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Book Review: Drug Use for Grown-Ups

Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear, by Carl Hart (2021, Penguin Press, 290 pp., $28.00 HB)

Dr. Carl Hart is a one-man drug and drug user destigmatization machine. In his new book, Drug Use for Grown-Ups, the Columbia University psychology professor blasts drug prohibition as both an affront to the American dream of the pursuit of happiness and as a tool of racial oppression. And he makes a strong, informed argument that recreational drug use can be, and usually is, a good thing.

You could hardly find someone more qualified to make the case. Hart has spent years in the trenches of neuropsychopharmacology research, handed out drugs (or placebos) to thousands of research subjects, published numerous scientific papers and popular articles in the field, and risen to the top of his profession along the way. And here is his bottom line:

"[O]ver my more than 25-year career, I have discovered that most drug-use scenarios cause little or no harm and that some responsible drug-scenarios are actually beneficial for human health and functioning. Even 'recreational' drugs can and do improve day-to-day living... From my own experience -- the combination of my scientific work and my personal drug use, I have learned that recreational drugs can be used safely to enhance many vital human activities."

Hart is refreshingly -- and deliberately -- open about his own recreational drug use. Given the stigmatization and persecution of people identified as "drug users," he feels that justice demands privileged partakers come out of the closet and give voice to their own, non-destructive drug use histories as a necessary remedy for that demonization. He certainly does so himself, revealing a disciplined yet curious mind most definitely not averse to sampling various substances.

Those substances include heroin, which he describes as his current favorite drug, one that he's been using episodically for years now: "There aren't many things in life that I enjoy more than a few lines by the fireplace at the end of the day... Heroin allows me to suspend the perpetual preparation for battle that goes on in my head... The world is alright with me. I'm good. I'm refreshed. I'm prepared to face another day, another faculty meeting, another obligatory function. All parties benefit."

But Hart is not quite so mellow when it comes to people and institutions he sees as helping to perpetuate overly negative depictions of various drugs or the persecution of drug users. He rips into Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (NIDA) over her "addiction is a brain disease" mantra and the rigid ideological control she has over research funding. He rips into journalists for uncritically and sensationally reporting salacious scientific findings about the evils of drugs that he argues are not supported by the evidence they are supposedly based on. He even calls Bernie Sanders "ignorant" (that word shows up more than a few times) for complaining that marijuana shouldn't be in the same drug schedule as "killer drugs like heroin."

Dr. Carl Hart (Columbia University)
Hart doesn't deny the potential dangers of drug use but makes the case that they are dramatically overstated. In that sense, Drug Use for Grown-Ups is a corrective to more than a century of anti-drug propaganda. In a deep dive into opioids, for instance, he notes that most opioid overdose deaths are actually opioid/benzodiazepines/alcohol deaths, and that a large number of them are due to ignorance (there's that word again) -- in that, in the black market that currently exists, drug users do not and cannot know what exactly is in that pill or powder they purchased.

As long as we are in a prohibition regime, the least we can do is widespread drug testing for quality control, as is done at some European music festivals, Hart argues. But that's the only kind of drug testing he's down with; he calls the urine drug testing industry "parasitic," a sobriquet he also applies to the drug treatment industry.

But hang on, he's not done yet. Although he is an advocate for harm reduction practices, he has a bone to pick with the term itself: It's too damned negative! Drug use doesn't typically involve harm, he argues, but pleasure-seeking. As I pondered this, I came up with "benefit enhancement" as an upbeat alternative to harm reduction, but Hart went with "health and happiness."

And he's got a bone to pick with "psychedelic exceptionalism," the notion, dear to folks like Decriminalize Nature, that psychedelics, or better yet, "plant entheogens," are somehow "better" than dirty old drugs like meth or heroin and thus deserve to be treated differently, more gently. He also snarks at the notion that taking drugs for spiritual or religious purposes is of a higher order than taking them for fun and rebels at the notion of having a shaman or guide during a tripping session: "Some people find this comforting. I find it creepy and have never done so myself."

Drug Use for Grown-Ups is bracing, informative, and provocative contribution to the literature. Even the most ardent drug reformers and defenders would benefit from reading it and reexamining their own assumptions. Maybe Carl Hart is onto something.

Two Takes on the Global Drug War and Global Drug Cultures [FEATURE]

America shows signs of emerging from the century-long shadow of drug prohibition, with marijuana leading the way and a psychedelic decriminalization movement rapidly gaining steam. It also seems as if the mass incarceration fever driven by the war on drugs has finally broken, although tens if not hundreds of thousands remain behind bars on drug charges.

