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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Afghanistan Remains the World's Opium Breadbasket

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Mexico's Brutal Drug Wars

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

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

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

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

6. Latin America Breaks Away from US Drug War Hegemony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. And Heroin Maintenance, Too

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

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

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

9. New Drugs, New Markets

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

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

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

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

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

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

10.Massacring Drug Suspects in Southeast Asia

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

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

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

Chronicle AM: FDA Opens Public Comment on International Scheduling of New Drugs, More... (8/15/17)

It's the mid-August doldrums, but the FDA has opened public comment on whether and where to schedule a bunch of new drugs -- and CBD! -- under the international drug control treaties, the NBA's commissioner hints he's softening his stance on marijuana, and more.

A bunch of fentanyl analogs are among the new drugs -- and CBD! -- being considered for global scheduling. (Wikimedia)
Medical Marijuana

NBA Head Hints Openness to Examining Medical Marijuana. National Basketball Association (NBA) Commissioner Adam Silver, who has been a staunch foe of relaxing the league's marijuana policy, hinted on a recent trip to Israel that he may be changing his mind. When asked by a reporter about whether the NBA would follow the more pot-friendly NFL's lead, Silver responded thusly in remarks quoted by Uproxx: "I would say it's something we will look at," Silver said. "I'm very interested in the science when it comes to medical marijuana. My personal view is that it should be regulated in the same way that other medications are if the plan is to use it for pain management. And it's something that needs to be discussed with our Players Association, but to the extent that science demonstrates that there are effective uses for medical reasons, we'll be open to it. Hopefully there’s not as much pain involved in our sport as some others, so there’s not as much need for it."

Maryland Regulators Approve Eight More Cultivation Licenses. The state's medical marijuana regulators on Monday gave final approval for licenses for eight medical marijuana cultivation companies. Previously, only one grower had received a license. More growers are needed to provide product for the state's anticipated 102 dispensaries.

Drug Policy

FDA Opens Public Comment on New Drugs Considered for International Scheduling. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has published a notice in the Federal Register announcing a 30-day public comment period for persons or organizations wishing to weigh in on whether and where a number of unscheduled drugs should be included in the restrictive drug schedules of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The substances under consideration include several fentanyl analogs, some new psychoactive substances (AB-PINACA, AB-CHMINACA), pregabalin, tramadol, ketamine, and cannabidiol. You have until September 13 to file comments.

Chronicle AM: Groups Oppose New Fed Bill, Still no DEA Research Grow Licenses, More... (7/5/17)

Drug reformers and others are trying to stop a bill that would give Attorney General Sessions new powers to criminalize new drugs and craft new penalties, after a year the DEA still hasn't issued any new marijuana research grow licenses, and more.

Civil rights, human rights, criminal justice, and drug policy reform groups are mobilizing to stop a new drug war bill.
Marijuana Policy

DEA Still Hasn't Issued Any New Marijuana Grower Licenses. Almost a year after the DEA announced it would allow more organizations to produce marijuana for research purposes, it has yet to do so. Although DEA has received 25 applications for research grows, it says it is still processing them and has no estimate for when any applications may be granted. There is increasing demand for research marijuana, as well as for more potent, more diverse, and higher quality marijuana than is being produced by the University of Mississippi under a NIDA monopoly it has enjoyed since 1968.

Massachusetts Lawmakers Get Back to Work on Crafting Legalization Implementation. The legislature missed a self-imposed Friday deadline for reaching agreement on competing legalization implementation bills in the House and Senate and the marijuana conference committee was set to meet today to try to seek agreement. Two big issues of dispute are tax rates and whether localities can ban pot businesses without a popular vote.

Industrial Hemp

West Virginia Joins the Ranks of Legal Hemp States. As of Tuesday, state residents can apply to the agriculture commissioner for a license to grow hemp for commercial purposes. Some growers grew hemp crops last year, but those were licensed research grows. Now, those growers can be licensed as commercial growers, too.

Drug Policy

Dozens of Reform Groups Send Letter to Congress Opposing New Drug War Bill. More than 60 civil rights, human rights, faith, criminal justice, and drug policy reform organization have sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee opposing House Resolution 2851, the Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues Act of 2017. The measure is part of Attorney General Sessions' effort to reenergize the war on drugs and would give him sweeping new powers to schedule new drugs and set corresponding penalties, including new mandatory minimums. Similar legislation by Sens. Grassley and Feinstein has been filed in the Senate.

