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

With a thousand issues of Drug War Chronicle under our belts, we look back on the biggest international drug and drug policy stories of the past 20 years. (A companion piece looks at the biggest US domestic drug policy stories.) Here's what we find:

The 1998 UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs. We've made some progress since then. (Creative Commons)
1. Global Prohibitionist Consensus Starts to Crumble

In 1998, the UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS), with anti-prohibitionist voices in the room but metaphorically on the outside, pledged itself to eradicating drugs in 10 years. That didn't happen. Now, nearly 20 years later, it is duly chastened, and the chorus of critics is much louder, but the UN still remains a painfully slow place to try to make change in global drug policy.

Yet, despite the foot-dragging in Vienna and New York, albeit at a glacial pace. The 2016 UNGASS couldn't bring itself to actually say the words "harm reduction," but acknowledged the practice in its documents. It couldn't bring itself to resolve to be against the death penalty in drug cases, but a large and growing number of member states spoke out against it. It couldn't officially acknowledge that there is "widespread recognition from several quarters, including UN member states and entities and civil society, of the collateral harms of current drug policies, and that new approaches are both urgent and necessary," even though that's what the UN Development Program said. And the UN admitted to having dropped the ball on making opioid analgesics available in the developing world.

It certainly wasn't ready to talk about drug legalization in any serious fashion. But despite the rigidity within the global anti-drug bureaucracy, driven in part by the hardline positions of many Asian and Middle Eastern member states, the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling. Many European and Latin America states are ready for a new direction, and some aren't waiting for the UN's imprimatur. Bolivia has rejected the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs' provision criminalizing the coca plant, and Canada and Uruguay have both legalized marijuana with scant regard for UN treaty prohibitions. And of course there is Portugal's broad decriminalization system, encompassing all drugs.

There's a real lesson in all of this: The UN drug treaties, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, have proven to be toothless. There is no effective mechanism for punishing most countries for violating those treaties, at least not relative to the punishing effects they suffer from prohibition. Other countries will take heed.

2. Afghanistan Remains the World's Opium Breadbasket

When the US invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, it entered into a seemingly endless war to defeat the Taliban and, along with it, the opium trade. Sixteen years and more than a trillion dollars later, it has defeated neither. Afghanistan was already the world's leading producer of opium then, and it still is.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2000, the country produced more than 3,000 tons of opium. The following year, with the Taliban imposing a ban on poppy planting in return for US aid and international approval, production dropped to near zero. But in 2002, production was back to more than 3,000 tons, and Afghan poppy farmers haven't looked back since.

In the intervening years, Afghanistan has accounted for the vast majority of global opium production, reaching 90% in 2007 before plateauing to around 70% now (as production increases in Latin America). It has consistently produced at least 3,000 tons a year, with that amount doubling in selected years.

For years, US policymakers were caught in a dilemma, and drug war imperatives were subordinated to anti-Taliban imperatives. The problem was that any attempt to go after opium threatened to push peasants into the hands of the Taliban. Now, the Trump administration is bombing Taliban heroin facilities. But it hasn't bombed any heroin facilities linked to corrupt Afghan government officials.

Holland's famous cannabis cafes were the first break with global marijuana prohibition. (Creative Commons)
3. Movement Toward Acceptance of Recreational Marijuana

Twenty years ago, only the Netherlands had come to terms -- sort of -- with marijuana, formally keeping it illegal, but, in a prime example of the Dutch's policy of gedogen (pragmatic tolerance), with possession and sale of small amounts allowed. (The Dutch are only now finally dealing with the "backdoor problem," the question of where cannabis cafes are supposed to get their supplies if it can't be grown legally).

The first entities to legalize marijuana were the US states of Colorado and Washington in 2012, and Uruguay became the first country in the world to legalize marijuana in 2014. Canada will become the second country to do so next year. In the meantime, six more US states and the District of Columbia have also jumped on the bandwagon.

