Decriminalization

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Chronicle AM: CT Pot Legalization Bill Filed, MI Moving to Rein in Civil Asset Forfeiture, More... (1/22/19)

Marijuana reform bills are starting to pop in state legislatures, a federal court judge rules in favor of a New Mexico medical marijuana provider in a free speech case, and more. 

With Democrats in control in Michigan, civil asset forfeiture could be coming to an end

Marijuana Policy

Connecticut Legalization Bill Filed. A legalization bill cosponsored by 40 Democrat legislators has been filed. HB 5595 would allow for legal sales to adults, home cultivation of up to six plants, and give priority in licensing to existing medical marijuana businesses. The bill also contains a provision for the expungement of previous pot convictions, and it would make it illegal for anyone to drive with more than 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

Kentucky Decriminalization Bill Filed. State Sen. Jimmy Higdon (R-Lebanon) has filed a bill to decriminalize small-time pot possession. The measure, SB 82, would define less than an ounce of marijuana as a “personal use quantity” punishable only by a fine. The bill would also exempt “personal use marijuana accessories” from the state's drug paraphernalia law. Under current law, possession of eight ounces or less is a misdemeanor.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Court Upholds First Amendment Rights of New Mexico Medical Marijuana Company. US District Court Judge James Parker has found in favor of Ultra Health, the state's largest medical marijuana provider, in a case that pitted it against the New Mexico State Fair. Fair officials had blocked the company from displaying an educational booth at the fair in 2017, and Ultra Health sued. The judge found that fair staff had infringed on Ultra Health's free speech and civil rights: “The State Fair’s restrictions ... as applied to Ultra Health’s 2017 State Fair application were unreasonable in light of the purpose of the forum and the surrounding circumstances and therefore violated Ultra Health’s First Amendment right to free speech,” Judge Parker wrote in his ruling.

Asset Forfeiture

Michigan Legislature Takes Up Ending Civil Asset Forfeiture. The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee will on Thursday take up SB 002, a measure that would require police and prosecutors to win a criminal conviction before permanently seizing someone's property. Similar bills have failed in the past, but now Democrats control both the legislature and the governor's mansion, and both House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Attorney General Dana Nessel support the effort. 

Chronicle AM: Federal MedMJ Research Bill Re-Filed, VA Marijuana Reform Bills Killed, More... (1/17/19)

A federal medical marijuana research bill has been refiled without a bothersome provision, Wisconsin's new Democratic governor now supports marijuana legalization, a Virginia House panel kills decrim and legalization bills, and more.

Florida patients may be soon be able to legally smoke their medicine. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Virginia House Panel Kills Marijuana Reform Bills. A House Courts of Justice subcommittee led by conservative Republicans killed a pair of marijuana reform bills Wednesday night. One of the bills would have decriminalized pot possession; the other would have legalized marijuana. They both died on 6-2 votes in the subcommittee.

Wisconsin Governor Endorses Marijuana Legalization. New Gov. Tony Evers (D), who campaigned in support of medical marijuana, has now gone a step further, saying he now supports recreational marijuana legalization. “At the end of the day do I favor legalization? Yes,” Evers said Tuesday. “I want it to be done correctly so we will likely have in our budget a first step around medical marijuana.” He also said he may call for a statewide referendum on legalization. Such a referendum would only be advisory but could put pressure on recalcitrant Republicans in the legislature.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Medical Marijuana Research Bill Reintroduced. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) on Wednesday refiled the Medical Cannabis Research Act. It is not yet available on the congressional website. The bill would require the Justice Department to approve more producers of research-grade marijuana, allow the Department of Veterans Affairs to inform patients about medical marijuana studies they can participate in, and protect medical marijuana research institutions. A provision in last year's version that barred people with drug convictions from growing research marijuana has been removed after Democrats complained about it last year.

Florida Governor Will End Fight to Block Smoking Buds. New Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said Thursday that if the legislature doesn't move to allow the smoking of medical marijuana by March, he will drop the state's appeal to keep the ban in place. A state court had blocked the ban, but DeSantis' predecessor, former Gov. Rick Scott, ordered the appeal.

