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Drug Policy in the 2012 Elections II: The Parties and the Presidential Race [FEATURE]

As the 2012 election campaign enters its final weeks, all eyes are turning to the top of the ticket. While, according to the latest polls and electoral college projections, President Obama appears well-positioned to win reelection, the race is by no means a done deal, and there's a chance that marijuana policy could play a role -- especially in one key swing state, Colorado, where the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol is running a popular and well-funded campaign to pass Amendment 64.

President Obama (wikimedia.org)
But other than that, marijuana policy in particular and drug policy in general do not appear likely to be big issues, at least between Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney. That's because both candidates hold similar positions:

Both oppose marijuana legalization, which will also be on the ballot in Oregon, and Washington. Obama, while at least paying lip service to patient access to medical marijuana, which will be on the ballot in Arkansas, Massachusetts, and Montana, has presided over a Justice Department crackdown on medical marijuana distribution, while Romney appears irritated and uncomfortable even discussing the issue.

"With Obama, we've all been disappointed with the backtracking, although he also needs credit for the original Ogden memo and opening the gates to a wider proliferation of medical marijuana around the country," said Drug Policy Action head Ethan Nadelmann. "For the people most disappointed with that, the paradox is that Romney offers very little of promise."

That was illustrated by GOP vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan's brief flirtation with medical marijuana. Last Friday, Ryan said medical marijuana was a states' rights issue. The comments came in Colorado, where the issue is hot.

"My personal positions on this issue have been let the states decide what to do with these things," he said in an interview with a local TV reporter. "This is something that is not a high priority of ours as to whether or not we go down the road on this issue. What I've always believed is the states should decideI personally don't agree with it, but this is something Coloradans have to decide for themselves."

But Ryan, who has a previous voting record opposing states rights to medical marijuana, did half a backtrack the next day, when one of his spokesmen explained that Ryan "agrees with Mitt Romney that marijuana should never be legalized."

Obama as president has supported increased drug war funding to Mexico and Central America, and Romney as candidate supports it as well. But his views are malleable. When running for the nomination in 2008, Romney suggested that spending on interdiction was a waste, and the money would be better spent on prevention here at home. Again, that is not so different from the Obama position which, rhetorically if not budgetarily, emphasizes treatment and prevention over interdiction and law enforcement.

The relative quiet around drug policy in the two campaigns is reflected in the Democratic platform and the Republican platform. There are only a handful of mentions of drugs or drug policy in the Democratic platform -- and the word "marijuana" doesn't appear at all -- all of them having to do with either combating international organized crime or touting the Obama administration's baby steps toward a slightly more progressive drug policy.

One of those progressive measures was overturning the federal ban on needle exchange funding, but the platform makes no mention or that or of the words "harm reduction." It does urge "supporting local prison-to-work programs and other initiatives to reduce recidivism, making citizens safer and saving the taxpayers money" and says the Democrats "will continue to fight inequalities in our criminal justice system," pointing to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act as "reducing racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes." The act actually addresses only crack cocaine sentencing.

While emphasizing their tough on crime positions, the Republican platform also takes some baby steps toward a more progressive drug policy. It calls for rehabilitation of prisoners and for drug courts, supporting state efforts to divert drug offenders to treatment, and it criticizes the federalization of criminal offenses. But the single most dramatic change in the Republican platform is that has eliminated what was in previous platforms an entire section on the war on drugs.

Just as with the candidates, the platforms give drug policy little time or space. In an election driven by the economy and the fires burning in the Middle East, the issue is going to get short shrift, especially when there is little daylight between the candidates on the platforms on the issue.

There are alternatives to the bipartisan drug policy consensus, but they remain on the margins. At least three third party candidates, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson, and Green Party nominee Jill Stein, are calling for an end to the drug war and marijuana legalization, but they are all but shut out of presidential debates and media interest.

Mitt Romney (mittromney.com)
Since there is little substantive difference in the drug policy positions of the two front-runners and since their positions on marijuana legalization put them at odds with half the country -- 50% now support legalization, according to the most recent Gallup poll -- neither candidate has much incentive to open his mouth on the issue. And they may be able to get away with it.

"Can the campaigns get away with not talking about marijuana?" Drug Policy Action head Ethan Nadelmann asked rhetorically. "That depends. First, will the question get popped at one of the debates? I don't know how to influence that. The second possibility will be if the candidates are obliged to answer a question somewhere, but I don't know how much they're taking questions -- their handlers are trying to keep them on message. The third possibility is that they will say something at private events, but who knows what gets said there?" he mused.

"They are certainly going to try not to talk about it," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Given Romney's anger at a reporter for bringing up the issue and Obama's reluctance to address questions about marijuana policy in public forums, one can expect them to continue this behavior until forced to answer questions by the media or the public."

That leaves voters for whom marijuana reform is an important issue hanging out to dry.

"Unless one of the candidates sees an opportunity for a large boost in support by changing his position on marijuana policy, voters will be forced to choose between either third party candidates or the major party option that they think will do the least amount of damage to reform efforts going forward," said Fox. "If we consider Obama's behavior so far and Romney's staunch anti-marijuana statements (as well as the fact that he has never used it) it becomes a really difficult choice for voters."

