijuana Policy. In an appearance at the conservative Heritage Foundation Thursday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the department was still looking at its options on marijuana policy. "We are reviewing that policy. We haven't changed it, but we are reviewing it. We're looking at the states that have legalized or decriminalized marijuana, trying to evaluate what the impact is," he said in remarks reported by Tom Angell for Forbes. "And I think there is some pretty significant evidence that marijuana turns out to be more harmful than a lot of people anticipated, and it's more difficult to regulate than I think was contemplated ideally by some of those states," he said.

Maine Draft Legalization Bill Would Let Dispensaries, Caregivers Sell to Recreational Market. The bill legislators have drafted to rewrite the state's voter-approved pot legalization law includes a provision that would let the state's eight licensed medical marijuana dispensaries apply for a license to sell in the recreational market. But they would have to have separate entrances and sales counters for medical and recreational customers. State-certified caregivers could also apply for recreational sales licenses.

Nevada Regulators Clear Way for Pot Clubs and Lounges. The state Legislative Counsel Bureau said on Monday that state law does not prohibit counties or municipalities from allowing clubs or lounges where patrons can use marijuana. It's up to the localities, the bureau said. Doing so would allow tourists and visitors to have a place to indulge. While pot is legal in the state, it cannot be consumed in public, in casinos, or in hotel rooms, leaving visitors with no place to take advantage of the pot law.

Medical Marijuana

Orrin Hatch Files Medical Marijuana Research Bill, Makes Bad Weed Puns. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the Marijuana Effective Drug Study Act of 2017, or MEDS Act, to improve the process for conducting scientific research on marijuana as a safe and effective medical treatment. In introducing this legislation, Senator Hatch was joined by Senator Schatz (D-HI) and cosponsors Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC). "It's high time to address research into medical marijuana," Hatch said. "Our country has experimented with a variety of state solutions without properly delving into the weeds on the effectiveness, safety, dosing, administration, and quality of medical marijuana. All the while, the federal government strains to enforce regulations that sometimes do more harm than good. To be blunt, we need to remove the administrative barriers preventing legitimate research into medical marijuana, which is why I've decided to roll out the MEDS Act. I urge my colleagues to join Senator Schatz and me in our joint effort to help thousands of Americans suffering from a wide-range of diseases and disorders. In a Washington at war with itself, I have high hopes that this bipartisan initiative can be a kumbaya moment for both parties." [Bolding done by Drug War Chronicle.]

Arizona Supreme Court Won't Let State Officials Use Federal Law to Get Around State Law. The high court on Tuesday declined to review a Court of Appeals ruling that federal law does not trump the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. The lower court had ruled that even though marijuana remains illegal federally, federal law does not preempt the state from allowing patients to use it. The case had been filed by recalcitrant Maricopa County Bill Montgomery (R), who didn't want to heed the will of the voters.

Chronicle AM: House Blocks Sessions Civil Asset Forfeiture Move, More... (9/13/17)

The House votes to defund Attorney General Sessions' newly revived Equitable Sharing asset forfeiture program, Maine lawmakers want a 20% sales tax on weed, Duterte allies in the Philippines vote to defund the country's human rights commission over its critique of the drug war, and more.

The attorney general isn't smiling over the House's asset forfeiture vote. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Lawmakers Want to Double Pot Sales Tax. In a draft bill released Tuesday, the legislature's marijuana legalization committee is recommending a 20% sales tax on recreational marijuana. Earlier, the committee had supported a 10% excise tax and a 10% sales tax, but now it's going all sales tax.

Medical Marijuana

Arizona Supreme Court Refuses to Lift Restrictions on Medical Marijuana for PTSD. The state Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected without comment an argument from the Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association that the former state health director had illegally imposed restrictions on when doctors can recommend the drug for PTSD. The high court's decision leaves intact an earlier Court of Appeals ruling upholding the restrictions. Attorneys for the association say they may take the case to federal court on equal protection grounds.

Asset Forfeiture

House Slaps Down Sessions' Move to Reinstate Equitable Sharing Program. In a surprise move, the House voted virtually unanimously Tuesday to curb federal asset forfeitures, a slap in the face to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions had reinstated a federal civil asset forfeiture program that allowed state and local law enforcement to evade state forfeiture restrictions by handing their cases over to the feds, with the feds then returning 80% of the money to the seizing agency. The move came in a voice vote on an amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill, which was sponsored by strange bedfellows Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), Mark Sanford (R-SC), Raúl Labrador (R-ID), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Don Beyer (D-VA).

