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Chronicle AM: Govs Seek Fed Help for Opioid Crisis, KY GOP Leader Files Legal MJ Bill, More... (1/18/18)

Governors call for more help with the opioid crisis from the federal government, a Kentucky GOP leader files a marijuana legalization bill, the ACLU of Montana warns an overzealous prosecutor, and more.

The nation's governors want Trump and the Congress to step up on dealing with the opioid crisis. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Congressmen Reintroduce Bill to Protect Marijuana from Civil Asset Forfeiture. Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Justin Amash (R-MI) reintroduced the Stop Civil Asset Forfeiture Funding for Marijuana Suppression Act on Wednesday. The bill would block seized funds from being used to in the DEA's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression program. This year's version of the bill is not yet available on the congressional website, but the 2015 version is available here.

Kentucky Republican Leader Files Marijuana Legalization Bill. State Sen. Dan Seum (R-Fairdale), a member of the Republican leadership team, filed a marijuana legalization bill on Wednesday. The bill would allow people 21 and over to legally use marijuana, and it would also legalize the production and sales of pot. The measure is Senate Bill 80.

New Jersey Legalization Bid Must Overcome Democratic Wavering. Newly seated Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy vowed to legalize marijuana in his first 100 days in office, but he's going to have to whip some Democratic senators into shape first. At least a half dozen Democratic senators say they plan to vote against any legalization bill. The state Senate has 40 seats; the Democrats hold 25 of them. If all six Democrats actually vote no, that means passage would depend on at least two Republicans voting yes. There are two GOP senators, Chris Brown of Atlantic and Dawn Addiego of Burlington, who have said they are leaning toward supporting the bill.

Wisconsin Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Would Pardon Marijuana Offenders. A leading contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, former state Democratic Party chairman Matt Flynn, said Wednesday he would pardon all low-level, non-violent marijuana offenders if elected. Flynn has repeatedly called for marijuana legalization in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Voters Ready for Full-Fledged Medical Marijuana Program, Poll Finds. A new poll from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution finds that more than three-quarters of those surveyed want to see the state's limited medical marijuana program expanded. Some 77% said they want greater access to medical marijuana. The poll comes as the legislature considers a measure, House Bill 645, that would allow for medical marijuana dispensaries. The poll also found that support for recreational marijuana was at an all-time high in the state, with 50% saying legalize it.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Governors Call on Trump, Congress to Do More to Solve Opioid Crisis. In its first coordinated response to the opioid crisis, the National Governors Association called Thursday for the administration and Congress to provide more money and coordination to fight against it. "While progress has been made, the consequences of opioid addiction continue reverberating throughout society, devastating families and overwhelming health care providers, law enforcement and social services," the governors said as they released a set of 22 recommendations. Among other suggestions, the governors are calling for increased access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, increased efforts to block illicit fentanyl shipments into the country, and a requirement that drug prescribers undergo substance abuse training and register to use state prescription monitoring databases.

Law Enforcement

Montana ACLU Vows to Challenge County DA's Crackdown on Pregnant Drug and Alcohol Users The ACLU of Montana said Wednesday it will fight any action by Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris to arrest or incarcerate pregnant women based on alleged harm to the fetus. Harris announced last week that he would seek protection orders barring pregnant women from using any non-prescribed drugs or alcohol and seek contempt orders and jail for any woman who violates them. The ACLU called Harris's move "an egregious abuse of power" and noted that a similar effort in Ravalli County in 2014 was killed in the courts. "If these reports are accurate, then Big Horn County's 'crackdown' on pregnant women is not only counterproductive, paternalistic and cruel, it is also illegal. If your office actively attempts to enforce such a policy, ACLU is prepared to challenge those actions in Court," the group said in a letter sent to Harris.


New Jersey Enacts Law to Examine Racial and Ethnic Impact of Sentencing Changes. On his last day in office, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed racial and ethnic impact statement legislation this week that will provide an opportunity for lawmakers to address the state's high rate of racial disparity in incarceration. Similar to fiscal or environmental impact statements, racial impact statements provide legislators with a statistical analysis of the projected impact of criminal justice policy changes prior to enactment. Armed with the data analysis, policymakers can make more informed decisions about public safety issues without aggravating existing racial disparities. Four other states -- Connecticut, Iowa, Minnesota, and Oregon -- have similar policies.

Chronicle AM: Major Iran Drug Death Penalty Reform, NJ Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed, More... (1/11/18)

Iran moves to put the brakes on drug executions, another national poll has strong support for marijuana legalization, a legalization bill gets filed in New Jersey, a medical marijuana bill gets filed in Kentucky, and more.

Iran drug executions. We will see many fewer after the Islamic Republic approved reforms. (Hands Off Cain)
Marijuana Policy

Quinnipiac Poll Has Strong Majority for Legalization, Opposition to Sessions Move. A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday had support for marijuana legalization at 58% nationwide, roughly in line with recent polls from the Pew Trust (61%) and Gallup (64%). The only demographic groups not embracing legalization were Republicans (33%) and people over 65 (41%). Hispanics were evenly divided with 48% opposed and 48% in favor. But every group said they opposed the push to enforce federal marijuana laws in states where it is legal, with 70% opposing such a move. Marijuana "is here to stay, either for fun or to provide medical comfort," said pollster Tim Malloy in a statement. "And the message to Attorney General Jeff Sessions: Hands off."

Study: Legal Marijuana Could Create a Million Jobs, More Than $100 Billion in Federal Taxes. A study from New Frontier Data, an analytics firm focused on the marijuana industry, estimates that if marijuana were legal nationwide, it would generate federal tax revenues of nearly $132 billion over the next eight years. The study also calculated that nationwide legalization would create nearly 800,000 jobs, with that number rising to more than 1.1. million by 2025.