While full legalization may yet be a bridge too far for most European and Latin American countries, marijuana decriminalization has really taken hold there, with numerous countries in both regions having embraced the policy. Marijuana has now been decriminalized in Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia (you can possess up to 22 grams legally), Costa Rica, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Equador, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Italy, Jamaica, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, Moldova, Paraguay, Peru, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Switzerland, and Ukraine, among others. Oh, and Iran, too.

4. Andean Whack-A-Mole: The Fruitless Quest to Quash Cocaine

The United States, and to a much lesser degree, the European Union, have spent billions of dollars trying to suppress coca leaf cultivation and cocaine production in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. It hasn't worked.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca leaf cultivation was just under 500,000 acres in 1998; this week, UNODC reported that coca leaf cultivation was at 470,000 acres last year -- and that's not counting the 75,000 acres under legal cultivation in Bolivia.

When it comes to actual cocaine production, it's pretty much the same story: Again according to the UNODC, cocaine production was at 825 tons in 1998, peaked at just over a million tons a year in 2004-2007, and is now at just under 800 tons. There have been peaks and troughs, but here we are, pretty much in the same place we started.

Military intervention didn't stop it. Military and anti-drug assistance hasn't stopped it. Alternative development programs haven't stopped it. The global cocaine market is insatiable, and nothing has been able to tear Andean peasant farmers from what is by far their best cash crop. Bolivia, at least, has largely made peace with coca -- although not cocaine -- providing a legal, regulated market for coca farmers, but in Peru and Colombia eradication and redevelopment efforts continue to spark conflict and social unrest.

5. Mexico's Brutal Drug Wars

During the 1980s and 1990s, accusations ran rampant that in a sort of pax mafiosi, the Mexican government cut deals with leading drug trafficking groups to not so much fight the drug trade as manage it. Those were the days of single party rule by the PRI, which ended with the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. With the end of single party rule, the era of relative peace in the drug business began to unravel.

As old arrangements between drug traffickers and political and law enforcement figures fell apart, so did the informal codes that governed trafficker behavior. When once a cartel capo would accept his exemplary arrest, during the Fox administration, the gangsters began shooting back at the cops -- and fighting among themselves over who would control which profitable franchise.

Things took a turn for the worse with the election of Felipe Calderon in 2006 and his effort to burnish his political credentials by sending in the army to fight the increasingly wealthy, violent, and brazen cartels. And they haven't gotten any better since. While American attention to Mexico's drug wars peaked in 2012 -- a presidential election year in both countries -- and while the US has thrown more than a billion dollars in anti-drug aid Mexico's way in the past few years, the violence, lawlessness, and corruption continues. The death toll is now estimated to be around 200,000, and there's no sign anything is going to change anytime soon.

Well, unless we take leading 2018 presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) at his word. This week, AMLO suggested a potential amnesty for cartel leaders, indicating, for some, at least, a pax mafiosi is better than a huge, endless pile of corpses.

6. Latin America Breaks Away from US Drug War Hegemony

The US imports its drugs and exports its prohibition-related violence, and the region grows tired of paying the price for America's war on its favorite vices. When once Latin American leaders quietly kowtowed to drug war demands from Washington, at least some of them have been singing a different tune in recent years.

Bolivia under Evo Morales has resolutely followed its own path on legalizing coca cultivation, despite bellows from Washington, successive Mexican presidents weary of the bloodshed turn an increasingly critical eye toward US drug war imperatives, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos sees what Washington-imposed prohibitionist policies have done to his county and cries out for something different, and so did Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina before he was forced out of office on corruption charges.

Latin American countries are also increasingly pursuing their own drug policies, whether it's constitutionally protected legalization of personal use amounts of drugs in Colombia, decriminalization of marijuana across the continent, or downright legalization in Uruguay, Latin American leaders are no longer taking direction from Washington -- although they generally remain happy to take US anti-drug dollars.

A North American first: Vancouver's safe injection site opened in 2003. (Creative Commons)
7.Safe Injection Sites Start Spreading

The notion of providing a place where intravenous drug users could shoot up under medical supervision and get access to referrals to public health and welfare services was derided by foes as setting up "shooting galleries" and enabling drug use, but safe injection sites have proven to be an effective intervention, linked to reduced overdoses, reduced crime, and moving drug users toward treatment.