Foreign Policy

Feinstein, Grassley Fret Over Colombian Cocaine. The two senior senators, chair and co-chair of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Affairs, expressed worries Tuesday that a peace deal between Colombia and the leftist rebels of the FARC had led to a surge of cocaine being imported into the US. Feinstein also used the Senate hearing to express concern that the Trump administration will not adequately fund interdiction law enforcement efforts.

International

Philippine Congress Budgets Measly $20 to Fund Human Rights Commission. No, that's not a typo, and no, we didn't forget some zeroes. Lawmakers allied with President Rodrigo Duterte voted Tuesday to allocate just 1,000 pesos (USD $20) for the Commission on Human Rights, which has repeatedly criticized Duterte's bloody drug war, which has left thousands dead at the hands of police and vigilantes. The funding move was explicit retaliation for the commission's criticism of the human rights disaster. In a Facebook post responding to the move, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Agnes Callamard said Filipinos deserved an independent organization that could hold the government accountable for its misdeeds. "Instead they are getting a 'war on drugs' which, by the president's own account, has failed to curtail addiction rates, while creating a climate of fear and insecurity, feeding impunity, and undermining the constitutional fabrics of the country," she wrote. "If the Philippines Congress is looking for public money being wasted, damaging and hurting the Philippines society, this is it."

Trump BS Alert: The Border Wall Won't Stop Drug Smuggling [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

The president doesn't let reality get in the way of rhetoric. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
President Trump sure loves his border wall. It was a staple of his campaign rhetoric, and despite Mexico's firm insistence that there is no way it's ever going to pay for it, Trump's desire for it is unabated. Now, he's threatening to shut down the government unless he can persuade the Congress to make American taxpayers pay for it.

Last week, Trump claimed that "building the wall will stop much of the drugs coming into the county." That claim is yet another example of what CNN contributor Fareed Zakaria pungently referred to as Trump's primary political product: bullshit.

Here's what Trump claimed during his joint press conference last Monday with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto:

"The wall will stop much of the drugs from pouring into this country and poisoning our youth. So we need the wall. It's imperative… The wall is needed from the standpoint of drug -- tremendous, the drug scourge, what's coming through the areas that we're talking about… So we will build the wall, and we will stop a lot of things, including the drug -- the drugs are pouring in at levels like nobody has ever seen. We'll be able to stop them once the wall is up."

And here's the reality: Trump's own DEA and outside experts agree that building a wall along the 1,700 mile land border with Mexico will have little impact on the drug trade. Not only do drugs from Latin America enter America by sea and air as well as across the Mexican border, but the vast majority of drugs crossing the land border do so not in unfenced desert expanses, but through official ports of entry.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations "transport the bulk of their drugs over the Southwest Border through ports of entry (POEs) using passenger vehicles or tractor trailers," the DEA said in its 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment. "The drugs are typically secreted in hidden compartments when transported in passenger vehicles or comingled with legitimate goods when transported in tractor trailers."

Here's how the DEA detailed trafficking methods for various drugs:

Methamphetamine: "Traffickers most commonly transport methamphetamine in tractor trailers and passenger vehicles with hidden compartments. In addition, traffickers send methamphetamine through various mail services or by couriers traveling via bus or commercial airline.

Heroin: "Most heroin smuggled across the border is transported in privately-owned vehicles, usually through California, as well as through south Texas."

Cocaine: "Tractor trailers and passenger vehicles are frequently used to transport multi-kilogram quantities of cocaine. Cocaine is hidden amongst legitimate cargo or secreted inside of intricate hidden compartments built within passenger vehicles."

Marijuana: "Large quantities of marijuana are smuggled through subterranean tunnels."

A May 2017 DEA intelligence report obtained by Foreign Policy echoed the 2015 assessment. It, too, found that drugs coming from Mexico went indeed cross the border, but they mainly do so concealed in vehicles using ports of entry -- not those unfenced expanses. That report also noted that drugs headed for the Northeast United States, especially from Colombia -- the world's leading cocaine producer, as well as source of opium and heroin second only to Mexico in the US market -- come more often by plane and boat.