Chronicle AM: DE Legalization Bill Filed, WV MedMJ Bill Fast Tracked, More... (3/31/17)

A marijuana legalization bill gets filed in Delaware, a medical marijuana bill gets fast tracked in West Virginia, a South African court rules to free the weed, the Argentine Senate okays CBD cannabis oil, and more.

It looks like West Virginia is about to hop on the medical marijuana bandwagon. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Delaware Lawmakers Filed Legalization Bill. State Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Dover) and cosponsors filed House Bill 110 on Thursday. The bill would legalize the possession of up to an ounce by adults 21 and over and to purchase it from state-regulated stores. The bill does not allow people to grow their own. It imposes a $50 an ounce tax on buds and a $15 an ounce tax on other parts of the plant. It now heads to the House Finance and Revenue Committee, which must hold a hearing within 12 days.

Medical Marijuana

Maryland Legislators Propose Using Marijuana to Treat Opioid Addiction. A House of Delegates committee has added "opioid use disorder" to the list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use. The bill was set to be heard by the House Friday.

West Virginia House Fast Tracks Medical Marijuana Bill. Less than a day after the Senate approved a full-fledged medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 386, the House has put it on path to quick consideration. The bill passed the Senate Wednesday, and on Thursday, the House voted to allow the bill to skip consideration by committees there and proceed directly to House floor debate. The move came in response to constituent pressure. "Like every member of this body, I can't count the number of emails and phone calls I received on this subject today," said Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha.

New Psychoactive Substances

Federal Bill Would Add New "Designer Drugs" to CSA's Schedule I. US Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA) has filed House Resolution 1732, the Synthetic Drug Control Act of 2017. It adds dozens of substances to Schedule I of the Controlled Substance Act, including phenylalkylamines, cannabimimetic agents, arylcyclohexamines, tryptamines, benzodiazepines, benzylpiperidines, piperazines, and opioids and opioid-like substances. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary and House Energy and Commerce committees.

Law Enforcement

Federal Bill Would Create Program to Divert Low-Level Drug Offenders. US Rep. Sean Maloney (D-NY has filed House Resolution 1763, the Keeping Communities Safe Through Treatment Act of 2017. The bill directs the Justice Department to create a pilot program to provide grants to localities to divert people with low-level drug offenses into treatment programs before they are booked. It has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

International

Argentine Senate Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The Senate on Wednesday gave final legislative approval to a bill allowing the use of CBD cannabis oil for medical reasons and setting up a regulatory framework for state-run cultivation, processing, and distribution. Until the state-run system is up and running, CBD imports will be allowed.

South Africa High Court Rules Adults Can Possess Marijuana at Home. The Western Cape High Court ruled on Friday that it's legal for adults to use, possess, and grow marijuana at home. The court also ruled that sections of the Drug Trafficking act and the Medicines Control Act must be amended to comply with the decision. The decision isn't final yet, though -- it must be confirmed by the Constitutional Court.

Chronicle AM: CO Senate Passes Pot Club Bill, Pentagon Expands Recruit Drug Testing, More... (3/10/17)

The Pentagon adds a bunch of opioids and new synthetics to the drug panel it uses to test new recruits, a Colorado bill to allow social marijuana consumption advances, Canada doesn't take kindly to Marc and Jodie Emery's latest efforts, and more.

DOD is expanding the panel of drugs for which it tests new recruits. (Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Senate Approves Bill to Allow Marijuana Social Clubs. The state Senate on Thursday voted to approve Senate Bill 184, which would allow local governments to permit BYOB cannabis clubs, as long as the businesses seeking them do not serve alcohol or food beyond light snacks. The bill doesn't specify whether indoor smoking would be allowed, which means a private club with no more than three employees could allow it under state smoking laws. The bill now goes to the House.

Medical Marijuana

West Virginia House Kills Surprise Bid to Reschedule Marijuana. Seeing that medical marijuana legislation was going nowhere in Charleston, Delegate Shawn Fluharty (D-Ohio) attempted to inset an amendment into a routine drug scheduling bill that would have moved marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule IV. The amendment excited several hours of debate, but was ultimately killed on a 35-64 vote. "Why are we so scared of helping people?" Fluharty argued in closing floor debate. "That's exactly what this does."