These examples of harm reduction in practice first appeared in Switzerland in the late 1980s; with facilities popping up in Germany and the Netherlands in the 1990s; Australia, Canada, Luxembourg, Norway, and Spain in the 2000s; and, most recently, Denmark and France.

By now, there are nearly a hundred safe injection sites operating in at least 61 cities worldwide, including 30 in Holland, 16 in Germany, and eight in Switzerland. We are likely to see safe injection sites in Ireland and Scotland very soon.

It looks like they will soon be appearing in the United States, too. Officials in at least two cities, San Francisco and Seattle, are well on the way to approving them, although the posture of the federal government could prove an obstacle.

8. And Heroin Maintenance, Too

Even more forward looking as a harm reduction measure than safe injection sites, heroin maintenance (or opiate-assisted treatment) has expanded slowly, but steadily over the past two decades. The Swiss did the first trials in 1994, and now such programs are available there (after decisively winning a 2008 referendum on the issue), as well as Germany and the Netherlands.

Such programs have been found to reduce harm by helping users control their drug use, reducing overdoses, reducing drug-related disease, and promoting overall health and well-being, while also reducing social harms by reducing crime related to scoring drugs, reducing public use and drug markets, and promoting less chaotic lifestyles among participants, leading to increased social integration and better family life and employment prospects.

A Canadian pilot program, the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (NAOMI) produced similar results. Maybe the United States will be ready to get it a try one of these years.

9. New Drugs, New Markets

So far, this has been the century of new drugs. Known variously as "research chemicals," "designer drugs," or fake this and that, let's call them new psychoactive substances (NSPs). Whether it's synthetic cannabinoids, synthetic cathinones, synthetic benzodiazepines, synthetic opioids, or something entirely novel, someone somewhere is producing it and selling it.

In its 2017 annual review, the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addictions (EMCDDA) reported in was monitoring 620 NSPs, up from 350 in 2013, and was adding new ones at the rate of over one a week.

These drugs, often of unknown quality or potency, in some cases have wreaked havoc among drug users around the world and are a prime example of the bad things that can happen when you try to suppress some drugs: You end up with worse ones.

The communications technology revolution that began with the world wide web impacts drug policy just as it impact everything else. Beginning with the infamous Silk Road drug sales website, the dark web and the Tor browser have enabled drug sellers and consumers to hook up anonymously online, with the drugs delivered to one's doorstep by Fedex, UPS, and the like.

Silk Road has been taken down and its proprietor, Ross Ulbricht, jailed for decades in the US, but as soon as Silk Road was down, new sites popped up. They got taken down, and again, new sites popped up. Rinse and repeat.

European authorities estimate the size of the dark web drug marketplace at about $200 million a year -- a fraction of the size of the overall trade -- but warn that it is growing rapidly. And why not? It's like an Amazon for drugs.

10.Massacring Drug Suspects in Southeast Asia

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has drawn international condemnation for the bloody war he unleashed on drug suspects upon taking office last year. Coming from a man who made his reputation for leading death squads while Mayor of Davao City, the wave of killings is shocking, but not surprising. The latest estimates are that some 12,000 people have been killed.

What's worse is that Duterte's bad example seems to be gaining some traction in the neighborhood. Human rights groups have pointed to a smaller wave of killings in Indonesia, along with various statements from Indonesian officials expressing support for Duterte-style drug executions. And most recently, a Malaysian member of parliament urged his own country to emulate Duterte's brutal crackdown.

This isn't the first time Southeast Asia has been the scene of murderous drug war brutality. Back in 2003, then Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched a war on drugs that saw 2,800 killed in three months.

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

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

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

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

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

1. Medical Marijuana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Harm Reduction Takes Hold

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

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

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

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

7. Sentencing Fever Breaks

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

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

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

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

8. The Rise (and Fall) of the Opioids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Despite Everything, the Drug War Grinds On

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

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

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

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

Chronicle AM: Sessions Hints at Marijuana Enforcement Changes, ND Legalization Init Filed, More... (11/29/17)

The attorney general hints at changes in federal marijuana enforcement policy, Sen. Elizabeth Warren challenges Trump's HHS nominee on medical marijuana and opioids, North Dakota activists file a legalization initiative, and more.