As Americans, we are remarkably parochial. We are, we still like to tell ourselves, "the world's only superpower," and we can go about our affairs without overly concerning ourselves about what's going on beyond our borders. But what America does, what America wants and what America demands has impacts far beyond our borders, and the American prohibitionist impulse is no different.

Thanks largely (but not entirely) to a century of American diplomatic pressure, the entire planet has been subsumed by our prohibitionist impulse. A series of United Nations conventions, the legal backbone of global drug prohibition, pushed by the US, have put the whole world on lockdown.

We here in the drug war homeland remain largely oblivious to the consequences of our drug policies overseas, whether it's murderous drug cartels in Mexico, murderous cops in the Philippines, barbarous forced drug treatment regimes in Russia and Southeast Asia, exemplary executions in China, or corrupted cops and politicians everywhere. But now, a couple of non-American journalists working independently have produced a pair of volumes that focus on the global drug war like a US Customs X-ray peering deep inside a cargo container. Taken together, the results are illuminating, and the light they shed reveals some very disturbing facts.

Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov and Pills, Powder, and Smoke by Antony Loewenstein both attempt the same feat -- a global portrait of the war on drugs -- and both reach the same conclusion -- that drug prohibition benefits only drug traffickers, fearmongering politicians, and state security apparatuses -- but are miles apart attitudinally and literarily. This makes for two very different, but complementary, books on the same topic.

Loewenstein, an Australian who previously authored Disaster Capitalism and Profits of Doom, is -- duh -- a critic of capitalism who situates the global drug war within an American project of neo-imperial subjugation globally and control over minority populations domestically. His work is solid investigative reporting, leavened with the passion he feels for his subject.

In Pills, Powder, and Smoke, he visits places that rarely make the news but are deeply and negatively impacted by the US-led war on drugs, such as Honduras. Loewenstein opens that chapter with the murder of environmental activist Berta Caceres, which was not directly related to the drug war, but which illustrates the thuggish nature of the Honduran regime -- a regime that emerged after a 2009 coup overthrew the leftist president, a coup justified by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and which has received millions in US anti-drug assistance, mainly in the form of weapons and military equipment.

Honduras doesn't produce any drugs; it's only an accident of geography and the American war on drugs that we even mention the country in the context of global drug prohibition. Back in the 1980s, the administration of Bush the Elder cracked down on cocaine smuggling in the Caribbean, and as traffickers sought to evade that threat, Honduras was perfectly placed to act as a trampoline for cocaine shipments taking an alternative route through Mexico, which incidentally fueled the rise of today's deadly and uber-wealthy Mexican drug cartels.

The drug trade, combined with grinding poverty, huge income inequalities, and few opportunities, has helped turn Honduras into one of the deadliest places on earth, where the police and military kill with impunity, and so do the country's teeming criminal gangs. Loewenstein walks those mean streets -- except for a few neighborhoods even his local fixers deem too dangerous -- talking to activists, human rights workers, the family members of victims, community members, and local journalists to paint a chilling picture. (This is why Hondurans make up a large proportion of those human caravans streaming north to the US border. But unlike Venezuela, where mass flight in the face of violence and economic collapse is routinely condemned as a failure of socialism, you rarely hear any commentators calling the Honduran exodus a failure of capitalism.)

He reexamines one of the DEA's most deadly recent incidents, where four poor, innocent Hondurans were killed by Honduran troops working under DEA supervision in a raid whose parameters were covered up for years by the agency. Loewenstein engaged in extended communication with the DEA agent in charge, as well as with survivors and family members of those killed. Those people report they have never received an apology, not to mention compensation, from the Honduran military -- or from the United States. While the Honduran military fights the drug war with US dollars, Loewenstein shows it and other organs of the Honduran government are also deeply implicated in managing the drug traffic. And news headlines bring his story up to date: Just this month, the current, rightist president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, of meeting with and taking a bribe from a drug trafficker. This comes after his brother, former Honduran Senator Juan Antonio Hernández, was convicted of running tons of cocaine into the United States in a trial that laid bare the bribery, corruption, and complicity of high-level Hondurans in the drug trade, including the president.

Loewenstein also takes us to Guinea-Bissau, a West African country where 70 percent of the population subsists on less than $2 a day and whose biggest export is cashews. Or at least it was cashews. Since the early years of this century, the country has emerged as a leading destination for South American cocaine, which is then re-exported to the insatiable European market.

