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Oregon Initiative Would Decriminalize Psilocybin [FEATURE]

An initiative that would decriminalize most psilocybin offenses and open the door to regulated production and therapeutic use of the psychedelic substance in Oregon is moving forward.

Magic mushrooms could be decriminalized under the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative (Wikipedia)
Late last month, the secretary of state approved ballot title language for the Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative. The next step is a signature-gathering drive to qualify the measure for the 2020 ballot. Some 117,578 valid voter signatures are required, and petitioners have until next July to obtain them.

Under the initiative, anyone possessing up to 50 grams of dried magic mushrooms or 10 doses of psilocybin would not be charged with a crime, but with a violation similar to a speeding ticket. The only punishment would be a fine. Similarly, distribution of up to 50 grams or 10 doses without a license would be a violation -- unless that person has two or more prior felony convictions, in which case, he would be hit with a misdemeanor.

As quantities possessed increase, so do the potential penalties. Possession of more than 50 but less than 100 grams would still be a violation, except for the two prior felony folks, who would then face a misdemeanor. Possession of more than 100 grams but less than 500 would still be a violation, except for people with one or more previous felonies, who again would face a misdemeanor. Possession of more than 500 grams but less than a kilogram would be a misdemeanor for all. It would take possessing more than two kilograms to earn a felony charge for all.

Similarly, unlicensed sales of up to 50 grams or 10 doses would not be a crime but a violation punishable only by a fine-- unless that person has two or more prior felony convictions, in which case, he would be hit with a misdemeanor. Penalties gradually stiffen, but under the initiative, it would take the sale of more than 15 kilograms to trigger felony charges for anyone regardless of prior criminal history.

Under federal law, possession of any amount of psilocybin is a felony. Under Oregon state law, though, possession of small amounts is only a misdemeanor, although possession of "substantial amounts" (more than 60 grams) is a felony, as is distribution.

But while the changes in the state's criminal code would be significant, the primary goal of the petitioners is to clear the way for the therapeutic use of psilocybin via licensed and regulated producers, processors, and therapists.

"The intent of the 2020 Psilocybin Service Initiative of Oregon is to advance a breakthrough therapeutic model currently being perfected in research settings at top universities around the world," chief petitioners Tom and Sheri Eckert wrote on the campaign web site. "The service model involves a sequence of facilitated sessions, including assessment and preparation, psilocybin administration, and integration afterward. We envision a community-based framework where licensed providers, along with licensed producers of psilocybin mushrooms, blaze trails in Oregon in accordance with evolving practice standards."

The move comes as both the public and the scientific community are shifting their opinions on marijuana and psychedelics. Recent studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of therapeutic use, including reducing anxiety in people with cancer and as a treatment for depression and alcoholism. There is also new evidence that magic mushrooms are among the safest recreational drugs.

Study: Crackdowns on Heroin, Pain Pills Gave Rise to Fentanyl Overdose Epidemic [FEATURE]

A new report on illicit US drug markets from researchers at the University of San Francisco has found that that the spread of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid implicated in nearly 29,000 overdose deaths last year alone, is tied to enforcement-driven shortages of heroin and prescription opioids, as well simple economics for drug distributors -- not because users particularly desire the drug.

meet the law of unintended consequences (Creative Commons)
Illicit fentanyl has swept through American drug markets in waves -- the super strong "China white" heroin of the 1970s was actually a heroin-fentanyl mixture -- most recently in the past decade after rising levels of opioid addiction and the spread of "pill mills" prompted multifaceted moves to restrict opioid prescribing.

From a drug distributor's perspective, fentanyl is a most excellent substitute for heroin or prescription pain pills. Produced entirely in labs or chemical factories, it is far more powerful and cheaper to produce than heroin. Because it's more potent, it is easier to smuggle -- often coming into the US via postal and delivery service parcels, not by the semi load. And it doesn't require months of growing time and period of intense peasant labor in lawless regions of weak states.

Fentanyl is typically sold deceptively -- marketed as heroin or prescription drugs such as OxyContin or Xanax -- and users and street-level dealers often don't even know that the drugs they are using or selling contain fentanyl, the researchers found. Fentanyl is making its way into the supply chain at the wholesale, not the retail level. That, the researchers said, suggests that demand is not the key driver in the drug's spread.

"Fentanyl is rarely sold as fentanyl," said Sarah Mars, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF. "The dealers selling fentanyl directly to the users often don't know what's in it. Not only is this particularly dangerous, but it also means penalizing low-level dealers isn't going to make any difference in the fentanyl poisoning epidemic."

According to Mars, users are split on fentanyl, which produces a more sudden and powerful high than heroin, but one that fades faster. Some said fentanyl brought back the euphoria they had lost the ability to feel with long-term heroin use, but others said they feared fentanyl and found its effects too harsh.

