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Chronicle AM: NH Legal Pot Push Begins, Russia Plans for Poppies, More... (12/31/18)

Marijuana bills aimed at the new year begin popping up, Pennsylvania's highest court rules for pregnant drug users, Russia ponders its own poppy crop, and more.

Citing sanctions from the West, Russia is moving to grow its own medicinal poppy crops. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Legalization Bill Ready to File. A group of state lawmakers have agreed on language for a bill that would allow for legal marijuana commerce and let adults possess up to an ounce of weed and grow up to six plants. The bill has not yet been formally filed. Legalization efforts in previous years have been thwarted in the Republican-dominated legislature, but Democrats retook control in the November elections, Still, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has vowed to veto any legalization bill that reaches his desk.

Virginia Decriminalization Bill Ready to Go. When the legislature convenes next week, it will have a decriminalization bill waiting for it. Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) has pre-filed SB 997, which would decriminalize the possession of up to a quarter-ounce of weed and provide for a maximum $50 civil penalty. Under current state law, getting caught with a joint carries a jail sentence of up to 30 days and a $500 fine. Similar bills have been filed in previous sessions, but never made it out of committee.

Pregnancy

Pennsylvania High Court Rules Drug-Using Pregnant Women Can't Be Charged With Child Abuse Under State Child Protection Law. In an opinion issued last Friday, the state Supreme Court held that the state's child protection law does not apply to pregnant women. The court ruled that the law doesn't include fetuses or unborn children and said victims protected by the law must be children.

International

Russia Moves Towards Allowing Medicinal Opium Crops. The Russian government last week approved a draft bill that would allow the country to produce medicinal opium crops. Government officials said the bill was needed to reduce its dependence on foreign countries that supply raw opium to government factories because some of those countries have imposed sanctions on the country. "In order not to leave our population without strong painkillers, we must be self-sufficient," health minister Veronika Skvortsova told reporters. "We need to produce drugs in a full cycle -- from substances to their medicinal form." The bill still needs to be approved by parliament and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

Thai Government Approves Medical Marijuana, Kratom. The Thai ruling junta last week approved a bill legalizing medical marijuana, becoming the first country in Southeast Asia to do so. The bill also regularizes the status of kratom, which comes from there. The bill becomes law once it is approved by the monarchy.

The Year in Drugs II: Good, Bad, and Ugly Global Drug Policy in 2018 [FEATURE]

(See our Top Domestic Drug Stories of 2018 piece here.)

It's been a year we couldn't wait to put behind us, but as 2018 comes to an end, we can look back on some advances on the international drug policy front, as well as continued brutal and regressive responses from some quarters. Here are 10 of the global drug policy stories that shaped the year, for better or worse:

Iranian drug executions have come to a screeching halt in one of the good news stories of 2018. (handsoffcain.info)
1. Drug Death Penalty Reforms Cause Massive Drop in Executions

Early this year, it became official: Iran had reformed its death penalty statutes to radically reduce the number of people facing execution for drug offenses, and it had done so retroactively, saving the lives of thousands already on death row. By mid-year, it was clear that the move was having an impact, as human rights observers reported a 99% reduction in drug executions, with only one person being executed for drugs as of June, compared to more than a hundred during the same period in 2017.

2. Canada Becomes the First G8 Country to Legalize Marijuana

Justin Trudeau pledged that he was elected prime minister, his government would legalize marijuana. It didn't happen as fast as he would have liked, but the Liberals' legalization bill passed parliament in June and went into effect on October 17. So far, the sky has not fallen.

3. Medical Marijuana Earns Growing Acceptance

The year began with Thailand announcing a plan to allow medical marijuana and ended with Thailand approving it and becoming the first Southeast Asian country to do so. But in the meantime, Israeli pharmacies began selling medical marijuana in April, Zimbabwe legalized it in May, and Portugal and Luxembourg followed suit in June. In November, Great Britain joined the club, and Greece issued its first medical marijuana production licenses. Late in the year, in South Korea, the National Assembly approved an amendment to the country's drug laws that will pave the way for the use of medical marijuana by prescription, and New Zealand also approved it in December Not a bad year for medical marijuana.

Canadian Senate
4. The Philippines Drug War Continues, But Pressures Mount…

The bloody drug war of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte continued apace in 2018, with a death toll now put at 12, 000 (20,000 by some estimates), but Duterte has come under increasing pressure both domestically and internationally. In February, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch aimed broadsides at the Philippines even as the International Criminal Court began "preliminary examinations" of whether there is sufficient evidence to bring a case before the court. In March, activists called out drug war human rights abuses at the embassy in Washington, DC. By July, an unbowed Duterte was vowing to continue a "relentless and chilling" drug war even as national human rights groups said he was using it as a cover for assassinating political opponents. In September, he unleashed an attack on a second drug war critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes, after last year imprisoning critic Senator Leila de Lima on trumped up drug charges. She is still imprisoned.