Plagued by decades of military coups and political instability, the country has never developed, and an Atlantic shoreline suited for mass tourism now serves mainly as a convenient destination for boatloads and planeloads of cocaine. Loewenstein visits hotels whose only clients are drug traffickers and remote fishing villages where the trade is an open secret and a source of jobs. He talks with security officials who frankly admit they have almost no resources to combat the trade, and he traces the route onward to Europe, sometimes carried by Islamic militants.

He also tells the tale of one exemplary drug bust carried out by a DEA SWAT team arguably in Guinean territorial waters that snapped up the country's former Navy minister. The DEA said he was involved in a "narco-terrorist" plot to handle cocaine shipments for Colombia's leftist FARC guerillas, who were designated as "terrorists" by the administration of Bush the Junior in a politically convenient melding of the wars on drugs and terror.

It turns out, though, there were no coke loads, and there was no FARC; there was only a DEA sting operation, with the conspiracy created out of whole cloth. While the case made for some nice headlines and showed the US hard at work fighting drugs, it had no demonstrable impact on the use of West Africa as a cocaine conduit, and it raised serious questions about the degree to which the US can impose its drug war anywhere it chooses.

Loewenstein also writes about Australia, England, and the United States, in each case setting the historical and political context, talking to all kinds of people, and laying bare the hideous cruelties of drug policies that exert their most terrible tolls on the poor and racial minorities. But he also sees glimmers of hope in things such as the movement toward marijuana legalization here and the spread of harm reduction measures in England and Australia.

He gets one niggling thing wrong, though, in his chapter on the US. He converses with Washington, DC, pot activists Alan Amsterdam and Adam Eidinger, the main movers behind DC's successful legalization initiative, but in his reporting on it, he repeatedly refers to DC as a state and once even mistakenly cites a legal marijuana sales figure from Washington state. (There are no legal sales in DC.) Yes, this is a tiny matter, but c'mon, Loewenstein is Australian, and he should know a political entity similar to Canberra, the Australian Capital Territory.

That quibble aside, Loewenstein has made a hardheaded but openhearted contribution to our understanding of the multifaceted malevolence of the never-ending war on drugs. And I didn't even mention his chapter on the Philippines. It's in there, it's as gruesome as you might expect, and it's very chilling reading.

Vorobyov, on the other hand, was born in Russia and emigrated to England as a child. He reached adulthood as a recreational drug user and seller -- until he was arrested on the London Underground and got a two-year sentence for carrying enough Ecstasy to merit a charge of possession with intent to distribute. After that interval, which he says inspired him to write his book, he got his university degree and moved back to Russia, where he picked up a gig at Russia Today before turning his talents to Dopeworld.

Dopeworld is not staid journalism. Instead, it is a twitchy mish-mash, jumping from topic to topic and continent to continent with the flip of a page, tracing the history of alcohol prohibition in the US at one turn, chatting up Japanese drug gangsters at the next, and getting hammered by ayahuasca in yet another. Vorobyov himself describes Dopeworld as "true crime, gonzo, social, historical memoir meets fucked up travel book."

Indeed. He relates his college-boy drug-dealing career with considerable panache. He parties with nihilistic middle-class young people and an opium-smoking cop in Tehran, he cops $7 grams of cocaine in Colombia and tours Pablo Escobar's house with the dead kingpin's brother as a tour guide, he has dinner with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's family in Mexico's Sinaloa state and pronounces them nice people ("really chill"), and he meets up with a vigilante killer in Manila.

Vorobyov openly says the unsayable when it comes to writing about the drug war and drug prohibition: Drugs can be fun! While Loewenstein is pretty much all about the victims, Vorobyov inhabits the global drug culture. You know: Dopeworld. Loewenstein would bemoan the utter futility of a record-breaking seizure of a 12-ton load of cocaine; Vorobyov laments, "that's 12 tons of cocaine that will never be snorted."

Vorobyov is entertaining and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and he brings a former dope dealer's perspective to bear. He's brash and breezy, but like Loewenstein, he's done his homework as well as his journalistic fieldwork, and the result is fascinating. To begin to understand what the war on drugs has done to people and countries around the planet, this pair of books makes an essential introduction. And two gripping reads.

Dopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug Trade by Niko Vorobyov (August 2020, St. Martin's Press, hardcover, 432 pp., $29.99)

Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs by Antony Loewenstein (November 2019, Scribe, paperback, 368 pp., $19.00)

Chronicle AM: DC "Fake Pot" Overdose Outbreak, Canada Pot Travel Ban Pushback, More... (9/17/18)

Tough talk about barring Canadians with links to legal marijuana leads one congressman to act, "fake pot" kills five and leaves dozens sick in DC, Oklahoma's medical marijuana fight continues, and more.