The attorney general is making news on both the marijuana and the opioid fronts. (senate.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Sessions Hints at Changes in Federal Marijuana Enforcement. At a press conference Wednesday on new measures to address opioid use, Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled that the Justice Department's laissez-faire approach to marijuana in states where it is legal may soon be changing. Justice is looking "very hard right now" at the Cole memo, an Obama-era guidance to federal prosecutors that told them to generally make enforcement a low priority in legalization or medical states, Sessions said. "We had meetings yesterday and talked about it at some length. It's my view that the use of marijuana is detrimental, and we should not give encouragement in any way to it, and it represents a federal violation, which is in the law and it's subject to being enforced, and our priorities will have to be focused on all the things and challenges we face," he said. "We'll be working our way through to a rational policy. But I don't want to suggest in any way that this department believes that marijuana is harmless and people should not avoid it."

Connecticut Gubernatorial Candidates Support Legalization. In the first debate of the 2018 gubernatorial campaign Tuesday night, several candidates said they supported marijuana legalization, a step current Gov. Dannel Malloy (D) has been unwilling to take. "Yes, I will sign a bill to legalize it,'' said Democrat Dan Drew. "There are an awful lot of people who use cannabis for a variety of reasons… wouldn't it be better if we control the process on the front end, if we were able to regulate it?" Another Democrat, former consumer protection commissioner Jonathan Harris also said he supports marijuana legalization. Only Republican candidate Prasad Srinivasan quailed at the prospect, saying he had concerns about public safety and public health.

North Dakota Activists File Legalization Initiative. Grand Forks resident David Own delivered a proposed petition to begin an initiative campaign to legalize marijuana to the secretary of state's office on Tuesday. The petition calls for the "full legalization" of marijuana and expungement of records for any crime that would be legalized by the measure. If approved for signature gathering, the initiative will need some 13,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.

San Francisco Approves Legal Marijuana Regs; Sales to Begin January 5. The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to approve regulations for recreational marijuana sales and set January 5 as the date when legal sales could begin. Supervisors voted for a 600-feet buffer between stores and schools -- much less than what some members of the Chinese immigrant community had lobbied for -- and rejected provisions that would have let neighborhoods limit the number of pot shops or ban them outright.

Medical Marijuana

Elizabeth Warren Wants Marijuana Answers From Trump Health Nominee. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has sent a letter to Alex Azar, President Trump's nominee to lead the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) suggesting the administration study how marijuana legalization could reduce opioid addiction and overdose deaths. The letter also asks Azar to answer questions about what he would do to study marijuana as an alternative to opioids, whether he is committed to implementing evidence-based policies, and what steps he would take to "improve our knowledge of the potential therapeutic benefits of marijuana when used for medical purposes."

Iowa Announces First and Only License for Medical Marijuana Manufacturer. The Department of Public Health announced Tuesday it will issue a CBD manufacturing license to MedPharm Iowa. That is the first license to grow marijuana and create CBD products in the state and the only one that will be issued.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

DEA to Open First New Field Office in 20 Years to Fight Epidemic. At a press conference Wednesday addressing the opioid crisis, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the DEA will open a new field office in Louisville, its first new field office in two decades. Sessions also announced new federal grants totaling $12 million to fund anti-heroin task forces and said that all 94 US attorneys across the country would name officials to coordinate opioid enforcement operations in their areas.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Chronicle AM: Canada MJ Bill Passes House, HI Cops Want MedMJ Patients' Guns, More... (11/28/17)

In a national first, Honolulu cops are proactively targeting medical marijuana patients to demand they turn in any firearms, Canada marijuana legalization takes a big step forward, Philadelphia begins paying out for its dirty, corrupt narcs, and more.