Michigan Will Allow Unlicensed Dispensaries to Reopen. The Medical Marihuana Licensing Board agreed Wednesday to allow dispensaries that are in the process of applying for a license and who have local approval to stay open until March 31. The move comes amidst a medical marijuana shortage caused in part by the board's closure of 72 unlicensed dispensaries on January 1.

Wisconsin Governor Ready to Move on Medical Marijuana. New Gov. Tony Evers (D) said he will include a “first step” toward legalizing medical marijuana in his state budget proposal. “I just want to make sure we do it correctly,” he said. He will face a tough fight in the legislature, where Republicans control both houses. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said she is open to addressing medical marijuana, but Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has said he doesn't support it.  

Chronicle AM: Drug Czar's Office Shuttered in Shutdown, DC Full Pot Legalization Bill Filed, More... (1/9/19)

The federal government shutdown shutters the drug czar's office, Trump again mischaracterizes the nature of border drug smuggling, New Jersey's highest court lends a hand to drug court graduates seeking expungement, and more.

closed down in the shutdown
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Lawmaker Files Expungement Bill. Rep Renny Cushing (D) has filed a bill, HB 399, that would let people with convictions for possessing less than three-fourths of an ounce of weed before September 2017 have their records cleared. That date is when the state law decriminalizing pot possession went into effect.

DC Lawmaker Files Full Legalization Bill. Councilmember David Grosso (I) has reintroduced the Marijuana Legalization and Regulation Act, which would allow the city to establish a system of retail marijuana sales. Such a move has been blocked by House Republicans, and its prospects this year remain uncertain, but Grosso is moving ahead anyway.

Medical Marijuana

New Hampshire Lawmaker Files Pair of Medical Marijuana Bills. Rep. Renny Cushing (D) has filed two bills related to medical marijuana. HB 366 would add opioid addiction as a qualifying condition, while HB 364 would allow patients and caregivers to grow their own medicine.

Asset Forfeiture

North Dakota Lawmaker Files Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture. Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck) has filed House Bill 1286, which would end civil asset forfeiture in the state. He filed a similar bill in 2017 that passed the House, but got zero votes in the Senate after it was opposed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, who remains in office but has refused so far to comment on this year's bill.

Drug Policy

Trump Once Again Misstates How Drugs Cross the Border With Mexico. In his oval office speech Tuesday night making his case for a border wall, President Trump once again mischaracterized the nature of drug smuggling across the Mexican border. While he was correct in stating that the vast majority of drugs coming into the country come through Mexico, his own DEA reported in November that "only a small percentage" of heroin and other drugs comes through areas outside of ports of entry.

Federal Government Shutdown Shutters Drug Czar's Office. Among the casualties of the shutdown is the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office). If the shutdown continues up to the end of the month, funding for important grant programs involving law enforcement and prevention could be jeopardized.

Expungement

New Jersey Supreme Court Eases Requirements for Drug Court Graduates. The state Supreme Court ruled 7-0 Tuesday that drug offenders who have successfully completed a court-ordered treatment program do not have to prove that expunging their criminal records of those offenses is in the public interest. Instead, the high court ruled, the burden to demonstrate that the public interest requirement was not met should fall on the state. "In light of the rigorous monitoring that is the hallmark of drug court, as well as the new law's overall policy in favor of expungement for successful graduates, we find that participants are entitled to a rebuttable presumption that expungement is consistent with the public interest," the court held.

Chronicle AM: Denver Psilocybin Init Advances, WA Governor to Pardon Pot People, More... (1/7/19)

The Denver magic mushroom initiative campaign hands in signatures, medical marijuana bills proliferate in Texas, Washington's governor announces plans to pardon small-time pot offenders, and more.

Decriminalize Denver handed in thousands of signatures for its municipal psilocybin initiative Monday. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Connecticut House Speaker Vows to Work on Legalization. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D) has said he would support marijuana legalization and work with his caucus to advance it. "I think we should legalize it," he said. "I will work with my caucus to get there, but it needs to be done in a responsible fashion that mirrors our medical marijuana program." The Senate president and the governor-elect have also said they are ready to end pot prohibition this year.