Synthetic cannabinoids are being blamed for five deaths and dozens of overdoses in the nation's capital. (Louisiana Health Dept.
Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Democrats Call For Special Session For Medical Marijuana. Democratic members of a working group crafting recommendations for medical marijuana distribution say the governor should call a special session in order to get rules implemented safely. A sticking point is the issue of product testing. "The only way to do that is to have a special session and give the health department the authority to issue licenses to entities that can do that testing, said Representative Steve Kouplen (D) House Democratic Leader. But legislative Republicans are balking, saying the Health Department already has sufficient authority to do product testing. And Gov. Mary Fallin (R) says a special session isn't necessary and would be an "expensive burden."

New Psychoactive SubstancesSynthetic Cannabinoids Kill 5, Sicken Dozens in DC. Five people died in Washington, DC, last Wednesday and Thursday and another 88 people were treated for overdoses of what authorities suspect is "a bad batch of K2," a synthetic cannabinoid. City officials are tweeting out alerts such as the following: "Smoking or ingesting K2 or Spice may lead to overdose or death." By last Friday afternoon, the numbers appear to have leveled off, with a total of 118 reported overdoses tallied since Wednesday. 

Immigration Policy

Congressman Presses Administration on Canada Marijuana Visitor Bans. Rep. Lou Correa (D-CA) sent a letter Monday to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen seeking clarity amid reports that the US federal government plans to impose lifetime bans on Canadians who admit having used marijuana, working in Canada's legal marijuana industry, or even investing in it. "We are concerned DHS is unnecessarily and disproportionally penalizing noncitizens who are engaged in lawful business activities," reads a draft of the letter obtained by Marijuana Moment. "We strongly urge DHS to clarify admission policies and procedures at U.S. ports of entry to help ensure transparency of such processes. The role that CBP plays in processing thousands of foreign nationals who come to the United States daily to conduct business is critical not only to the success of our economy but also the safety and security of the American people."

International

Australian Capital Territory Could Legalize Marijuana Under New Bill. Labor MP Michael Pettersson will this week introduce a bill to effectively legalize marijuana for personal use in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Marijuana possession has been decriminalized since 1992, but Pettersson said marijuana users are still being arrested. "About 60 percent of drug arrests in the ACT are for cannabis consumers. That’s not suppliers, that’s consumers. I think police can spend their time doing better things than going after people using small amounts of cannabis," Pettersson said.Under his bill, the possession of up to 50 grams and the cultivation of up to four plants would be legalized. 

Chronicle AM: MedMJ Researchers Stalled, MS Court Rejects Fatal Overdose Conviction, More... (9/10/18)

It's just about all medical marijuana news today, except for a Mississippi appeals court throwing out a drug-induced homicide-style conviction.

The DOJ is stalling medical marijuana research, and Congress is set to act on the issue, but perhaps too restrictively. (DPA)
Medical Marijuana

Marijuana Research Applications Go Nowhere at Justice Department. The DEA began accepting applications from researchers seeking to grow marijuana two years ago, but as of this week, none of the applications have been responded to. Some two dozen applications have been left in limbo by the Justice Department, the DEA's parent agency, during the tenure of anti-marijuana Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Marijuana Research Bill Scheduled For Congressional Vote This Week. The House Judiciary Committee will vote Thursday on HR 5634, Rep. Matt Gaetz's Medical Cannabis Research Act. Gaetz says the bill will expand the amount of research-grade marijuana available to researchers, but drug reformers are calling foul over some provisions, including one that bars people with a felony or drug-related misdemeanor conviction from any affiliation with research cultivation operations and another that requires cultivators to get a letter of good standing from a local law enforcement agency. They argued that those provisions should be removed, but Gaetz doesn't look likely to do that.

Connecticut Federal Court Holds That Refusing To Hire Medical Marijuana User Constitutes Employment Discrimination. A federal court in Hartford held last Wednesday that refusing to hire a medical marijuana user who tested positive on a pre-employment drug test violates the state's medical marijuana law. Under the state's law, "[n]o employer may refuse to hire a person or may discharge, penalize or threaten an employee solely on the basis of such person's or employee's status as a qualifying patient."

New Mexico Health Secretary Rejects Medical Marijuana for Opioid Addiction. Department of Public Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher has rejected the idea of treating opioid addiction with medical marijuana, saying there isn't enough research to justify using it for addiction treatment. Her decision overrides the state's Cannabis Advisory Board, which recommended 5-1 that it be approved.

