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Chronicle AM: Trump Plans UN Meeting to Push Drug War, NJ Pot Bill Details Unveiled, More.... (9/19/18)

President Trump is headed to the UN to rally global drug warriors, New Jersey's long-awaited marijuana legalization bill is just about ready, Philadelphia settles a massive asset forfeiture lawsuit, and more.

President Trump will address a UN side meeting of hard-line drug war counties next week. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Bill Just About Ready, Draft Released. Legislators have sent a draft legalization bill to Gov. Phil Murphy's (D) office and legislative leaders say they aim to pass it next month. NJ Advance Media obtained a copy of the draft. Bill features include taxed and regulated marijuana commerce; set asides for minorities, women, and areas with high unemployment; social consumption spaces, delivery services, but no home cultivation.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Fight Over Medical Marijuana Doses. A "negotiated rulemaking" panel of the Department of Health spent hours Monday arguing about how much medical marijuana doctors should be able to recommend for patients. The state currently has no caps on how much pot patients can consume or their doctors prescribe. Some physicians are arguing for controls, saying they underestimated the dangers of opioid prescribing and didn't want to repeat that mistake. But other physicians argued that equating marijuana with opioids is "problematic" for a number of reasons. In the end, the panel agreed to set daily limits at a total of 1,550 milligrams for THC and 2,250 for CBD, or about five to six times the average recommended dosages for medical marijuana patients.

Asset Forfeiture

Philadelphia to Roll Back Civil Forfeiture, Pay $3 Million to Victims. To settle a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice, the city of Philadelphia agreed Tuesday to stop allowing law enforcement from profiting from asset forfeiture and to set up a $3 million fund to compensate people victimized by past asset forfeiture actions. The plaintiffs were Philadelphia residents who had property seized through civil asset forfeiture, including one man whose home was seized after his son made a $40 drug sale. Under the settlement, the city agreed to not seize property for minor drug crimes like possession, not forfeit cash in amounts less than $250, and not use any proceeds to pay police officers or prosecutors, to name a few conditions.

Foreign Policy

Trump Administration Plans UN Side Meeting to Ramp Up Global Drug War. The Trump administration will hold an invitation-only event at the UN next week to push for tougher global drug law enforcement. The "Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem" is limited to countries that have signed onto a US "action plan."  Among the signatories are countries with some of the world's harshest drug policies, including China, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore, as well as Russia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, India, and Costa Rica. Countries who signed on will "receive an invitation to attend this High-Level Event" with the US president. "The purpose of this event is to demonstrate international political will to enhance efforts to effectively address and counter the serious threats posed by the world drug problem," says the so-called diplomatic note.

Republicans Are Playing Dirty in Their Bid to Stop North Dakota's Legal Pot Initiative

As North Dakotans prepare to head to the polls in November to vote on the Proposition 3 marijuana legalization initiative, they rely on their state government to come up with an estimate of what it will cost taxpayers. It's not just this initiative—state law mandates that voters be informed of the potential budgetary impacts of any measure on the ballot.

North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park, where the prairies meet the badlands. (Creative Commons)
But for voters to accurately assess the cost of a measure, the cost estimates must reflect reality. That's not the case with the cost report issued last week by the state's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and approved in a party-line vote over the objections of Democratic lawmakers.

The OMB report put the cost of implementing the marijuana measure at $6.7 million, but two-thirds of that figure is to pay for a program not mandated in the initiative. OMB said it would take $2.2 million in clerical costs to expunge some 18,000 marijuana arrest records, as the initiative requires, but that it would also cost $4.4 million for a youth education campaign that the state Health Department argued would be necessary and the salaries of two full-time employees to run it for the next four years.

The Health Department may think such a campaign is necessary, but the initiative itself does not require—or even mention—any such campaign, and to include the Health Department's wish list in the measure's fiscal impact statement is just plain dishonest. That didn't stop Republican lawmakers from voting to approve it.

Democrats tried to stop them. House Minority Leader Corey Mock (D-Grand Forks) offered an amendment to approve the fiscal impact statement but omit the Health Department’s figures, with other costs to be determined.

"This does not lead to a $6.7 million fiscal impact. It’s a $2.2 million fiscal impact, with more that’s likely to happen but it cannot be determined," Mock said. "It will cost more than $2.2 million. We just don’t know how much."