5.. ...and the Rot Spreads in the Region

Following the lead of the Philippines, other countries in the region have also embraced drug war thuggery and human rights abuses. In May, the Bangladeshi opposition warned of a wave of police killings of drug suspects, and within weeks, more than a hundred were killed and 20,000 arrested, even as evidence emerged that the crackdown was being used to hide political assassinations. The situation was fraught enough that the UN human rights head and even the US State Department expressed concern. Drug war killings were also reported in Indonesia, although there were mixed signals about moves toward reforms there, and Sri Lanka vowed to begin hanging drug dealers. Paradoxically though, a Malaysian court's imposition of a death sentence on a man for providing cannabis oil to patients now appears to have resulted in a moratorium on the death sentence and could end the death penalty in its entirety in the county.

6. The US President Aligns Himself With Global Drug War Authoritarians

President Donald Trump was a baleful presence on the global drug policy stage this past year, sympathizing with drug war authoritarians such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, as well as drug death penalty countries such as China and Singapore. He said early in the year he wants to execute all drug dealers and admires the Singapore approach (mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking), a statement that moved more than 150 organizations to condemn his call. At year's end, he was singing a similar tune with a ghoulish call for more Chinese drug executions. In between, he went to the United Nations to try to gin up a reinvigorated global drug war.

coca leaves drying by highway
7. South Africa Legalizes Marijuana

In a case brought by three marijuana users, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that the private possession, cultivation, and consumption of marijuana is legal. "It will not be a criminal offense for an adult person to use or be in possession of cannabis in private for his or her personal consumption," Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo wrote in his ruling. It will, however, remain illegal to use cannabis in public and to sell and supply it. The ruling did not set allowable quantities, with the court saying parliament had two years to come up with a new law that reflected the ruling.

8. Glimmers of Hope in Mexico

then-President Felipe Calderon unleashed the latest chapter of the country's drug wars, bringing violence to levels not seen before in the country, Mexico is showing signs it is ready for change. The death toll from prohibition-related violence is higher than ever, and that is impelling a psh for change, most notably with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is very open to finding exits from the drug war, whether it's legalized opium production in Guerrero, granting amnesty for non-violent drug trafficking offenders, or legalizing marijuana. And speaking of legalizing marijuana, the Mexican Supreme Court in November struck down the ban on marijuana possession, cultivation, and use. Now, Lopez Obrador's governing MORENA Party has filed a bill to legalize marijuana sales. Tackling the violence, may be a bit more difficult.

9. Colombia Sees a Record Coca Crop as US Cocaine Deaths Rise

Efforts to reduce coca cultivation and cocaine production in the country after the peace agreement with the FARC rebels have not gone well, and that's causing rising worry in Washington. In June, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported that 2017 production was at an all-time high, prompting expressions of concern from the drug czar's office and support from President Trump for new rightist Colombian President Ivan Duque's "head-on fight against drug trafficking." That could include a renewed resort to aerial fumigation, even drones, as well as forced eradication of coca crops, leading to renewed conflict in cultivation zones. Meanwhile, cocaine is now the third leading cause of drug overdose deaths, trailing only fentanyl and heroin.

Vienna International Centre, home to the UN drug agencies
10. Historic UN Cannabis Review Hits Last-Minute Procedural Delay

In June and again in November, the Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) of the World Health Organization (WHO) met to consider the evidence on cannabis (marijuana) and its placement in the UN drug scheduling system, which determines whether or what level of control the UN drug conventions mandate that countries maintain for the substance. The conventions specify that substances should receive such an evaluation before being scheduled, but that never happened for marijuana. Observers believe the process should lead to marijuana being moved to a less restrictive schedule than it is in currently -- if the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) votes to adopt such a recommendation from ECDD.

That didn't happen when, earlier this month, WHO voted to delay release of ECDD's recommendations until January, for unexplained reasons. That may mean they get taken up at the main annual CND meeting in Vienna in March, rather than December's intersessional. The delay seems unusual, and probably political, but its intent is unclear.

The next few months may tell. In the meanwhile, ECDD says that CBD shouldn't be scheduled at all. But that didn't stop the US FDA from saying that treaties require it be scheduled, even though they also think it shouldn't be.