"Whether or not they prefer fentanyl, users don't have any influence over what drugs are being sold," Mars said. "Without accurate information about these drugs, they can't make an informed choice about what they are buying. Also, very little drug slang has developed to describe fentanyl, which lends support to the notion that this is not a demand-driven epidemic."

The presence of drugs adulterated with fentanyl is uneven, Mars said.

"Most of the illicit fentanyl has been in the Northeast and Midwest," she specified. And that's where opioid overdose death rates are the highest.

Another contributing factor to the fentanyl overdose toll is that it has dozens of analogs with wildly varying potency. Some, like carfentanil, are amazingly powerful, as much as 10,000 times as potent as morphine. Some are so new they have not yet been made illegal.

"We believe it's the fluctuation in the potency of the drugs containing fentanyl that makes them so dangerous," said Daniel Ciccarone, MD, MPH, a professor of family and community medicine at UCSF and senior author of an ongoing National Institutes of Health-funded study, Heroin in Transition. "You might have one dose that had hardly any fentanyl in it or none at all. Then, you might have one with a different fentanyl analog, of different potency, or even mixtures of multiple fentanyls and heroin."

Here is the paradox of drug prohibition: Trying to crack down on drugs tends to lead not to less drug use but to more dangerous drugs, and in the case of opioids, tens of thousands of dead drug users. There is an inexorable logic at play: The more law enforcement comes down on a drug, the greater the tendency for suppliers to make it more potent and compact -- and dangerous.

Perhaps that's why we now see mainstream calls for a radically different approach, such as the one from Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle earlier this week. In her column "The Incredibly Unpopular Idea That Could Stem Heroin Deaths," McArdle argues that current drug policy is only running up the overdose death toll and that we need "to start talking about ways to make safe, reliable doses of opiates available to addicts who aren't ready to stop."

That would involve increasing access to opioid substitutes such as methadone and buprenorphine, "but lowering the death toll may require a more drastic step: legalizing prescriptions of stronger opiates," McArdle writes.

"Prescription heroin?" she continues. "Remember, I said you might not like the solution. I don't like it, either -- and frankly, neither do the drug policy researchers who told me it may be necessary. But when fentanyl took over the US illicit drug markets, it also got a lot of addicts as hostages. We'll never be able to rescue them unless we can first keep them alive long enough to be saved."

There is a better way to deal with the opioid crisis than relegating tens of thousands of American opioid users to early, preventable deaths. We know what it is. Now it's a matter of implementing smarter, more humane policies, and that's an ongoing political struggle -- one where lives are literally at stake.

Georgia Nightmare: Jailed Four Months for Possession of Cotton Candy [FEATURE]

A Georgia woman has filed a federal lawsuit after she spent nearly four months in jail because a roadside drug test administered by untrained police officers falsely identified a bag of cotton candy as methamphetamine.

Meth or cotton candy? Georgia cops couldn't tell the difference. (Creative Commons)
Monroe County resident Dasha Fincher filed the lawsuit in mid-November against Monroe County, the two deputies who arrested her, and the company that makes the drug test. The lawsuit argues that the Monroe County Sheriff's Office was reckless and negligent and violated her civil rights.

According to the lawsuit, the car Fincher was riding in was pulled over on New Year's Eve 2016 because of a dark window tint, the deputies said, even though they later admitted the windows were legal. Deputies Cody Maples and Allen Henderson spotted a large open plastic bag inside the vehicle, and Fincher explained that it was cotton candy.

The deputies didn't believe Fincher and used a roadside field drug test which they said indicated there was meth in the bag. She was then arrested, hauled off to jail, and charged with meth trafficking and possession of meth with intent to distribute. Her bond was set at $1 million, which she was unable to come up with, so she sat in jail for the next four months.

In March 2017, Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab test results revealed that the substance was not an illegal drug, but Fincher sat in jail for another month before prosecutors finally dropped the charges.

The lawsuit says the drug test is the Nark II, manufactured by North Carolina-based Sirchie Acquisitions. That particular field drug test is known for producing errant results. In Georgia alone, police using the Nark II to field test drugs have wrongfully arrested at least 30 people, including a man with breath mints (positive for crack), a teacher with Goody's Headache Powder (positive for cocaine), and a couple with vitamins (positive for ecstasy).

In all those cases, as in Fincher's, lab test results from the Bureau of Investigation found no presence of illegal substances. But in all those cases, the exonerating results came only weeks or months later, after the harm to innocent Georgians had already been done.

