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From Bloody Drug War to Legal Pot: Ten Global Drug Policy Highlights (and Lowlights) of 2017 [FEATURE]

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has unleashed a drug war that has killed thousands. (Wikimedia)
1. In the Philippines, Duterte's Bloody Drug War Rages On

Undeterred by international criticism, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte continued his murderous war on small-time drug users and sellers throughout 2017, with Human Rights Watch estimating that some 12,000 people -- almost all poor -- have been killed since Duterte unleashed the killers in June 2016. Poor neighborhoods have also been subjected to warrantless searches and door-to-door drug testing, and thousands more people have been imprisoned in insalubrious conditions.

2. Indonesia Starts Going Down Duterte's Path

Indonesian President Joko Widodo must have liked what he was seeing one archipelago over because in July, he started sounding like his Filipino counterpart. To fight the country's "narcotic emergency," he said, police should "gun down" foreigners suspected of drug trafficking if they "resist arrest." At year's end, the National Narcotics agency proudly reported it had killed 79 people in drug raids during 2017, and arrested more than half a million, of whom 1,523 were declared rehabilitated after drug treatment. In 2016, Widodo had ordered that a 100,000 people receive drug treatment, but there don't seem to be any resources for that.

3. Norway Moves to Decriminalize All Drug Use

In December, the Norwegian parliament sent a strong signal that it wants to decriminalize drug use and possession. It voted to pursue such a path, directing the government to begin making changes in the laws to reflect that vote. Legislation that would actually enact the changes has yet to be drafted, but Norway is on the way.

4. Uruguay Legal Marijuana Sales Begin

It took more than three years after the country legalized marijuana before it happened, but it happened this year: Pharmacies began selling marijuana direct to customers in July, making Uruguay the first country in the world to permit the legal production and sale of marijuana.

5. Nevada Becomes 5th US State to Allow Legal Marijuana Sales, More Coming Online Soon

Uruguay may be the first country to legalize marijuana, but now, eight US states and the District of Columbia have done it, and the first four -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- all allow recreational marijuana sales. Four states legalized it in November 2016, but only Nevada got legal sales up and running in 2017. But watch out -- a tidal wave is coming: Legal sales begin in California, with its population of nearly 40 million, on January 1. Oh, and Maine and Massachusetts will begin legal sales sometime in 2018, too.

6. Mexico Drug War Mayhem at Record Levels

Eleven years after then-President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels and sent in the military, things are worse than ever. According to government crime statistics, 2017 was the bloodiest year yet with more than 27,000 murders as splintering drug trafficking organizations fight a multi-sided war among themselves and against the police and military (when the police and military aren't acting on behalf of cartel factions). The year brought other grim milestones as well: More than 200,000 dead, an estimated 30,000 missing, more than 850 clandestine graves uncovered. All to keep Americans well supplied with the drugs we love to hate -- or is it hate to love?

7. Iran Moves to Drastically Reduce Drug Executions

The Islamic Republic has long been one of the world's leading executioners of drug offenders, but that could be about to change. In August, the Iranian parliament approved an amendment that significantly raises the bar for mandatory executions for certain drug offenses. The amendment dramatically increases the quantities of drugs needed to trigger a sentence of death or life in prison and should result in hundreds of people being spared execution each year. But it's not a done deal yet: It still must be approved by the Guardian Council, a body of 12 Islamic jurists, to ensure it complies with the Iranian constitution and their interpretation of sharia law.

Breaking Bad: Kim Jung Un (Flickr)
8. US Heightens Afghan Drug War, First Round of Bombing Campaign Kills Dozens

In August, President Trump authorized new rules of engagement for American forces in Afghanistan, allowing them to target the Taliban directly with air strikes. Previously, air strikes had been allowed only in support of Afghan troop operations or to protect US or NATO troops under attack. In November, US military commanders made the first use of that authority by bombing ten Taliban-controlled opium production facilities in Helmand province, leaving a toll of at least 44 dead. The aim is to disrupt Taliban funding, but it looks like there's plenty more work to do: The Pentagon says the Taliban have another 400 to 500 heroin labs. And with bumper opium crops in 2017, they have plenty of work to do, too.

9. Colombia's Bumper Coca Harvests Prompt US Pressure to Resume Aerial Eradication

Colombia just came off a bumper year for coca and cocaine production, but that's largely an artifact of the peace settlement between the FARC and the government, which offered assistance to coca growers wishing to transition to other crops, thus encouraging farmers to grow coca so they could qualify for the program. But such nuances matter little to the Trump administration, which is pressuring the Colombian government to reinstate the aerial fumigation of coca crops with potentially carcinogenic herbicides.