Nadelmann begged to differ on that point.

"Romney has been more hostile on this issue than McCain or Bush or any Democratic candidates since Bush the Elder," he said. "He is visibly uncomfortable and even hostile regarding even the most modest drug policy reforms. Romney said if you want to legalize marijuana, you should vote for the other guy. That's very telling, with over 50% of independents and even more than 30% of Republicans supporting marijuana legalization. Why would Romney say that? The Obama campaign would have a hard time running with this, but someone else could."

Still, the lack of space between the major party candidates on the issue may leave an opening for Anderson or Johnson or Stein, Fox said.

"These candidates are the only ones offering real solutions to the quagmire of marijuana prohibition, or even taking definitive stances on the issue. The more they continue to draw public attention to marijuana reform while the major players stay silent, the more we can expect voters to pay attention to them and take them seriously," he predicted. "We can also expect their vocal support for reform to draw the attention of the major candidates and possibly elicit some sort of positive response from one or both of them. Whether that response will be sincere or simply lip-service to prevent third-party candidates from siphoning votes in key elections remains to be seen. However, even the latter would be a sign that the message is getting out and that politicians are at least starting to realize where the public stands on marijuana."

The one place where marijuana policy discussion may be unavoidable and where marijuana policy positions could influence the statewide electoral outcome is Colorado. Marijuana is a big issue in the state, not only because Amendment 64 is on the ballot, but also because of the ongoing war of attrition waged against dispensaries there by the DEA and the US Attorney. (The Colorado Patient Voters Project tracks federal activity against medical marijuana in the state, as does our own Medical Marijuana Update series, accessible with other relevant reporting in our medical marijuana archive section.)

Gary Johnson (garyjohnson2012.com)
And it's a tight race where one third party candidate in particular, Gary Johnson, is making a strong run and exploiting his popular legalization position on marijuana. While the Real Clear Politics average of Colorado polls has Obama up 48.7% to Romney's 45.3%, the race tightens up when Johnson is included in the polls.

"I think Colorado is key," said Nadelmann. "It has the initiative and it's a swing state, and there is the possibility that Gary Johnson or the Green candidate could make a difference. The polling has been split, and the question with Gary Johnson is whether he draws more from Obama or Romney."

One recent poll may hold a clue. Among the polls included in the Real Clear Politics average is a new Public Policy Polling survey, which had Obama beating Romney 49% to 46%. But when the pollsters added Johnson to the mix, he got 5%, taking three points away from Obama, but only two from Romney, and leaving Obama with only a two-point lead, 46% to 44%.

This year's election results from Colorado could mark a historic point for the marijuana reform movement, and not just because of Amendment 64, said Fox.

"This is a state where we are really going to see the power of this issue as it relates to elections," he said. "This is possibly the first time that marijuana policy could affect the outcome of a presidential election. That just goes to show how far reformers have come in just a few short years. As public opinion in support of ending prohibition continues to grow, the paradigm is going to shift from politicians avoiding the issue at all cost or being knee-jerk reactionaries who want to appear 'tough on crime' to candidates addressing marijuana policy in a rational manner as a way to build support."

We'll see in a few weeks how this all shakes out, but before then, we'll be taking an in-depth look at pot politics in Colorado in the context of Amendment 64. Stay tuned.

Please read our last week's feature, overviewing the various state ballot initiatives: Drug Policy in the 2012 Elections I: The Initiatives.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

StoptheDrugWar.org Teleconference on the Marijuana Legalization Initiatives

StoptheDrugWar.org is pleased to announce our first teleconference, featuring the initiative campaigns in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington State to enact regulatory (legalization) systems for marijuana. Please join us by phone or Skype on Thursday, September 27, 6:00pm PST / 9:00pm EST -- call (805) 399-1200 and enter access code 135516. We will discuss what the initiatives do, what their prospects are for passage and for fueling further reform, and what people can do to get involved.

The following exciting speakers have agreed to join us:

  • Oscar Eason, Jr., NAACP Alaska/Oregon/Washington State Area Conference
  • Alison Holcomb, New Approach Washington
  • Paul Stanford, Oregon Cannabis Tax Act
  • Brian Vicente, Sensible Colorado

Please RVSP here on our Facebook event page or our evite, and please spread the word! We will accept questions by email, now and during the teleconference -- send them to [email protected].

Please stay tuned also for announcements of additional teleconferences to discuss the upcoming state medical marijuana initiatives, prospects for reform in Congress next year, and other topics. If you are not already subscribed to the Drug War Chronicle newsletter, you can subscribe here -- follow us on Facebook and Twitter too.

Former DEA Heads Urge Holder to Oppose Marijuana Legalization Measures

Every former head of the DEA since it was created by Richard Nixon in 1973 has signed onto a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him to speak out against the marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot in three Western states. The former top narcs warned that silence would be seen as acquiescence.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/ericholder.jpg
Eric Holder
"We urge you to oppose publicly Amendment 64 in Colorado, Initiative 502 in Washington, and Measure 80 in Oregon," the former DEA chiefs wrote. "To continue to remain silent conveys to the American public and the global community a tacit acceptance of these dangerous initiatives."