The Nark II is still in wide use in Georgia. The manufacturer, Sirchie, defends itself by saying: "Our NARK presumptive drug tests are presumptive only. All samples should be sent to a crime lab for confirmation." But too many Georgia law enforcement agencies clearly don't bother to wait for confirmation before making life-changing arrests. And the state of Georgia doesn't even require police officers to be trained on how to do the tests. As a result, innocent Georgians are being wrongfully arrested and jailed. And now, perhaps, at least one of these law enforcement agencies, will have to pay for its wrongdoing.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

McConnell Puts Kibosh on Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

Prospects for a major federal sentencing reform bill brightened on Wednesday with President Trump's announcement that he would support the effort, but by week's end, those prospects dimmed as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told the president he wouldn't bring the bill to a floor vote this year.

[Update: McConnell is facing pressure from the religious right as well as from the president to allow a vote.]

The grinch who stole sentencing reform. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
The bill is known as the First Step Act. The House passed a version of this spring, but the House version was limited to reforms on the "back end," such as slightly increasing good time credits for federal prisoners and providing higher levels of reentry and rehabilitation services.

The Senate bill crafted by a handful of key senators and pushed hard by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner incorporates the language of the House bill, but also adds actual sentencing reforms. Under the Senate bill:

  • Thousands of prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 (the date of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced, but did not eliminate sentencing disparities) would get the chance to petition for a reduced sentence.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses would be lowered.
  • Life sentences for drug offenders with three convictions ("three strikes") would be reduced to 25 years.

Even though the bill has been a top priority of Kushner's and had the support of numerous national law enforcement groups and conservative criminal justice groups, as well as the support of key Democrats, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), McConnell told Trump at a White House meeting Thursday that there wasn't enough time in the lame-duck session to take it up.

"McConnell said he didn't have the time, that's his way of saying this isn't going to happen," said Michael Collins, interim director of the Drug Policy Alliance's (DPA) Office of National Affairs. "McConnell was a roadblock under Obama and he's a roadblock now. He likes to hide behind the process but I think he just doesn't like or care about this issue."

McConnell's move upset what should have been a done deal, said Collins.

"Once First Step passed the House, some key figures on the Senate side, such as Sens. Durbin and Grassley, said it wouldn't move without sentencing reform, and then Kushner facilitated negotiations between the Senate and the White House and they reached broad agreement this summer," he recounted. "Then the question was can we get this to the floor? McConnell sat down with Grassley and Durbin and said after the elections, and Trump agreed with that. The idea was that if Trump would get on board, McConnell would hold a vote, would whip a vote. He wanted 60 votes; there are 60 votes. Then McConnell said the Senate has a lot to do. At the end of the day, it's up to McConnell. When Trump endorsed people thought it would move McConnell, but he just poured cold water on it."

If McConnell sticks to his guns, then sentencing reform will be dead in this Congress. And as long as Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, he is likely to be an impediment to reform.

"McConnell is the obstacle -- it's not Tom Cotton (R-AR) or Jeff Sessions -- it's McConnell, and he's going to be there next year and the year after that," said Collins. "He is the prime obstacle to criminal justice reform, even though a lot of groups on the right are in favor of this. Since he isn't going to listen to us, it's going to be up to them to figure this out."

"If McConnell doesn't prioritize this, it doesn't happen," said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group. That's a shame, she said, because "I'm optimistic both parties would support this if they got the chance."

There is a possible upside: Failure to pass limited criminal justice reform this year could lead to a bill next year that goes further than limited sentencing reforms.

"It's been a long, hard slog to get to where we are," said Collins, "but now some people are saying this compromise stuff gets us nowhere and we should be doing things like enacting retroactivity for sentencing reforms, eliminating all mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and decriminalizing all drugs."

"My job is to continue to beat the drum for change," said Gotsch. "It's always hard, and we don't get those opportunities a lot. Momentum doesn't come very often, regardless of who is in power, and we can't let these small windows close without doing our best to move the ball forward. This has been my concern for 20 years -- the conditions these prisoners face, the injustice -- and we will keep pushing. The federal prison system is in crisis."

The federal prison population peaked at 219,000 in 2013, driven largely by drug war prosecutions, and has since declined slightly to about 181,000. But that number is still three times the number of federal prisoners behind bars when the war on drugs ratcheted up under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. There is still lots of work to be done, but perhaps next time, we demand deeper changes.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of both Drug War Chronicle and Drug Reporter.

Mexico's Supreme Court Effectively Legalizes Marijuana Possession, Cultivation, and Use [FEATURE]

In an earth-shaking development, Mexico's Supreme Court ruled last Wednesday that the country's prohibition of marijuana use, possession, and personal cultivation is unconstitutional. The decision came in a pair of cases challenging the ban on weed, and because these rulings mark the fifth time the court has ruled similarly, the opinions are now legal precedent in the country.

The high court in Mexico City based its decision on constitutional protections of individual autonomy.