Sentencing Policy

Mississippi Appeals Court Throws Out Dealer's Murder Conviction in Overdose Death. The state Court of Appeals has overturned the murder conviction of a man who had been convicted of the crime after a friend died from taking a new psychoactive substance provided by the man. "The evidence introduced at trial was insufficient to support a conviction for either depraved-heart murder or the lesser-included offense of culpable negligence manslaughter," Judge Jack Wilson wrote for an 8-2 majority of the court. The court found that even though the man had provided two doses of the drug to his friend, that wasn't enough to support the murder charges because there was no evidence the man believed the drug would put his friend at risk. The case could spark efforts in the legislature to pass a drug-induced homicide law.

Chronicle AM: NJ Firm Can Drug Test MedMJ Patient, Egypt Bans "Synthetic Hashish," More... (8/17/18)

A federal judge sides with a New Jersey company against a medical marijuana-using worker, Egypt bans "synthetic hashish," a Mexican state advances a bill to decriminalize opium production, and more.

Bolivian President Evo Morales says he wants to return to coca farming, but the people demand him. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Business Can Drug Test Medical Marijuana Patient, Federal Court Rules. A federal district court judge has ruled that a New Jersey business does not have to waive its requirement for mandatory drug testing to accommodate a worker who uses medical marijuana. The worker had sued the company after it wouldn't allow him to return to work unless he submitted to drug testing. "New Jersey law does not require private employers to waive drug tests for users of medical marijuana," Judge Robert Kugler wrote in his decision. He also noted that "unless expressly provided for by statute, most courts have concluded that the decriminalization of medical marijuana does not shield employees from adverse employment actions."

International

Bolivia President Says He Wants to Return to Coca Farming, But Country Wants Him. President Evo Morales said Thursday he will seek a fourth term in office, citing broad popular support. "The people ask me to return, I do not want to... I want to return to my region to harvest coca, that's the great desire I have, but it is not easy to reject it when the people push you," Morales said. Morales has led the country since 2006, during which period poverty levels have fallen by 3.5%.

Egypt "Synthetic Hashish" Ban. The Health Ministry this week officially banned six forms of "synthetic hashish," or synthetic cannabinoids. The ministry said the ban applied to six "extremely addictive" substances, but it did not provide the technical names for the banned substances.

Mexican State Moving to Legalize Opium Production for Pharmaceutical Purposes. A legislative committee in the state of Guerrero, Mexico's opium production epicenter, has approved a draft bill to decriminalize the production and sale of opium for pharmaceutical purposes. If the bill is approved by the state legislature, it would then be sent to the federal congress for approval. The law is designed to reduce the impact of federal law enforcement on local producers, but critics worry such a law could be used fraudulently by drug cartels supplying heroin to the US.

Chronicle AM: House Passes "Dangerous" SITSA Act, NY Adds MedMJ for Opioids, More... (6/18/18)

Arizona Republicans go one way, Texas Republicans go another; the House passes the SITSA Act, New York will allow medical marijuana for opioid use, and more.

The House has passed a new, old school drug war bill. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Poll: Arizona Republicans Still Don't Like Weed. A new poll from OH Predictive Insights finds that nearly three-quarters of state Republican primary voters oppose marijuana legalization. Only 21% were in favor. Still, a marijuana legalization nearly passed statewide in 2016.

Top New York Health Official Says Cuomo Panel Will Endorse Legalization. Dr. Howard Zucker, the state's top health regulator, said Monday a Cuomo administration panel will recommend that the state legalize marijuana. "We looked at the pros. We looked at the cons… the pros outweigh the cons," Zucker said of the panel's work.

Texas GOP Endorses Marijuana Decriminalization, More. At the party's state convention this past weekend, delegates approved platform planks calling for the decriminalization of marijuana possession, support for hemp farming, expanding access to medical marijuana, and calling for the rescheduling of marijuana.

Medical Marijuana

New York Health Department of Health Announces Opioid Use to be Added as a Qualifying Condition for Medical Marijuana. The Health Department on Monday announced it will develop a regulatory amendment to add opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana. "The opioid epidemic in New York State is an unprecedented crisis, and it is critical to ensure that providers have as many options as possible to treat patients in the most effective way," said New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker. "As research indicates that marijuana can reduce the use of opioids, adding opioid use as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana has the potential to help save countless lives across the state." Opioid use joins 12 other qualifying conditions under the state's Medical Marijuana Program. Currently, patients can be eligible if they have been diagnosed with one or more of the following severe debilitating or life-threatening conditions: cancer; HIV infection or AIDS; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS); Parkinson's disease; multiple sclerosis; spinal cord injury with spasticity; epilepsy; inflammatory bowel disease; neuropathy; Huntington's disease; post-traumatic stress disorder; or chronic pain.