Legalization at the state level would be a "direct violation of the Controlled Substance Act," they wrote. "Since these initiatives would 'tax and regulate' marijuana, there is a clear and direct conflict with federal law."

The former top narcs said they were "encouraged" by Holder's having spoken out against California's 2010 Proposition 19 and by President Obama's strong stance against legalization. They urged Holder to take a public position against the initiatives "as soon as possible."

Reuters reported that Holder's office had no comment on the letter, but former ONDCP official Kevin Sabet told the news agency he wouldn't be surprised if Holder again spoke out against legalization.

"Essentially, a state vote in favor of legalization is a moot point since federal laws would be, in (Holder's) own words (from 2010), 'vigorously enforced,'" Sabet said. "I can't imagine a scenario where the Feds would sit back and do nothing."

But marijuana legalization backers described themselves as unsurprised by the letter and were quick to strike back.

"Anyone who is objective at all knows that current marijuana policy in this country is a complete disaster, with massive arrests, wasted resources, and violence in the US and especially in Mexico," said Jill Harris, managing director of strategic initiatives for Drug Policy Action, the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Similarly, Mason Tvert, co-director of the Colorado Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, told The Huffington Post Monday that he expected no less from the former top narcs, but that Holder and the Obama administration would be wise to reject their call.

"It is not surprising that these men, who have made a living off of marijuana prohibition, want their successors to continue profiting from the existence of the underground marijuana market," Tvert wrote. "They just want to keep billions of taxpayer dollars flowing to their buddies. They know that marijuana prohibition isn't really improving public safety; just as our nation's streets weren't safer when Al Capone and his cohorts controlled the alcohol trade," he added.

"For Eric Holder to act as the mouthpiece for these old school warriors of the irrational war on marijuana that is rapidly losing public support would be sending a message to tens of thousands of passionate supporters of Amendment 64 that their opinions do not matter," Tvert warned the administration. "He will be telling them that Colorado must continue to live under a system of marijuana prohibition not because it makes sense, but because the federal government demands it. Most people accept the view that drug prohibition has been a colossal failure."

What will Holder do? Time will tell.

Colorado Marijuana Legalization Initiative Maintains Nine-Point Lead

Two months out from election day, positions appear to be hardening in the battle over legalizing marijuana in Colorado. A new Public Policy Polling survey shows Amendment 64, which would legalize and regulate marijuana like alcohol, maintaining the same nine-point lead it held last month.

Amendment 64 ad aims to reassure parents about teen marijuana use.
According to the poll results, both support -- at 47% -- and opposition -- at 38% -- remain unchanged. That's both good and not so good news for the legalization campaign. The good news is that the initiative remains ahead; the not so good news is that it isn't above 50%. But undecided voters would have to break 4-1 against the initiative for it to fail, if all of them vote yes or now and if the PPP numbers hold up.

PPP noted that the ballot language could be somewhat confusing, so it also asked a general question about marijuana legalization. That polled slightly higher, with 49% saying they approved and 43% saying they didn't.

That 43% who oppose marijuana legalization in general will likely represent the minimum "no" vote in November. Now, the initiative campaign must maintain the support it currently has while picking up some of those 15% of the voters who are undecided.

Drug Policy in the 2012 Elections I: The Initiatives [FEATURE]

The Labor Day weekend has passed, summer is behind us, and the November elections are just two months away. When it comes to drug policy and the 2012 elections, there is plenty on the table. This week, we're going to give you an overview all the drug-related campaigns (and we'll be counting on readers to let us know if we've missed anything), followed by some general discussion about the prospects for the fall and the state of the drug reform movement this election season.

Next week, we'll look at election races of interest, from the local races to the presidency, and In the weeks between now and election day, we will be doing in-depth reports on all the statewide initiative campaigns, as well as devoting as much attention as we can to some key local races and initiative campaigns.

Here's what we've got going for November 2012:

Marijuana Legalization Initiatives

Colorado -- 
Amendment 64 would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to an ounce of marijuana or six marijuana plants, three of which could be mature. It would create a system of state-licensed cultivation, manufacturing, and testing facilities and state-licensed retail stores. Local governments would have the option of regulating or prohibiting such facilities. The amendment would also require the state legislature to enact legislation governing industrial hemp cultivation, processing, and sale, and to create an excise tax on wholesale marijuana sales. The first $40 million of that annual revenue would be dedicated to building public schools.

Oregon -- Measure 80, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act (OCTA), would create an Oregon Cannabis Commission to regulate the cultivation and sale of marijuana, but not industrial hemp, which would be allowed, but not regulated by the commission. The commission would grant licenses to cultivate marijuana for sale to it by "all qualified applicants" and would sell marijuana at state retail stores at prices it determines. Medical marijuana patients would have their medicine provided at cost. The OCTA would supersede all state and local laws regarding marijuana, except for impaired driving laws, leaving personal possession and cultivation by adults unregulated.