The amendment failed on a 10-5 party line vote. The Legislative Management Committee then approved by the same margin a motion by House Majority Leader Al Carlson (R-Fargo) to accept the fiscal impact statement with the Health Department's cost estimate included.

Sen. Erin Oban (D-Bismarck) told the Bismarck Tribune after the vote that the fiscal impact statement as passed amounted to a lie.

"There seems to be a disagreement among this committee about what we want versus what the language in the measure actually says," Oban said. "I think there was universal agreement, probably around this table, about wanting, if Measure 3 passed, an education campaign from the health department about the impacts of marijuana, especially on youth, for prevention purposes. But the measure does not require that. To me, it is lying to claim that Measure 3 required that because it didn’t."

One Republican lawmaker, Sen. Jerry Klein (R-Fessenden), defended including the Health Department costs on rather dubious grounds.

"Until the measures are passed, and the Legislature and all the agencies can dig in and put an actual cost on it, I think our job has been simply to approve something that somebody said might cost this," Klein told the Tribune.

The Health Department argued that because it has a responsibility to protect the health and welfare of North Dakotans, the educational campaign would be warranted, but again, it is not mandated in the initiative itself, and the Health Department doesn't exactly have a great record when it comes to marijuana measures.

As North Dakota columnist and political blogger Rob Port pointed out in a column laying into the shady cost estimates, the Health Department was way, way off in its estimate of the costs of the successful 2016 medical marijuana initiative there.

"What people should keep in mind is that two years ago when the health department presented their information on what they estimated to be the cost of medical marijuana if it passed they said $8.7 million," he quoted one lawmaker as telling him after the vote. "For fiscal year ending June 30, 2018, their actual cost was $363,000."

That inflated figure didn't stop voters from approving medical marijuana in 2016. Perhaps the inflated figure this year won't stop voters from approving marijuana legalization in 2018, but it would be better if North Dakota Republicans could just be honest about the costs.

Chronicle AM: DC "Fake Pot" Overdose Outbreak, Canada Pot Travel Ban Pushback, More... (9/17/18)

Tough talk about barring Canadians with links to legal marijuana leads one congressman to act, "fake pot" kills five and leaves dozens sick in DC, Oklahoma's medical marijuana fight continues, and more.

Synthetic cannabinoids are being blamed for five deaths and dozens of overdoses in the nation's capital. (Louisiana Health Dept.
Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Democrats Call For Special Session For Medical Marijuana. Democratic members of a working group crafting recommendations for medical marijuana distribution say the governor should call a special session in order to get rules implemented safely. A sticking point is the issue of product testing. "The only way to do that is to have a special session and give the health department the authority to issue licenses to entities that can do that testing, said Representative Steve Kouplen (D) House Democratic Leader. But legislative Republicans are balking, saying the Health Department already has sufficient authority to do product testing. And Gov. Mary Fallin (R) says a special session isn't necessary and would be an "expensive burden."

New Psychoactive SubstancesSynthetic Cannabinoids Kill 5, Sicken Dozens in DC. Five people died in Washington, DC, last Wednesday and Thursday and another 88 people were treated for overdoses of what authorities suspect is "a bad batch of K2," a synthetic cannabinoid. City officials are tweeting out alerts such as the following: "Smoking or ingesting K2 or Spice may lead to overdose or death." By last Friday afternoon, the numbers appear to have leveled off, with a total of 118 reported overdoses tallied since Wednesday. 

Immigration Policy

Congressman Presses Administration on Canada Marijuana Visitor Bans. Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) sent a letter Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen seeking clarity amid reports that the US federal government plans to impose lifetime bans on Canadians who admit having used marijuana, working in Canada's legal marijuana industry, or even investing in it. "We are concerned DHS is unnecessarily and disproportionally penalizing noncitizens who are engaged in lawful business activities," reads a draft of the letter obtained by Marijuana Moment. "We strongly urge DHS to clarify admission policies and procedures at U.S. ports of entry to help ensure transparency of such processes. The role that CBP plays in processing thousands of foreign nationals who come to the United States daily to conduct business is critical not only to the success of our economy but also the safety and security of the American people."