Sessions, Gardner Meet Over DOJ's War on Weed: No Progress. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) met Wednesday with Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding their conflict over marijuana policy, but Gardner reported no progress. "Nobody changed their mind in today's meeting," he said. Gardner, who represents a legal marijuana state, has vowed to block Justice Department nominees until Sessions backs away from his order last week rescinding Obama-era guidance to federal prosecutors that law-abiding pot operations in legal marijuana states should be largely left alone.

New Jersey Legalization Bill Filed. State Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Middlesex) filed a marijuana legalization bill on Tuesday. The bill would allow for the possession of up to an ounce of weed, 16 ounces of infused pot products, and 72 ounces of liquid infused products, but would not allow for home cultivation. It would also allow for the licensing of commercial grows and pot shops within a year of the bill's passage. Incoming Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has said he supports legalization. The bill is not yet available on the legislative web site.

Norfolk, Virginia, Calls for Marijuana Decriminalization. The city council in Virginia's second largest city passed a resolution Tuesday calling on state lawmakers to decriminalize pot possession. The resolution also called on the legislature to expand the list of medical conditions for which doctors can recommend the use of CBD cannabis oil Incoming Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) made decriminalization a centerpiece of his compaign, often describing the issue in racial justice terms.

Medical Marijuana

Kentucky Medical Marijuana Bill Filed. Secretary of State Allison Grimes announced Tuesday that a bill to legalize medical marijuana in the state, House Bill 166, has been filed. The bill would allow people suffering from a qualifying list of conditions to use medical marijuana. It would also allow patients to grow up to 12 plants in a locked and closed facility.

North Dakota Sets Medical Marijuana Dispensary Regions. The state Department of Health has established eight regions for where dispensaries can be located. State law allows for up to eight dispensaries, with more to be added if necessary. As of now, the eight regions include the state's largest cities and a 50-mile radius around them. The state is no yet taking applications for dispensaries or grow operations.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Pennsylvania Governor Declares Opioid Epidemic a Statewide Disaster. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) signed a statewide disaster declaration Tuesday regarding the state's opioid and heroin crisis. "While we have made progress in combating the heroin and opioid abuse crisis and drastically expanded Pennsylvania's response, we are still losing far too many Pennsylvanians," Wolf said in a statement. "I am taking this step to protect Pennsylvanians from this looming public health crisis, and I am using every tool at my disposal to get those suffering from substance use disorders into treatment, save more lives, and improve response coordination." The disaster declaration includes 13 initial initiatives in three broad areas: enhancing coordination and data collection to bolster state and local response, improving tools for families and first responders to save lives, and speeding up and expanding access to treatment.


Iran Reforms Death Penalty for Drug Offenses; Could Spare 5,000 Death Row Prisoners. The head of the Iranian judiciary on Tuesday made it official: Iran has reformed its death penalty statutes and will radically reduce the number of people facing execution for drug offenses. It does so by raising the weight threshold for a death sentence. Under the earlier law, possession of 5 kilograms of opium of 30 grams of heroin merited the death sentence; under the new law, it will take 50 kilos of opium or 2 kilos of heroin. The new thresholds are to be applied retroactively, potentially saving the lives of thousands on death row.

Paraguay Legalizes Medical Marijuana. Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes signed into law a medical marijuana bill on Wednesday. The measure legalizes the medicinal use of marijuana and cannabis oils, allows for local production of medical marijuana, and allows for the import of cannabis oil. Paraguay now joins Mexico and the South American countries of Argentina, Chile, Columbia, and Peru in allowing medical marijuana. Uruguay has legalized marijuana for all uses.

Chronicle AM: VT Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization, US Prisoner Numbers Drop Again, More... (1/10/18)

Vermont is just a governor's signature away from becoming the first state to legalize marijuana at the statehouse, Maine stakeholders reach agreement on a legalization implementation bill, the US prisoner population declines for the third straight year, and more.

Montpelier says yes to marijuana (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

California Bill Would Ease Expungement of Old Convictions. Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) has filed a bill, Assembly Bill 1793, to make the expungement of past marijuana misdemeanors and the reduction of past marijuana felonies to misdemeanors automatic. The expungements and downgradings are part of the 2016 legalization initiative, Prop 64, but the initiative language required people to initiate proceedings themselves.

Maine Stakeholders Reach Agreement on Legalization Implementation Bill. The legislature's Marijuana Implementation Committee said Tuesday it has come up with a framework for regulating legal marijuana in the state. This marks the second effort to put the will of the voters into effect: Last year, Gov. Paul LePage vetoed the original effort. Under the agreement, legal sales will be taxed at 17.5% and localities will have to opt-in to participate. Now the committee needs to actually draft the bill and get it to the governor.

Vermont Legislature Approves Noncommercial Marijuana Legalization Bill. The Senate Wednesday took a final vote on a bill that would legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, but not taxed and regulated sales. Gov. Phil Scott has said he will sign the bill into law. The bill, House Bill 511, legalizes the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and the cultivation of two mature and four immature plants by persons 21 or over. It does not allow for legal commerce, instead "retaining criminal penalties for the possession, dispensing, or sale of larger amounts of marijuana." For now, anyway -- the bill also calls for a task force appointed by the governor to study the issue and recommend "legislation on implementing and operating a comprehensive regulatory and revenue system for an adult marijuana market" by December 31.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Lawsuit Challenges "Racial Quota" in Medical Marijuana Program. A company that failed to win a slot in the state's medical marijuana program has filed a lawsuit claiming it lost out because of "an unconstitutional racial quota." PharmaCann Ohio Inc. said it finished 12th out of more than a hundred applicants for 12 cultivation licenses on the state's application ranking system, but that it lost out because a state quota system requires 15% of those licenses to go to minority-owned groups. That requirement gave an unfair boost to companies that scored lower in the rankings, the company argued, saying the racial requirement violates the Constitution's 14th Amendment equal protection clause.