Chronicle AM: AZ Groups Want Needle Exchange, DE Judge Rules for Fired MedMJ User, More... (12/24/18)

A Delaware judge says a medical marijuana user fired for failing a drug test can sue his former employer, Arizona public health advocates want the governor to approve needle exchanges, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Incoming House Rules Committee Chairman Becomes Cosponsor of Marijuana Justice Act. What a difference an election makes! Outgoing House Rules Committee Chair Pete Sessions (R-TX) reliably blocked any marijuana reform legislation, but things are going to be different under incoming Chair Jim McGovern (D-MA). McGovern has already said he is "not going to block marijuana amendments like my predecessor has done," and now he has just signed on as a cosponsor of the Marijuana Justice Act (HR 4815).

Indiana Governor Not Down With Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) has made it clear he will oppose any legislative moves to legalize marijuana. "I'm just not willing to look at that, especially since it is illegal right now according to the federal government," Holcomb said.

South Dakota Marijuana Legalization Initiative Filed. Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) has filed a statement on the language of an initiative to legalize marijuana, the first step in the process of getting the measure on the ballot. According to the attorney general's statement, the measure would allow anyone 21 and over to grow, possess, use, and sell marijuana. Localities would be barred from taxing or regulating marijuana businesses. And, the attorney general says, "it forbids prosecutions for driving under the influence of ingested marijuana," but the language of the initiative only bars prosecution for "consumed cannabis metabolites."

Medical Marijuana

Delaware Judge Rules Fired Medical Marijuana User Can Sue Former Employer. A factory worker fired from his job after failing a drug test can sue his former employer, Superior Court Judge Noel Primos ruled on Monday. Jeremiah Chance claims his firing violated the anti-discrimination provision of the state's medical marijuana law and that he was targeted for retaliation after pointing out safety issues with railroad ties manufactured by the Kraft Heinze plant in Dover. The company had argued that the anti-discrimination clause was preempted by the federal Controlled Substances Act, but the judge disagreed. The law does "not require employers to participate in an illegal activity... but instead merely prohibits them from discriminating based upon medical marijuana use," Primos wrote.

Oregon to Allow Medical Marijuana Deliveries in Areas That Ban Dispensaries. State regulators have approved medical marijuana deliveries in areas where dispensaries are banned effective December 28. The rules were approved last week after patient advocates voiced concern about rules that limited access to medical marijuana.

Drug Testing

Utah Bill Would Criminalize Using Fake Urine to Pass Drug Tests. Under a bill already approved by an interim legislative committee, it would be "a criminal offense to distribute, possess, or sell an adulterant or synthetic urine;" or "to defraud an alcohol or drug test using an adulterant, bodily fluid of another person, or bodily fluid expelled or withdrawn before collection for the test." The measure would make violations a misdemeanor.

Harm Reduction

Arizona Public Health Advocates Urge Governor to Legalize Needle Exchange Programs. In a letter delivered last week to Gov. Doug Ducey (R), more than 30 organizations involved in public health and addiction recovery called on him move to legalize the proven harm reduction intervention. "Arizona has fallen behind in its response to this national crisis, states like North Carolina, Indiana, and Kentucky have all implemented syringe service legislation and are seeing the benefits in their communities," the letter says. "Too many lives are on the line to continue with the status quo."

Chronicle AM: AK OKs Pot Social Clubs, Vancouver Ponders "Safe Supply" of Hard Drugs, More... (12/21/18)

Vancouver ponders another cutting-edge drug policy move, Alaska okays on-site pot consumption space rules, the president signs the farm bill legalizing hemp, and more.

From Amsterdam to Alaska? Dutch-style on-site consumption spaces win approval in Juneau. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Approves Rules for On-Site Marijuana Consumption. The state's Marijuana Control Board on Thursday approved rules for businesses that want to offer on-site consumption of pot products. Now, businesses that want in will have to apply for a special onsite use endorsement and come up with plans for meeting ventilation and other standards for on-site use. This makes Alaska the first state to develop a regulatory framework for on-site use at the state level.

Medical Marijuana

FDA Begins Process of Allowing Hemp-Based CBD Products. After President Trump signed the 2018 farm bill into law Thursday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a press release pledging to pursue means of allowing businesses to legally market products containing hemp or non-psychoactive cannabinoids, such as CBD. FDA also asserted its right to regulate such products. "In view of the proliferation of products containing cannabis or cannabis-derived substances, the FDA will advance new steps to better define our public health obligations in this area," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said. "We'll also continue to closely scrutinize products that could pose risks to consumers."

Industrial Hemp

Trump Signs Farm Bill, Final Step to Making Hemp Legal. President Trump signed the 2018 farm bill into law Thursday, the final step in the legalization of hemp. The hemp provision of the farm bill, championed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), received bipartisan support and now ends a ban going back more than seven decades.