Drug Policy

House Passes SITSA Act. Over the protests of drug reform and other groups, the House last Friday approved HR 2851, the Stop Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act. The bill has already passed out of committee and awaits a House floor vote. The bill is an old-school drug war response to new psychoactive substances that relies heavily on the criminal justice system. The Drug Policy Alliance called the bill "dangerous" because it grants the Justice Department "broad new powers to ban synthetic analog drugs, decide what the sentences should be, and take away the requirement for Congressional oversight that has been in place for 40 years." The bill now heads to the Senate.

International

France Poll for First Time Finds Majority for Marijuana Legalization. A new poll from the Institut français d'opinion publique (Ifop) for Terra Nova and Echo Citoyen, a think tank and a citizens' political group, for the first time reports a majority for legalization. The poll had support at 51%, with 40% opposed and 9% undecided. The poll marks a "turning point," said Thierry Pech, head of Terra Nova. "French people made the finding that prohibition and repression did not work to preserve the health of users," Pech said. Under current French law, pot possession is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of more than $4,000.

Chronicle AM: SITSA Act Draws Opposition, Congress MedMJ Protections Advance, More... (6/15/18)

The Justice Department is once again likely to be barred from using its funds to go after state-legal medical marijuana, a broad coalition opposes the fast-moving SITSA Act, Portugal's parliament approves medical marijuana products, and more.

Congress is moving once again to bar the Justice Department from spending funds to go after state-legal medical marijuana.
Medical Marijuana

Senate Panel Approves Medical Marijuana Protections. The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved an amendment that shields legal medical marijuana operations from federal interference. The amendment to the Justice Department appropriations bill bars the department from using its funds to go after state-legal medical marijuana. A similar measure was approved in the House version of the bill.

Maine Supreme Court Rules Workmen's Compensation Doesn't Cover Medical Marijuana. In a ruling Thursday, the state Supreme Court held that employers do not have to pay for medical marijuana under the state's workers' compensation system. In a 5-2 ruling, the court held that federal law takes precedence and that making employers pay for medical marijuana would force them to violate federal law.

Drug Policy

Broad Coalition Opposes SITSA Act. A coalition of human rights, civil liberties, civil rights, religious, and drug policy reform groups have come out strongly in opposition to HR 2851, the Stop Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act of 2017. The fast-moving bill has already passed out of committee and awaits a House floor vote. The bill is an old-school drug war response to new psychoactive substances that relies heavily on the criminal justice system. "If passed, HR 2851 will broadly expand penalties for drug offenses, concentrate power within the Department of Justice, punish people who lack criminal intent, and overcriminalize certain behavior," the groups said in a letter released on Thursday. "The legislation attempts to address the very real problem of synthetic opioid overdoses in the United States, but we believe that its methods are misguided. Instead of punishing people who use drugs and low-level dealers, legislation should focus on expanding treatment opportunities and targeting the international drug trade."

Sentencing

Rhode Island House Passes Law Lengthening Prison Sentences for Dealers Who Sold Drugs in Fatal Overdoses. The House on Thursday approved "Kristen's Law," House Bill 7715, which creates a new crime of drug-related homicide and imposes penalties of up to life in prison for people who sell drugs linked to fatal drug overdoses. The bill now heads to the Senate.

International

Portugal Parliament Approves Marijuana-Based Medicines. The parliament on Friday overwhelmingly approved a bill to allow marijuana-based medicines, but only after earlier rejecting a proposal to allow patients to grow their own medicine. While Portugal decriminalized drug possession in 2001, it has lagged behind the US and other European countries when it comes to medical marijuana. The bill now goes to President Marcelo Rebelo de Souza to be signed into law.

Chronicle AM: Decrim Vote in Albuquerque, Bad "Fake Weed" in Illinois, More... (4/3/18)

A legalization bill fails in Arizona, another one sputters in Connecticut, a bad batch of synthetic cannabinoids is wreaking havoc in Illinois, and more.

Apparently contaminated synthetic cannabinoids in Illinois have left two dead, dozens injured. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Arizona Legalization Fails Dies in Statehouse. There will be no legalization via the legislature in Phoenix this year after lawmakers refused to act on a measure that would have put the issue before the voters. HCR 2037 had been assigned to three different committees, but never got any action in any of them. Sponsors Reps. Todd Clodfelter (R-Phoenix) and Mark Cardenas (D-Phoenix) vow to try again next year.