Harm Reduction

Florida 911 Good Samaritan Overdose Bill Advances. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted Tuesday to advance a 911 Good Samaritan overdose bill, Senate Bill 970. The measure would grant immunity to drug possession charges to people who seek medical help for a drug overdose. Florida is one of only a handful of states that have yet to pass such a law. The measure still faces a vote in the Judiciary Committee before moving to a Senate floor vote.


State and Federal Prison Populations Declined for Third Straight Year in 2016. The number of state and federal prisoners declined for the third straight year in 2016, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported Wednesday. At year's end 2016, the number of people in state and federal prison was 1,505,400, a 1% decrease from 2015. Federal prisons accounted for more than a third (34%) of the decrease, with the federal prison population dropping from 196,500 in 2015 to 189,200 in 2016. Nearly half (47%) of all federal prisoners are doing time for drug offenses.

Chronicle AM: Trump Touts "Very Harsh" Drug Policies, CA Marijuana "Sanctuary State" Bill, More... (1/8/17)

A California lawmaker revives his marijuana sanctuary state bill, President Trump lauds "very harsh" drug policies, Mexico's prohibition-related violence continues, and more.

President Trump seems to have a soft spot for "very harsh" drug policies and those who implement them. (Wikimedia/Gage Skidmore)
Marijuana Policy

San Francisco Begins Legal Adult Marijuana Sales. The city by the bay joined the legal recreational marijuana sales era last Saturday, as the Apothecarium on Market Street opened its doors to a line around the block. Sales in the state began on January 1 in locations where permits and licenses had been issued, but San Francisco wasn't quite ready on day one. Now it is.

California Bill Would Make State a Marijuana Sanctuary State. In the wake of US Attorney Jeff Sessions' announcement last week that he was rescinding Obama-era guidance to federal prosecutors to leave state law-abiding pot businesses alone, Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) is renewing efforts to pass a bill he filed last year, Assembly Bill 1578. Modeled on the state's law making it a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, the measure would prevent state and local law enforcement agencies from helping the DEA target the state's marijuana industry without a federal court order. The bill passed the Assembly last year before being stalled in the Senate.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Okays First Dispensary. State regulators announced last Thursday that they had approved the state's first dispensary to begin selling medical marijuana once it becomes available from a licensed grow. The Keystone Canna Remedies dispensary in Bethlehem was the first out of the gate. The dispensary will open later this month for educational workshops and registration assistance, but doesn't expect to have product on hand until mid-February. Regulators said they expected more dispensaries to open in coming weeks.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Ohio Lawmaker Wants to Automatically Jail Parolees, Probationers Who Fail Drug Tests for Illicit Opioids. State Rep. Niraj Antani (R-Miami Valley) has proposed a bill that would automatically jail probationers or parolees who test positive for heroin, fentanyl, or carfentanil. The bill would also allow an option for treatment, but Antani said there are not enough treatment facilities and "until that time, jail is simply the safest place for someone to detox and to be safely placed if they are using heroin and fentanyl." The bill is not yet available on the legislative website, but some of Antani's other bills are, including one that says police body camera footage is not a public record and another that would toughen the requirements for getting initiatives on the ballot and for passing them.

Collateral Consequences

Indiana Bill Would End Food Stamp Ban for Drug Felons. State Sen. Mike Bohacek (R-Michiana Shores) has filed Senate Bill 11, which would lift a ban on residents with drug felony convictions from receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). The ban derives from a federal law, but that law allows states to exempt themselves from using it, and a majority of states have done so. Under Bohacek's bill, drug felons who had completed probation or parole would be eligible.

Drug Policy

Trump Says Countries That Are "Very Harsh" on Drug Policy Do Better. Speaking at a Camp David press conference last Saturday, President Trump appeared to give a big thumbs up to drug war criminals such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte by saying countries that are "very harsh" on drug policy have fewer difficulties curbing the problem. His remarks came as he addressed the opioid crisis in the US. "We are going to do everything we can," said Trump. "It's a very difficult situation, difficult for many countries. Not so difficult for some, believe it or not, they take it very seriously, they're very harsh, those are the ones that have much less difficulty. But we are going to be working on that very, very hard this year, and I think we're going to make a big dent into the drug problem."

Harm Reduction

Maine's Tea Party Governor Blocks Easy Access to Overdose Reversal Drug. Gov. Paul LePage (R) continues to block new rules that would allow state residents to obtain the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) without a prescription. The state Board of Pharmacy unanimously approved letting pharmacists dispense the lifesaving drug without a prescription in August, but ever since, the plan has been stalled, with the rules still at the governor's office pending review. LePage spokeswoman Julie Rabinowitz confirmed as much last Friday, but declined to offer any timeline or explanation regarding the delay. LePage vetoed a naloxone bill in 2016, only to be overridden by the legislature.


More Than 30 Killed in Mexico Drug Clashes. At least 32 people were killed in less than 24 hours late last week in the northern state of Chihuahua as rival drug gangs battled each other. The killings appear related to a dispute between La Linea, enforcers for the Juarez Cartel, and La Gente Neva, enforcers for the Sinaloa Cartel. At least seven were reported killing in Chihuahua City, with most of the others being killed in Ciudad Juarez. Among the dead were at least five women and children.