Drug Testing

Federal Appeals Court Upholds Florida School District's Suspicionless Drug Testing of Substitute Teachers. A three-judge panel of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a constitutional challenge to the Palm Beach County School Board's policy requiring substitute teachers to undergo suspicionless drug testing. Federal courts have generally held drug testing to be a search under the Fourth Amendment and barred drug testing by government entities, but have carved out exceptions for students, people involved in safety-sensitive positions, and law enforcement personnel. Although this case doesn't appear to fall into any of those categories, the appeals court nonetheless ruled in the district's favor. "We think that the School Board has a sufficiently compelling interest in screening its prospective teachers to justify this invasion of the privacy rights of job applicants, and thus conclude that the School Board has not violated the constitutional mandate barring unreasonable searches and seizures," said the 54-page opinion, written by Judge Stanley Marcus and joined by Chief Judge Ed Carnes and Judge David Ebel. "As we see it, ensuring the safety of millions of schoolchildren in the mandatory supervision and care of the state, and ensuring and impressing a drug-free environment in our classrooms, are compelling concerns."

International

Vancouver Looks to Pioneer "Safe Supply" for Hard Drug Users. The city council met Thursday to discuss the Mayor's Overdose Emergency Task Force report and how and whether to implement its 23 specific recommendations for action. One key recommendation is to find a location in or near the epicenter of the city's Downtown Eastside hard drug scene for "a clinical space where we could evaluate and enroll people" for a "low-barrier dispersal program for pharmaceutical opioids." Supporters are using the phrase "safe supply" to describe the concept aimed at reducing skyrocketing overdose deaths linked to illicit fentanyl.

Chronicle AM: NYC Mayor Backs Legal Weed, Report Chides DEA & Drug Companies on WV Opioids, More... (12/20/18)

A report from congressional Democrats explores the economic benefits of marijuana legalization, a report from the House Energy and Commerce Committee scolds the DEA and drug distributors over massive shipments of opioids to West Virginia, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio climbs on board the legalization bandwagon, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Congressional Democrats Release Report On Marijuana Legalization's Economic Benefits. Democratic members of the congressional Joint Economic Committee released a report Tuesday emphasizing the economic benefits legal marijuana can bring at both the state and federal levels. The report is The National Cannabis Economy, and it predicts marijuana sales revenues will jump from $8 billion last year to $23 billion by 2022. "It's time we legalize marijuana, but at the minimum, we must reduce the conflicts between federal and state laws so that the industry can continue to create jobs and bolster state economies," Senator Martin Heinrich, (D-NM), the ranking member of the panel, said in a press release. "This conflict hurts small businesses and constrains the economic benefits of legal cannabis -- an industry that is estimated to reach $11 billion in sales this year and $23 billion by 2022. But in order to realize the benefits, we must act on legislation such as the STATES Act to help these businesses thrive."

West Hollywood, California, Approves Cannabis Cafes, Consumption Lounges. The city announced Wednesday that it had approved licenses for eight edibles-only consumption cafes an eight consumption lounges where marijuana can be smoked, vaped, drunk, or eaten. The businesses now have a year to obtain a West Hollywood business license and a place to operate. The move could nearly double the number of consumption lounges nationwide: there are seven such facilities in San Francisco, one in Oakland, and one in Denver.

New York City Mayor Backs Marijuana Legalization. Just days after Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) said he wants to legalize marijuana next year, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio hopped on board the legal pot train, saying it represents "a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get a historic issue right for future New Yorkers." De Blasio's remarks came as the Mayor's Task Force on Cannabis Legalization released a report recommending that the city tax sales, automatically expunge old pot possession offenses, and work to ensure "diverse participants" get a shot in the legal industry.

Brooklyn, New York, District Attorney Throws Out Hundreds of Old Pot Convictions. Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzales appeared in court Wednesday to vacate outstanding warrants related to low-level pot offenses, as well as expunging past misdemeanor pot convictions. "To fail to address these past convictions would be hypocritical and it would be to turn a blind eye on all the harm caused by marijuana enforcement in prior years," Gonzalez said.

Pennsylvania Governor Suggests He Could Get Behind Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Tom Wolf (D) said Wednesday that it's time for the state to consider legalizing marijuana. "More and more states are successfully implementing marijuana legalization," he noted, adding that it's time for "a serious look" at doing it. The statements mark a change of heart for Wolf, who previously had shied away from legalization talk.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Legal Battle Over Medical Marijuana Takes Another Turn. A state appeals court this week agreed to stay a circuit court judge's ruling that the legislature and the Department of Health violated the state's voter-approved medical marijuana amendment. The ruling comes in a case involving a Tampa marijuana grower, which challenged caps placed on the number of medical marijuana licensees. While the 1st District Appeals Court approved the stay, it also said its final decision on the case would be "expedited."