Washington -- Initiative 502 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by adults 21 and over, but does not allow for personal cultivation, except by or for medical marijuana patients. It would license marijuana cultivation and retail and wholesale sales, with restrictions on advertising. Regulation would be the remit of the state liquor control board, which would have to come up with rules by December 2013. The measure would create a 25% excise tax on marijuana sales, with 40% of revenues dedicated to the general fund and 60% dedicated to substance abuse prevention, research, and healthcare. It would create a per se driving under the influence standard of 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas -- 
The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act would allow patients suffering from specified diseases or medical conditions to use marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. It envisions a system of state-licensed nonprofit dispensaries, and would allow patients or their caregivers to grow their own only if they are not within five miles of a dispensary. In that case, patients could grow up to six flowering plants. Patients could possess up to 2 ½ ounces of marijuana.

Massachusetts -- Question 3, would allow people suffering from a debilitating medical condition to use medical marijuana upon the recommendation of a doctor with whom they have a bona fide relationship. Patients could possess up to a 60-day supply -- what constitutes that supply will be determined by the Department of Health. The initiative would also set up a system of nonprofit medical marijuana cultivation and distribution centers.

Montana -- Initiative Referendum 124 would undo the gutting of the state's medical marijuana program through the passage last year of Senate Bill 423. That bill replaced the voter-approved medical marijuana program, which allowed for dispensary sales, with a new scheme that limited providers to serving only three patients, prohibited providers from accepting anything of value in exchange for products or services, granted local governments the power to regulate providers, tightened standards for demonstrating chronic pain, and demanded reviews of doctors who certified more than 25 patients in a one-year period.

North Dakota -- the medical marijuana initiative is not yet a done deal as we go to press. [Update: North Dakota officials announced Thursday that the measure has failed to make the ballot after several university student signature gatherers were caught faking signatures.] Proponents needed 13,500 valid signatures and handed in more than 20,000 on August 7. State officials had 30 days from then to validate signatures. Patients could possess up to 2 ½ ounces of usable marijuana and grow up to 12 plants in an enclosed space. Caregivers could grow for one or more patients, provided they grew no more than 30 plants. The state would regulate medical dispensaries and the marijuana cultivated for them.

Sentencing

California --
Proposition 36 would reform the state's three strikes law, which allows a life sentence for a third felony conviction. The measure would allow life sentences only if the new felony conviction is "serious or violent," authorize re-sentencing for lifers if their third conviction was not "serious or violent" and if a judge determines their release would not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety, allow life sentences if the third conviction was for "certain non-serious, non-violent sex or drug offenses or involved firearm possession," and keep the life sentence for felons whose previous convictions were for rape, murder, or child molestation. If approved by voters, some 3,000 three strikes lifers could seek reductions.

Local Initiatives

California --
A number of towns, mostly in the San Diego area, will vote on local initiatives to allow medical marijuana dispensaries. Those include Del Mar, Imperial Beach, Lemon Grove, and Solana Beach, as well as Palo Alto. The town of Dunsmuir will vote on whether to loosen cultivation regulations.

Colorado -- Fort Collins will be voting on whether to overturn the ban on dispensaries voted in last November, and Berthoud will be voting on whether to allow dispensaries.

Massachusetts -- In a continuation of work done in the past six election cycles, voters in a number of legislative districts will be asked a non-binding public policy question. In the First Essex and Middlesex Senate District, the Eighth Essex House District, and the Twenty-Second Essex House District voters will be asked whether they support repeal of the "federal prohibition of marijuana, as the 21st Amendment repealed national prohibition of alcohol, so that states may regulate it as they choose?" Voters in the Second Middlesex Senate District, the Middlesex and Suffolk Senate District, and the Second Berkshire House District will answer a similar question.

Michigan -- Voters in Detroit and Flint will vote on marijuana legalization initiatives, voters in Grand Rapids will vote on decriminalization,  Kalamazoo will vote on an initiative to allow dispensaries, and Ypsilanti will vote on a lowest law enforcement priority initiative.

Washington -- Voters in six cities -- Bellingham, Bremerton, Everett, Kent, Olympia, and Spokane -- will vote on initiatives to make marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority and prohibit local officials from cooperating with federal marijuana law enforcement activities.

The lineup of state and local initiatives has some drug reform movement spokespeople feeling pretty good.

"I think at least one state will make marijuana legal for adults this election cycle," said Marijuana Policy Project communications director Morgan Fox. "The fact that we're discussing so many initiatives is a sign of progress. As things progress and people get increasingly sick of marijuana prohibition, we will see more and more states considering this every election cycle, and it will become more of an issue for candidates," he added.

"Politicians are starting to realize they can use this to their advantage and ignore at their peril," said Fox. "Many of them, though, don't realize how much of an effect it can have on their elections -- just ask the former US Attorney in Oregon, Dwight Holton. He didn't think his stance against medical marijuana would cost him the primary, but it did."