Medical Marijuana

Honolulu Police Tell Medical Marijuana Patients to Surrender Their Guns. The Honolulu Police Department has sent letters to medical marijuana patients in the area ordering them to "voluntarily surrender" their firearms because they use marijuana. The letters give patients 30 days to give their guns and ammo to the Honolulu Police. While federal law prohibits acknowledged marijuana users from owning firearms, this is believed to be the first instance of local law enforcement proactively seeking out patients and ordering them to surrender their weapons.

Indiana Governor Orders Stores to Pull CBD Oil From Shelves. Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) has given stores 60 days to remove CBD cannabis oil products from their shelves after state Attorney General Curtis Hill (R) delivered an opinion that such substances are illegal under state and federal law. The only exception is for people with epilepsy who are on a state registry.

Law Enforcement

Philadelphia Begins Paying Out for Narcotics Agents' Misconduct. The city of Philadelphia has begun settling more than 300 lawsuits filed against members of a narcotics squad accused of a pattern of rampant misconduct lasting years. The city has already paid more than $2 million to settle 75 cases after courts began throwing out convictions in tainted cases three years ago. The city could pay up to an additional $8 million to resolve pending complaints. Five of the six officers involved were found not guilty of criminal charges last year, but that hasn't stopped the settlements from occurring.

International

Canada House of Commons Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill. The House of Commons voted 200 to 82 Monday night to approve the Liberal government's marijuana legalization bill, C-45. The bill now goes to the Senate, where opponents could try to derail it. Stay tuned.

British Parliament Drug Policy Group Calls for Safe Injection Sites. The Drugs, Alcohol and Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group has issued a report calling for the establishment of drug consumption rooms. The report charges that existing prohibitionist policies are failing communities and society's most vulnerable and suggests that London could learn a lesson from Dublin and Glasgow, where such facilities have been approved.

The Duterte Cancer Spreads to Malaysia. Malaysian Member of Parliament Bung Moktar Radin has embraced Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's murderous crackdown on drug users and sellers and urged his own country to emulate it. "I am very serious about this. Just shoot them, like they do in the Philippines," he said, praising the Philippines approach. "Why can't we do this? Jail addicts without trial and shoot dealers. What is the problem (in doing this)?"

Chronicle AM: CA Magic Mushroom Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering, More... (11/7/17)

The Maine legislature fails to override the governor's veto of the pot regulation bill, a California initiative to legalize magic mushrooms gets the okay for signature gathering, North Dakotans will wait another year for their medical marijuana, and more.

These could be legal in California soon if an initiative makes the ballot and is approved by voters. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Maine House Fails to Override Veto of Marijuana Regulation Bill. The House voted Monday to sustain Gov. Paul LePage's (R) veto of a bill providing a legal regulatory framework for marijuana commerce. What happens next is unclear. A moratorium on recreational sales expires on February 1. The legislature reconvenes in January, but there is little indication political dynamics will change between now and then. If the moratorium is not extended and a new bill passed, the law as passed by voters in 2016 would go into effect. "I feel like we legalized gasoline, but not gas stations," Rep. Martin Grohman told the Portland Press-Herald.

Medical Marijuana

North Dakota Says Medical Marijuana Still a Year Away. The state Health Department Monday announced proposed administrative rules for such things as lab testing, security requirements, and transportation regulations, and added that the proposed rules will be open for public comment until December 26. The department also said it doesn't expect the drug to be available for sale to patients for another year -- two years after it was approved by voters.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Florida's Largest Insurer Stops Covering Oxycontin. The state's largest health insurance company will stop covering OxyContin, the brand name prescription opioid, beginning January 1, in a bid to reduce overdoses and opioid dependence. Instead, Florida Blue will start covering an alternative opioid that isn't crushable for injection or snorting, reducing its potential for abuse, the company said Monday. That other drug is Xtampza ER, which also contains oxycodone, but which is designed to deter abuse because the pills cannot be crushed for snorting or injection.

Psychedelics

California Magic Mushroom Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. An initiative that would legalize psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, has been approved for signature gathering by state officials. The California Psilocybin Legalization Initiative needs 365,880 valid voter signatures by April 30 to qualify for the November 2018 ballot.