Massachusetts Commission Report Lists 19 Steps to Toughen Driver Drug Testing. A special commission has issued a report recommending 19 steps lawmakers should take to open the way for tougher drug testing of drivers in the wake of marijuana legalization there. One recommendation was to train more than 300 drug recognition experts; another was to expand the state's implied consent law for driving while intoxicated to include impairment due to drugs.

Washington Governor Will Pardon Small-Time Pot Possessors. Gov. Jay Inslee (D) said last Friday he plans to pardon thousands of people convicted of personal pot possession charges. He said he would create an expedited process so some 3,500 people could apply for and receive pardons without having to go to court or hire a lawyer.

Medical Marijuana

Texas Sees a Dozen Medical Marijuana Bills Filed. The session hasn't even opened yet, and there are 12 medical marijuana bills already prefiled. Two to watch are SB 90, a standard medical marijuana bill, and HB 209, which would allow the home cultivation of medical marijuana.

Kratom

Utah Bill Would Keep Kratom Legal. State Sen. Curt Bramble (R-Provo) has said he will sponsor a bill to keep kratom legal after hearing from the herb's supporters. "I view this kind of in the same vein as medical marijuana," he said. "I've had people tell me kratom is an alternative for addictive opiates and that's what convinced me." He said his bill will keep kratom legal in its "pure" form, but not if "adulterated" with other additives.

Psychedelics

Denver Magic Mushroom Initiative Hands in Signatures. Organizers with Decriminalize Denver handed in more than 8,000 raw signatures Monday for their municipal magic mushroom initiative. The measure would make psilocybin and the mushrooms that contain it the lowest law enforcement priority and would bar the use of city funds to impose penalties on users or possessors. The measure needs 4,726 verified signatures to make it to the ballot.

Chronicle AM: NH Legal Pot Push Begins, Russia Plans for Poppies, More... (12/31/18)

Marijuana bills aimed at the new year begin popping up, Pennsylvania's highest court rules for pregnant drug users, Russia ponders its own poppy crop, and more.

Citing sanctions from the West, Russia is moving to grow its own medicinal poppy crops. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Legalization Bill Ready to File. A group of state lawmakers have agreed on language for a bill that would allow for legal marijuana commerce and let adults possess up to an ounce of weed and grow up to six plants. The bill has not yet been formally filed. Legalization efforts in previous years have been thwarted in the Republican-dominated legislature, but Democrats retook control in the November elections, Still, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has vowed to veto any legalization bill that reaches his desk.

Virginia Decriminalization Bill Ready to Go. When the legislature convenes next week, it will have a decriminalization bill waiting for it. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) has pre-filed SB 997, which would decriminalize the possession of up to a quarter-ounce of weed and provide for a maximum $50 civil penalty. Under current state law, getting caught with a joint carries a jail sentence of up to 30 days and a $500 fine. Similar bills have been filed in previous sessions, but never made it out of committee.

Pregnancy

Pennsylvania High Court Rules Drug-Using Pregnant Women Can't Be Charged With Child Abuse Under State Child Protection Law. In an opinion issued last Friday, the state Supreme Court held that the state's child protection law does not apply to pregnant women. The court ruled that the law doesn't include fetuses or unborn children and said victims protected by the law must be children.

International

Russia Moves Towards Allowing Medicinal Opium Crops. The Russian government last week approved a draft bill that would allow the country to produce medicinal opium crops. Government officials said the bill was needed to reduce its dependence on foreign countries that supply raw opium to government factories because some of those countries have imposed sanctions on the country. "In order not to leave our population without strong painkillers, we must be self-sufficient," health minister Veronika Skvortsova told reporters. "We need to produce drugs in a full cycle -- from substances to their medicinal form." The bill still needs to be approved by parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

Thai Government Approves Medical Marijuana, Kratom. The Thai ruling junta last week approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana, becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to do so. The bill also regularizes the status of kratom, which comes from there. The bill becomes law once it is approved by the monarchy.

The Year in Drugs I: The Top Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2018 [FEATURE]

This is a year that just about everybody is eager to see come to an end, but when it comes to drug policy, 2018 hasn't been half-bad, at least in the US. (Check back next week for our Top International Drug Policy Stories.)