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Congressional Report Scolds DEA, Drug Distributors on Flood of Opioids to West Virginia. Massive shipments of prescription opioids to West Virginia -- 20.8 million pounds opioids sent to one town of 3,000 over a ten-year period, for example -- reflect failures by the DEA and drug distribution companies to conduct effective oversight of their customers and failures to recognize obvious red flags, a bipartisan report from the House Energy and Commerce Committee found. These lapses helped make the state "the epicenter of the nation's opioid epidemic and the state with the highest drug overdose death rate in the country," the report said. And it's not just West Virginia: "Taken all together, the Committee's report outlines a series of missteps and missed opportunities that contributed to the worsening of the opioid epidemic in West Virginia," the report said. "While focused on a narrow part of West Virginia, the report raises grave concerns about practices by the distributors and the DEA nationwide."

The Year in Drugs I: The Top Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2018 [FEATURE]

This is a year that just about everybody is eager to see come to an end, but when it comes to drug policy, 2018 hasn't been half-bad, at least in the US. (Check back next week for our Top International Drug Policy Stories.)

We've seen marijuana legalization spread further, we're on the verge of seeing Congress pass major sentencing reform legislation, and the ban on domestic hemp cultivation is coming to an end, among other things.

A lot went on in drug policy in 2018. Here are eight stories that helped define the year:

1. Overdose Deaths Remain Unconscionably High But Appear to Have Leveled Off

That's enough fentanyl to kill you. It killed thousands this year. (dea.gov)
The nation's fatal drug overdose crisis is far from over, but it now looks like it at least didn't get any worse this year. Driven in large part by the rise of fentanyl, overdose deaths reached a stunning 72,000 in 2017, a figure ten times the number in 1980 and double that of only a decade ago.

But preliminary reports on the 2018 overdose numbers suggest that this may be the year the crisis began to ease. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data showing that overdose deaths had declined for six straight months, dropping 2.8 percent from their 2017 peak. That report also found that opioid overdose deaths had declined by 2.3 percent.

With both heroin and prescription opioid deaths declining, fentanyl has emerged as the most common drug involved in overdoses, being implicated in about a quarter of all drug overdose deaths. While the apparent decline in opioid overdose deaths this year is good news, the recent increases in cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths is not. And while any break in a years-long climb in overdose deaths is certainly welcome, another 70,000 or so Americans will still have died from them this year. We have a long, long way to go.

2. Safe Injection Sites Draw Nearer, But Feds Fire Warning Shots

Safe injection sites -- also known as supervised consumption sites, among other names -- where drug users can consume their doses under medical supervision and with an opportunity to engage with social services are a proven harm reduction intervention. More than a hundred cities around the world, mainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia have resorted to such facilities as a means of providing better outcomes, not only for drug users but also for the communities in which they live.

There are no legally permitted safe injection sites in the United States (although some underground ones are reportedly operating in Seattle, and there may be more in hiding), but this year saw mounting pressure and serious efforts to get them up and running in a number of American states and cities. It also saw mounting resistance from federal officials.

At the state level, California, Colorado, Missouri, and New York all saw safe injection site bills filed. Only the bill in California made it out of the legislature, but to the great frustration of reformers, it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who cited long outdated beliefs about substance use in his veto message. Still, the fact that bills are being filed shows the issue is gaining momentum.

The momentum is even stronger among a handful of major cities. Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle have all taken steps to clear the way for safe injection sites this year, although none are yet in place.

While like California's Gov. Brown, some state and local level political figures are hesitant to embrace them, a major reason none is yet in place is federal hostility. As the clamor for the facilities grows louder, so does opposition from the Trump administration. As Denver publicly pondered opening one, the local DEA and the US Attorney loudly warned they would be illegal, and the Philadelphia US Attorney did the same thing. Early in the year, the DEA in Washington issued a warning against safe injection sites, and in August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authored an op-ed in the New York Times issuing similar dire threats.

3. A Major Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Is Set to Pass

A rare example of bipartisanship on the Hill. (Creative Commons)
The first major federal sentencing reform bill in eight years is now one vote away from passing Congress. The bill, known as the First Step Act (S.3649), is the culmination of years of work by the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and includes prison reform language as well as provisions that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenses. It very nearly died earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he would not bring it to a Senate floor vote, but under broad pressure, including from President Trump, McConnell relented, and the bill passed the Senate Tuesday

The sentencing reforms include retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people; expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences; reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years.

The late word is that the bill will pass the House easily, but that hasn't happened as of this writing. If and when it does, the country will have taken a significant step toward a more just and humane federal criminal justice system. The passage has also drawn major media attention as a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington today.