Sentencing

Massachusetts Sentencing Reform Bill Filed. House leaders Monday proposed sweeping changes to the state's criminal justice and sentencing laws. It's a mixed bag: Some provisions would allow for the expungement of marijuana offenses and end some mandatory minimum drug sentences, but others would increase sentences for dealing in opioids. The bill also includes pre-trial diversion programs and bail reforms. The House will debate the measures next week. The Senate has already passed its own version of a criminal justice reform bill.

International

Canada's Newest Safe Injection Site Approved in Ottawa. Health Canada has given final approval for a safe injection site in Ottawa, which will be housed in a trailer in a hospital parking lot. Operators said they expected to begin welcoming clients today.

Dutch Localities Line Up for Regulated Marijuana Cultivation Pilot Project. Some 25 of the country's 380 local authorities have applied to participate in pilot schemes to allow the regulated growth of marijuana to supply the nation's fabled cannabis cafes. Among those councils which have come forward are Breda, the Noord-Brabant town of Cuijk, and Rotterdam, where mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb wants the experiment to cover distribution as well. The government is expected to announce which locales win spots in the pilot program next year.

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

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

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

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

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

Medical Marijuana

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

Drug Testing

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

Harm Reduction

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

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

International

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

Chronicle AM: DPA Decries Resort to Drug Courts, OSU Creates Drug Policy Center, More... (11/02/17)

The Drug Policy Alliance takes aim at some of the opioid commission's recommendations, Michigan dispensaries can stay open during the shift to the new regime, Ohio State creates a Koch-funded drug policy center, and more.

Pennsylvania patients are a step closer to being able to legally buy their medicine. (Sondra Yruel/DPA)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Budget Plan Would Use Pot Tax Money to Fund Task Force Aimed at Illegal Marijuana Operations. Gov. John Hickenlooper's (D) budget proposal for FY 2018-2019 includes directing $1.2 million in pot tax revenues to create a task force with the state Bureau of Investigation to "investigate black marker marijuana operations across Colorado." Such operations are on the increase, the governor complained.

Medical Marijuana

FDA Cracks Down on Marijuana Cancer Treatment Claims. The Food and Drug Administration sent letters Tuesday to four companies warning them they cannot market their products as treatments for cancer. The letter is directed at companies who claim their products can combat tumors and kill cancer cells. "We don't let companies market products that deliberately prey on sick people with baseless claims that their substance can shrink or cure cancer and we're not going to look the other way on enforcing these principles when it comes to marijuana-containing products," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement.

Michigan Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Can Stay Open During Shift to New Regime. After ferocious blowback from patients concerned they could lose access to their medicine, the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs on Wednesday reversed an earlier decision forcing dispensaries to shut down while the licensing process for them under a new state law is completed. Now, the dispensaries will be able to stay open past December 15, the day they were supposed to have to shut down.

Pennsylvania Starts Signing Up Patients. The state Health Department announced Wednesday that it had launched its patient and caregiver registry, bringing patients one step closer to being able to legally access their medicine. Medical marijuana should be available for patients by May 1, the department said.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Advocates Denounce White House Opioid Commission's Emphasis on Drug Courts and Proposed Increase in Drug Sentences. The Drug Policy Alliance attacked the emphasis on drug courts, saying research does not support their continued expansion. "Most drug courts do not reduce imprisonment, do not save money or improve public safety, and ultimately fail to help people struggling with drug problems. Today's drug courts are no more effective -- but are considerably more costly -- than voluntary treatment, with participants often spending more time behind bars than those whose cases are handled by conventional courts. While the commission has recommended that drug courts provide access to medication-assisted treatments, it would be far more valuable to offer such treatments on a voluntary basis, without subjecting people who are struggling with addiction to the criminal justice system," the group said in press release Wednesday.

Drug Policy

Ohio State Creates Center to Study Impact of War on Drugs. The Ohio State University announced Wednesday the creation of a center to study the social impacts of the war on drugs. The Drug Enforcement and Policy Center will be funded with a $4.5 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. It will be headed by Professor Robert Berman, who has had a long-term interest in drug policy reform and is perhaps best known as the author of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog.