"The fundamental right of the free development of the personality allows adults to choose -- without any interference -- what recreational activities they desire to undertake and protects all the activities necessary to make that choice… The effects of marijuana consumption do not justify an absolute prohibition of its use," the court held.

But the court also noted explicitly that the right to grow, possess, and consume marijuana "is not absolute and the consumption of certain substances can be regulated."

That means it will be up to lawmakers to come up with rules around the legal use of marijuana, as well as any move toward a regulated, legal marijuana market in the country. And that is likely to happen: Parties backing President-Elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who is supportive of marijuana legalization and open to considering broader legalization, control absolute majorities in both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies.

In its rulings, the high court ordered the federal health regulatory agency, COFEPRIS, to authorize the use of marijuana by adults who choose to do so, but it also added: "albeit without allowing them to market it, or use other narcotics or psychotropic drugs."

Mexico has already decriminalized both pot possession and the possession of personal use amounts of other illicit drugs.

Coming less than two weeks after Canada's marijuana legalization came into effect, the striking decision by the Mexican Supreme Court is only going to add to the pressure to advance federal marijuana legalization here in the US.

"This is extraordinary because it is taking place in one of the countries that has suffered the most from the war on drugs," said Hannah Hetzer, senior international policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. "With marijuana already legal in Canada, now both of the US's neighbors will have legal marijuana, making the US federal government's prohibition of marijuana even more untenable."

If the Democrats take control of the House this week, expect to see a strong push for federal legalization, along the lines that Congressional Cannabis Caucus founder Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) laid out earlier this month. If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, as is widely expected, the upper chamber would be a tougher nut to crack -- but GOP senators may want to reflect on the fact that, according to the most recent Gallup poll, support for legalizing weed is at an all-time high of 66 percent, and even 53 percent of Republican voters now are on board.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of both Drug War Chronicle and Drug Reporter.

Good Riddance! Drug Reformers Applaud Sessions’ Departure from DOJ [FEATURE]

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced out of office Wednesday after less than two years in office, and while there is intense concern about the impact the move could have on ongoing investigations of Trump campaign and administration misdeeds, for drug and criminal justice reform advocates that concern is leavened by joy and relief at the forced exit of a man who staunchly promoted harsh and repressive drug and criminal justice policies.

Jeff, we hardly knew ye. (senate.gov)
Even as marijuana reform spread across the land and support for the tough sentencing practices of last century's drug war waned, Sessions strode bravely backward as attorney general. Among the lowlights of his tenure:

  • He escalated the war on drugs by ordering federal prosecutors to seek the toughest charges and sentences for drug offenses, a harsh return to some of the worst excesses of the drug war, one quite out of the mainstream of even Republican sentencing policy thinking these days.

  • He escalated the war on drugs by undoing Obama-era restrictions on federal asset forfeiture and restarting destructive asset forfeiture practices. His actions on asset forfeiture basically gave state and local law enforcement agencies a green light to evade state forfeiture laws by handing cases off to the feds in return for a massive cut of the proceeds.

  • He at least formally reversed the Obama administration's "live and let live" approach to marijuana reforms in the states, undoing the Cole memo that directed federal prosecutors to leave state law-compliant pot operations alone. But Sessions' anti-marijuana crusade ended up a quixotic quest, with even President Trump suggesting an openness to legal weed and leaving Sessions spinning in the wind.

  • He ignored harm reduction principles and best practices aimed at reducing drug overdoses and the spread of blood-borne disease by threatening to crack down on safe injection sites, facilities where drug users can shoot up under medical supervision that also serve as a nexus between problematic users and treatment and social services.

  • He undermined the work of the department's Civil Rights Division, particularly by moving to end the use of consent decrees that subject police departments troubled by brutality or discrimination to federal oversight.

Even some key Republican senators rejected his retrograde approach on marijuana and sentencing reform and have criticized his resort to civil asset forfeiture. While in the Senate, Sessions was one of the biggest obstacles to sentencing reform, and since he left, bipartisan support for drug policy reform has continued to grow. It's probably too much to expect progressive policies from anyone Trump appoints to replace Sessions, but it's hard to see getting someone more regressive.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) minced no words in its assessment of Sessions.

"Attorney General Jefferson Sessions was a national disgrace," said NORML director Erik Altieri. "NORML hopes that he finds the time during his retirement to seek treatment for his affliction of 1950s reefer madness."

The Trump administration needs to replace Sessions with someone more in tune with popular sentiment on marijuana, added NORML deputy director Paul Armentano.

With 33 states now recognizing the medical use of cannabis, and with 10 states having legalized the use and sales of marijuana for all adults, it is pivotal that the next US Attorney General be someone who recognizes that most Americans want cannabis to be legally regulated and that they oppose any actions from the Justice Department to interfere with these state-sanctioned efforts," he said.