Looking Back: The Biggest Domestic Drug Policy Stories of the Past 20 Years [FEATURE]

As Drug War Chronicle marks the publication of its 1,000th issue (with yours truly having authored 863 of them going back to 2000), we reflect on what has changed and what hasn't in the past couple of decades. This piece recounts our domestic drug policy evolution in the US; a companion piece looks at the international picture.

A lot has happened. We've broken the back of marijuana prohibition, even if we haven't killed it dead yet; we've seen medical marijuana gain near universal public acceptance, we've seen harm reduction begin to take hold, we've fought long and hard battles for sentencing reform -- and even won some of them.

But it hasn't all been good. Since the Chronicle began life as The Week Online With DRCNet back in 1997, more than 30 million people have been arrested for drugs, with all the deleterious consequences a drug bust can bring, and despite all the advances, the drug war keeps on rolling. There's been serious progress made, but there's plenty of work left to do. 

Here are the biggest big picture drug stories and trends of the past 20 years:

1. Medical Marijuana

It was November, 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, five years after San Francisco became the first city in the country to pass a medical marijuana measure, thanks in large part to the efforts of activists who mobilized to make its use possible for AIDS patients. Two years later, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington came on board, and three years after that, Hawaii became the first state to allow it though the legislative process. Now, 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico allow for the use of medical marijuana, and public support for medical marijuana reaches stratospheric levels in polls.

But the battle isn't over. The federal government still refuses to officially recognize medical marijuana, potentially endangering the progress made so far, especially under the current administration, efforts to reschedule marijuana to reflect its medical uses remain thwarted, some of the more recent states to legalize medical marijuana have become perversely more restrictive, and in some of the more conservative states, lawmakers attempt to appease demands for medical marijuana legalization by passing extremely limited CBD-only laws.

2. Marijuana Legalization: In the War on Weed, Weed is Winning

Twenty years ago, pot wasn't legal anywhere, and Gallup had public support for legalization at a measly 25%. A lot has changed since then. It took repeated tries, but beginning in 2012, states started voting to free the weed, with Colorado and Washington leading the way, Alaska and DC coming on board in 2014, and California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada joining the ranks last year. Now, about a fifth of the country has legalized weed, with more states lining up to do so next year, including most likely contenders Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, and Vermont.

Now, Gallup has support for legalization at 64% nationwide, with even a slight majority (51%) of Republicans on board. The only demographic group still opposed to pot legalization is seniors, and they will be leaving the scene soon enough. Again, the battle is by no means over. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and congressional efforts to change that have gone nowhere so far. But it seems like marijuana has won the cultural war, and the rest is just cleaning up what's left of the pot prohibition mess.

3. Marijuana, Inc.: The Rise of an Industry

State-legal marijuana is already a $10 billion dollar a year industry, and that's before California goes on line next month. It's gone from outlaws and hippie farmers in the redwoods to sharp-eyed business hustlers, circling venture capitalists, would-be monopolists, and assorted hangers on, from accountants, lawyers, and publicists to security and systems mavens, market analysts, and the ever-expanding industry press.

These people all have direct pecuniary interests in legal marijuana, and, thanks to profits from the golden weed, the means to protect them. Marijuana money is starting to flow into political campaigns and marijuana business interests organize to make sure they will continue to be able to profit from pot.

Having a legal industry with the wherewithal to throw its weight around a bit is generally -- but not entirely -- a good thing. To the degree that the marijuana industry is able to act like a normal industry, it will act like a normal industry, and that means sometimes the interests of industry sectors may diverge from the interests of marijuana consumers. The industry or some parts of it may complain, for instance, of the regulatory burden of contaminant testing, while consumers have an interest in knowing the pot they smoke isn't poisoned.

And getting rich off weed is a long way from the justice-based demand that people not be harassed, arrested, and imprisoned for using it. Cannabis as capitalist commodity loses some of that outlaw cachet, some ineffable sense of hipster cool. But, hey, you're not going to jail for it anymore (at least in those legal states).

4. The Power of the People: The Key Role of the Initiative Process

The initiative and referendum process, which lets activists bypass state legislatures and put issues to a direct popular vote, has been criticized as anti-democratic because it allows special interests to use an apathetic public to advance their interests, as both car insurers and tobacco companies have attempted in California. It also gets criticized for writing laws without legislative input.

But like any political tool, it can be used for good or ill, and when it comes to drug reform, it has been absolutely critical. When legislatures refuse to lead -- or even follow -- as has been the case with many aspects of drug policy, the initiative process becomes the only effective recourse for making the political change we want. It was through the initiative process that California and other early states approved medical marijuana; it was five years later that Hawaii became the first state where the legislature acted. Similarly with recreational marijuana legalization, every state that has legalized it so far has done it through the initiative process; in no state has it yet made its way through the legislature, although we're hoping that will change next year.

And it's not just marijuana. The initiative process has also been used successfully to pass sentencing reforms in California, and now activists are opening the next frontier, with initiatives being bruited in California and Oregon that would legalize psychedelic mushrooms.

The bad news: Only 24 states have the initiative process. The good news: The ones that do lead the way, setting an example for the others.

Drug prohibition can't be separated from the larger struggle for racial and social justice. (Creative Commons)
5. The Glaring Centrality of Race

It took Michelle Alexander's 2010 publication of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to put a fine point on it, but the centrality of race in the prosecution of the war on drugs has been painfully evident since at least the crack hysteria of the 1980s, if not going back even further to the Nixonian law-and-order demagoguery of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We've heard the numbers often enough: Blacks make up about 13% of the population and about 13% of drug users, but 29% of all drug arrests and 35% of those doing state prison time for drugs. And this racial disparity in drug law enforcement doesn't seem to be going away.