Connecticut Legalization Bill Gets Committee Hearing. The House Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee held a hearing on a legalization bill, House Bill 5582, on Monday, making it the fourth committee to hold a hearing on marijuana legalization this session. But the bill is unlikely to pass this year since one committee has already rejected it and another will not be voting on whether to advance it. At the hearing, the Office of Fiscal Analysis reported that the state could expect tax revenues from pot at between $30 million and $63 million, depending on the tax model used.

Albuquerque City Council Votes to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession. City council members voted Monday night on a party line vote to decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana. Offenders would be hit with a $25 fine on a first offense. A similar measure passed in 2015, only to be vetoed by the mayor. But now there's a new mayor, so stay tuned.

New Psychoactive Substances

Illinois Sees Bad Synthetic Cannabinoids Kill Two, Leave Dozens Bleeding. Synthetic cannabinoids apparently cut with rat poison have killed two people in Illinois and left 56 others experiencing severe bleeding. The bad dope has shown up in Chicago and the central part of the state, the Department of Public Health said Monday.

Asset Forfeiture

Kansas Governor Signs Minor Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill. Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) has signed into law House Bill 2459, which would make small reforms in the state's civil asset forfeiture law. Under the bill, police who seize property will have to report on what they took and how they used the seized property.

Chronicle AM: Bernie Sanders Marijuana Petition, Dutch Bank Gets Huge Money Laundering Fine, More... (2/9/18)

A Bernie Sanders petition calls for marijuana legalization and an end to the drug war, a Dutch bank gets hit with a massive fine for cartel money laundering, New York's governor takes flak from drug reform groups on a couple of fronts, and more.

Bernie Sanders launches a petition calling for marijuana legalization and end to the drug war. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Bernie Sanders Petition Asks Congress to Legalize Marijuana. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has sent out an online petition to his email list subscribers asking Congress to legalize marijuana and "end the war on drugs." In 2015, Sanders filed the first ever marijuana legalization bill in Congress. Even though the petition is unlikely to lead to any results while Republicans control the Congress, it will help Sanders burnish his credentials as a leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Arizona Legalization Bill Filed. Reps. Mark Cardenas (D-Phoenix) and Todd Clodfelter (R-Tucson) filed a marijuana legalization bill Thursday. HCR 2037 would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of pot, allow for the cultivation of up to six plants, and create a system of taxed and regulated marijuana production and sales. Voters narrowly rejected a legalization initiative there in 2016.

New Jersey Legalization Hearing Set for Next Month. Assemblyman Joseph Danielsen (D-Somerset), chairman of the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations Committee, said Thursday the committee will hold a hearing on marijuana legalization on March 5. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) campaigned on marijuana legalization and reiterated that pledge during his inaugural address last month.

Seattle to Expunge Past Marijuana Convictions. Following the lead of San Francisco, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Thursday the city is moving to automatically clear past misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession. "For thousands of people in Washington state, a misdemeanor marijuana conviction had huge implications: It could be a barrier to housing, to getting credit, to getting good jobs and education," Mayor Jenny Durkan told a news conference. "It is a necessary step to right the wrongs of what was a failed war on drugs." Voters in Washington state approved marijuana legalization in 2012.

Medical Marijuana

Illinois Bill to Let People Prescribed Opioids Get Temporary Medical Marijuana Cards Advances. The Senate Executive Committee approved Senate Bill 336 on Wednesday. The bill would allow people who have been prescribed opioids to apply for a temporary medical cannabis card. If passed, those prescribed opioids would be able to participate in the program if their applications are approved by the state. The background check and fingerprinting process normally required for applicants of the program would also be waived that first year because of the urgency of the crisis.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

New York Drug Reform, Harm Reduction Groups Criticize Governor's Move to Stiffen Fentanyl Analog Penalties. The Harm Reduction Coalition, the Drug Policy Alliance, and VOCAL-NY are among the organizations calling out Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) over his move to add 11 fentanyl analogs to the state's controlled substances schedule, a change that would increase the number of fentanyl varieties that would garner top felony charges. "The governor boasts about giving law enforcement the tools they need to make more arrests, but says nothing about providing people at risk of overdose the tools they need to survive," Daniel Raymond of the Harm Reduction Coalition said Thursday. "We won't end the overdose crisis by filling up jail cells."