4. Marijuana Legalization Advances in the States

At the beginning of the year, marijuana for adult recreational use was legal in eight states, all in the West or New England and all thanks to the initiative process. As 2018 comes to a close, that number has jumped to ten, with Vermont in January becoming the first state to legalize it through the legislature and Michigan in November becoming the first Midwest state to legalize it.

The initiative process is available in only half the states, and when it comes to legalizing weed, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. A legalization initiative in conservative Nebraska went down to defeat this year, and remaining initiative states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas are among the most socially conservative and least likely to free the weed. But prospects are rosier in initiative states Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio. We are likely to see pot on the ballot in all three in 2020.

Vermont remains the sole state to legalize it legislatively, but a handful of states edged ever closer close this year. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wanted pot legalized in his first 100 days. That didn't happen, and legalization hasn't gotten through the legislature yet, but there is a small chance it could still happen this year and a very good chance it will be a done deal by early next year. Legislatures throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and Northeast grappled with the issue, laying the groundwork for next year and the year beyond, and just this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for legalization next year. The long march continues.

5. Marijuana Is Still Federally Illegal, But the Crackdown Never Came

As the year comes to end, legal weed is still here and Jeff Sessions isn't. President Trump's first attorney general was an avowed foe of marijuana (as well as drug and criminal justice reform in general), but despite rescinding the Obama-era Cole memo, which basically told federal prosecutors to leave state law-abiding pot businesses alone, the much-feared crackdown on the industry never came.

Federal prosecutors, for the most part, continue to view legal marijuana businesses as a low priority, especially when faced with much more serious drug problems, such as the opioid overdose epidemic. But Sessions was also undercut by his own boss, who in April arranged a deal with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in which he agreed to support a bill protecting states that have broken with federal pot prohibition in return for Gardner's allowing Justice department appointments to move forward.

This year saw a plethora of federal marijuana reform bills, but with Republican leadership in both houses firmly opposed, the Capitol was where marijuana reform went to die. With Democrats in control of the House next year, things promise to be different next year, although the GOP-led Senate will remain an obstacle. But with pot consistently polling in the 60s, those Republican senators may grudgingly start coming on board.

6. Marijuana Legalization is Nice, But We Need Social Justice, Too

This year saw social justice concerns around marijuana legalization move front and center in two distinct ways: demands for the expungement of marijuana arrest records for people whose offenses are no longer crimes and demands for restorative racial justice from communities that have suffered the brunt of the war on drugs.

The year started with two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, leading the way on expungement. The, in September, California became the first state to put state-level automatic expungement into effect. Delaware and Rhode Island, which have both decriminalized but not legalized pot, also passed expungement bills this year. Expungement is also a contentious issue in the ongoing battle to get legalization passed in New Jersey.

After a half-dozen years of legalization and well-heeled white guys making bank off legal weed, the call for racial justice, whether in terms of set-asides to guarantee minority participation in the industry or for funding streams aimed at restoring drug war-ravaged communities, is growing too loud to be ignored. This is an ongoing struggle now being played out not only in pot-legal states, but especially in states on the cusp of legalization. Moving forward, it's likely that every successful state legalization bill is going to have to address issues of social and racial justice. As they should.

7. Industrial Hemp Becomes Federally Legal

The sun rises on the American domestic hemp industry. (votehemp.org)
Finally, the absolutely most ridiculous aspect of federal marijuana prohibition is dead. Recreational marijuana's country cousin, hemp can't get anyone high, but is extremely useful in a broad range of industries, from foods to textiles and beyond. Thanks to a lawsuit from hemp interests more than a decade ago, hemp could be imported for American firms to use in their products, but because the DEA refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and recreational marijuana, American farmers were forced to stand on the sidelines as their competitors in China, Canada, and other countries raked in the rewards.

But having a hemp-friendly senator from a hemp-friendly state allowed hemp legalization to move this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) actually fought for the hemp bill, shepherding it into the must-pass farm appropriations bill and keeping it in there through negotiations with the House. President Trump has signed the farm bill, including the hemp provision, into law.

8. Here Come the 'Shrooms

Initiative campaigns to legalize or decriminalize the use and possession of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms began popping up in 2018. Actually, the first state-level initiative came last year in California, but this past summer it failed to qualify for the fall ballot.

Right now, there are two psilocybin initiatives in the signature-gathering phase, a municipal initiative in Denver that would decriminalize the use, possession, and cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and the statewide Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would decriminalize possession of psilocybin, allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin. The Denver initiative would go before voters in May 2019, while the Oregon initiative aims at the 2020 election.

If psilocybin initiatives follow the pattern set by marijuana legalization initiatives, the first time may not be the charm. But more will follow.