10. In Sanctions-Busting Move, North Korea Ups Meth Production

The regime in Pyongyang has long been accused of resorting to drug trafficking to help finance its oft-sanctioned military activities, and it looks like it's up to it again. In August came reports that state-affiliated companies and universities were "ramping up" the production of methamphetamine as a means of obtaining desperately needed foreign currency. With more sanctions, expect more North Korean meth.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Top Ten US Drug Policy Stories of 2017 [FEATURE]

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. Tens of thousands die of drug overdoses, hundreds of thousands get arrested for drugs, yet marijuana is seeing boom times. As we bid adieu to 2017, here are the year's drug policy highlights:

Drug overdoses killed record numbers of Americans in 2017. (Wikimedia)
1.The Opioid Crisis Deepens, With Overdose Deaths at an All-Time High

The country's opioid crisis showed no signs of abating in 2017, with the Centers for Disease Control estimating 66,000 overdose deaths this year, up from 63,000 in 2016. To be clear, only about two-thirds of fatal drug overdoses are linked to heroin and prescription opioids, but opioid overdoses surged in 2016 by 28%. It's too early for final data on 2017 overdoses, but there is little reason to doubt that opioids were driving the increase this year. The high levels of overdose deaths have led to a fall in US life expectancy for the past two years, only the third time that has happened in the past century. Policy efforts to curtail the problem have sometimes included regressive moves to up drug sentences, and have generally given only limited consideration to the needs many patients have to access these substances. But public health measures like naloxone distribution and "Good Samaritan" non-prosecution policies have also advanced.

2. Fentanyl is Killing More and More People

The powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl and its analogs are implicated in an increasingly large number of opioid overdose deaths. While deaths involving prescription opioids are decreasing, fentanyl-related deaths have increased by an average of 88% a year since 2013. Illicitly imported fentanyl from labs in China or Mexico is mixed with heroin with lethal results: Half of the increase in heroin-related overdose deaths is attributable to heroin cut with fentanyl, the CDC reported in September. There were nearly 20,000 deaths attributable to fentanyl and other illicit opioids in 2016; the 2017 numbers are likely to be even worse.

3. Key Federal Drug Policy Positions Remain Unfilled, and Kellyanne is In Charge

The Trump administration has not nominated anyone to head the DEA, and the agency is currently being led by Acting Administrator Robert Patterson after Chuck Rosenberg, the acting administrator when Trump took office, resigned in September, saying he didn't want to work with the administration any longer. Similarly, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) is without a permanent head after Trump's nominee, Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Tom Marino went down in flames in October in the wake of reports he steered a bill through Congress that impeded the DEA from going after pharmaceutical drug distributors. Neither the White House nor anyone else seems very interested in filling the position, in part, perhaps, because earlier in the year, Trump floated the notion of cutting ONDCP's budget by nearly 95%. But not to worry: Trump pollster, counselor, and apologist Kellyanne Conway is now leading the administration's fight against opioids -- even though she has no public health experience whatsoever.

So far, Attorney General Sessions' bark is worse than his bite when it comes to marijuana policy. (senate.gov)
4. Attorney General Sessions Revives the Federal War on Drugs…

Under President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder presided over a ratcheting down of harsh federal drug prosecutions and sentences, but current Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing his best to undo those reforms. In May, Sessions announced that he had directed federal prosecutors to seek the most severe penalties possible in drug cases, including mandatory minimum sentences.

5. …But Fails to Implement a War on Weed, So Far

For all the wailing, gnashing of teeth, and dire predictions of a Sessions war on weed, it hasn't happened yet. The attorney general has made no secret of his dislike for the demon weed, but that has yet to translate into any firm policy positions or federal crackdowns on marijuana in states where it is legal, for either medical or recreational use. Congressional action continues to bar the use of Justice Department funds to go after medical marijuana, although the future of that law after January 22nd remains in doubt. But there was no bar on going after state-legal recreational marijuana, yet it didn't happen. Sessions told the House Judiciary Committee in November that the Obama-era Cole memo remains in effect. That memo directs prosecutors to pretty much leave state-legal marijuana alone except for specified concerns, such as the involvement of youth, violence, or diversion. Later in November, Sessions said the Justice Department was still examining the Cole memo, so all is not safe, but today legal marijuana is still standing.

6. Legal Marijuana's $10 Billion Dollar Year

In December, marijuana market watchers Arcview Market Research estimated that retail marijuana sales would hit $10 billion in 2017, up 33% over 2016. But that's just the beginning, Arcview said. With huge recreational markets such as California (pop. 39 million) and Canada (pop. 36 million) coming online next year, the group expects North American sales to top $24.5 billion by 2021. It's hard even for a pot-hating attorney general to get in front of that economic juggernaut.