"I sincerely hope that one of these passes and raises the debate to whole new level, and maybe takes some of the heat off of California," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "These are states when you can have a good campaign for a reasonable amount of money that the drug reform movement can put up. A million dollars or two doesn't get you very far in California."

But at least one of those legalization initiatives needs to win this year, he said. "If pot gets wiped out in the elections, it's going to be tougher to win down the road."

"The sheer number of initiatives that are on the ballot and viable this cycle shows the momentum that the movement toward legalizing marijuana has," said Tamar Todd, assistant director for national policy at the Drug Policy Alliance. "That momentum is also reflected in other ways -- in terms of the dialog we're hearing, the high support for legalization across the board, the rejection of the drug war polices of the past," she said.

"When you look in certain areas, such as the Northeast and the West, the numbers are even higher," Todd continued. "In 2010, we had a legalization initiative in California; this year we have them in three states, plus three or four medical marijuana initiatives. The number and their viability represent a real shift taking place in public opinion.  The end result, no matter what happens this election cycle, is that in two years and every two years, the number and viability will continue to increase until there is actually sufficient change happening at the state level to start pushing the federal government to change its policies."

The initiatives are on the ballot. Now, they need to win.

NAACP Regional Chapters Endorse CO, OR, WA Marijuana Initiatives

All three marijuana legalization initiatives on state ballots this year have won the endorsement of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) regional organizations this week. Last Wednesday, the Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming conference of the NAACP endorsed the Colorado initiative, and last Friday, the Alaska, Washington, and Oregon conference of the NAACP endorsed the Washington initiative. That same conference endorsed the Oregon initiative earlier this month.

The Colorado initiative, Amendment 64, has already won the support of a growing list of organizations, including the Democratic and Libertarian Parties of Colorado, the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition. Similarly, the Washington initiative, I-502, also has a growing list of endorsers, including the King County (Seattle) Bar Association, the Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO, the Green Party, the state Democratic Party, and numerous county and local Democratic Party groups. Likewise, the Oregon initiative, Measure 80, is busily picking up endorsements as well, including that of the Libertarian Party presidential ticket.

"In ending the prohibition against adult use of marijuana, we might affect mass incarceration and its disproportionate impact on African-Americans and other people of color," said Rocky Mountain states regional NAACP president Rosemary Harris-Lytle.

"Treating marijuana use as a crime has not only failed, it has perpetuated racial inequities through unequal enforcement," said Pacific Northwest regional president Oscar Eason, Jr.  "African Americans are no more likely than whites to use marijuana, but we are much more likely to be arrested for it."

Every endorsement counts in what will be a nail-biter of a campaign in both states. According to recent polls, the Colorado and Washington initiatives are leading, but are only hovering around the 50% support level. It takes 50% plus one to win, and veteran initiative watchers say initiatives should be polling at least 60% as the campaigns head into the home stretch because some support is soft and likely to be peeled off by last minute opposition campaigning.

In Colorado, an early August Public Policy Polling survey of likely voters had Amendment 64 leading 49% to 40% and trending upward from an earlier PPP poll that had it leading 46% to 42%, but still not over 50%. In Washington, a July Public Policy Polling survey had I-502 leading 50% to 37% and trending upward over an earlier PPP poll that had it leading 47% to 39%, but still not over 50%. The battle looks to be a little tougher in Oregon, where a July Public Policy Polling survey asking a generic question about whether marijuana should be legalized had 43% saying yes and 46% saying no.

Look for in-depth reporting on these three marijuana legalization initiatives and their prospects after the Labor Day holiday.

Now They're Trying to Ban... Kratom? [FEATURE]

The prohibitionist impulse is strong. When confronted with a newly encountered psychoactive substance, there are always special pleaders to sound the alarm and politicians willing to reflexively resort to the power of the ban. Whether it is something with serious potential dangers, like the "bath salts" drugs, or something much more innocuous, like khat, the mild stimulant from the Horn of Africa, doesn't seem to matter; the prohibitionist impulse is strong.

mitragyna speciosa (kratom) tree (photo by Gringobonk, courtesy Erowid.org)
Kratom is a substance that falls on the more innocuous side of the psychoactive spectrum. It is the leaves of the kratom tree, mitragyna speciosa, which is native to Thailand and Indonesia, where the leaves have been chewed or brewed into a tea and used for therapeutic and social purposes for years. According to the online repository of psychoactive knowledge, the Vaults of Erowid, kratom acts as both a mild stimulant and a mild sedative, creates feelings of empathy and euphoria, is useful for labor, and is relatively short-acting.

Of course, any psychoactive substance has its good and its bad sides, but kratom's downside doesn't seem very severe. Erowid lists its negatives as including a bitter taste, dizziness and nausea at higher doses, mild depression coming down, feeling hot and sweaty, and hangovers similar to alcohol. There is no mention of potential for addiction, and while fatal overdoses are theoretically possible, especially with its methanol and alkaloid extracts, in the real world, ODing on kratom doesn't appear to be an issue. No fatal overdoses are known to have actually occurred.