International

Australian Capital Territory Could Legalize Marijuana Under New Bill. Labor MP Michael Pettersson will this week introduce a bill to effectively legalize marijuana for personal use in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Marijuana possession has been decriminalized since 1992, but Pettersson said marijuana users are still being arrested. "About 60 percent of drug arrests in the ACT are for cannabis consumers. That’s not suppliers, that’s consumers. I think police can spend their time doing better things than going after people using small amounts of cannabis," Pettersson said.Under his bill, the possession of up to 50 grams and the cultivation of up to four plants would be legalized. 

Chronicle AM: Federal Marijuana Research Bill Advances, ACLU Smart Justice Campaign, More... (9/13/18)

A federal marijuana research bill advances (although with an undesirable provision), the ACLU rolls out a national plan to reduce state prison populations by half, and more.

A federal marijuana research bill wouldn't let anyone with a pot conviction participate. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

North Dakota Officials, Lawmakers Make Huge Stretch in Estimating Legalization Initiative Costs. The state's Office of Management and Budget has released a report on the cost of implementing the Proposition 3 marijuana legalization initiative that vastly overstates the cost by including costs for an education program that the initiative does not mandate. OMB put the cost of implementation at $6.7 million, but $4.4 million would be for a youth education campaign that the state Health Department argued would be necessary. Legislative Democrats sought to approve the fiscal impact statement without the education campaign funding, but were defeated by House Republicans. The fiscal impact also includes $2.2 to pay for clerical costs in expunging some 18,000 marijuana arrest records but does not include any estimate of tax revenues from legal marijuana.

Medical Marijuana

Marijuana Bill Approved by Congressional Committee Approves Medical Marijuana Research Bill, Leaves in Provision Barring People with Drug-Related Misdemeanors. The House Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to approve the Medical Cannabis Research Act, HR 5634. The bill would require the Justice Department to begin issuing more licenses to grow marijuana for research purposes but was controversial with drug reformers because of a provision barring anyone with a "conviction for a felony or a drug-related misdemeanor" from any affiliation with research cultivation operations. "There is no legitimate health or public safety justification for the inclusion of this language and we urge you to strike this unnecessary, punitive ban on individuals with previous drug law violations," reads a letter sent to the committee's leaders on Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, #cut50, the Drug Policy Alliance and other groups. "To help lower recidivism rates and improve public safety, we should be making it easier for people with records to obtain jobs, not more difficult." An effort to amend the bill in committee to remove the provision was halted after Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) said he would not be opposed to changing the language before it goes to a House floor vote.

Sentencing

ACLU Launches "Smart Justice" Campaign with State-By-State Blueprints for Cutting Incarceration in Half. The American Civil Liberties Union's Campaign for Smart Justice today unveiled the Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints, a comprehensive, state-by-state analysis of how states can transform their criminal justice system and cut incarceration in half. The Smart Justice 50-State Blueprints are the first-ever analysis of their kind and will serve as tools for activists, advocates, and policymakers to push for transformational change to the criminal justice system. They are the result of a multi-year partnership between the ACLU, its state affiliates, and the Urban Institute to develop actionable policy options for each state that capture the nuance of local laws and sentencing practices. The 51 reports -- covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia -- will be released in multiple phases, beginning with an initial rollout of 24 state reports. The reports are all viewable on an interactive website that allows users to visualize the reductions in jail and prison population that would result from the policy decisions that states pursue. The interactive feature is here: https://50stateblueprint.aclu.org

Chronicle AM: Colombia Moves Backwards on Drug Policy, NYPD Pot Arrests Now Halted, More... (9/4/18)

Colombia's new president moves resolutely backward on drug policy, New York City's era of mass marijuana possession arrests is over, the California legislature has been busy, and more.

The era of New York City as the world's marijuana arrest capital has come to an end. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Lawmakers Pass Bill that Will Support Local Cannabis Equity Programs to Increase Representation in the Industry by Persons from Communities Most Harmed by Cannabis Prohibition. The legislature has approved Senate Bill 1294, which helps create equity in the cannabis industry through the distribution of grants to localities offering assistance to persons most harmed by cannabis prohibition and generational poverty. SB 1294 will offer grants to localities with existing equity programs -- such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco -- to support them as they offer equity-qualifying applicants and licensees business loans and grants, regulatory compliance and technical assistance, and licensing fee waivers. SB 1294 reflects a nationwide movement to ensure that this growing industry is representative and accessible to all persons, no matter their financial or criminal history background. Advocates, entrepreneurs, and local governments now call on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign this important measure.