Neither is the horrendous impact racially-biased drug law enforcement has on communities of color. Each father or mother behind bars leaves a family exploded and usually impoverished, and each heavy-handed police action leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The drug war conveyor belt, feeding an endless number of black men and women into the half-life of prison, is clearly a key part of a system of racially oppressive policing that has led to eruptions from Ferguson to Baltimore. If we are going to begin to try to fix race relations in this country, the war on drugs is one of the key battlefronts. Thanks in part to Alexander's bestseller, civil rights organizations from the traditional to newer movements like Black Lives Matter have devoted increasing focus to criminal justice, including drug policy reform.

6. Harm Reduction Takes Hold

We don't think teenagers should be having sex, but we know they're going to, anyway, so we make condoms available to them so they won't get pregnant or STDs. That's harm reduction. So is providing clean needles to injection drug users to avoid the spread of disease, making opioid overdose drugs like naloxone widely available so a dosing error doesn't turn fatal, passing 911 Good Samaritan laws to encourage and OD victims' friends to call for help instead of run away, and providing a clean, well-lit place where drug users can shoot or smoke or snort their drugs under medical supervision and with access to social service referrals.

Two decades ago, the only harm reduction work going on was a handful of pioneering needle exchanges, thanks to folks like Dave Purchase at the North American Syringe Exchange Network (founded in 1988), and early activists faced harassment and persecution from local authorities. But it was the creation of the Harm Reduction Coalition in 1993 that really began to put the movement on the map.

In this century, harm reduction practices have gained ground steadily. Now, 33 states and DC allow needle exchange programs to operate, 40 states and DC have some form of 911 Good Samaritan laws, and every state in the county has now modified its laws to allow greater access to naloxone.

The next frontier for American drug war harm reduction is safe injection sites, and on the far horizon, opiate-assisted maintenance. There is not yet a single officially sanctioned operating safe injection in the country, but we are coming close in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. And let's not forget drug decriminalization as a form of harm reduction. It should be the first step, but that's not the world we live in -- yet.

7. Sentencing Fever Breaks

Beginning in the Reagan years and continuing for decades, the number of prisoners in America rose sharply and steadily, driven in large part by the war on drugs. The phenomenon gained America infamy as the world's biggest jailer, whether in raw numbers or per capita.

But by early in the century, the fever had broken. After gradually slowing rates of increases for several years, the number of state and federal prisoners peaked around 2007 and 2008 at just over 1.6 million. At the end of 2015, the last year for which data is available, the number of prisoners was 1.527 million, down 2% from the previous year. And even the federal prison system, which had continued to increase in size, saw a 14% decline in population that year.

But most drug war prisoners are state prisoners, and that's where sentencing reform have really begun to make a difference. States from California to Minnesota to Texas, among others, enacted a variety of measures to cut the prison population, in some cases because of more enlightened attitudes, but in other cases because it just cost too damned much money for fiscal conservatives.

Current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions would like very much to reverse this trend and is in a position to do some damage, for instance, by instructing federal prosecutors to pursue tough sentences and mandatory minimums in drug cases. But he is hampered by federal sentencing reforms passed in the Obama era. Sessions may be able to bump up the number of people behind bars only slightly; the greater danger is that his policies serve as an inspiration for similarly inclined conservatives in the states to try to roll back reforms there.

8. The Rise (and Fall) of the Opioids

In 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced Oxycontin to the market. The powerful new pain reliever was pitched to doctors as not highly addictive by a high pressure company sales force and became a tremendous market success, generating billions for the Sackler family, the owners of the company. Opioid prescriptions became more common.

For many patients, that was a good thing. Purdue Pharma's marketing push coincided with a push by chronic pain advocates -- patients, doctors and others -- to ease prescribing restrictions that had kept many patients in feasibly treatable pain. And which in many cases still do: A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine found that while "opioid prescriptions for chronic noncancer pain [in the US] have increased sharply . . . [tlwenty-nine percent of primary care physicians and 16 percent of pain specialists report they prescribe opioids less often than they think appropriate because of concerns about regulatory repercussions." As the report noted, having more opioid prescriptions doesn't necessarily mean that "patients who really need opioids [are] able to get them."

While it's popular to blame doctors and Big Pharma for getting a bunch of pain patients addicted to opioids, that explanation is a bit too facile. Many of the people strung out today were never patients, but instead obtained their pain pills on the black market. Through a perverse system of incentives, people on Medicaid could obtain the pills by prescription for next to nothing, then resell them for $40 or $60 apiece to people who wanted them. Some pain management practices were on the cutting edge of relieving pain for patients who needed the help. But others were little more than shady pill mills, popping up in places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida -- places that would become the epicenter of an opioid epidemic within a few years.

When the inevitable crackdowns on pain pill prescribing came, legitimate prescribers of course got caught in the crossfire sometimes, especially those who served the poor or the patients who in the worst chronic pain. Their being targeted, or others reining in their prescribing practices, left many patients in the lurch again. And the closure of pill mills left addicted people in the lurch. But there was plenty of heroin to make up for the missing pills the addicted used to take. Mexican farmers have been happy to grow opium poppies for the American market for decades, and Mexican drug trafficking organizations know how to get it to market.

The whole thing has been worsened by the arrival of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid dozens of times stronger than pure heroin, which seems to be coming mostly from rogue Chinese pharmaceutical labs (although the Mexicans appear to be getting in on the act now, too).

And now we have a drug overdose crisis like the country has never seen before, with around 60,000 people estimated to die from overdoses this year, most of them from opioids (by themselves or in combination with alcohol and/or other drugs). The crisis is inspiring both admirable harm reduction efforts and an execrable turn to harsher punishments, while making things harder again for many pain patients. While many argue that the gentle side of the response to this epidemic is because the victims are mainly white, I would suggest that argument pays short shrift to all the years of hard work advocates and activists of all ethnicities have put in to creating more enlightened drug policies.

