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Chronicle AM: Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment Reauthorized For Now, More... (12/22/17)

Congress reauthorizes the federal ban on funding to prosecute medical marijuana in states where it is legal, Massachusetts regulators approve draft rules for the legal pot industy, and more.

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), cosponsor of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment protecting medical marijuana. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Activist Dana Beal Arrested With Pounds of Pot (Again), This Time in California. Long-time marijuana legalization advocate Dana Beal was arrested last Saturday in Northern California as he carried 22 pounds of marijuana. It's not the first time for Beal: He has been arrested for transporting pot from California on separate occasions in Nebraska and Wisconsin, and also had a large amount of cash seized in Pennsylvania on one of his trips west.

Massachusetts Regulators Approve Draft Regulations for Legal Marijuana Industry. The state's Cannabis Control Commission voted unanimously Thursday to approve draft regulations for the industry. Now the rules will be open for public review and comment, with the final rules set to be approved by March 15. As it now stands, the regulations provide for "craft cooperatives" of growers banding together under a single license, licenses for "microbusinesses" with less than 5,000 square feet of growing space, licenses for on-site consumption (no alcohol and no pot smoking), licenses for research facilities, and a "diversity plan" to increase minority participation.

New York Lawmakers to Hold Joint Session on Legalization Early Next Year. The chairs of the Assembly Committees on Codes, Health and Alcoholism and Drug Abuse announced Thursday that they will hold a joint session on legalization early next year. "This hearing will examine the potential for allowing regulated sale and adult possession of marijuana in New York and how it would affect public health and the criminal justice systems," the announcement said.  The hearing will take place January 11.

Medical Marijuana

Congress Extends Medical Marijuana Protections Through January 19. With its vote for a temporary spending bill Thursday, the Congress also reauthorized the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment barring the use of Justice Department funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal. But it's only until January 19 when the temporary funding bill expires. "Patients around the country who rely on medical marijuana for treatment -- and the businesses that serve them -- now have some measure of certainty," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus. "Our fight, however, continues to maintain these important protections in the next funding bill passed by Congress."

Medical Marijuana Update

A leading Senate Republican calls for removing obstacles to medical marijuana research, a Florida judge decides to take up a case over the state's ban on smoking medical marijuana, and more.

National

Last Friday, Orrin Hatch decried obstacles to medical marijuana research. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told the Deseret News he supports research into medical marijuana and condemns the federal "regulatory acrobatics" required of researchers who want to study the plant. "Under current law, those who want to complete research on the benefits of medical marijuana must engage in a complex application process and interact with several federal agencies… The longer researchers have to wait, the longer patients have to suffer," Hatch said through his spokesman. Hatch is the sponsor of the Marijuana Effective Drug Study (MEDS) Act of 2017 (Senate Bill 1803), which aims to reduce research barriers.

Florida

Last Friday, a state judge announced she will hear a medical marijuana smoking case. State Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers announced that she will hear arguments over a lawsuit that challenges a new rule barring the smoking of medical marijuana. The hearing is set for January 25. As the USA Herald drily noted, "The conservative legislature is often caught between what is, clearly, the will of their constituents and the presumed traditionalism of their constituents."

Guam

On Monday, the territory's medical marijuana program proposed rules got a hearing. Guamanian lawmakers held a public hearing on the updated rules and regulations for the US territory's medical marijuana program Monday. The hearing covered markups to Bill 210, which is set to adopt rules written by the Department of Public Health and Social Services.

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

Chronicle AM: NJ, PA Move to Increase Opioid Sentences, Canada Legal Pot Delayed?, More... (12/20/17)

Mid-Atlantic state politicos are moving toward harsher sentences for some opioid offenses, Canada's July 1 marijuana legalization date may get bumped back, California's Humboldt County rejects safe injection sites, and more.

Make way! Moves are afoot in New Jersey and Pennsylvania to toughen opioid sentences. (supremecourt.gov)
Harm Reduction

California's Humboldt County Rejects Safe Injection Sites. At its meeting Tuesday, the county board of supervisors voted to send a letter to the sponsor of a state bill that would allow for safe injection sites telling her they weren't interested. The measure, Assembly Bill 186, filed by Assemblywoman Susan Eggman (D-Stockton), would allow certain cities and counties, including Humboldt, to authorize such programs. Some supervisors had moral objections, while others raised cost concerns. Most public commenters at the meeting also opposed the plan.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Pennsylvania DAs Want Tougher Fentanyl Laws. The state District Attorneys Association is getting behind a push by Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) for harsher sentences for fentanyl-related crimes. "Stiffer penalties for fentanyl would go a long way in helping us," Shapiro said during a recent roundtable discussion on drugs. The DAs backed him up a few days later, tweeting that "An increase in sentencing guidelines for #fentanyl will help prevent deaths. PA Sentencing Commission is considering changes."