Delaware Governor Signs Marijuana Expungement Bill Into Law. Gov. John Carney (D) last Friday signed into law Senate Bill 197, which "provides mandatory expungement eligibility to individuals who were convicted of the possession [of one ounce or less], use or consumption of marijuana prior to Delaware's decriminalization of these offenses." The provision only applies to people who have no other criminal convictions on their records.

New York City Change in Marijuana Arrest Policy Now in Effect. As of Saturday, the NYPD is no longer arresting people for small-time marijuana use or possession in most cases. The city arrested more than 10,000 people on such charges last year. Officials said the change came because the arrests had nothing to do with public safety and were racially disproportionate. "Our new policy, we're going to see a humongous drop in people in communities of color being arrested for marijuana," NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison said. "And that was one of the whole goals of this whole new policy."

New Psychoactive Substances

DEA Makes Synthetic Cathinone Schedule I Substance. The DEA last Friday announced it was placing the synthetic cathinone N-Ethylpentylone into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This is a temporary scheduling action good for up to 24 months, during which time research will be conducted to see if the drug should be permanently scheduled. DEA said the drug was linked to 151 deaths in the US since 2015.

Sentencing Policy

California Lawmakers Pass Bill Giving Judges the Power to Set Aside Ineffective and Punitive Five-year Sentence Enhancement. The legislature last Friday gave final approval to Senate Bill 1393, which would restore judicial discretion to the application of a five-year sentence enhancement for each prior serious felony on a person's criminal record. Current law requires judges to add an additional five-years to cases, even when the judge believes that the punishment is unjust and unwarranted. If signed into law, judges would have maximum flexibility during the penalty phase of a trail to impose, or not impose, the additional five-years. A coalition of people who are directly impacted, their families, service providers, and advocates now call on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign this important measure.

International

Colombian President Moves to Recriminalize Drug Possession. President Ivan Duque announced on Sunday measures to give police the power to seize personal use quantities of drugs that had previously been legalized. "This week will sign the decree through which, in development of the police code 02 of the 2009 legislative act, we will give the authorities tools to confiscate any dose of drugs or hallucinogens in the streets of Colombia, and thus face the root of micro-trafficking problems," said Duque. The measures would appear to contradict rulings by the country's Constitutional Court, which in 2012 approved the decriminalization of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana for personal use.

Chronicle AM: CA Ends Cash Bail But It May Be Worse, Marianas Islands Legalization Bill Passes, More.... (8/30/18)

California ends cash bail for criminal defendants -- but cash bail opponents don't think it was worth it -- the Northern Marianas Islands legislature passes a marijuana legalization bill, Oregon activists look forward to cannabis cafes, and more.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signs landmark legislation essentially ending cash bail for prisoners awaiting trial. (Facebook)
Marijuana Policy

New York Governor Announces Series of "Listening Sessions" on Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has announced that state officials will hold a series of "listening sessions" about marijuana legalization beginning next week. "Community input is critical as we work to draft balanced and comprehensive legislation on a regulated marijuana program in New York," Cuomo said in a press release. "The multi-agency report identified the benefits of a regulated marijuana market, and with these listening sessions, we are taking another important step to develop a model program for New York. We look forward to hearing what New Yorkers in every corner of the state have to say." The announcement comes a day after the Assembly announced it would hold a series of public hearings on the issue this fall.

Northern Marianas Legislature Passes Marijuana Legalization Bill. The Northern Marianas' Commonwealth Legislature has approved a bill to legalize and regulate marijuana for adult and medical use. H.B. 20-178 will now be sent to Gov. Ralph Deleon Guerrero Torres for his consideration. The House approved the bill 18-1-1 on August 8 and the Senate approved it 6-0-2 on Thursday. The bill allows adults to possess up to an ounce of weed and register to grow up to six mature and 12 immature plants at home. It also directs the legislature to set taxes and fees on regulated marijuana businesses.