Drug traffickers "generally route larger drug shipments destined for the Northeast through the Bahamas and/or South Florida by using a variety of maritime conveyance methods, to include speedboats, fishing vessels, sailboats, yachts, and containerized sea cargo," the report found. "In some cases, Dominican Republic-based traffickers will also transport cocaine into Haiti for subsequent shipment to the United States via the Bahamas and/or South Florida corridor using maritime and air transport."

That report did not address the border wall, but its examples of how and where drugs enter the country show that in many cases, building a wall wouldn't make a scintilla of difference: "According to DEA reporting, the majority of the heroin available in New Jersey originates in Colombia and is primarily smuggled into the United States by Colombian and Dominican groups via human couriers on commercial flights to the Newark International Airport," the report found.

The report concluded with recommendations for reducing the drug trade, but none of them were about building a border wall. Instead, targeting foreign drug trafficking networks within the US "would be an essential component to any broad strategy for resolving the current opioid crisis."

It's not just his own DEA that is giving the lie to Trump's bullshit. His own chief of staff, John Kelly contradicted the president's position at a congressional hearing in April. Illegal drugs from Mexico "mostly come through the ports of entry," he said. "We know they come in in relatively small amounts, 10, 15 kilos at a time in automobiles and those kinds of conveyances."

Drug trafficking experts agreed with Kelly and the DEA -- not Trump.

Brookings Institution senior fellow and long-time analyst of drug production and trafficking Vanda Felbab-Brown summed things up bluntly in an essay earlier this month: "A barrier in the form of a wall is increasingly irrelevant to the drug trade as it now practiced because most of the drugs smuggled into the US from Mexico no longer arrive on the backs of those who cross illegally."

"The wall won't stop the flow of drugs into the United States," she told Fact Check last week.

Other experts contacted by Fact Check concurred. University of Maryland criminal justice professor and founder of the RAND Drug Policy Research Center Peter Reuter pronounced himself skeptical that a wall would have any impact on the drug trade.

"The history is that smugglers eventually figure a workaround," he said. "There have been many promising interdiction interventions -- none of them have made more than a temporary dent."

And Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Stephen D. Morris, whose research has largely focused on Mexico, came up with two reasons the border wall would not stop drugs.

"First, as you say, most drug shipments come disguised as commerce and are crossing the border by truck or in cargo containers. Human mules, to my knowledge, bring in a small fraction," he said. "Second, smugglers adapt. Whether it is tunnels, submarines, mules, drones, etc., they are good at figuring out new ways to get drugs to those in the US who will buy them."

It is a shame that Donald Trump's ascendency has so coarsened and vulgarized our national political discourse. But his lies demand a forthright response. Bullshit is bullshit.

Debunking a Republican Myth About Medicaid and Opioids

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here

Obamacare foes desperate for a new angle of attack on the increasingly popular health care program have come up with an intriguing new theory: The expansion of Medicaid to low-income adults under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may be driving the opioid epidemic.

For the right, tying "failed socialist" Obamacare to the drug epidemic is a two-fer. They get to decry the very notion of government programs as something good for society and they get to link "bleeding heart" efforts to help poor people with outcomes that actually hurt them.

It would be a nice little argument for cutting Medicaid -- if only it were true. But there's little evidence to suggest it is true and a lot of evidence to suggest it isn't.

The notion began circulating in the conservative media echo chamber after the Health and Human Services Department did a private analysis for Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) that said the opioid overdose rate rose nearly twice as much in states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA than those that didn't.

"These data appear to point to a larger problem," Johnson wrote. "Medicaid expansion may be fueling the opioid epidemic in communities across the country." Johnson pulled up just short of blaming Medicaid, saying more research is needed.

But if Johnson was looking for help from fellow Obamacare foe and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, it wasn't exactly forthcoming. HHS wouldn't address questions about Johnson's analysis and instead issued a statement saying "correlation does not necessary prove causation," but that, yes, more research would be helpful.

But based on what we know so far, here are four reasons the charge that Medicaid is fueling the opioid epidemic is bogus:

1. Medicaid is actually increasing treatment for opioid addiction.

That's according to Temple University economist Catherine Maclean and Brendan Saloner of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who recently published a paper on Medicaid expansion and drug treatment: "Medicaid-reimbursed prescriptions for medications used to treat Substance Use Disorders in outpatient settings increased by 33% in expanding states relative to non-expanding states. Among patients admitted to specialty SUD treatment, we find that in expanding states Medicaid insurance and use of Medicaid to pay for treatment increased by 58% and 57% following the expansion. In an extension to the main analyses we find no evidence that the expansions affected fatal alcohol poisonings or drug-related overdoses," they wrote.