We've seen marijuana legalization spread further, we're on the verge of seeing Congress pass major sentencing reform legislation, and the ban on domestic hemp cultivation is coming to an end, among other things.

A lot went on in drug policy in 2018. Here are eight stories that helped define the year:

1. Overdose Deaths Remain Unconscionably High But Appear to Have Leveled Off

That's enough fentanyl to kill you. It killed thousands this year. (dea.gov)
The nation's fatal drug overdose crisis is far from over, but it now looks like it at least didn't get any worse this year. Driven in large part by the rise of fentanyl, overdose deaths reached a stunning 72,000 in 2017, a figure ten times the number in 1980 and double that of only a decade ago.

But preliminary reports on the 2018 overdose numbers suggest that this may be the year the crisis began to ease. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data showing that overdose deaths had declined for six straight months, dropping 2.8 percent from their 2017 peak. That report also found that opioid overdose deaths had declined by 2.3 percent.

With both heroin and prescription opioid deaths declining, fentanyl has emerged as the most common drug involved in overdoses, being implicated in about a quarter of all drug overdose deaths. While the apparent decline in opioid overdose deaths this year is good news, the recent increases in cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths is not. And while any break in a years-long climb in overdose deaths is certainly welcome, another 70,000 or so Americans will still have died from them this year. We have a long, long way to go.

2. Safe Injection Sites Draw Nearer, But Feds Fire Warning Shots

Safe injection sites -- also known as supervised consumption sites, among other names -- where drug users can consume their doses under medical supervision and with an opportunity to engage with social services are a proven harm reduction intervention. More than a hundred cities around the world, mainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia have resorted to such facilities as a means of providing better outcomes, not only for drug users but also for the communities in which they live.

There are no legally permitted safe injection sites in the United States (although some underground ones are reportedly operating in Seattle, and there may be more in hiding), but this year saw mounting pressure and serious efforts to get them up and running in a number of American states and cities. It also saw mounting resistance from federal officials.

At the state level, California, Colorado, Missouri, and New York all saw safe injection site bills filed. Only the bill in California made it out of the legislature, but to the great frustration of reformers, it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who cited long outdated beliefs about substance use in his veto message. Still, the fact that bills are being filed shows the issue is gaining momentum.

The momentum is even stronger among a handful of major cities. Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle have all taken steps to clear the way for safe injection sites this year, although none are yet in place.

While like California's Gov. Brown, some state and local level political figures are hesitant to embrace them, a major reason none is yet in place is federal hostility. As the clamor for the facilities grows louder, so does opposition from the Trump administration. As Denver publicly pondered opening one, the local DEA and the US Attorney loudly warned they would be illegal, and the Philadelphia US Attorney did the same thing. Early in the year, the DEA in Washington issued a warning against safe injection sites, and in August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authored an op-ed in the New York Times issuing similar dire threats.

3. A Major Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Is Set to Pass

A rare example of bipartisanship on the Hill. (Creative Commons)
The first major federal sentencing reform bill in eight years is now one vote away from passing Congress. The bill, known as the First Step Act (S.3649), is the culmination of years of work by the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and includes prison reform language as well as provisions that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenses. It very nearly died earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he would not bring it to a Senate floor vote, but under broad pressure, including from President Trump, McConnell relented, and the bill passed the Senate Tuesday

The sentencing reforms include retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people; expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences; reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years.

The late word is that the bill will pass the House easily, but that hasn't happened as of this writing. If and when it does, the country will have taken a significant step toward a more just and humane federal criminal justice system. The passage has also drawn major media attention as a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington today.

4. Marijuana Legalization Advances in the States

At the beginning of the year, marijuana for adult recreational use was legal in eight states, all in the West or New England and all thanks to the initiative process. As 2018 comes to a close, that number has jumped to ten, with Vermont in January becoming the first state to legalize it through the legislature and Michigan in November becoming the first Midwest state to legalize it.

The initiative process is available in only half the states, and when it comes to legalizing weed, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. A legalization initiative in conservative Nebraska went down to defeat this year, and remaining initiative states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas are among the most socially conservative and least likely to free the weed. But prospects are rosier in initiative states Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio. We are likely to see pot on the ballot in all three in 2020.