The Drug Policy Alliance echoed that call.

"While Trump's dismissal of Sessions raises questions about the president's motivations, the Justice Department and Senate should seize this opportunity to right Sessions' wrongs," said DPA executive director Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno. "The US public understands that the drug war has failed spectacularly and needs to be replaced with a health-centered approach. It is critically important that the next attorney general be committed to defending basic rights and moving away from failed drug war policies."

Jeff Sessions: A man whose time has come -- and gone.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of both Drug Reporter and Drug War Chronicle.

Bad News from Brazil: The Right Populist President-Elect Will Be Absolutely Horrid on Drug Policy [FEATURE]

The far rightist Jair Bolsonaro won Sunday's presidential election with 55 percent of the vote. His victory promises to push Latin America's largest democracy to the right in many arenas, including drug policy, where his past pronouncements place him firmly in the camp of murderous anti-drug reform authoritarians such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has presided over a war on drug sellers and users that has left more than 20,000 dead at the hands of police and shadowy vigilante death squads.

Jair Bolsonaro (Creative Commons)
Despite a highly divisive candidacy that included repeated derogatory comments aimed at gays, women, black people, and indigenous peoples, his victory over the Workers Party, which has been tarnished by corruption scandals, was decisive. Bolsonaro seems likely to act as if he has a mandate from the voters to enact his extremist policies, among them extraordinarily repressive drug policies.

Thanks to London-based Talking Drugs, we have a very clear idea of just how extreme Bolsonaro's rhetoric on drug policy has been. Saying the bloody-handed Duterte "did the right thing for his country," Bolsonaro seeks to emulate him, saying repeatedly that police should kill people suspected -- not convicted -- of drug trafficking.

He has also vowed to intensify an already militarized crackdown on drug offenses, deepening the human rights and public health crises that drug prohibition has already inflicted on the country. Police and the military already work together to raid, arrest, and, too often, kill people allegedly involved in drug trafficking, especially in the favelas, the urban slums home to millions of the country's poor.

Brazil's murder rate is 27 per 100,000 people, four times the global average and higher than the rates of neighbors such as Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru -- all cocaine-producing countries. Brazil is the world's second largest cocaine-consuming country, after the United States.

Domestic drug consumption has been on the rise for years in Brazil, and although there have been legislative attempts to decriminalize drug use, drug users continue to be criminalized, contributing mightily to Brazil's ranking as the country with the world's fourth-largest prison population.

Bolsonaro wants to heighten the repressive approach. He has detailed plans to increase the involvement of the military in drug law enforcement, including targeting school children. "It would be good to have the military in the schools," he said, because "in the streets, in the schools even, the bandidos [bandits] sell drugs and smoke marijuana openly."

Speaking of maconha [Brazilian slang for marijuana], Bolsonaro isn't too fond of that, either. In fact, he sounds positively deranged on the issue. Legalizing marijuana, as neighboring Uruguay has done, would "benefit traffickers, rapists, and hostage takers," he charged, without bothering to cite any supporting evidence of his claims and in direct contradiction of the Uruguayan experience.

And in a bizarre interview with El Pais, the homophobic Bolsonaro even claimed that using drug makes people gay. When the journalist who interviewed him published the piece, Bolsonaro accused him of being gay, too.

He demonstrates a very Trumpian tendency to play fast and loose with the facts to try to score ideological points. He has linked illegal drug use to liberal governments, claiming that "drug use is prominent in countries under liberal administrations, such as Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, and Venezuela." But Honduras has been ruled by rightists since 2010 and Mexico's outgoing president is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), since the 1980s viewed as center-right.

All of this doesn't bode well for progress on progressive drug policies in Brazil. In the past, there have been strong public health-based initiatives to provide harm reduction services to drug users, including a very successful program created by then Sao Paolo Mayor Fernando Haddad. His With Open Arms program provided drug users with housing, daily meals, access to health care, and the opportunity to earn money by doing cleaning work. The program was a success in reducing drug-related harms but has been dramatically slashed by his successor.

Haddad was the last candidate standing between Bolsonaro and the presidency, but the country's swing to the right overwhelmed him. While the immediate future for progressive drug reform in Brazil looks grim, the one bright spot is that, like Trump, Bolsonaro tends to make bold, yet vague, pronouncements, often with little follow-through. Let's hope his tough talk on drugs is more bluster than actual concrete policy shifts to the right, but hope isn't going to win the day. Brazilians interested in human rights, public safety, harm reduction, and drug law reform are going to have to mobilize to protect what limited gains they have one and to prevent sliding backward by embracing harsh, failed, last century drug policies.