"Medicaid is doing its job," she told the Associated Press last week. "As more time passes, we may see a decline in overdoses in expansion states relative to non-expansion states."

2. States that expanded Medicaid did so in part because they already suffered higher overdose rates.

That same research by Maclean and Saloner also found that overdose rates were higher to begin with in states that expanded Medicaid. That suggests that pre-existing drug problems may have played a role in states deciding to expand Medicaid so they could leverage more federal money to fight addiction.

Republican labor economist Craig Garthwaite of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management told the AP that such a desire helped propel Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich toward expanding Medicaid. When Kasich talks about why, he said, "it has a lot to do with mental health and substance use disorders." The claim that Medicaid is fueling opioid overdoses is "fundamentally flawed," Garthwaite added.

In other words, overdoses aren't increasing because of Medicaid; instead, Medicaid is expanding in part because of an effort to reduce overdoses.

3. Counties where insurance coverage has expanded the most have seen smaller increases in overdose deaths than those with smaller coverage gains.

A recent analysis by Vanderbilt University economist Andrew Goodman-Bacon and Harvard researcher Emma Sandoe compared trends in drug-related deaths at the county level, contrasting counties that had high levels of uninsured residents pre-ACA with those that didn't. Under the theory that Medicaid expansion is causing increased overdose deaths, we would expect to see the largest increase in deaths in those high-insured counties because that's where more people took advantage of expanded Medicaid. But that wasn't the case:

"Drug-related deaths increased at a lower rate in high-uninsurance counties than in low-uninsurance counties," the researchers found. "This does not support the notion that the ACA worsened the opioid epidemic."

In other words, the more people on expanded Medicaid, the lower the rate of increase in overdose deaths.

4. The Medicaid theory lumps all opioid overdose deaths together when many are not caused by prescription opioids.

This is bad science. If you want to measure prescription opioid deaths, you need to measure only prescription opioid deaths. But the HHS analysis for Sen. Johnson didn't do that. Instead, it lumped in deaths from non-prescription street drugs, such as heroin or illicitly manufactured fentanyl. Having a Medicaid card doesn't provide access to street drugs, and it is precisely heroin and illicit fentanyl that are driving the surge in opioid deaths since 2010.

"It's worrisome because this is the type of numerical evidence that's used to propose bad policy," Garthwaite told the AP.

Chronicle AM: CT Ends Civil Forfeiture, Sessions Calls for More Drug War (Again), More... (7/12/17)

Connecticut has become the 14th state to end civil asset forfeiture, Nevada's state government is moving to ease a potential marijuana shortage, Jeff Sessions gives another drug war speech, and more.

Attorney General Sessions showed up at DARE to slam Obama-era drug reforms. (senate.gov).
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Governor Says Deal on Legalization Close. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) said Thursday lawmakers are close to reaching a deal on a bill that will regulate legal marijuana in the state. The House had favored a 28% tax and allowing localities to ban pot businesses without a popular vote, while the Senate held to the 12% tax included in the voter-approved legalization initiative and wouldn't allow pot shop bans without a popular vote. "I'm told there are only a couple minor things that are outstanding. I hope they get them done because if they don't get them done, I think at some point, we're going to have to go forward with the law as it was written," said Baker.

Nevada Regulators Set to Approve Emergency Regs to Avoid Pot Shortage.State tax officials are set to vote Thursday on an emergency regulation that they hope will allow marijuana stores to avoid running out of supply. The regulation would allow the state to issue distribution licenses that are currently being held up by a legal challenge from liquor distributors, who want a cut of the action. Because of heavy demand since legal sales started July 1, some shops are "running on fumes," said Nevada Dispensary Association President Andrew Jolley.

Asset Forfeiture

Connecticut Governor Signs Bill Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) on Monday signed into law House Bill 7146, which ends property or cash seizures in the state without a criminal conviction. Connecticut becomes the 14th state to require a criminal conviction in most or all forfeiture cases.