9. Policing for Profit: The Never Ending Fight to Rein in Asset Forfeiture

Twenty years ago, pressure was mounting in Washington over abuses of the federal civil asset forfeiture program, just as it is now. Back then, passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) of 2000 marked an important early victory in the fight to rein in what has tartly described as "policing for profit." It was shepherded though the house by then Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican.

How times have changed. Now, with federal agents seizing billions of dollars each year though civil forfeiture proceedings and scandalous abuse after scandalous abuse pumping up the pressure for federal reform, the Republican attorney general is calling for more asset forfeiture. And Jeff Sessions isn't just calling for it; he has undone late Obama administration reforms aimed at reining in one of the sleaziest aspects of federal forfeiture, the Equitable Sharing program, although he is having problems getting Congress to go along.

In the years since CAFRA, a number of states have passed similar laws restricting civil asset forfeiture and directing that seized funds go into the general fund or other designated funds, such as education, but state and local police have been able to evade those laws via Equitable Sharing. Under that program, instead of seizing money under state law, they instead turn it over to the federal government, which then returns 80% of it to the law enforcement agency -- not the general fund and not the schools.

This current setup, with its perverse incentives for police to evade state laws and pursue cash over crime, makes asset forfeiture reform a continuing battlefield at both the state and the federal levels. A number of reform bills are alive in the Congress, and year by year, more and more states pass laws limiting civil asset forfeiture or, even better, eliminating it and requiring a criminal conviction before forfeiture can proceed. Fourteen states have now done that, with the most recent being Connecticut, New Mexico and Nebraska. That leaves 36 to go.

10. Despite Everything, the Drug War Grinds On

We have seen tremendous progress in drug policy in the past 20 years, from the advent of the age of legal marijuana to the breaking of sentencing fever to the spread of harm reduction and the kinder, gentler treatment of the current wave of opioid users, but still, the drug war grinds on.

Pot may be legal in eight states, but that means it isn't in 42 others, and more than 600,000 people got arrested for it last year -- down from a peak of nearly 800,000 in 2007, but still up by 75,000 or 12% over 2015.

It's the same story with overall drug arrests: While total drug arrest numbers peaked at just under 1.9 million a year in 2006 and 2007 -- just ahead of the peak in prison population -- and had been trending downward ever since, they bumped up again last year to 1.57 million, a 5.6% increase over 2015.

There are more options for treatment or diversion out of jail or prison, but people are still getting arrested. Sentencing reforms mean some people won't do as much time as they did in the past, but people are still getting arrested. And the drug war industrial complex, with all its institutional inertia and self-interest, rolls on. If we want to actually end the drug war, we're going to have to stop arresting people for drugs. That would be a real paradigm shift.

Chronicle AM: ME Lawmakers Try to Save MJ Reg Bill from Veto, Denver SIF Advances, More... (11/6/17)

Maine's governor vetoes the marijuana regulation bill, but the legislature will attempt an override today; a plan for a safe injection site in Denver advances, a Michigan roadside drug testing pilot program gets underway this week, and more.

A move is afoot in the legislature to bring a safe injection site to Denver. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Maine Governor Vetoes Bill to Regulate Legal Marijuana Production, Sales. Gov. Paul LePage last Friday vetoed the bill that would regulate legal marijuana commerce in the state. In his veto message, he cited a number of concerns, including how the Trump administration is going to deal with the conflict between state and federal law. "Until I clearly understand how the federal government intends to treat states that seek to legalize marijuana, I cannot in good conscience support any scheme in state law to implement expansion of legal marijuana in Maine," the governor explained.

Maine Lawmakers Meet Today to Try to Override Governor's Veto. The legislature is set to meet at 4:00pm today in a bid to override Gov. LePage's veto of the marijuana regulation bill. The bill passed the Senate, but not the House, by a veto-proof majority earlier this year.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Announces First Licensees for Medical Marijuana Production. State officials announced last Friday they had issued 11 Level II medical marijuana licenses. The licenses will allow holders to begin medical marijuana growing operations.

Drug Testing

Michigan Roadside Drug Testing Pilot Program Begins This Week. Michigan State Police are set to begin a pilot program in five counties to do roadside oral fluid drug tests of drivers in a bid to reduce drugged driving. The counties included are Berrien, Delta, Kent, St. Clair and Washtenaw. Under the program, officers trained in "drug recognition" will be able to require drivers to submit to a preliminary saliva test if they suspect he is impaired. The tests will look for the presence of marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamines, benzodiazepines, cocaine and opiates.

Harm Reduction

Walgreen's to Carry Opioid Overdose Reversal Drug, No Prescription Needed. Walgreen's drugstores will soon stock the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan) at its thousands of locations across the US, and it will be available over the counter, no prescription needed. Walgreen's is the nation's second largest drugstore chain with more than 8,000 stores. "By stocking Narcan in all our pharmacies, we are making it easier for families and caregivers to help their loved ones by having it on hand in case it is needed," Walgreen's vice president Rick Gates said in a statement. "As a pharmacy, we are committed to making Narcan more accessible in the communities we serve."

Denver Starts Down Path Toward Safe Injection Sites. Seattle and San Francisco are the US cities closest to opening safe injection sites for drug users, but now Denver is making a move in the same direction. A legislative committee last week gave unanimous approval to a plan to open a pilot site in the city. But that's just a first step: The next step is to get the legislation through the General Assembly when the legislature convenes in January.