Marijuana Midterms: The Prospects for State-Level Legalization and Medical Marijuana [FEATURE]

With less than two weeks to go to Election Day, its looking like a mixed picture for state-level marijuana policy initiatives. There are two states -- Michigan and North Dakota -- with marijuana legalization on the ballot and there are two more states -- Michigan and Utah -- with medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot.

It's possible that all four will pass, but it's looking more likely in Michigan and Missouri than in North Dakota and Utah. In North Dakota, well-funded opposition may drown out the legalization message, while in Utah, late maneuvering by the Mormon church and state political leaders is undercutting support from what had previously appeared to be a measure cruising toward victory.

Here's a quick recap of the initiatives and their prospects:

Michigan

Michigan is poised to become marijuana legalization's Midwest breakout state. The Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol has qualified a marijuana legalization initiative, Proposal 1, for the November ballot.

The measure would legalize the possession up to 2.5 ounces of pot for personal use and up to 10 ounces at home, as well as allowing for the personal cultivation of up to 12 plants and the fruits of that harvest. It also creates a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce, with a 10 percent excise tax at the retail level in addition to the 6 percent sales tax. The measure would give cities and counties the option of allowing pot businesses or not.

The initiative looks well-positioned to win in November. It had been holding steady at 61 percent support as late as May, the kind of polling numbers initiative and referendum experts like to see at the beginning of the campaign because they suggest that even with the inevitable erosion of support in the face of opposition attacks, the measure still has a big enough cushion to pull off a victory.

Support had indeed declined in the final weeks of the campaign as limited opposition finally emerged, but a September Detroit Free Press poll still has it winning with 55 percent of the vote and only three percent undecided and a September Detroit News poll had it winning with 56 percent.

Missouri

Missouri voters will be able to choose from not one, not two, but three separate medical marijuana measures when they go to the polls in November. Two are constitutional amendments; one is a statutory initiative that could more easily be modified by the legislature.

Amendment 2, sponsored by New Approach Missouri, would allow doctors to recommend medical cannabis for any condition they see fit. Registered patients and caregivers would be allowed to grow up to six marijuana plants and purchase up to four ounces from dispensaries per month. Medical cannabis sales at dispensaries would be taxed at 4 percent.

Amendment 3, sponsored by Find the Cures, would let doctors recommend medical marijuana to patients who have any of a specific list of qualifying conditions (while regulators would be able to add more conditions in the future). The retail sales tax on medical marijuana would be set at the much higher rate of 15 percent. Funds would be used to support research with the aim of developing cures and treatments for cancer and other diseases.

Proposition C, backed by Missourians for Patient Care, also outlines a list of specific conditions that would qualify patients to legally use medical cannabis. Sales would be taxed at 2 percent.

An August poll conducted by TJP strategies had support for amending the state constitution to allow medical marijuana at 54 percent.

That there are three separate measures on the ballot could lead to some confusion. If multiple ballot measures on the same topic pass, the one with the most votes generally prevails. But because in this case two of the measures are constitutional amendments and one is a statutory measure, if the statutory measure gets more votes than either of the amendments, but at least one of them passes, it could be up to the state's court system to figure out which goes into effect.

While there is nothing stopping voters from voting "yes" on all three measures, there are also concerns that the multiplicity of options could result in splitting the pro-medical marijuana vote, with some voting "yes" on only one measure and "no" on the others. In this election, when it comes to medical marijuana, Missouri may have too much of a good thing.

There has been no more recent polling, but with 93% of the nation backing medical cannabis in an April 2018 Quinnipiac University poll, it's likely that Missouri isn't going to buck the trend. The fundraising also points toward a successful campaign. Both New Approach Missouri and Find the Cure have raised more than a million dollars over the course of the campaign and both still have tens of thousands of dollars banked for the final push. The only ballot committee opposed to both campaigns, Citizens for Safe Medicine, was just registered last month and has reported no donations or expenditures.

North Dakota

This year, a grassroots group, Legalize ND, managed to get enough signatures to get Measure 3, the Marijuana Legalization and Automatic Expungement initiative, on the November ballot.

This is a radical initiative. It would legalize all forms of marijuana for adults by removing marijuana, THC, and hashish from the state's controlled substance schedules, and it sets no limits on the amount of marijuana people could possess or how many plants they grow. It also provides for the automatic expungement of criminal convictions for anyone convicted of a marijuana-related crime that would be legal under the measure.

And it does not create a framework for regulated marijuana sales, nor does it set any taxes. Creating a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce would be up to the state legislature.

Legalize ND faces the toughest odds. While a June poll, commissioned by Legalize ND and conducted by the Florida-based Kitchen Group, had the initiative winning 46 percent to 39 percent, with 15 percent undecided and a poll this month, also commissioned by Legalize ND had it winning with 51 percent to 36 percent, two other recent polls have support at under 40 percent.