Chronicle AM: Trump Opioid Commission Calls for More Drug Courts, More... (11/1/17)

President Trump's opioid commission issues its recommendations, El Paso becomes the latest Texas locale to ease marijuana possession penalties, would-be Arkansas medical marijuana providers file suit over an application process that excluded them, and more.

The Trump opioid commission has called for drug courts nationwide to help ease the crisis.(virginia.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Delaware Marijuana Task Force Report to Be Delayed. The legislative task force studying whether to legalize marijuana has delayed issuing its final report from the end of January to the end of February. The delay was requested by the Keep Delaware Safe and Healthy Coalition, a coalition of influential groups opposed to legalization.

New Jersey Court Rules State Must Consider Reclassifying Marijuana. An Appellate Division court ruled 2-1 Tuesday that the state must at least consider removing marijuana from its list of controlled substances. The ruling came in a case brought by two plaintiffs, a man serving a life sentence for marijuana trafficking and a young girl with epilepsy who uses marijuana for medical reasons. The court did not order the state to reclassify the herb, but said the head of the Division of Consumer Affairs should have considered reclassification instead of just flatly denying a petition to do so.

El Paso Becomes Latest Texas Locale to Not Automatically Arrest for Marijuana Offenses. El Paso county commissioners voted on Monday to approve a program under which first-time offenders caught with less than two ounces of weed can avoid arrest and criminal charges. The state passed a law allowing for the down-grading of pot possession offenses in 2014, but it has only been implemented in Austin, Dallas, and Houston.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Business Applicants Sue Over Rejected Bids. A group of applicants seeking to open some of the first medical marijuana businesses in the state filed lawsuits last week charging that the state Medical Marijuana Commission erred in its initial assessment of applications, where it rejected several applicants for failing to meet minimum requirements. The lawsuits seek a temporary restraining order to force the commission to include the plaintiffs' applications during a final scoring review.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

White House Opioid Commission Issues Recommendations. President Trump's commission on the opioid crisis called Wednesday for the nationwide expansion of drug courts and more access to alternatives to opioids for people suffering pain as part of a series of recommendations for shaping drug policy to more effectively address the crisis. The 56 recommendations also include requiring doctors to show they have training in the safe provision of such drugs before their DEA licenses are renewed, requiring health care providers to use prescription drug monitoring databases, and easing Medicaid and insurance payments for opioid drug treatment. The recommendations contain no provision for increased funding.

Chronicle AM: Second Australia SIJ Coming, DEA Adds Heroin Enforcement Teams, More... (10/30/17)

The Victoria state government has approved a safe injection site in Melbourne, a new report warns that high taxes on legal marijuana could push people to the black market, New Jersey adds some new qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use, and more.

Australia's second safe injection site will open in Melbourne next year. (vch.ca)
Marijuana Policy

Report: High Legal Pot Taxes Could Push Consumers to Black Market. California retail marijuana taxes, which could reach as high as 45% in some cases, could potentially push consumers out of legal pot shops and into the black market, according to a new report from the credit rating agency Fitch Ratings. "The existing black market for cannabis may prove a formidable competitor to legal markets if new taxes lead to higher prices than available from illicit sources," the report says.

Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Adds Five New Qualifying Conditions. The state's Medical Marijuana Review Panel has officially approved five new qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use. They are anxiety, chronic pain related to musculoskeletal disorders, migraines, chronic pain of visceral origin, and Tourette's Syndrome. The panel rejected adding chronic fatigue syndrome and asthma as qualifying conditions.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

DEA Creates Six New Heroin Enforcement Teams. The DEA has announced the establishment of six new enforcement teams focused on heroin and fentanyl. The teams will operate in New Bedford, Massachusetts; Charleston, West Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; Cleveland, Ohio; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Long Island, New York. The DEA got funding in its Fiscal Year 2017 appropriations to pay for the teams.

Public Health Experts Issue Report With Comprehensive Recommendations for Opioid Crisis.
Experts from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in collaboration with the Clinton Foundation have issued a report with comprehensive recommendations for stemming the opioid crisis. Among its 10 priority recommendations are: expanded electronic opioid prescription monitoring, policies in line with CDC Opioid Prescribing Guidelines, clear guidance on opioid disposal and "take back" programs, increased federal funding for drug treatment in the most hard hit communities, and cheaper naloxone.