New Jersey Bill Could Quadruple Prison Sentences for Opioid-Related Offenses. Democratic lawmakers have filed a bill, Assembly Bill 5264, that would dramatically increase sentences for some opioid offenses. Under the bill, the sentence for possessing five grams of heroin would double from a maximum of five years to a maximum of 10 years. People caught possessing 10 grams would see their maximum sentences quadrupled, from five years to 20.

Drug Policy

Acting Chief of Staff at Drug Czar's Office Fired. Lawrence "Chip" Muir, the acting chief of staff and general counsel for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), was suddenly fired Tuesday afternoon. ONDCP has been without a new drug czar since the Trump administration took office, and now it lacks a chief of staff, too. It's not clear why Muir got canned.

International

Canada Not Wedded to July 1 Deadline for Marijuana Legalization. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seemed to back away from the long-anticipated July 1 rollout date for legal marijuana in an interview Tuesday night. "It won't be July 1," he said, but will happen "next summer." The House of Commons approved legalization legislation last month, but the bill is now being studied by the Senate, which could modify it and possibly delay final adoption.

Indian Government to Craft New Drug Rehab Policy for Addicts. Social Justice and Empowerment Minister Thaawarchand Gehlot told congress Tuesday that the country's 2001 law on rehabilitating drug addicts is under review and that a survey of drug addicts nationwide was underway. An action plan to rehabilitate addicts is now being prepared he said.

Indonesia Officials Threatens "Shoot to Kill" Policy for Drug Dealers Jakarta Deputy Governor Sandiaga Uno has threatened to kill drug dealers who resist arrest. "We are serious [in fighting drugs], we will '810' drug dealers who try to avoid authorities' pursuit," he said, referencing the police code for shooting and killing suspects who try to flee arrest. According to Amnesty International, Indonesian police have killed 80 suspected drug dealers this year, five times the number killed in 2016.

The Three States Best Positioned to Legalize Marijuana in 2018 [FEATURE]

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

Election Day 2016 was a big day for marijuana: Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada all supported successful legalization initiatives, doubling the number of states to have done so since 2012 and more than quadrupling the percentage of the national population that now lives in legal marijuana states. Only Arizona lost, and it garnered a respectable 48.68% of the vote. Medical marijuana passed in four states too.

Marijuana momentum was high, national polling kept seeing support go up and up, and 2017 was expected to see even more states jump on the weed bandwagon. That didn't happen.

There are two main reasons this year was a dud for pot legalization: First, it's an off-off-year election year, and there were no legalization initiatives on the ballot. Second, it's tough to get a marijuana legalization bill through a state legislature and signed by a governor. In fact, it's so tough, it hasn't happened yet.

But that doesn't mean it isn't go to happen next year. Several states where legislative efforts were stalled last year are poised to get over the top in the coming legislative sessions, and it looks like a legalization initiative will be on the ballot in at least one state -- maybe more.

There are other states where legalization is getting serious attention, such as Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island, but they all have governors who are not interested in going down that path, and that means a successful legalization bill might face the higher hurdle of winning with veto-proof majorities. Similarly, there are other states where legalization initiatives are afoot, such as Arizona, North Dakota, and Ohio, but none of those have even completed signature gathering, and all would face a tough fight.

We could be pleasantly surprised. But barring pleasant surprises, here are the three states with the best shot at legalizing next year:

Michigan

Michigan voters shouldn't have to wait on the state legislature to act because it looks very likely that a legalization initiative will qualify for the ballot next year. The Michigan Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has already completed a petition campaign and handed in more than 365,000 raw signatures last month for its legalization initiative. It hasn't officially qualified for the ballot yet, but it only needs 250,000 valid voter signatures to do so, meaning it has a rather substantial cushion.

If the measure makes the ballot, it should win. There is the little matter of actually campaigning to pass the initiative, which should require a million or two dollars for TV ad buys and other get-out-the-vote efforts, but with the Marijuana Policy Project on board and some deep-pocketed local interests as well, the money should be there.