Vermont remains the sole state to legalize it legislatively, but a handful of states edged ever closer close this year. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wanted pot legalized in his first 100 days. That didn't happen, and legalization hasn't gotten through the legislature yet, but there is a small chance it could still happen this year and a very good chance it will be a done deal by early next year. Legislatures throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and Northeast grappled with the issue, laying the groundwork for next year and the year beyond, and just this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for legalization next year. The long march continues.

5. Marijuana Is Still Federally Illegal, But the Crackdown Never Came

As the year comes to end, legal weed is still here and Jeff Sessions isn't. President Trump's first attorney general was an avowed foe of marijuana (as well as drug and criminal justice reform in general), but despite rescinding the Obama-era Cole memo, which basically told federal prosecutors to leave state law-abiding pot businesses alone, the much-feared crackdown on the industry never came.

Federal prosecutors, for the most part, continue to view legal marijuana businesses as a low priority, especially when faced with much more serious drug problems, such as the opioid overdose epidemic. But Sessions was also undercut by his own boss, who in April arranged a deal with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in which he agreed to support a bill protecting states that have broken with federal pot prohibition in return for Gardner's allowing Justice department appointments to move forward.

This year saw a plethora of federal marijuana reform bills, but with Republican leadership in both houses firmly opposed, the Capitol was where marijuana reform went to die. With Democrats in control of the House next year, things promise to be different next year, although the GOP-led Senate will remain an obstacle. But with pot consistently polling in the 60s, those Republican senators may grudgingly start coming on board.

6. Marijuana Legalization is Nice, But We Need Social Justice, Too

This year saw social justice concerns around marijuana legalization move front and center in two distinct ways: demands for the expungement of marijuana arrest records for people whose offenses are no longer crimes and demands for restorative racial justice from communities that have suffered the brunt of the war on drugs.

The year started with two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, leading the way on expungement. The, in September, California became the first state to put state-level automatic expungement into effect. Delaware and Rhode Island, which have both decriminalized but not legalized pot, also passed expungement bills this year. Expungement is also a contentious issue in the ongoing battle to get legalization passed in New Jersey.

After a half-dozen years of legalization and well-heeled white guys making bank off legal weed, the call for racial justice, whether in terms of set-asides to guarantee minority participation in the industry or for funding streams aimed at restoring drug war-ravaged communities, is growing too loud to be ignored. This is an ongoing struggle now being played out not only in pot-legal states, but especially in states on the cusp of legalization. Moving forward, it's likely that every successful state legalization bill is going to have to address issues of social and racial justice. As they should.

7. Industrial Hemp Becomes Federally Legal

The sun rises on the American domestic hemp industry. (votehemp.org)
Finally, the absolutely most ridiculous aspect of federal marijuana prohibition is dead. Recreational marijuana's country cousin, hemp can't get anyone high, but is extremely useful in a broad range of industries, from foods to textiles and beyond. Thanks to a lawsuit from hemp interests more than a decade ago, hemp could be imported for American firms to use in their products, but because the DEA refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and recreational marijuana, American farmers were forced to stand on the sidelines as their competitors in China, Canada, and other countries raked in the rewards.

But having a hemp-friendly senator from a hemp-friendly state allowed hemp legalization to move this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) actually fought for the hemp bill, shepherding it into the must-pass farm appropriations bill and keeping it in there through negotiations with the House. President Trump has signed the farm bill, including the hemp provision, into law.

8. Here Come the 'Shrooms

Initiative campaigns to legalize or decriminalize the use and possession of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms began popping up in 2018. Actually, the first state-level initiative came last year in California, but this past summer it failed to qualify for the fall ballot.

Right now, there are two psilocybin initiatives in the signature-gathering phase, a municipal initiative in Denver that would decriminalize the use, possession, and cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and the statewide Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would decriminalize possession of psilocybin, allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin. The Denver initiative would go before voters in May 2019, while the Oregon initiative aims at the 2020 election.

If psilocybin initiatives follow the pattern set by marijuana legalization initiatives, the first time may not be the charm. But more will follow.

Oregon Initiative Would Decriminalize Psilocybin [FEATURE]

An initiative that would decriminalize most psilocybin offenses and open the door to regulated production and therapeutic use of the psychedelic substance in Oregon is moving forward.