On the other hand, some of kratom's alkaloids bind to opioid receptors in the brain, making it an opioid agonist, and it is now being sold in the West and used to treat pain, depression, anxiety, and opiate withdrawal. Sold in smoke shops, herbal supplement emporia, and on the Internet, it is now apparently being lumped in with synthetic cannabinoids and the "bath salts" drugs by treatment professionals, law enforcement, and others who make a habit of searching for scary new drugs.

Kratom is not listed as a banned substance in the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs or its successor treaty, and has been banned in only a handful of countries, most ironically in Thailand itself. It was banned there in 1943, when then Thai government was taxing the opium trade and opium users were switching to kratom to aid in withdrawals and as a substitute.

Arrests for kratom possession have jumped in recent years, from more than 1,200 in 2005 to more than 7,000 in 2009, even though the Thai Office of the Narcotics Control Board recommended to the Justice Department in 2010 that it be decriminalized because of the lack of any perceivable social harms.

In the US, the DEA added kratom to its list of drugs of concern in 2010, although that doesn't mean that a federal ban is necessarily imminent. Salvia divinorum, for example, has been a drug of concern for more than a decade now, with no action taken. But while the feds haven't acted, there were efforts to ban kratom in several states in the US this year, although only Indiana actually succeeding in outlawing it. In Louisiana, age restrictions were placed on its purchase.

The experience of Iowa, where legislation to ban kratom is still pending, is illustrative of how bans are created. The Iowa effort happened after state Rep. Clel Baudler (R) heard about kratom on a radio program. Within two hours, he was moving to ban it.

"Kratom is a hallucinogen, addictive, and can be life threatening," he said at the time, in complete contradiction of all that is actually known about kratom.

It's not just states that are considering bans on kratom. Pinellas County, Florida, was about to enact one this week, but the prohibitionist bandwagon hit a bump in the road in the form of perennial drug war gadfly Randy Heine, owner of Rockin' Cards and Gifts in Pinellas Park, who told the Chronicle he had been selling kratom in his store since 1981.

Seeing what was coming down the pike, Heine alerted the Kratom Association, a group of users, producers, and vendors dedicated to keeping kratom legal, who flooded county commissioners with emails. He also addressed the commission itself.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/randy-heine-201px.jpg
Randy Heine
"I have been selling kratom for over 30 years out of my store on Park Blvd. I challenge anyone to find any problem originating from my store selling kratom," he wrote in a letter made available to the Chronicle. "Do not lump in synthetic chemicals with an organic plant material. This is like comparing apples to oranges. I would like to see kratom be sold only to persons over the age of 18, similar to the proposal being made in our sister state of Louisiana."

In the conservative county, Heine also appealed to the ghost of Ronald Reagan in his letter to commissioners. What riles up the Reagan in him, Heine wrote, is "growing the bureaucracy by creating another board to regulate what I and others do in privacy of our own homes."

"I got letters back from two of the commissioners," said Heine. "They read my Ronald Reagan letter out loud, and one of the GOP commissioners thanked me for sharing my thoughts. The commission has now deferred this item so we can take a closer look at the issues involved."

Many of his kratom customers are using it as an opiate substitute, he said.

"We have a drug rehab place here, and my feeling is that a lot of their clients are purchasing kratom instead of methadone. It's competition; I'm taking away money," he said. "Some of my customers say methadone is worse than heroin and keeps you addicted. Kratom weans them off heroin. A lot of them say they just do less and less kratom until the craving stops. I have a couple of senior women who say they're tired of taking prescription pills, that they make them nutty, and kratom works for them."

Chronicle readers may recall that Pinellas County is where a drug reform-minded upstart Democratic candidate for sheriff is taking on either the scandal-plagued Republican incumbent sheriff or his challenger and predecessor, former Sheriff Everett Rice (the GOP primary is next week), whose supporters on the council were pushing the kratom ban. That Democrat, Scott Swope, is so good on drug policy that his candidacy persuaded Heine to drop his own bid for the sheriff's office.

"This looks like another unconstitutional intrusion into the lives of Pinellas citizens who aren't harming anyone," Swope said. "I've researched kratom and although there doesn't seem to be as much research available as cannabis, it appears to me to be a plant product that should not be banned. I think the purchase or possession of any of these things (cannabis, kratom, bath salts) by minors should not be allowed. Adults, however, should be free to do what they want as long as they aren't harming anyone else."

While Heine is currently bedeviled by the effort to ban kratom, as well as an associated effort to force smoke shops to put large signs on their doors saying they sell drug paraphernalia, the Swope candidacy has him hoping for better times ahead. 

"Swope can win," he exulted. "We finally have a candidate who is talking about marijuana. Even the Republican candidates are now saying they wouldn't bust people for marijuana. When I was still a candidate, I went to many forums to talk about pot, and the media started asking these guys about it. Scott won't arrest people for personal use."