It also faces the toughest organized opposition, which is heavily out-fundraising it. While Legalize ND has raised less than $30,000 in cash and in-kind contributions, the national anti-marijuana lobbying group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) has provided 100 percent of the contributions to Healthy and Productive North Dakota, an amount totaling more than $156,000.

A separate anti-initiative committee, North Dakotans Against the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana, which represents business groups and is headed by the director of government affairs for the state Chamber of Commerce, has raised $86,000. If Legalize ND can pull off a victory, it will be sweet, indeed, but it's looking like an uphill battle.

Utah

Sponsored by the Utah Patients Coalition, the medical marijuana statutory initiative, Proposition 2, has qualified for the November ballot. The bottom-up effort comes after the state legislature has refused to advance meaningful medical marijuana legislation.

Under the measure, people who suffer from one of a list of designated qualifying medical conditions could receive a medical marijuana card with a physician's recommendation. That would entitle them to possess up to two ounces of marijuana or any amount of a marijuana product with up to 10 grams of THC. Patients could not grow their own unless they live more than 100 miles from a dispensary. And the patients cannot smoke marijuana.

A Utah Policy poll released in September had support for the measure at 64 percent, with even Mormons generally breaking with the church leadership on the issue. But after that poll was released, state political leaders, advocates, and the Mormon church announced they'd agreed on a medical marijuana plan that lawmakers would consider in a November special session. That has, to some degree, cut the legs out from under the initiative.

A Salt Lake Tribune poll released last week had support dropping to only 51 percent, with 46 percent opposed. What looked like a cakewalk just a few weeks ago has turned into a nailbiter.

There you have it. Marijuana could go four for four this year, but it's not at all at da one deal, and we may end up having to settle for only three or maybe even two out of four. Going only 50-50 on marijuana initiatives would be the worst performance of the modern era. Let's hope 2018 doesn't earn that distinction.

Two New Polls Suggest Marijuana Prohibition's Days Are Numbered [FEATURE]

Two of the country's top polling organizations have released surveys this month showing support for marijuana legalization continues to increase and is now at record highs. A Gallup poll released Monday had support at 69 percent, while a Pew Research Center poll released two weeks earlier had support at 62 percent.

The Gallup figure is up two points over last year, while Pew is up one. More impressively, the percentage of people supporting legalization nationwide has doubled since 2000, when both polls reported support at only 31 percent.

"There is a growing sense among the US population that it is time to end our nation's failed experiment with marijuana prohibition," responded Steve Hawkins, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). "People are sick and tired of adults being treated like criminals simply for consuming a substance that is, by every objective measure, less harmful than alcohol. Americans are more informed about cannabis than ever before, and they can now see that regulation is a viable and effective alternative to prohibition."

Gallup's levels of support are slightly more favorable toward legalization than Pew's, most likely due to methodological differences. In addition to the seven-point spread between the two on legalization, Pew, for example, reports a majority of Republicans still opposing legalization, while Gallup reports a first-time Republican majority in favor.

Pro-marijuana majorities can now be found across every demographic measured in the Gallup poll. Not only 53 percent of Republicans, but 71 percent of independents and three-quarters of Democrats want to free the weed, now even older Americans do, too. For the first time, a majority of those aged 55 and over (59 percent) support legalization, along with nearly two in three adults between 35 and 44 and a whopping 78 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds.

And support for legalization is now truly nationwide in the Gallup poll. As recently as 2010, only the West reported a marijuana majority, but now support is at 65 percent in the West, Midwest, and South, and even two points higher in the East.

The Pew poll found a few demographic groups not reporting majorities for legalization. In addition to Republicans, only 48 percent of Hispanics, 43 percent of white evangelicals, only 39 percent of the "Silent Generation" (people over age 75) could get behind it. But all other races, age groups, religious denominations (and atheists), and educational levels reported majorities for legalization.

The poll numbers reflect an increasing acceptance of weed as the country grows accustomed to the idea of marijuana being sold in stores (and taxed!) instead of in back alleyways. Nine states, the District of Columbia, and the territory of the Northern Marshall Islands already have legal marijuana, and another 21 allow for medical marijuana.

Four more states are voting on marijuana next month; Michigan and North Dakota on legalization, and Missouri and Utah on medical marijuana. And pot could play a role in the congressional races, too. The Democrats are already embracing it, and Republicans risk being left in the lurch.

"There are not many issues out there that enjoy majority support among both of the major political parties and in every region of the country," said MPP's Hawkins. "This support is consistently translating into wins at the ballot box, and it should further motivate elected officials to take action at the state and federal levels. Hopefully, lawmakers are paying attention to this clear trend in public opinion. If they ignore these poll numbers, they do so at the risk of seeing a drop in their own."