Magic mushrooms could be decriminalized under the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative (Wikipedia)
Late last month, the secretary of state approved ballot title language for the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative. The next step is a signature-gathering drive to qualify the measure for the 2020 ballot. Some 117,578 valid voter signatures are required, and petitioners have until next July to obtain them.

Under the initiative, anyone possessing up to 50 grams of dried magic mushrooms or 10 doses of psilocybin would not be charged with a crime, but with a violation similar to a speeding ticket. The only punishment would be a fine. Similarly, distribution of up to 50 grams or 10 doses without a license would be a violation -- unless that person has two or more prior felony convictions, in which case, he would be hit with a misdemeanor.

As quantities possessed increase, so do the potential penalties. Possession of more than 50 but less than 100 grams would still be a violation, except for the two prior felony folks, who would then face a misdemeanor. Possession of more than 100 grams but less than 500 would still be a violation, except for people with one or more previous felonies, who again would face a misdemeanor. Possession of more than 500 grams but less than a kilogram would be a misdemeanor for all. It would take possessing more than two kilograms to earn a felony charge for all.

Similarly, unlicensed sales of up to 50 grams or 10 doses would not be a crime but a violation punishable only by a fine-- unless that person has two or more prior felony convictions, in which case, he would be hit with a misdemeanor. Penalties gradually stiffen, but under the initiative, it would take the sale of more than 15 kilograms to trigger felony charges for anyone regardless of prior criminal history.

Under federal law, possession of any amount of psilocybin is a felony. Under Oregon state law, though, possession of small amounts is only a misdemeanor, although possession of "substantial amounts" (more than 60 grams) is a felony, as is distribution.

But while the changes in the state's criminal code would be significant, the primary goal of the petitioners is to clear the way for the therapeutic use of psilocybin via licensed and regulated producers, processors, and therapists.

"The intent of the 2020 Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon is to advance a breakthrough therapeutic model currently being perfected in research settings at top universities around the world," chief petitioners Tom and Sheri Eckert wrote on the campaign web site. "The service model involves a sequence of facilitated sessions, including assessment and preparation, psilocybin administration, and integration afterward. We envision a community-based framework where licensed providers, along with licensed producers of psilocybin mushrooms, blaze trails in Oregon in accordance with evolving practice standards."

The move comes as both the public and the scientific community are shifting their opinions on marijuana and psychedelics. Recent studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of therapeutic use, including reducing anxiety in people with cancer and as a treatment for depression and alcoholism. There is also new evidence that magic mushrooms are among the safest recreational drugs.

Study: Crackdowns on Heroin, Pain Pills Gave Rise to Fentanyl Overdose Epidemic [FEATURE]

A new report on illicit US drug markets from researchers at the University of San Francisco has found that that the spread of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid implicated in nearly 29,000 overdose deaths last year alone, is tied to enforcement-driven shortages of heroin and prescription opioids, as well simple economics for drug distributors -- not because users particularly desire the drug.

meet the law of unintended consequences (Creative Commons)
Illicit fentanyl has swept through American drug markets in waves -- the super strong "China white" heroin of the 1970s was actually a heroin-fentanyl mixture -- most recently in the past decade after rising levels of opioid addiction and the spread of "pill mills" prompted multifaceted moves to restrict opioid prescribing.

From a drug distributor's perspective, fentanyl is a most excellent substitute for heroin or prescription pain pills. Produced entirely in labs or chemical factories, it is far more powerful and cheaper to produce than heroin. Because it's more potent, it is easier to smuggle -- often coming into the US via postal and delivery service parcels, not by the semi load. And it doesn't require months of growing time and period of intense peasant labor in lawless regions of weak states.

Fentanyl is typically sold deceptively -- marketed as heroin or prescription drugs such as OxyContin or Xanax -- and users and street-level dealers often don't even know that the drugs they are using or selling contain fentanyl, the researchers found. Fentanyl is making its way into the supply chain at the wholesale, not the retail level. That, the researchers said, suggests that demand is not the key driver in the drug's spread.