Oregon Activists Want Cannabis Cafes, Could Go Initiative Route if Legislature Doesn't Act. The marijuana advocacy group the New Revenue Coalition says it will push lawmakers next year to legalize the existence of cafes and lounges dedicated to onsite marijuana consumption. The group also plans to begin gathering signatures for a 2020 initiative as a back-up plan." Cannabis consumers deserve a place to use their cannabis safely and legally. This is a social justice issue that disproportionately affects the poor, patients and communities of color," said Madeline Martinez, a national board member for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and executive director of Oregon NORML.

Medical Marijuana

Connecticut Regulators Add New Qualifying Conditions. The General Assembly's Regulations Review Committee has released updated medical marijuana regulations that add new qualifying conditions for adults and children. The conditions include spasticity or pain associated with fibromyalgia, severe rheumatoid arthritis, post-herpetic neuralgia, hydrocephalus with intractable headache, neuropathic facial pain, and muscular dystrophy.

Michigan Regulators Propose Allowing Online Orders, Home Delivery. The state's Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation have proposed a rule to allow online orders and home delivery. The rule is aimed at helping people who don't live near a marijuana supplier. A public hearing is set for next month.

Criminal Justice

California Governor Signs Bill to End Cash Bail. Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Tuesday signed into law a bill that almost entirely ends the state's cash bail system. Instead, judges will have greater power to decide who should remain behind bars awaiting trial. Senate Bill 10 would virtually eliminate cash bail. "Today, California reforms its bail system so that rich and poor alike are treated fairly," Brown said in a statement. Human Rights Watch was among the criminal justice reform groups who don't see it that way. In mid-August they pulled support for the bill, saying it would substitute one bad system for another.

Medical Marijuana Update

Oregon drastically reduces the daily purchase limit for patients, Oklahoma continues to try to get its nascent system up and running, and more.

Illinois

Illinois Governor Signs Bill to Allow Medical Marijuana as Alternative to Opioids. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) on Tuesday signed into law a bill to allow patients to use medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids. "Opioid abuse disorder is taking the lives of Illinoisans, thousands of lives. Opioid abuse disorder is disrupting and destroying families across our state and across the country," Rauner said at the bill signing at the Chicago Recovery Alliance. "We've got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic, and today, I'm proud to sign a bill that helps us stop this epidemic. Medical cannabis creates an opportunity to treat pain in a less intrusive, less obstructive way than opioids."

Oklahoma Proposed Medical Marijuana Regulations Now Open for Public Comment. State officials are now asking the public for its input on the regulation and implementation of medical marijuana in the state. "Lawmakers in the legislative working group are seeking a path forward to implement State Question 788 in a way that conforms to the desires of voters who passed the law," said Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka). "To do that effectively, the working group needs as much input as possible from citizens -- supporters, advocates, patients, health-care providers, public safety and law enforcement officers and even those who have concerns. I would encourage all Oklahomans who have an interest in this issue to use this opportunity to share input and have their voices heard." Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Messages will then be shared with members of the working group.

Oregon

Oregon Regulators Slash Daily Purchase Limit for Patients. In a bid to reduce leakage into the black market, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission last Thursday dramatically reduced the amount of medical marijuana patients can purchase each day. Medical cardholders may now buy only one ounce a day, not the 24 ounces that had been the limit. The emergency change is in effect until December 27.

Utah

Mormon Church Sends Out Letter Opposed Utah Medical Marijuana Initiative. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Latter Day Saints has mailed a letter to church members urging a "no" vote on the state's November medical marijuana initiative. The letter claims the measure would create "a serious threat to health and public safety, especially for our youth and young adults, by making marijuana generally available with few controls."

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Chronicle AM: White House's Anti-Pot Committee, IL Gov OKs MedMJ for Opioids, More... (8/29/18)

The Trump administration has a secret committee to trash pot, Canada okays a roadside drug testing device for motorists, Illinois becomes the latest state to allow medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Trump Administration Has Secret Committee to Trash Pot. The White House has created a multi-agency committee to combat rising public support for marijuana legalization and make legalization initiatives look bad, according to a report today in Buzzfeed News. The Marijuana Policy Coordination Committee has instructed federal agencies including the DEA to come up with and submit "data demonstrating the most significant negative trends" about marijuana and the "threat" in poses to the country. Reports from the committee will be used to brief Trump "on marijuana threats." The committee is being coordinated by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

New Jersey Attorney General Issues Guidance on Marijuana-Related Prosecutions. The Office of the Attorney General issued guidance to municipal prosecutors regarding prosecution of marijuana-related cases. This guidance comes after Attorney General Gurbir Grewal convened a working group on marijuana prosecutions earlier this summer. The guidance reaffirms that local prosecutors cannot decriminalize marijuana possession, but they can use their discretion on a case-by-case basis "based on the particular facts and applicable law, and consistent with their ethical obligations to the state, the defendants, and the courts." The guidance merely highlights the need for the state to actually pass marijuana legalization, advocates said.