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

One Key Congressman's Bold Plan to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition Next Year [FEATURE]

Last week, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) unveiled a plan for a Democratically-led House to push through federal marijuana legalization by the end of 2019. In an eight-page memo to the House Democratic leadership laid out his roadmap to ending Reefer Madness.

Congressional Cannabis Caucus founder Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)
Blumenauer isn't just any old congressman. The longtime stalwart marijuana reformer is the founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and a leading voice in the fight to bring marijuana out of the shadows. And he's ready to do it once Congress gets back to work in January.

"Congress is out of step with the American people and the states on cannabis," Blumenauer wrote in the memo, citing polling showing 69% of registered voters support legalizing marijuana. "We have an opportunity to correct course if Democrats win big in November. There's no question: cannabis prohibition will end."

Most projections have the Democrats taking back control of the House in November. The Senate is a different story, with the odds against the party being able to overcome Republican control this year.

Winning the House is critical. During the current Congress, progress has been stymied by House Republican leaders, who have blocked floor votes on dozens of cannabis-related amendments. Not one marijuana reform bill has gotten a House floor vote in the past two years.

If the House goes Democratic and the party can push a legalization bill through that chamber, Blumenauer argues, then pressure will mount on even a GOP-controlled Senate, where there is already growing bipartisan support for reform.

But Senate Republicans aren't the only potential obstacle. The current House Democratic leadership hasn't exactly been chomping at the bit to make freeing the weed a priority next year.

But while there is majority support for ending marijuana prohibition among House Democrats, the party's leadership has so far appeared lukewarm to the idea of prioritizing the issue in 2019.

When Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) was asked about pushing cannabis reform next year, he replied that top Democrats "haven't talked about that," and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), the frontrunner for House Speaker if the Democrats win, seems willing to defer to President Trump on the matter.

"I don't know where the president is on any of this," she said. "So any decision about how we go forward would have to reflect where we can get the result."

But despite his notoriously pot prohibitionist attorney general, President Trump may not get in the way of marijuana legalization. As a candidate in 2016, he pledged to respect state marijuana laws, and earlier this year, as part of a deal with pot state Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), he told Gardner he would back "a federalism-based legislative solution to fix this states' rights issue once and for all Democrats need to be prepared to act when Congress reconvenes next year or risk giving Trump a freebie, Blumenauer warned.

"Democrats should lead the way," he wrote. "If we fail to act swiftly, I fear as the 2020 election campaign approaches, Donald Trump will claim credit for our work in an effort to shore up support -- especially from young voters. Democrats must seize the moment."

Beginning in January, the Democrats need to get moving, Blumenauer counseled.

"For too long, under Republican leadership, these issues have not been allowed to be fully debated. We must change that approach. Almost every standing House committee has jurisdiction over some aspects of marijuana policy. Within the first six months, these committees should hold hearings, bring in experts, and discuss possible policy fixes," he wrote.

Blumenauer is calling for the numerous hearings by March, including:

  • A House Judiciary Committee hearing on descheduling marijuana;
  • A House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on safe and equal access to medical marijuana for veterans;
  • A House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on marijuana research;
  • A House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the unequal and unfair taxation of marijuana businesses; and
  • A House Administration Committee hearing on access to financial services for candidates who support marijuana legalization.

From April to June, Blumenauer wants relevant committees to "start marking up bills in their jurisdiction to responsibly narrow the marijuana policy gap -- the gap between federal and state marijuana laws -- before the end of the year."

Those issues would include addressing the racial injustices of the unequal application of federal marijuana laws, protection of state marijuana laws, removal of barriers to marijuana research, civil asset forfeiture protections, job protections, access to financial services, and equal taxation for marijuana businesses, among others.

Blumenauer wants to see bills addressing these issues passed by August, and then movement to get a legalization bill through the Congress by year's end.

"With the marijuana policy gap diminished, after months of hearings and markups, the House should pass a full descheduling bill and work with Senate allies to guide the bill through Senate passage," he wrote. "Our chances in the Senate depend both on the November elections and increased public pressure following House passage. While the Senate has been slower on marijuana policy reform than the House and the American people, it now has almost 20 introduced bills in an effort to catch up with the House. We must build on this momentum."

If all goes well, Blumenauer predicts, "By the end of 2019, marijuana will be legal at the federal level, and states allowed to responsibly regulate its use. The federal government will not interfere in state efforts to responsibly regulate marijuana use within their borders."

All of this, though, starts with winning the House in November. As Blumenauer notes, with even Donald Trump having signaled support for a state-regulated approach to marijuana, "the only obstacle standing in our way is the Republican leadership in Congress."

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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