"Fentanyl is rarely sold as fentanyl," said Sarah Mars, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF. "The dealers selling fentanyl directly to the users often don't know what's in it. Not only is this particularly dangerous, but it also means penalizing low-level dealers isn't going to make any difference in the fentanyl poisoning epidemic."

According to Mars, users are split on fentanyl, which produces a more sudden and powerful high than heroin, but one that fades faster. Some said fentanyl brought back the euphoria they had lost the ability to feel with long-term heroin use, but others said they feared fentanyl and found its effects too harsh.

"Whether or not they prefer fentanyl, users don't have any influence over what drugs are being sold," Mars said. "Without accurate information about these drugs, they can't make an informed choice about what they are buying. Also, very little drug slang has developed to describe fentanyl, which lends support to the notion that this is not a demand-driven epidemic."

The presence of drugs adulterated with fentanyl is uneven, Mars said.

"Most of the illicit fentanyl has been in the Northeast and Midwest," she specified. And that's where opioid overdose death rates are the highest.

Another contributing factor to the fentanyl overdose toll is that it has dozens of analogs with wildly varying potency. Some, like carfentanil, are amazingly powerful, as much as 10,000 times as potent as morphine. Some are so new they have not yet been made illegal.

"We believe it's the fluctuation in the potency of the drugs containing fentanyl that makes them so dangerous," said Daniel Ciccarone, MD, MPH, a professor of family and community medicine at UCSF and senior author of an ongoing National Institutes of Health-funded study, Heroin in Transition. "You might have one dose that had hardly any fentanyl in it or none at all. Then, you might have one with a different fentanyl analog, of different potency, or even mixtures of multiple fentanyls and heroin."

Here is the paradox of drug prohibition: Trying to crack down on drugs tends to lead not to less drug use but to more dangerous drugs, and in the case of opioids, tens of thousands of dead drug users. There is an inexorable logic at play: The more law enforcement comes down on a drug, the greater the tendency for suppliers to make it more potent and compact -- and dangerous.

Perhaps that's why we now see mainstream calls for a radically different approach, such as the one from Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle earlier this week. In her column "The Incredibly Unpopular Idea That Could Stem Heroin Deaths," McArdle argues that current drug policy is only running up the overdose death toll and that we need "to start talking about ways to make safe, reliable doses of opiates available to addicts who aren't ready to stop."

That would involve increasing access to opioid substitutes such as methadone and buprenorphine, "but lowering the death toll may require a more drastic step: legalizing prescriptions of stronger opiates," McArdle writes.

"Prescription heroin?" she continues. "Remember, I said you might not like the solution. I don't like it, either -- and frankly, neither do the drug policy researchers who told me it may be necessary. But when fentanyl took over the US illicit drug markets, it also got a lot of addicts as hostages. We'll never be able to rescue them unless we can first keep them alive long enough to be saved."

There is a better way to deal with the opioid crisis than relegating tens of thousands of American opioid users to early, preventable deaths. We know what it is. Now it's a matter of implementing smarter, more humane policies, and that's an ongoing political struggle -- one where lives are literally at stake.

Chronicle AM: Supreme Court Hears IN Seizure Case, Filipino Cops Jailed for Drug War Crimes, More... (11/29/18)

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in an Indiana asset forfeiture case, outgoing marijuana reform roadblock Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) has done it again, a North Carolina "decrim" bill gets filed, and more.

Three Philippine police are jailed for murder, marking a first in Rodrigo Duterte's bloody drug war. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Pete Sessions Blocks Another Federal Pot Bill. Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) has consistently used his position as chair of the House Rules Committee to block marijuana reform measures, and he did it again Wednesday. This time he blocked an amendment from Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) that aimed at providing tax relief for legal marijuana businesses. But Sessions' career as reform roadblock is coming to an end; he was defeated in the November midterms. Incoming Rules Committee Chairman Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) has already promised to allow marijuana amendments to move when he takes over in January.

North Carolina Legislators File Bill to Decriminalize Up to Four Ounces. Four legislators have co-sponsored a bill, S 791, which would essentially decriminalize the possession of up to four ounces of marijuana. Possession would remain a misdemeanor, but with no possible jail sentence, and the bill includes language that would allow people convicted of possessing less than four ounces to petition for expungement, which would be automatic if the amount actually was under four ounces.