7. Pot is More Popular than Ever

Just ask Gallup. The venerable polling firm has been tracking support for marijuana legalization since 1969, when it was at just 12%. In its latest poll, from October, Gallup now has support for marijuana legalization at 64%. What is really impressive is the rapid increase in support in the past 20 years: In 1996, support was at 25%; by 2012, it had doubled to 50%; and it's gained another 14 points in the five years since. Other pollsters are reporting similar current levels of support for marijuana legalization. And this could be another reason the attorney general hesitates to crack down on weed.

8. No State Legalized Weed, But 2018 Should Be Different

After 2016 saw marijuana legalization initiatives win in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada -- losing only in Arizona, closely -- anticipation was high that 2017 would see more states come aboard. It didn't happen. There are two explanations for this: First, it was an off-off election year and no initiatives were on the ballot, and second, it's hard to move controversial legislation though the state house. Still, the Vermont legislature actually passed a legalization bill, only to see it vetoed by a Republican governor, and that governor now says he is ready to sign a legalization bill. That could happen as early as next month. Likewise, a number of other states saw legalization bills make serious progress, and we could see those efforts come to fruition in places like Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. And 2018 will most likely see at least one legalization initiative. Activists in Michigan have already handed in signatures and should have enough of a cushion to qualify for the ballot.

9. Safe Injection Sites in the US Draw Ever Nearer

The harm reduction intervention has been proven to save lives, increase public health and public safety, and get hardcore drug users in touch with medical and social service help, and the message is finally on the verge of getting though in the US. At least two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, are advancing plans to open such facilities -- although not without staunch opposition -- and, under the progressive leadership of young Mayor Svante Myrick, Ithaca, New York, is making similar plans.

10. The War on Drugs Rolls On

Despite the legalization of medical and/or recreational marijuana in various states, despite various sentencing reforms at the state and federal level, despite the growing recognition that "we can't arrest our way out of this problem," the drug war just keeps on going. The FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report in November, and while the numbers are from 2016, this year's numbers are unlikely to be any better. More than 600,000 people got arrested for marijuana offenses in 2016, 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.

Chronicle AM: New CA Pot and Driving Laws, IL Black Heroin Problem, More... (12/27/17)

Getting caught using marijuana while driving will soon net you a $70 ticket in California, the Urban League charges that black heroin and opioid problems in Illinois don't get enough attention, pilots will soon face DOT testing for prescription opioids, and more.

people lining up to buy heroin in Chicago, 2016 (Chicago PD)
Marijuana Policy

New California Pot and Driving Laws Go into Effect Next Week. As the state enters the legal marijuana commerce era on January 1, residents and visitors should be aware of two bills related to marijuana and driving that go into effect on that date. Senate Bill 65, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in September, makes consuming marijuana while driving an infraction punishable by a $70 ticket. Another measure, Senate Bill 94, makes it illegal to possess an open container of cannabis or a cannabis product in an operating motor vehicle.

New Mexico Lawmaker to Try Again on Legalization Initiative Bill. State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque) has been trying to legalize marijuana for several years now and is vowing to get back to work on it when the legislature convenes next month. Ortiz y Pino has pre-filed a bill, Senate Joint Resolution 4, that would allow legalization to be put to a popular vote if approved by a two-thirds vote of the legislature. This year, a similar bill died in committee, but Ortiz y Pino is undaunted.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Urban League Charges Black Addiction and Deaths Get Short Shrift. In a new paper, Whitewashed: The African-American Opioid Epidemic, the Urban League finds that blacks make up a disproportionate amount of opioid overdose deaths in the state, but are less likely to get help because Cook County, where two thirds of the state's black population resides, has a relative scarcity of clinics offering buprenorphine. The report notes that such facts are too often missing in the debate over heroin, which is focused primarily on white users in rural and suburban areas. It also finds that while suburban areas have reacted by trying to guide users into treatment instead of jail, a hard-nosed drug war approach remains the rule in Chicago's poor neighborhoods.

Drug Testing

DOT to Begin Screening for Four Powerful Opioids in Pilot Drug Tests. Beginning January 1, the Department of Transportation will begin screening for four powerful prescription opioids in random drug tests of pilots, both private and commercial. They are hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone. That includes pharmaceuticals such as Oxycontin, Percocet, Percodan, Vicodin, Lortab, Nelco, and Dilaudid.