The voters already are there: Polling has showed majority support for legalization for several years now, always trending up, and most recently hitting 58% in a May Marketing Resource Group poll.

New Jersey

Outgoing Gov. Chris Christie (R) was a huge obstacle to passage of marijuana legalization, but he's on his way out the door, and his replacement, Gov.-Elect Phil Murphy (D), has vowed to legalize marijuana within 100 days of taking office next month.

Legislators anticipating Christie's exit filed legalization bills earlier this year, Senate Bill 3195 and companion measure Assembly Bill 4872. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D) has also made promises, vowing to pass the bill within the first three months of the Murphy administration, and hearings are set for both houses between January and March.

But it's not a done deal. There is some opposition in the legislature, and legalization foes will certainly mobilize to defeat it at the statehouse. It will also be the first time the legislature seriously considers legalization. Still, legalization has some key political players backing it. Other legislators might want to listen to their constituents: A September Quinnipiac poll had support for legalization at 59%.

Vermont

A marijuana legalization bill actually passed the legislature last year -- a national first -- only to be vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott (D) over concerns around drugged driving and youth use. Legislators then amended the bill to assuage Scott's concerns and managed to get the amended bill through the Senate, only to see House Republicans refuse to let it come to a vote during the truncated summer session.

But that measure, House Bill 511, will still be alive in the second year of the biennial session, and Gov. Scott has said he is still willing to sign the bill. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D) is also on board, and the rump Republicans won't be able to block action next year.

Johnson said she will be ready for a vote in early January and expects the bill to pass then. Vermont would then become the first state to free the weed through the legislative process.

Chronicle AM: Wyden Signs On to Booker Pot Bill, Ithaca Safe Injection Site Talks, More... (12/19/17)

Cory Booker's federal marijuana bill finally finds another sponsor, Kentucky's ag commissioner pronounces himself "dumbfounded" at the DEA's recalcitrant position on industrial hemp, and more.

Cory Booker is feeling just a little less lonely after picking up Ron Wyden as a cosponsor for his marijuana bill. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Wyden Signs On to Booker's Federal Marijuana Bill. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced Monday that he is cosponsoring Sen. Cory Booker's Marijuana Justice Act, Senate Bill 1689. The bill would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, allowing states to legalize it without fear of federal interference. The bill would also withhold funds from states that continue to criminalize marijuana and disproportionately arrest and imprison minorities for marijuana offenses, as well as allowing people sentenced under racially biased marijuana law enforcement to file civil lawsuits against their states. Wyden is the only cosponsor of the bill so far.

Hemp

Kentucky Ag Commissioner "Dumbfounded" at DEA Position on Hemp. Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles has written a letter to the DEA requesting a meeting about hemp policy. "I was dumbfounded" to read about the DEA's position that hemp-derived CBD oils are illegal, even if they contain no THC," Quarles wrote. "Consumable hemp products are legal to buy," Quarles noted. But the DEA maintains that hemp is the same thing as marijuana, and DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson responded that Quarles is "knocking on the wrong door." Patterson said the DEA was simply enforcing the Controlled Substances Act, and if people want to change hemp policy, they need to talk to Congress.

Drug Testing

Illinois Roadside Drug Testing Pilot Program Coming Soon. Police in the northwestern town of Carol Stream will begin a pilot roadside drug testing program in February. Officers will use mouth swabs to screen for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines, and opiates. Testing will begin on a voluntary basis, with drivers asked if they will consent to giving a saliva sample. The test results could be used to help police build drugged driving cases, but since Illinois does not have a zero tolerance drugged driving policy, test results alone would not be sufficient to prove guilt.

Harm Reduction

Ithaca, New York, Continues Discussions on Safe Injection Site. County officials on Monday continued discussing a proposal from Mayor Svante Myrick to open a safe injection site for heroin users in the city. The county legislature's Health and Human Services Committee heard from proponents of the harm reduction measure in what is the second hearing on the topic in two months.

Chronicle AM: ND MJ Initiative Can Seek Signatures, Sen. Hatch Decries MedMJ Obstacles, More... (12/18/17)

A Republican grandee complains about obstacles to medical marijuana research, a Florida judge will take up the state's ban on smoking medical marijuana, a North Dakota marijuana legalization initiative is approved for signature gathering, and more.