Drug Policy

Attorney General Sessions Again Attacks Drug, Sentencing Reforms. In a speech at the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) training conference in Dallas on Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the country's drug problem "unprecedented" and generally blamed it on Obama-era sentencing reforms that led prosecutors "not to charge the most serious offenses." Sessions said a new Justice Department police directing prosecutors to seek mandatory minimum sentences was the way to go. "We are going to trust our prosecutors again," Sessions said Tuesday. "This policy empowers trust in professionals to apply the law fairly and exercise discretion when appropriate."

Chronicle AM: Supreme Court Restricts Forfeiture, Rejects College Drug Test Bid, More... (6/6/17)

The Supreme Court makes two good drug policy-related rulings in one day, the California Assembly approves both a marijuana "sanctuary" bill and a supervised injection site bill, last-ditch efforts to free the weed in Connecticut hit a bump, and more.

The Supreme Court rules favorably on two drug policy-related issues. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

California Assembly Passes Marijuana "Sanctuary" Bill. The Assembly has approved Assembly Bill 1578, which would prohibit state resources from being used to help enforce federal marijuana laws that conflict with state law. The bill from Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) now goes to the state Senate.

Connecticut Legalization Measure Still Stalled. The last-ditch effort to get legalization passed through the budget process broke down early Monday just minutes before a press conference announcing a compromise was to be announced. Rep. Melissa Ziobron (R-East Haddam) complained that she didn't see a copy of the legalization amendment until just minutes earlier, when she learned that Rep. Josh Elliot (D-Hamden) and other Democrats had been crafting the measure since last Friday. "This isn't about headlines. This isn't about a news conference," Ziobron said. "This is about what's good for the state of Connecticut, and doing it last-minute, doing it in a way that is not bipartisan, is very worrisome and should be for every single person in this state."

Nevada Republicans Kill Governor's Pot Tax Bill. A bill supported by Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) that would have imposed a 10% tax on recreational marijuana sales has been defeated in the Senate after Republicans refused to support it because of unrelated budget issues. The vote was 12-9 in favor, but because it was a budget bill, it needed a two-thirds majority, or 14 votes, to pass.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Governor Uses Line-Item Veto to Kill Medical Marijuana Research Projects. Gov. Rick Scott (R) used his line-item veto power to kill three line items that would have provided more than $3 million dollars to the Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of Florida for medical marijuana research. In his veto message, Scott wrote that the institutions had plenty of money to fund the research on their own.

Asset Forfeiture

Supreme Court Restricts Asset Forfeiture in Drug Cases. In a decision handed down Monday, the US Supreme Court has moved to restrict prosecutorial efforts to seize money or goods from drug defendants. In Honeycutt v. US, brothers Terry and Tony Honeycutt were convicted of selling methamphetamine precursor chemicals, and the feds then swooped in to seize $200,000 of the estimated $270,000 profits from the sales. But they then sought to seize the remaining $70,000 from Terry Honeycutt, who was only an employee at his brother's hardware store, and that crossed a line, the court said. "Congress did not authorize the government to confiscate substitute property from other defendants or coconspirators," Sotomayor said. "It authorized the government to confiscate assets only from the defendant who initially acquired the property and who bears responsibility for its dissipation."

Drug Testing

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Appeal from Missouri Tech College That Wanted to Drug Test All Students. The US Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear an appeal from the State Technical College of Missouri of an appeals court ruling that its mandatory drug testing policy is unconstitutional when applied to all students. Lower courts had upheld mandatory suspicionless drug testing of only a handful of the school's disciplines where safety was a key element. "This case establishes -- once and for all -- that under the Fourth Amendment, every person has the right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure, including college students," the ACLU, which filed the class-action lawsuit in 2011, said in a statement Monday.

Harm Reduction

California Assembly Passes Supervised Injection Sites Bill. The Assembly last Thursday approved Assembly Bill 186, which would allow for the provision of supervised drug consumption sites. The pioneering harm reduction measure sponsored by Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton) now moves to the state Senate. "California is blazing a new trail toward a policy on drug addiction and abuse that treats it as the medical issue and public health challenge that it is, and not as a moral failing," said Talamantes Eggman. "We are in the midst of an epidemic, and this bill will grant us another tool to fight it -- to provide better access to services like treatment and counseling, to better protect public health and safety, and to save lives."

Drug War Issues

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