New York Assembly to Hold Public Hearings on Marijuana Legalization. The Assembly will hold four public hearings this fall on whether and how to legalize marijuana. These hearings will follow a well-attended hearing in the Assembly on the topic earlier this year. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has recently embraced legalization, and a legalization bill is before the Assembly.

Medical Marijuana

Illinois Governor Signs Bill to Allow Medical Marijuana as Alternative to Opioids. Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) on Tuesday signed into law a bill to allow patients to use medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids. "Opioid abuse disorder is taking the lives of Illinoisans, thousands of lives. Opioid abuse disorder is disrupting and destroying families across our state and across the country," Rauner said at the bill signing at the Chicago Recovery Alliance. "We've got to do everything we can to stop this vicious epidemic, and today, I'm proud to sign a bill that helps us stop this epidemic. Medical cannabis creates an opportunity to treat pain in a less intrusive, less obstructive way than opioids."

International

Canada Approves First Roadside Drug Test Device for Marijuana. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has approved a device designed to detect whether drivers are under the influence of marijuana. The device is the Drager Drug Test 5000, which allows police to check drivers' saliva for the presence of THC, as well as amphetamines, opioids, cocaine, and methadone. The device has plenty of critics, who say it is prone to false positives and false negatives. Officials will also have to determine what level of THC indicates impairment and whether the results will hold up in court.

Study: Charging People With Murder for Drug Overdose Deaths "Bad Criminal Justice Policy" [FEATURE]

As the nation grapples with the deadliest drug crisis in its history -- more than 72,000 people died of drug overdoses last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- prosecutors across the country have rushed to embrace the use of "drug-induced homicide" charges as a means of combating the problem. That means charging the people who sold the fatal dose -- or sometimes just the people who shared it -- with murder or manslaughter and sending them away to prison for lengthy terms.

Drug-induced homicide charges are a regression to the lock 'em up policies of last century's drug war. (ussc.gov)
Faced with a public clamor to "do something," prosecutors are resorting to this facile, politically popular tactic in order to "send a message" of toughness to dealers in a bid to break the back of the epidemic. But a new study, "America's Favorite Antidote: Drug-Induced Homicide in the Age of the Overdose Crisis" concludes that the practice is worse than ineffective -- it's actually counterproductive.

Such prosecutions are "bad law and bad criminal justice policy" that have only worsened the opioid crisis that has taken tens of thousands of American lives, writes Leo Beletsky, associate professor of law and health sciences of the Northeastern University School of Law.

Beletsky notes that while the strategy dates back to 1986, in an atmosphere of moral panic set off by the death of NBA player Len Bias of an overdose from cocaine given to him by a friend, it has really taken off in recent years as the country lives through what he calls the "worst drug crisis in US history." Now, more than half the states have some form of drug-induced homicide law, while others are considering amending them to include fentanyl.

But the prosecutions amount to little more than "policy theater" rooted in the punitive approach long favored in the country's war on drugs, Beletsky argues. That is an unsuccessful approach that has largely failed to reduce drug use or stem the flow of drugs into the country, he notes.

Beletsky's study looked at data from 263 drug-induced homicide prosecutions between 2000 and 2016. One of the most striking findings was that, while such prosecutions are supposedly aimed at drug dealers, at least half of those charged were family members or partners.

"In many jurisdictions, it is enough to have simply shared a small amount of your drugs with the deceased to be prosecuted for homicide," he notes.

Another striking -- yet completely unsurprising -- finding is that when he applied his data to what he called "existing racially disparate patterns of drug law enforcement," he found evidence of racial differences in the application of drug-induced homicide laws as well. Such selective enforcement resulted in "gaping disparities between whites and people of color."