Marijuana Policy

North Dakota Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. Secretary of State Al Jaeger said last Friday that a marijuana legalization initiative has been approved for signature gathering. Now, activists will have until July 9 to gather a minimum of 13,452 qualified voter signatures. If that happens, the measure will appear on the November 2018.

Medical Marijuana

Orrin Hatch Decries Obstacles to Medical Marijuana Research. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) told the Deseret News last Friday he supports research into medical marijuana and condemns the federal "regulatory acrobatics" required of researchers who want to study the plant. "Under current law, those who want to complete research on the benefits of medical marijuana must engage in a complex application process and interact with several federal agencies… The longer researchers have to wait, the longer patients have to suffer," Hatch said through his spokesman. Hatch is the sponsor of the Marijuana Effective Drug Study (MEDS) Act of 2017 (Senate Bill 1803), which aims to reduce research barriers.

Florida Judge Will Hear Marijuana Smoking Case. State Circuit Court Judge Karen Gievers announced last Friday that she will hear arguments over a lawsuit that challenges a new rule barring the smoking of medical marijuana. The hearing is set for January 25. As the USA Herald drily noted, "The conservative legislature is often caught between what is, clearly, the will of their constituents and the presumed traditionalism of their constituents."

Guam Medical Marijuana Program Rules Get Hearing. Guamanian lawmakers will hold a public hearing on the updated rules and regulations for the US territory's medical marijuana program Monday. The hearing will cover markups to Bill 210, which is set to adopt rules written by the Department of Public Health and Social Services.

Chronicle AM: Norway Moves Toward Drug Decrim, WHO Gives Thumbs Up to CBD, More... (12/14/17)

Norway moves down the path toward drug decriminalization, a New Hampshire legislative committee votes down a legalization bill, the WHO gives a thumbs up to CBD, and more.

CBD ointment. The World Health Organization has declared CBD non-addictive and non-toxic. (Pinterest)
Marijuana Policy

Illinois' Cook County to Vote on Non-Binding Legalization Referendum. The county commission voted Wednesday to put an advisory referendum on whether marijuana should be legalized on the March primary ballot. While the vote is only advisory, a strong "yes" vote in the state's most populous county would send a signal to state legislators in Peoria, who will be considering legalization next year.

New Hampshire House Committee Votes Down Marijuana Legalization Bill. The House Criminal Justice Committee voted 13-7 Tuesday to kill a legalization bill, House Bill 656.

International

World Health Organization Declares CBD Non-Addictive, Not-Toxic. In a recent report, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared cannabidiol (CBD) non-addictive and non-toxic. "In humans, CBD exhibits no effects indicative of any abuse or dependence potential," WHO concluded. The organization's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) found "no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD." The committee also found that clinical trials showed CBD could be useful for treating epilepsy and "a number of other medical conditions."

Norway Begins Move to Drug Decriminalization. A majority of the parliament has moved to begin shifting the country's drug policies toward decriminalization. "The majority in the parliament has asked the government to prepare for reform," a spokesperson for the Storting told Newsweek. "It has started a political process," he said. But he cautioned that "it's just the starting point," and that there's no legislation yet. Parliamentarians will be heading to Portugal in the spring to see how the Portuguese did it.

Global Coalition Calls for International Criminal Court to Intervene in Philippines. A coalition of dozens of groups and individuals worldwide led by Help Not Handcuffs has sent an open letter to the International Criminal Court urging it to investigate the Duterte government for crimes against humanity for the wave of killings of suspected drug users and sellers that has left thousands of people dead in the last year.

Chronicle AM: Ohio Legalization Initiative Planned, Canada Regulation Faces Speed Bump, More... (12/11/17)

California is getting ready for the legal pot industry, some Ohio operators want another crack at a legalization initiative, Canadian Tories are threatening to retard the passage of the marijuana legalization bills there, and more.

Will Canada actually get marijuana legalized by July 1? Maybe. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Secretary of State Launches Online Portal for Cannabusinesses. Secretary of State Alex Padilla has launched on online portal aimed at helping would-be ganjapreneurs get in on the state's emerging $7 billion legal marijuana industry. Padilla's office won't start accepting registrations until January 1, but the portal, cannabizfile.sos.ca.gov, is up and online now.

Ohio Backers of Failed 2015 Legalization Initiative Will Try Again in 2018. One of the cofounders of ResponsibleOhio, whose 2015 legalization initiative fell short at the polls, is set to propose on Monday a "free market" marijuana legalization initiative. Jim Gould and Ian James, the two cofounders of ResponsibleOhio, unsuccessfully applied for one of the state's two dozen medical marijuana cultivation licenses. Their 2015 initiative would have limited commercial cultivation to 10 preselected sites owned by the campaign's funders.