Chronicle AM: Federal Sentencing Bill Moving, No NJ Legalization This Year, More... (12/18/18)

The Senate is finally taking up the prison and sentencing reform bill, New Jersey's legalization push is stalled until next year, New Zealand is set to vote on legalizing marijuana in 2020, and more.

Things are getting busy at the Capitol in the last days of the congressional session. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Senator Proposes States' Rights Amendment to Criminal Justice Reform Bill. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) on Monday filed an amendment to the First Step Act (S.3649) that would incorporate some of the protections for state-legal marijuana that he has proposed in his own STATES Act (S.3032). The amendment's prospects aren't rosy, though: It will take unanimous consent to get the amendment considered, meaning an objection from a single senator can kill it.

New Jersey Legalization Bill Delayed Until Next Year. With the final voting day of the legislative session yesterday and no action on marijuana, marijuana legalization is now delayed until next year. Senate President Steven Sweeney (D-Glouchester) said legislators were unable to reach agreement with Gov. Phil Murphy (D) on how and how much to tax it, so they'll be back to work on in January.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Issues Permits for Phase II Medical Marijuana Dispensaries. The Department of Health Tuesday issued 23 dispensary permits for Phase II of the medical marijuana program. The permittees will now have six months in which to become operational before they can begin dispensing medical marijuana. "The permitting of these locations as part of Phase II of the medical marijuana program will ensure more people have access to medical marijuana close to home," Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. "Medical marijuana is an essential form of treatment for Pennsylvanians suffering from one of 21 serious medical conditions. This step continues the growth of our scientific, medically-based medical marijuana program."

Sentencing Reform

Senate Ends Debate on First Step Act, Final Senate Vote Pending. The Senate voted 82-12 Monday to end debate on the prison and sentencing bill, the First Step Act (S.3649), paving the way for a final Senate vote as early as today. Twelve Republicans voted against advancing the legislation despite President Trump endorsing the bill in November: Before the final vote, though, the Senate will take up a number of amendments, including one from conservative Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and John Kennedy (R-AL) that Democrats who favor the bill describe it as a "poison pill."

International

New Zealand Says Voters Will Decide Whether Cannabis Is Legalized. Justice Minister Andrew Little has announced that New Zealanders will vote in a binding referendum in 2020 on whether to legalize marijuana. That would make the country the first to put legalization to a nationwide vote. The latest polls on legalization have support at 46% with 41% opposed, but one analyst said the trend was moving "toward liberalization."

Chronicle AM: NY Gov Wants Legal Marijuana in 2019, UT Offenders' Drug Treatment Report, More... (12/17/18)

The governors of New Hampshire and New York have very different views on marijuana legalization, New Jersey doubles the number of dispensaries, a new report examines drug treatment for criminal offenders in Utah, and more.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo now says free the weed. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Bill to Ban Marijuana Home Grows Defeated. A bid by the outgoing Republican Senate to undo the will of the voters by amending the state's new marijuana legalization law to ban home cultivation has failed by failing to obtain a supermajority. The bill sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-Grand Rapids) needed three-quarters of the vote to pass. Meekhof is sad now: "I'm very disappointed. I knew it would be a heavy lift," he said. "What we're going to be allowing to happen is going to make our society less safe," he complained without explaining how or why.

New Hampshire Governor Rails Against Legalization. Gov. Chris Sununu (R) isn't exactly climbing on the marijuana bandwagon. In remarks over the weekend, he said preventing legalization would be one of the biggest fights for his administration, and that he would "absolutely" veto any legalization bill "regardless of what the language looks like." Still, he was cognizant that the trends aren't on his side. "But then there's a good chance that veto could get overruled," he conceded.

New York Governor Calls for Legalization in 2019. In a Monday speech outlining his 2019 agenda, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for freeing the weed. "Let's legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana, once and for all," Cuomo said. He is also reportedly exploring whether to make expungement part of the push.

Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Just Approved Six More Dispensaries. The state Department of Health on Monday effectively doubled the size of its medical marijuana program by approving six additional dispensaries. There are only six in the state right now. Click on the link to see the list.

Drug Treatment

Utah Report on Treating People in the Criminal Justice System. The Utah Foundation has released Rethinking Rehabilitation: Improving Outcomes for Drug-Addicted Offenders in Utah. The report explains efforts to address addiction within the context of the justice system in Utah and explores alternative approaches for people struggling with substance use disorders. It also sets forth policy guidance for future action. Among the report's key findings are that efforts to reduce the state prison population appear to be bearing fruit. However, the populations of local jails in Utah are rising, and local facilities often lack the drug treatment programs found in state prisons. Another key finding is that investments in drug rehabilitation for offenders can yield significant savings to taxpayers in the long run.