Chronicle AM: Kampia Out at MPP, Labor Unions Eye CA Pot Workers, More... (12/26/17)

Rob Kampia is no longer employed by the Marijuana Policy Project, labor unions are eyeing California's cannabis workforce as a recruiting bonanza, and more.

Marijuana Policy Project cofounder Rob Kampia and MPP go their separate ways. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Rob Kampia Out at Marijuana Policy Project. Longtime MPP leader Rob Kampia is no longer employed by the organization he founded. The move comes just weeks after Kampia stepped down as executive director just before Thanksgiving but continued on staff. Marijuana Moment reports that "several sources" say a major newspaper is working on a story about previously unreported allegations of sexual misconduct against Kampia, who initially drew media scrutiny over an incident in 2010, causing him to take a temporary hiatus from running the group. In a memo shared with Marijuana Moment, and an accompanying interview with the site, Kampia said he was starting a new group called the Marijuana Leadership Campaign and that he had left MPP after a unanimous decision by the group's board of directors on December 20.

Labor Unions See Gold in California's Marijuana Workforce. At least three national labor unions -- the United Farm Workers, the Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers -- are eying the state's 100,000+ plus workers in the marijuana industry  in a bid to boost organized labor's membership. The UFCW has already unionized some pot workers in the state and has announced plans to organize them across the country, but UFW says it is well suited to organize agricultural workers, and the Teamsters say there is room for all three unions.

Medical Marijuana

Hawaii Approves Medical Marijuana for ALS Patients. State Department of Health officials announced last Friday that they have added Amyothropic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, to the state's list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. Hawaii now joins 18 of the 29 medical marijuana states that recognize ALS as a qualifying condition.

Nearly 50 Lansing, Michigan, Dispensaries Could Have to Close. City Attorney Jim Smiertka said Tuesday that his office has identified 48 businesses that may be dispensaries operating in violation of city ordinances and state law. He sent each a cease and desist order last Friday, warning them they faced a $1,000 a day fine if they don't close their doors. December 15 was the last day the city accepted applications for dispensary licenses and also the last day the state offered license applications for those businesses. Under an executive order issued by Mayor Virg Bernero, dispensaries that didn't apply for licenses by that date must shut down.

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."

Chronicle AM: BC Pilot Program Will Provide Free Opioids to Entrenched Users, More... (12/21/17)

Austin mellows out on pot policy, the VA lets doctors talk about -- but not recommend -- medical marijuana to patients, British Columbia is set to begin a pilot project of giving medical-grade opioids to chronic users, and more.

BC health officials are going to start giving hydromorphone (Dilaudid) to chronic opioid users. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Austin, Texas, to Allow Small-Time Marijuana Possessors to Take Class, Avoid Charges. People caught with less than two ounces of marijuana will be able to avoid criminal charges if they take a four-hour class on drug abuse and the effects of marijuana on the body under a policy unanimously adopted by Travis County commissioners Wednesday. Houston is already doing something similar. About 2,000 people get arrested for pot each year in Travis County, a disproportionate number of whom are black or Hispanic.

Medical Marijuana

New Veterans Administration Rules Let Docs Talk About -- But Not Recommend -- Medical Marijuana. Under a new VA directive, doctors can "discuss with the veteran marijuana use, due to its clinical relevance to patient care, and discuss marijuana use with any veterans requesting information about marijuana." But they can't recommend it: "Providers are prohibited from completing forms or registering veterans for participation in a state-approved marijuana program."

Utah Poll Has Strong Support for Medical Marijuana Initiative. A new UtahPolicy poll finds that nearly three-quarters (73%) of respondents support a proposed medical marijuana initiative. That figure includes 61% of people who describe themselves as "very active" Mormons. The church opposes the initiative. The initiative will go on the November 2018 ballot if petitioners can come up with 113,000 valid voter signatures by the spring.

International

British Columbia Pilot Project to Hand Out Free Opioids to Users. The BC Center for Disease Control has won permission to begin a pilot project where medical-grade opioids will be provided at no cost to at-risk users. The move is aimed at reducing fatal drug overdoses, as well as reducing costs associated with drug use and addiction. Under the program, chronic opioid users registered with the agency will be given three free doses of hydromorphone (Dilaudid) daily. The annual cost for the drug for each user will be under $700, less than the cost of a single emergency call to medical first-responders. The program is set to begin in April.

Mexico to Legalize Marijuana-Based Products Next Year. The country's health regulatory agency, Cofepris, announced Wednesday that Mexico will legalize the sales of marijuana-based foods, drinks, cosmetics, and other products early next year. Mexico has legalized the use of marijuana for medical and scientific, but not recreational purposes.

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.

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