Asset Forfeiture

Supreme Court Oral Arguments Suggest Indiana Will Be Slapped Down in Asset Forfeiture Case. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in the case of an Indiana man whose $42,000 Land Rover was seized after he pleaded guilty to small-scale heroin sales, and the justices' questioning strongly suggested they would rule against the state. The legal argument is whether the 8th Amendment's provisions against "excessive fines" applies to civil asset forfeiture at the state level. The case is Timbs v. Indiana.

Harm Reduction

San Diego Judge Orders Preliminary Injunction Closing Orange County Needle Exchange Program. A San Diego judge has issued a temporary injunction to shut down a mobile syringe exchange program run by the Orange County Needle Exchange Program (OCNEP), which is being sued by Orange County. A ruling issued in California Superior Court on Tuesday bars the mobile program from operating until a trial is held sometime in January 2019.

International

Brazilian Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana Bill. A bill that would allow the cultivation and use of marijuana for medical reasons was approved by a Senate committee on Wednesday. Patients with doctors' prescriptions would be able to grow, possess, and consume the drug. The Senate Social Affairs Committee advanced the bill, but it now has to be approved by the Commission on Constitution and Justice before going to a Senate floor vote. If it passes the Senate, it must then be approved by the Chamber of Deputies and signed by incoming President Jair Bolsonaro, who opposes legalization and has espoused a harsh approach to drugs.

Philippine Court Sentences Three Cops for Drug War Murder of Teen. The Caloocan City regional trial court on Thursday sentenced three police officers found guilty of murdering a 17-year-old high school student to 40 years in prison. They were the first police to be convicted in President Rodrigo Duterte's bloody war on drugs. "A shoot first, think later attitude can never be countenanced in a civilized society. Never has homicide or murder been a function of law enforcement. The public peace is never predicated on the cost of human life," said the ruling by Judge Roldolfo Azucena.

Mexico's Supreme Court Effectively Legalizes Marijuana Possession, Cultivation, and Use [FEATURE]

In an earth-shaking development, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled last Wednesday that the country's prohibition of marijuana use, possession, and personal cultivation is unconstitutional. The decision came in a pair of cases challenging the ban on weed, and because these rulings mark the fifth time the court has ruled similarly, the opinions are now legal precedent in the country.

The high court in Mexico City based its decision on constitutional protections of individual autonomy.

"The fundamental right of the free development of the personality allows adults to choose -- without any interference -- what recreational activities they desire to undertake and protects all the activities necessary to make that choice… The effects of marijuana consumption do not justify an absolute prohibition of its use," the court held.

But the court also noted explicitly that the right to grow, possess, and consume marijuana "is not absolute and the consumption of certain substances can be regulated."

That means it will be up to lawmakers to come up with rules around the legal use of marijuana, as well as any move toward a regulated, legal marijuana market in the country. And that is likely to happen: Parties backing President-Elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who is supportive of marijuana legalization and open to considering broader legalization, control absolute majorities in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

In its rulings, the high court ordered the federal health regulatory agency, COFEPRIS, to authorize the use of marijuana by adults who choose to do so, but it also added: "albeit without allowing them to market it, or use other narcotics or psychotropic drugs."

Mexico has already decriminalized both pot possession and the possession of personal use amounts of other illicit drugs.

Coming less than two weeks after Canada's marijuana legalization came into effect, the striking decision by the Mexican Supreme Court is only going to add to the pressure to advance federal marijuana legalization here in the US.

"This is extraordinary because it is taking place in one of the countries that has suffered the most from the war on drugs," said Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "With marijuana already legal in Canada, now both of the US's neighbors will have legal marijuana, making the US federal government's prohibition of marijuana even more untenable."

If the Democrats take control of the House this week, expect to see a strong push for federal legalization, along the lines that Congressional Cannabis Caucus founder Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) laid out earlier this month. If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, as is widely expected, the upper chamber would be a tougher nut to crack -- but GOP senators may want to reflect on the fact that, according to the most recent Gallup poll, support for legalizing weed is at an all-time high of 66 percent, and even 53 percent of Republican voters now are on board.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of both Drug War Chronicle and Drug Reporter.

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