Colombia, UNODC Sign Cooperation Agreement on Coca and Cocaine. In a deal announced last Friday, Colombia and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have agreed to cooperate on the county's coca reduction strategy. Under the deal, the UNODC will help Colombia implement "alternative and sustainable development programs in areas affected by coca cultivation," according to a press release from the Colombian presidency. The plan is estimated to require $315 million in funding over the next four years. The question is whether Colombia has the political will to come up with the money.

Chronicle AM: CA Safe Injection Site Blocked for Now, No Toronto Pot Lounges, More... (9/19/17)

The California safe injection bill comes up two votes short of passing this year, Toronto authorities ignore the pleas of pot lounge operators for a place under legalization, Virginia's Democratic attorney general comes out with a plan to fight opioid overdoses, and more.

No safe injection sites for California this year. Maybe next year. (
Marijuana Policy

New Mexico Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates Want to Legalize It, Republicans Not So Much. Three leading Democratic contenders for the party's gubernatorial nomination support legalization, while the sole Republican in the race does not. Democrat Peter DeBenedittis released a statement Monday calling for legalization, prompting Democrats Jeff Apodaca and US Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham to come out for it as well. The sole Republican, US Rep Steve Pearce opposes legalization, as does one Democrat, state Rep. Joseph Cervantes. But Cervantes noted that he has sponsored legislation reducing penalties for possession.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Deadline Sees Rush of Applicants for Grower, Distributor Licenses. A Monday deadline for grower and distributor applications saw applicants flood the state office building where the paperwork is delivered. Firm numbers weren't available, but applicants overwhelmed the clerks on duty and faced hours-long waits to get processed.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Virginia Attorney General Releases Plan to Fight Opioid Epidemic. State Attorney General Mark Herring (D) on Monday released a plan to address the growing number of deaths caused by the use of heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids. Among the proposals: harsher laws for people dealing in fentanyl, enhanced electronic prescription monitoring, requiring health insurers to cover alternative treatments for pain, teaching schoolchildren about opioids beginning in middle school, and an investigation into price gouging by companies selling naloxone. News accounts don't indicate any discussion in Herring's plan of the need to ensure the availability of opioid pain relievers to those patients who do need them, nor any critical examination of his proposal for increased sentences.

Harm Reduction

California Safe Injection Site Bill Falls Short in State Senate. A bill that would have opened the way to safe injection sites in the state has come up two votes short in the state Senate. The measure, Assembly Bill 186, is not dead, however. Even though the Senate did not vote to pass it, it did vote to reconsider it next year.


Toronto Just Says No to Marijuana Lounges. Despite the pleas of pot consumption lounge owners, some of whom have been open for years, the city's municipal standards and licensing committee voted 4-1 to limit marijuana businesses to government-run stores. The committee also voted to increase penalties for businesses that allow on-site consumption. The city is staying within the parameters set by the Ontario provincial government, which recently announced plans for a government monopoly on pot sales.

Lesotho Becomes First African County to Issue Medical Marijuana License. The country's health ministry has licensed a South African company, Verve Dynamics, to manufacture medical marijuana products, marking a first for the continent.

Peru Medical Marijuana Bill Advances. Spurred by a recent raid on a makeshift medical marijuana facility that mothers were using to soothe their sick children, the Peruvian congress is advancing a medical marijuana bill. The bill has now passed the congressional Committee on National Defense and heads to the full Congress for debate and a final vote. President Pablo Kucyzinski has supported the legislation.

Amnesty International Criticizes Indonesia's Turn to Harsh Drug War. The government's tough stance against drug dealers is leading to an increasing death toll, the human rights group said. Amnesty's Indonesian affiliate said some 80 people had been killed by police in the drug war so far this year, more than four times as many as last year.

(This article was prepared by"s lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays 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.)

Chronicle AM: MA Gov Wants Harsh Sentences for Drug Deaths, More... (8/31/17)

Connecticut continues to grapple with opioids, the Massachusetts governor and cops want mandatory minimums and a possible life sentence for dealers whose clients die, and more.

MA Gov. Baker prefers 20th Century drug war mistakes over 21st century solutions. (
Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Fentanyl Overdoses Now Exceed Heroin Overdoses in Connecticut. The state saw 539 opioid overdose deaths in the first half of this year, and for the first time, more people died using fentanyl than heroin. While 257 people died of heroin overdoses, 322 died of fentanyl overdoses. The state medical examiner's office projects overdose deaths this year will reach 1,100, a 20% increase over last year.

Connecticut Governor Signs Opioid Bill. Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) on Thursday signed into law a bill aimed at slowing the state's opioid epidemic. The bill increases monitoring of opioid prescriptions and requires health insurers to cover inpatient detoxification. The bill passed the legislature unanimously. This is the third year in a row the state has passed bills aimed at the opioid epidemic.

Drug Policy

Massachusetts Governor Wants Harsher Penalties for Drug Deals That Lead to Death. Gov. Charlie Baker (R) has sent a letter to the legislature proposing a bill that would increase sentences for dealers who sold drugs to people who overdosed and died -- up to life in prison. "When illegal drug distribution causes a death, laws that were designed to punish the act are inadequate to recognize the seriousness of the resulting harm," Baker wrote, according to MassLive. "This legislation would provide for a penalty of up to life in prison and, like the offense of manslaughter while driving drunk, would also require a mandatory minimum sentence of at least five years," he added. The bill has the support of law enforcement.