International

Taliban Now Making Heroin -- and Increased Profits. For years, Afghanistan's Taliban have profited from opium poppy production, using the proceeds to finance their war, but now, Afghan and Western officials say that more than half of Afghan opium is being processed in-country, and that is leading for increased profits for the Taliban, for whom the drug trade consists of about 60% of its income.

Australia to Get Second Safe Injection Site, in Melbourne. The Victoria state government cabinet has approved a safe injection site for the North Richmond area of Melbourne. It is set to open next year. At the same time, the state government is also moving to crack down on heroin traffickers by reducing the amounts of heroin needed to impose harsh sentences.

Chronicle AM: Trump Declares Opioid Emergency, SF SIJ Could Come Soon, More... (10/26/17)

The president declares the opioid crisis an emergency, but not enough of one to actually need funding; lawmakers go after the DEA over West Virginia pain pill deliveries, a St. Louis alderman files a marijuana legalization measure, the US Sentencing Commission issues a report on mandatory minimums, and more.

President Trump declares a public health emergency, but not a national emergency, on opioids. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

St. Louis Ordinance Would End Local Marijuana Prohibition. Alderman Megan Green has filed an ordinance that would end enforcement of any laws that allow "the civil or criminal punishment for the use or possession of marijuana or marijuana paraphernalia against any individual or entity," with some specified exceptions. Under the bill, pot could be used, sold, and grown in the city. The bill gets a first reading Friday, and Green says she's confident it can pass in coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Medical Marijuana

Lawmakers Call for VA to Research Medical Marijuana for Veterans. A group of lawmakers who sit on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee wrote a letter Thursday to Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin urging him to use his agency to research medical marijuana. The VA "is uniquely situated to pursue research on the impact of medical marijuana on veterans suffering from chronic pain and PTSD given its access to world class researchers, the population it serves, and its history of overseeing and producing research resulting in cutting-edge medical treatments," the lawmakers wrote. Shulkin has yet to respond.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Trump Declares Opioid Crisis a Public Health Emergency, But Provides No Funds. President Trump announced Thursday that he had directed the Department of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency around the opioid crisis. But he declined to declare a national emergency, which would have allowed for the rapid allocation of monies to address it. Trump's declaration carries no funding with it, but would allow some grant money to be used to combat opioid abuse.

Lawmakers Take DEA to Task Over Spread of Opioids. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee threatened to subpoena the DEA over its slow response to their questions about how wholesale drug distributors poured millions of opioid pain pills into West Virginia. Members said the committee had been waiting six months for answers from the DEA about which companies had sent nine million pills to the town of Kermit, WV (pop. 392), over a two-year period. Members did not express any concerns about how a crackdown on pain pill prescribing might impact chronic pain patients.

Harm Reduction

San Francisco Could See Safe Injection Sites Within a Year, Official Says. Safe injection sites in the city could be open in eight to 12 months if a proposal to create them gets approved, Department of Public Health Director Barbara Garcia told supervisors on Wednesday. Even if the plan was approved immediately, it would take time to obtain funding, establish protocols, hire and train staff, and set up the program, she said.

Sentencing

Sentencing Commission Issues Report on Mandatory Minimums. The US Sentencing Commission has issued a report on the use and impact of mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses. The report finds, among other things, that mandatory minimums continue to be imposed and result in long sentences in the federal system, but that they were being used less often last year. The report also noted that mandatory minimums may be applied more broadly than Congress intended, but that laws allows for departures from the harsh sentences "result in significantly reduced sentences when applied."

International

Colombia Will Move to Decriminalize Small-Time Coca Farming. The government will introduce legislation that would make the cultivation of up to just under ten acres of coca a non-punishable offense. More than 100,000 families earn a living from coca farming, with the average planting being less than an acre. This move would provide some breathing room for farmers caught between drug gangs on one hand and police on the other. The move was part of the peace deal agreed to with the leftist rebels of the FARC, but this is the first step toward actually implementing it.

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