Chronicle AM: NJ Legalization Delayed, NM Court Rejects Albuquerque Car Seizures, More.. (12/14/18)

A national coalition of civil rights, labor, and civic groups calls for descheduling marijuana; New Jersey isn't quite there yet, France takes a step toward allowing medical marijuana, and more.

still waiting for Garden State marijuana legalization (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

National Coalition Calls for Marijuana to Be Descheduled. A coalition of civil rights groups, labor unions, and other groups is calling not only for Congress to deschedule marijuana but also for it to ensure that communities most harmed by pot prohibition see benefits. The coalition includes AARP, the AFL-CIO, and the League of Women Voters. "Pass legislation de-scheduling marijuana with racial equity and justice reform components," the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in a letter outlining priorities for the coalition in the 116th Congress that begins in January.

New Jersey Legalization May Not Happen Until Next Year. Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin met with Gov. Phil Murphy (D) Thursday for a closed-door meeting to discuss marijuana legalization but made no decision. The lawmakers now say a vote may not take place until next year, even though Murphy wanted it in the first 90 days of his term.

Asset Forfeiture

New Mexico Appeals Court Rules Against Albuquerque Asset Forfeiture Law. The state Court of Appeals has ruled that Albuquerque's municipal vehicle seizure program is not only pre-empted by the state's law governing seizures, it "completely contradicts it." The city can only seize vehicles after a criminal conviction, the court held. "While the language of the NMFA does not prohibit municipalities from enacting and enforcing criminal forfeiture proceedings, it restricts forfeiture to criminal proceedings, and imposes specific requirements on any criminal forfeiture proceedings that must comport with… the NMFA."

International

France Moves Toward Allowing Medical Marijuana. A government-appointed committee has given initial approval for the use of medical marijuana. The Agency for Drug Safety has concluded that it is "relevant to authorize the use of cannabis for therapeutic purposes for patients in certain clinical situations." If a patient is receiving insufficient relief from current therapeutics, cannabis represents a viable alternative, the committee decided.It said people with chronic pain, cancer patients, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis sufferers and patients in palliative care could all benefit from cannabis use.

Chronicle AM: Congress Passes Hemp Bill, CDC Report on Overdose Deaths, More... (12/13/18)

Congress has passed a bill to legalize hemp, the CDC issues a new report on overdose deaths, St. Vincent and the Grenadines legalizes medical marijuana, and more.

Fentanyl is now the leading drug implicated in overdose deaths, according to the CDC. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Senator Seeks to Add Marijuana Amendment to Criminal Justice Bill. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) will try to add an amendment to the pending prison and sentencing reform bill that would effectively end federal marijuana prohibition. Gardner seeks to add his STATES Act (S.3032) as the amendment. That would allow states to implement their own pot laws without fear of federal interference.

California Regulators Issue Final Version of Regulations. California marijuana regulations are now set after regulators issued their third and final version of the rules. Among the highlights: Deliveries will be allowed statewide, contract manufacturing will be allowed (licensed companies make and package products for unlicensed companies), and regulations for childproof packaging have changed to place the burden on retailers.

St. Paul City Council Backs Resolution To Legalize Recreational Marijuana. Minnesota's second largest city now officially supports marijuana legalization. The city council voted 6-1 Wednesday to support a resolution calling for it. Governor-Elect Tim Walz (DFL) is also down with the idea.

Medical Marijuana

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign Gets Underway. Two state senators, Anna Wishart, and Adam Morfeld, both Democrats from Lincoln, announced Thursday that they had created a campaign committee to put a medical marijuana constitutional amendment on the 2020 ballot. The committee is Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws.

Industrial Hemp

Congress Approves Industrial Hemp Legalization. Hemp, hemp, hooray! With a final vote in the House on Wednesday, the 2018 Farm Bill, complete with a provision legalizing domestic hemp production, was approved by Congress and now heads for the president's desk. The bill clears the way for American farmers to participate in what is already a billion-dollar domestic hemp industry that is currently reliant on foreign imports.

Opioids

Fentanyl Now the Most Common Drug in Fatal Overdoses, CDC Reports. Fentanyl is now the most commonly used drug involved in drug overdoses, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl was involved in more than 30,000 overdose deaths, while second place heroin was implicated in more than 27,000 deaths. There were some 63,000 overdose deaths in 2016, many of them involving multiple substances.

International

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Pass Medicinal Marijuana Bill. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) has become the first Organization of Eastern Caribbean States Member State to decriminalize marijuana for medical purposes and scientific research. "There is broad recognition and buy-in of the economic benefits this tightly controlled and regulated industry is expected to bring in terms of direct employment, the creation of support industries and foreign investment," said Agriculture Minister Saboto Ceaser.

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