Santa Fe Mayor to Introduce Resolution to Establish A Municipal Drug Strategy Task Force. Javier Gonzalez, the mayor of New Mexico's fourth largest city, will on Thursday introduce a resolution establishing a Municipal Drug Strategy Task Force charged with recommending innovative public health and safety approaches to problematic drug use in the city. "This isn't a problem we can solve by simply declaring a new, top-down policy. It has to be something we take on together, and the strategy has to come from the community. From harm reduction, to law enforcement, to prevention, to treatment, there is a huge range of expertise already developing in Santa Fe, and to find success we will need every one of those voices at the table," said Mayor Gonzales. He added, "So we're doing what we often can do best -- bringing people together."

Chronicle AM: Federal Judge Slams Indianapolis PD Car Seizures, More... (8/23/17)

It's slow in the dog days of August, but there is a bit of news out there: Indianapolis cops have to revise their vehicle seizure practices, Alaska regulators are seeking public comment on proposed on-site pot consumption regulations, and more.

Alaska wants to let pot buyers smoke their purchases where they got them. Public comments being sought now. (Sandra Yruel/DPA)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Regulators Seek Public Comment on Onsite Marijuana Consumption. The state's Marijuana Control Board has created a draft proposal that would allow some pot shops to provide a space for on-premises consumption of products bought there. Now it's giving the public a chance to weigh in. People who want to comment have until October 27.

Nevada Gaming Commission to Discuss Marijuana-Related Issues. The state Gaming Commission will hold a special meeting Thursday to address problems the gambling industry may have to confront after the state legalized marijuana. The commission is likely to discuss ways to keep gaming companies from being associated with marijuana businesses, which are illegal under federal law.

Asset Forfeiture

Indiana Federal Judge Restricts Indianapolis Police Seizure Practices. The Indianapolis Metro Police Department may no longer hold seized vehicles for up to six months before deciding whether to file formal asset forfeiture paperwork, a federal district court judge ruled on Monday. The ruling came in a class action lawsuit challenging such seizures. "The Court concludes that the statutory provisions allowing for the seizure and retention of vehicles without providing an opportunity for an individual to challenge the pre-forfeiture deprivation are unconstitutional," US District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled in remarks reported by The Indianapolis Star.

Harm Reduction

Kentucky First Responders Get Naloxone. Gov. Matt Bevin (R) joined officials from northern Kentucky and executives from Aetna to announce Wednesday that first responders in the northern and Appalachian regions will receive720 doses of the overdose reversal drug naloxone in a bid to prevent overdose deaths. Drug overdose deaths in the state were at record levels last year, up more than 7% over 2015.

Chronicle AM: WH Opioid Panel Calls for Declaration of National Emergency, More... (8/1/2017)

Federal bills to legalize marijuana and allow drug testing of people seeking unemployment benefits get filed, the presidential commission on opioids issues a preliminary reports, the NFL offers to work with the players' union on medical marijuana, and more.

Marijuana Policy

With overdoses at record levels, Trump's presidential commission takes a largely public health approach to the crisis.
Corey Booker Files Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) filed the Marijuana Justice Act on Tuesday. The bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, punish states for disproportionately arresting or imprisoning poor people or minorities for marijuana offenses, prevent deportation for marijuana offenses, provide for resentencing of federal marijuana prisoners, and create a $500 million "Community Reinvestment Fund" for communities most negatively impacted by the war on drugs.

South Dakota Legalization Initiative Imperiled by Wording Error. A legalization initiative sponsored by New Approach South Dakota could be in trouble over a wording error. The way the measure is worded, it would, according to Legislative Council analysts, only legalize pot paraphernalia, not marijuana itself. The campaign said the problem is only a "typo" and can be fixed. Friendly legislators have offered to author a legislative fix if the initiative passes. Because of state initiative deadlines, it is too late for petitioners to start over in time to get on the November 2018 ballot.

Medical Marijuana

NFL Offers to Work With Players Union on Marijuana for Pain Management. The NFL has sent a letter to the NFL Players Association offering to work together with the union to study the possibility of marijuana as a pain management tool for players. The NFLPA is already conducting its own study and has yet to respond to the league's offer.

Ohio Medical Marijuana Rules Get Settled. A bipartisan legislative panel has decided not to modify more than a hundred separate rules proposed by the state Pharmacy Board and Department of Commerce to govern the state's nascent medical marijuana industry. That means medical marijuana growers, processers, sellers, testers, and users can now begin to get down to business. Growing operations are expected to start being licensed next month, and the whole system is supposed to be up and running by September 1, 2018.

Utah Poll Finds "Supermajority" Support for Medical Marijuana. Nearly four out of five (78%) Utahns favor a medical marijuana initiative now in the signature gathering phase of its campaign, according to a Dan Jones & Associates poll commissioned by the Salt Lake Tribune. The campaign is headed by the Utah Patients Coalition, which is acting after the state legislature baling at approving medical marijuana.

Drug Testing

Federal Unemployment Drug Testing Bill Filed. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-SC) has filed the Ensuring Quality in the Unemployment Insurance Program (EQUIP) Act, which would require people applying for unemployment assistance to undergo substance abuse screening and possible drug testing to receive benefits. "Unemployment is not for people who are abusing drugs and using that money to buy drugs but instead to help them get back on their feet," said Rep. Carter. "And we want to make sure that is what they are doing with it." People applying for those benefits have been laid-off from jobs for lack of work, not let go for drug abuse.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Presidential Commission Issues Belated Preliminary Report, Calls for Declaration of National Emergency. The presidential Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis led by Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) issued a preliminary report on Monday whose lead recommendation is for the president "to declare a national emergency under either the Public Service Act or the Stafford Act." The report largely takes a public health approach to the issue, calling as well for expanding drug treatment capacity under Medicaid, increasing the use of medication-assisted treatment for opioid disorders, mandating that all police officers carry the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, broadening Good Samaritan laws, and encouraging the development of non-opioid pain relievers.

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