Whether it's relatively unknown substances like kratom or now familiar substances like marijuana, the battle lines are drawn in what is ultimately a culture war. On one hand, the forces of fear and authoritarianism; on the other, the forces of free inquiry and personal liberty. It's been a long war, and it isn't going to end anytime soon, but perhaps now there are hints that the correlation of forces is changing.

Stopping unnecessary prohibitions before they get started is part of the struggle; undoing entrenched prohibitions with powerful interests behind them is another part of the struggle, but even though the substances are different, it's the same struggle.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Pinellas County
FL
United States

Washington Marijuana Initiative Has Good Week

This has been a good week for I-502, the Washington state initiative to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana, and its sponsors, New Approach Washington. Over the weekend, the campaign racked up big bucks with a handful of six-figure contributions, and just before that, a new poll had it with a promising lead.

SurveyUSA polled registered voters last week on the question of whether I-502 should be enacted into law, and 55% said yes, while only 32% said no. That's a 23-point lead, a figure that exceeds the number of undecideds (13%). Even if the undecideds break strongly against I-502, as they are wont to do in initiative votes, the measure merely needs to not shed too much support to still be able to win in November.

The good poll numbers were followed over the weekend by New Approach Washington's announcement that it had received $1.25 million in new donations. The measure had already received $1.7 in donations before announcing the latest round.

The big bucks came from a handful of donors: $450,000 from Progressive Insurance founder and drug reform sugar daddy Peter Lewis; another $450,000 from the lobbying arm of the Drug Policy Alliance; $250,000 from TV travel show host Rick Steves, who had already kicked in another $100,000; and $100,000 from the ACLU of Washington.

I-502 would legalize the sale and possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Marijuana and marijuana-infused products would be grown by state licensed growers and sold in state-licensed stores. The measure would impose steep excise taxes on pot sales.

It is opposed by state law enforcement associations, but also by some legalization and medical marijuana activists concerned with its provision that would impose a new limit on active THC in the blood of drivers. Those critics argue that the provision would effectively criminalize driving by medical marijuana patients and other regular users.

It wasn't all good news this week. Word came out late last week that Steve Sarich, the state's most prominent purveyor of medical marijuana, and other opponents of I-502 have filed a lawsuit to keep the measure off the November ballot. They claim that passage of I-502 would be "ruinous" to the state budget and that the Office of Financial Management is conspiring with the I-502 campaign by not yet releasing a fiscal impact statement. But as Holcomb noted, the agency has until August 10 to do so.

WA
United States

Marijuana Book Authors Talk at Oaksterdam [FEATURE]

Despite the May DEA raids and Richard Lee's retirement, Oaksterdam University is still alive, and Saturday evening saw its first event under the leadership of his replacement, new executive chancellor Dale Sky Jones. It was a timely and informative one, featuring the authors of four recent books on marijuana, three of which we have recently reviewed, with moderation by David Downs, author of the weekly East Bay Express's Legalization Nation column.

Campos, Kilmer, Campbell, and Rosenthal at Oaksterdam (photos by Drug War Chronicle)
The writers present were Isaac Campos, a University of Cincinnati professor (and SSDP chapter faculty sponsor), and author of "Home Grown: Marijuana and the Origins of Mexico's War on Drugs," Beau Kilmer, codirector of the RAND Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center and one of the coauthors of "Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know," Greg Campbell, veteran journalist and author of "Pot, Inc.: Inside Medical Marijuana, America's Most Outlaw Industry," and Ed Rosenthal, widely known as the "guru of ganja" and author of numerous marijuana cultivation books, including the "Marijuana Growers' Guide."

But before getting down to business, Jones took a moment to talk up Oaksterdam and its founder, who was present at the event.

"This is the first new Oaksterdam University presentation, and it's a perfect opportunity to put Oaksterdam University back on the map," she said. "We cannot let this historic institution die, and we owe it all to Richard Lee," Jones added, sparking a round of applause from the several dozen in attendance.

Then Downs took over, explaining that he would treat the event as if he were the host of a TV talk show and invite one author to the dais at a time to discuss his work before opening things up for general discussion and questions from the audience.

First up was Campos, whose research into historical Mexican attitudes toward marijuana is and should be leading to some revisions in the standard narrative of US pot prohibition, which both followed and echoed Mexico's. As Campos showed, cannabis came to Mexico as hemp way back in 1530, then escaped into the indigenous pharmacopeia only to be demonized as a devil weed by the Inquisition, meanwhile picking up the marijuana moniker.

The Mexicans themselves developed a full-blown Reefer Madness, complete with the belief that marijuana use led to madness and murder, decades before we did. And we imported it, lock, stock, and barrel, thanks to the yellow press in both countries and the creation of the Associated Press, which allowed the same Mexican press horror stories to be picked up and circulated for years among different US newspapers.

"In the contemporary era, the US has been putting pressure on Mexico to fight the war on drugs, and people in the scholarly literature assumed this was always the case, but marijuana was banned nationally in Mexico in 1920, with the first local bans beginning in the 1870s," Campos explained. "That doesn't really fit the model. I'm a drug reformer, too, but we have to understand it's not simply the US imposing this; it has deep roots in other places, Mexico being one, but others in Latin America, too."