But the most bitter irony can be found in the impact of such laws on actual overdose deaths. Even though opioid overdose reversal drugs such as naloxone are now in wide use, many friends, fellow users, and family members are reluctant to call for emergency help because they fear the legal repercussions, even if they didn't provide the lethal drugs.

"Police involvement at overdose scenes may result in arrests on drug, parole violation, weapons, and other charges," wrote Beletsky. "It may also lead to loss of child custody, violation of community supervision conditions, and other legal consequences rooted in the pervasive stigmatization of substance use, but not directly linked to criminal law. Research suggests that fear of police contact and legal detriment is actually the single most important reason why people who witnessed overdoses do not seek timely emergency medical help," he concludes. "Aside from crowding out evidence-based interventions and investments, these prosecutions run at complete cross-purposes to efforts that encourage witnesses to summon lifesaving help during overdose events."

Rather than "tougher" policy responses to drug use such as the resort to drug-induced homicide charges, policymakers should be subjecting failed punishment-oriented policies to rigorous scrutiny while instead developing a "population-based" health policy emphasizing treatment and diversion from the criminal justice system, he suggested.

"A system that relies on the instrument of punishment to regulate the behavior of people affected by severe SUD (Substance Use Disorder) fundamentally misconstrues the nature of addiction," Beletsky writes. "The established scientific consensus predicts that individuals affected by addiction will substantially discount -- or totally disregard -- legal risks and threats of punishment as a matter of course. This scientific construct has yet to be translated into US jurisprudence, however."

"Drug-induced homicide prosecutions and other similar punitive approaches to the opioid crisis, such as curbing prescriptions and subjecting patients to drug testing regimes, have crowded out public health strategies that have been proven to work in limiting the deleterious impacts of widespread opioid use," he writes.

"The bottom line," Beletsky writes, "is that, when it comes to policies that hold the most empirical promise for addressing the overdose crisis, we know what to do; we just are not doing it."

Chronicle AM: DOJ Takes Aim at SISes, States Demand Congress Act on Pot Banking, More... (8/28/18)

Even as a California safer injection site bill approaches final passage, the Justice Department takes aim at the harm reduction practice; state financial regulators want Congress to act on marijuana banking, and more.

Vancouver's InSite safer injection site. Coming soon to San Francisco? (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

State Financial Regulators Call on Congress to Deal With Marijuana Banking Problems. The top financial regulators in 13 states sent a letter last week to congressional leaders demanding that they take action to protect banks working with marijuana businesses. The conflicts between state-level legalization and federal prohibition have created confusion in the financial sector and jeopardized public safety, the regulators said. "It is incumbent on Congress to resolve the conflict between state cannabis programs and federal statutes that effectively create unnecessary risk for banks seeking to operate in this space without the looming threat of civil actions, forfeiture of assets, reputational risk, and criminal penalties," the regulators wrote. "While Congress has taken some action, such as the Rohrabacher amendment prohibiting federal funds being used to inhibit state medicinal marijuana programs, this has been an impermanent approach that requires a permanent resolution." Regulators from Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington State signed the letter.

Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Proposed Medical Marijuana Regulations Now Open for Public Comment. State officials are now asking the public for its input on the regulation and implementation of medical marijuana in the state. "Lawmakers in the legislative working group are seeking a path forward to implement State Question 788 in a way that conforms to the desires of voters who passed the law," said Speaker Charles McCall (R-Atoka). "To do that effectively, the working group needs as much input as possible from citizens -- supporters, advocates, patients, health-care providers, public safety and law enforcement officers and even those who have concerns. I would encourage all Oklahomans who have an interest in this issue to use this opportunity to share input and have their voices heard." Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Messages will then be shared with members of the working group.

Harm Reduction

Justice Department Attacks Safer Injection Sites. In an op-ed in the New York Times titled "Fight Drug Abuse, Don't Subsidize It," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein attacked safer injection sites as "very dangerous" and argued they would "only make the opioid crisis worse." He also points out that they are federally illegal and warns that violations are punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison. His op-ed comes as cities such as New York, Seattle, and San Francisco advance plans to open such facilities in a bid to reduce harms.

California Safer Injection Site Bill Passes Senate. The Senate voted Monday to approve Assembly Bill 186, which will allow the city of San Francisco to undertake a three-year, pilot safer injection site program. The bill now goes back to the Assembly for a final concurrence vote before heading to the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Drug War Issues

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