Drug Policy

Florida Democrats Call for Reviving State Drug Czar Office. Several Democratic state legislators have filed legislation, House Bill 865, which would bring back the shuttered state Office of Drug Control. A similar measure has been filed in the state Senate. The lawmakers said the office is needed to coordinate state-level responses to the opioid crisis.

International

Canada Tories Could Throw Wrench in Marijuana Legalization Timeline. Conservative senators are threatening to hold up passage of the pair of bills that would legalize marijuana in the country. The Tories are saying that it could take months for them "to do our job properly." A delay in the much anticipated July 1 deadline for legalization could sow confusion among provincial governments, which are negotiating contracts with suppliers, as well as marijuana businesses that are ramping up production and signing leases for storefronts and warehouses.

Georgia Drug Reformers Hold Big Protests Against "Repressive" Drug Policies. The White Noise Movement, an NGO calling for drug reforms in the former Soviet republic, held massive protests in the county's three largest cities -- Tbilisi, Kutaisi, and Batumi -- on Sunday. The Sunday rallies marked the UN's global Human Rights Day and protestors rallied under the banner "End the Repressive Drug Policy." Demonstrators called on parliament to adopt a draft law that would end imprisonment for personal drug possession and consumption.

Chronicle AM: Sessions Meets With Anti-Marijuana Activists, MA Considers Cannabis Clubs, More... (12/8/17)

The attorney general hunkers down with marijuana foes, the federal ban on going after medical marijuana where it's legal gets a reprieve, Hawaii cops back away from their plan to seize patients' guns, and more.

Trying to fight multiple drug wars is keeping Jeff Sessions a busy man these days. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Sessions Meets With Anti-Marijuana Activists. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions met Friday with marijuana legalization foes to discuss marijuana and drug policy. Sessions declared that "this is not a healthy substance" and that "the public is not properly educated on some of the issues related to marijuana. At the meeting were Project SAM head Kevin Sabet, former drug czar's office staffer Dr. Bertha Madras, Drug Free Schools Coalition head David Evans, former NIDA head Robert DuPont, and, just for old times' sake, Reagan era Attorney General Ed Meese.

Massachusetts Lawmakers Consider Cannabis Clubs. A Cannabis Advisory Board subcommittee is calling for the creation of businesses that would allow the purchase and smoking of marijuana. The move would help out of state tourists, as well as residents who don't want to smoke pot at home, supporters said.

Medical Marijuana

Federal Medical Marijuana Protection Gets Two-Week Reprieve. The passage of a stop-gap spending bill Thursday means the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment ban on spending federal funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal remains in force for at least another two weeks. That's good as far as it goes, but it doesn't go nearly far enough, said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) in a statement: "While we are pleased that these critical protections will continue, two weeks is not enough certainty for the millions of Americans who rely on medical marijuana for treatment and the businesses who serve them," Blumenauer said. "As Congress works out a long-term funding bill, it must also include these protections. And ultimately, Congress must act to put an end to the cycle of uncertainty and permanently protect state medical marijuana programs -- and adult use -- from federal interference."

Honolulu Police Chief Admits Department Erred in Trying to Take Guns from Patients. Chief Susan Ballard acknowledged to the Honolulu Police Commission Wednesday that the department's abortive move to make medical marijuana patients turn in their firearms "was incorrect." She said the department will return two guns to people who turned them in voluntarily, but she also said the department will continue to deny new gun permits to cardholders.

Nevada High Court OKs State's Medical-Marijuana Registry. The state Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Thursday that the state's medical marijuana registry does not violate constitutional provisions of due process, equal protection, and the right against self-incrimination. "We conclude Nevada's medical marijuana registry does not impinge upon a fundamental right," said the opinion written by Justice Ron Parraguirre. "We further conclude the registry is rationally related to the legitimate state interest of protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public."

Foreign Policy

US, Colombia Vow to Battle Record Surge in Coca Production. At a meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, on Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his Colombian counterpart, chief prosecutor Nestor Martinez, vowed to redouble efforts to suppress coca planting and the cocaine trade. "We're gonna make progress," Sessions vowed. Colombia is seeing coca cultivation grow dramatically in the wake of a peace treaty between the government and leftist rebels of the FARC.

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.

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