New Synthetic Substances

New York Drug Reform Groups Criticize Governor's Move to Further Criminalize Synthetic Cannabinoids. The Manhattan-based Drug Policy Alliance and the drug user group VOCAL-NY are opposing Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) call to further criminalize the sale of synthetic cannabinoids, also referred to as "synthetic marijuana" or "K2." Such laws do little to curb use, do nothing to increase public health and safety in New York State, and undermine the ability of the state to effectively prevent minors from obtaining the substances, the groups said. The state should just legalize marijuana instead, the groups said.

International

Dutch Bank Hit With $369 Million Fine for Laundering Mexico Drug Cartel Money. The Dutch bank Rabobank has been fined $369 million by the US government after it admitted handling millions in illicit funds, the Justice Department announced Wednesday. The bank also pleaded guilty to obstructing the investigation in trying to avoid repeating sanctions imposed on it in 2006 and 2008 for "nearly identical failures," DOJ said. "When Rabobank learned that substantial numbers of its customers' transactions were indicative of international narcotics trafficking, organized crime, and money laundering activities, it chose to look the other way and to cover up deficiencies in its anti-money laundering program," Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan said. A former Rabobank vice president, George Martin, entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the US concerning his role in the case, according to the DOJ. He admitted -- in a federal court in San Diego in December -- to playing a role in setting up the policies that prevented additional controls. The bank will also have to pay a $50 million penalty to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Chronicle AM: DEA Emergency Ban on Fentanyl Analogs, Fox Legalization Poll, More... (2/7/18)

A Fox poll has support for legalization at an all-time high, Colorado's governor ponders freeing marijuana prisoners, the DEA emergency bans fentanyl analogues, New York's governor bans synthetic cannabinoids, and more.

Marijuana Policy

Fox News Poll Has Support for Marijuana Legalization at Record High. A new Fox News poll has the poll's highest numbers yet in support of freeing the weed. Some 59% said legalize it, up from 51% in 2015, 46% in 2013, and 26% in 2001. The Fox poll results are in line with other national polls, which are now typically showing support for legalization in the high 50s or low 60s.

Colorado Governor Ponders Freeing Marijuana Prisoners. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) is considering releasing nearly 40 prison inmates serving time for nonviolent marijuana offenses. "Right now, we have not enough room left in our prisons. So if what these people are serving serious time for wasn't violent -- is no longer illegal -- maybe we should be looking at (whether) it safe to release them," he said in an interview with The Denver Post. "We are talking about going out and finding people who are still in prison, and saying, 'If you want to apply we think your application will have favor,'" Hickenlooper said.

Virginia Poll Has Strong Support for Decriminalization. A new poll from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University has support for decriminalization at 76%, with even 60% of Republicans in favor. The poll comes a week after Republicans in the state Senate killed a decriminalization bill.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

DEA Emergency Schedules All Illicit Fentanyl Analogs. The US Drug Enforcement Administration this week placed all illicit fentanyl analogues not already regulated by the Controlled Substances Act into Schedule I -- the category for substances with no currently accepted medical use -- for two years, with the possibility of a one-year extension. The action is intended to reduce these substances' flow into the country and slow the alarming increase in overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids, but time will tell.

Kratom

FDA Ramps Up Warnings on Kratom, Calls It "Opioid." The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday ramped up its warnings about kratom, saying that new research says the herb has "opioid properties" and is linked to 44 deaths. "We feel confident in calling compounds found in kratom, opioids," FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in a statement. New data has reinforced the agency concerns about kratom's "potential for abuse, addiction and serious health consequences, including death."

New Synthetic Substances

New York Governor Uses Temporary Budget Amendment to Ban Sales of Synthetic Cannabinoids. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced Wednesday a 30-day budget amendment to add 36 different synthetic cannabinoids to the state's controlled substance list. While the substances are banned federally, only some New York counties had banned them. "As the manufacturers of this poison continue to evolve and find new and insidious ways to skirt the law, New York's statutes must continue to keep pace," Cuomo said. "With this action, we'll continue to identify and crack down on hazardous compounds that emerge in our communities, and give law enforcement the tools they need to end this public health threat."

International

Canada Legalization Rollout Could Be Delayed. Federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Tuesday that recreational marijuana sales will only begin a few months after legalization later this year because the new legal sales system will take time to begin working properly. The Liberal government wants the new law in place by July 1, but if it takes until that date, legal sales could be pushed back to the fall.

Israel Prime Minister Blocks Medical Marijuana Exports, Calls for More Studies. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suspended plans to allow Israeli medical marijuana growers to export their crops pending new reviews by the Health Ministry and the chairman of the National Economic Council. The move came after a Sunday meeting where Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan presented data on the diversion of medical marijuana into recreational markets.

Drug War Issues

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