"For lease" sign atop Oaksterdam University. OU will live on, but not here.
Next up was Beau Kilmer, who, along with his coauthors, has been getting a lot of attention with their just published "Marijuana Legalization." Downs asked if the book was proving controversial.

"Well, The Weekly Standard liked it, and so did StoptheDrugWar.org," he said.

A recent Slate article based on the book sensationally warned that with full legalization, the price of marijuana could decline dramatically. That prompted Downs to query Kilmer about it.

"National legalization and legalization in a state are two different things," the RAND scholar carefully pointed out. "If it were farmed like any other agricultural good, the price would drop dramatically to as low as a few dollars an ounce. But at the state level, it's a different story. It would depend on what the federal government would do, and no one knows that. That's important because much of the price is compensation for risk, and under national legalization, there would be a reduction in risk compensation, too."

"And the fear is that low prices might drive usage up?" asked Downs.

"Well, people who are not fans of pot might not like that," Kilmer responded. "We think legalization would end up increasing use, but we make clear we don't know by how much. And we have to think about its effects on alcohol consumption. The harms of heavy cannabis use pale in comparison with those of alcohol, but we don't know whether legalization would decrease or increase alcohol use."

Local legend Ed Rosenthal, whose Quick Trading Company has become a pot publishing powerhouse and whose latest title is about dealing with pests, talked about his love for growing and had one of the better lines of the night.

"Marijuana isn't addictive, but growing it can be," he proclaimed.

Greg Campbell, whose "Pot, Inc." used his adventures in the Colorado medical marijuana boom as a springboard for a broader discussion of marijuana prohibition and its alternatives, said he came to the issue not as an advocate, but as a curious outsider.

"I am representative of the majority in Colorado, who are not morally disgusted by the idea of this industry, nor are they true believers," Campbell said, explaining that his personal experience with marijuana was limited to a college semester and didn't go well. "I was neutral about this industry popping up, with some healthy skepticism about the medicinal qualities. But I learned that the medical qualities can't be denied and I ended as a true believer in legalization."

Colorado has survived its experiment so far, he said in response to a question from Downs.

"We've had two or three years without people dropping dead from smoking Sour Diesel, everything is fine, and we're a little bit annoyed by the federal government. They've been picking off the low-lying fruit," he complained, alluding to the two dozen or so Colorado dispensaries forced to shut their doors in the face of federal threats.

Legalization will be on the ballot in Colorado this year, along with Oregon and Washington, and it was on the minds of Downs and the four writers.

"There are signs of regime change," said Campos. "When moral revolutions come, some cruel or nonsensical practice will have existed for a long time, then suddenly it ends. The end begins with a strong, well-organized, well-funded movement against it, as there was with the African slave trade or foot-binding in China, and then there's a tipping point. I feel that with well-organized, well-funded groups like the Drug Policy Alliance and NORML, we're very close to that point now. It's time to push even harder and continue to fund these groups."

Legalization has many unknowns, said Kilmer, and should have an escape clause.

"No one has ever legalized cannabis production before; it should have a sunset provision," he declared.

"The war on drugs has been a human rights disaster," said Campos. "We need to keep our eyes on the prize of ending drug prohibition. I'm convinced that someday our children will look back on this period and wonder how we allowed that system to remain.

As for the unknowns of legalization, Campos had one cogent observationt.

"Look back at the late 19th Century, when not only cannabis, but heroin and cocaine were completely unregulated, yet use was never that high," he pointed out.

But leave it to Rosenthal to really put things in perspective.

"Marijuana has been illegal for 75 years," he noted. "In the history of the United States, the norm has been for marijuana to be legal. Marijuana prohibition is an aberration. The bottom line is nobody should go to jail or prison for marijuana, people should be able to grow their own, and the police should be out of it."

Oakland, CA
United States

Montana Marijuana Initiative Comes Up Short

Montana residents will have a chance to vote on medical marijuana in November, but not on legalization. In a Friday statement, Secretary of State Linda McCullough announced that the medical marijuana initiative, IR-124 would be on the general election ballot (even though it had been a done deal since late last year), but that the constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana, CI-110, had failed to qualify.

]According to the secretary of state's office, CI-110 handed in fewer than 18,000 valid signatures. It needed more than 48,000 by the Friday deadline to make the ballot.

"None of the other issues appear to have enough signatures to qualify for the ballot," McCulloch said as she announced that IR-124 and an unrelated measure had qualified. "We will continue to tabulate all certified signatures, and the totals at the ime of qualification will be certified to the governor and released publicly next week."

"We didn't make it," said Barb Trego of East Helena, CI-110's sponsor. "We just ran out of time. We just got going too late," she told the Missoulian.

Trego said the CI-110 backers had to change the proposal's language at least three times because of objections by state officials. That delayed their signature-gathering efforts.

"We're not giving up," she said. "When we do it the next time, we'll be more prepared. We already have the language."

The failure of CI-110 to make the ballot means the final tally of states where be on the November ballot is three: Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.

Helena, MT
United States

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