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire House Passes Bill to Close Federal Asset Forfeiture Loophole. The state House voted Thursday to approve House Bill 614, which would bar state law enforcement agencies or prosecutors from agreeing to transfer seized property to the federal government unless that seized property includes more than $100,000 in cash. That would end the loophole through which cops and prosecutors seek to end-run a 2016 law that barred civil forfeiture in most cases. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Drug Testing

Pentagon Announces Expanded Drug Testing of New Recruits. The Defense Department is expanding the drug testing of new recruits to include the same 26-drug panel used for active military members. The change will be effective April 3. Currently, recruits are only tested for four substances -- marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and MDMA -- but the new drug test will also look for heroin, codeine, morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, oxymorphone, and a number of synthetic cannabinoids and benzodiazepine sedatives.

International

Canadian Cops Raid Marc and Jodie Emery's Cannabis Culture Stores. Police on Thursday morning raided Cannabis Culture stores in Ottawa, Toronto, and Vancouver, as owners Marc and Jodie Emery awaited bail hearings in Toronto. The well-known marijuana reform couple were arrested Wednesday night at the Toronto airport on their way to a cannabis expo in Spain. Police raided seven Cannabis Culture stores and two residences, Toronto police said. The Emerys have been selling marijuana at the shops without waiting for Canada to actually get around to legalizing it.

Filipino Lawmakers Approve Medical Marijuana. The Philippines House on Wednesday approved a bill to allow for the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. The move comes as the government of President Rodrigo Duterte wages bloody war on other drug users and sellers. The legislation approved by the House would create a government-issued ID card for patients and designates certain qualifying diseases and conditions, as well as allowing for caregivers and dispensaries.

Chronicle AM: Obama Commutes More Sentences, ME Pot Opponents Give Up on Recount, More... (12/19/16)

President Obama has just commuted the sentences of another 153 drug offenders, Maine legalization foes concede their recount isn't going anywhere, Marc Emery's Montreal pot shops get raided in a hurry, and more.

Obama meets with prisoners at the El Reno, Oklahoma, federal detention facility. (whitehouse.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Guam Governor Calls for Marijuana Legalization. Guamanian Gov. Eddie Calvo (R) says it's time to legalize it. "I want us to look at how states navigated into recreational marijuana," Calvo, a Republican, said in a Facebook post on Monday. "Let's figure it out and then tax the heck out of it and use those taxes to help fund our hospital, public safety and education." The comments come just days after Calvo vetoed a bill that would have allowed medical marijuana patients to grow their own, saying it would "impose new and different duties upon our health and law enforcement agencies that will deplete their already strained resources."

Maine Legalization Opponents Give Up on Recount. The anti-legalization group that challenged the narrow victory of Question 1 in last month's elections has given up the ghost. No on 1 said Saturday it was apparent that the recount would not change the outcome. "We promised folks that if we came to a point where we could not see any chance of reversing the result, we would not drag the process out,"said Newell Augur, legal counsel for the No on 1 campaign. "We are satisfied that the count and the result are accurate." Now, the election result can be certified by the secretary of state, and legalization should go into effect sometime next month.

Medical Marijuana

Imprisoned California Dispensary Operators Seek Presidential Commutation. Luke Scarmazzo and Ricardo Montes operated a medical marijuana dispensary in Modesto, California, until their arrest by federal drug agents 10 years ago. They were prosecuted and convicted of federal drug crimes for their efforts and sentenced to 21 years 10 months and 20 years, respectively. Now, they are formally seeking sentence commutations from President Obama, who has cut the sentences of more than a thousand other federal drug prisoners so far this year. The pair point out that they would not have been prosecuted under current federal policies largely turning a blind eye to marijuana in states where it is legal, whether recreationally or merely for medical purposes.

Pardons and Commutations

Obama Issues Another Round of Sentence Commutations. The White House announced Monday that President Obama has commuted the sentences of another 153 federal prisoners, bringing the total this year to more than 1,100. A list of the prisoners and their offenses is not yet available, but Obama's earlier commutations had been directed almost entirely at people serving draconian drug sentences.

International

Marc Emery's Montreal Pot Shops Raided One Day After Opening. Long-time Canadian pot gadfly Emery and nine others were arrested after a series of raids Friday on his chain of Cannabis Culture pot shops. While Canada is moving to legalize marijuana, it hasn't done so yet, and authorities are working to keep the lid on the bubbling industry. Emery slammed Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre for the raids. "The mayor's behavior is despicable," he said. "If the mayor of Montreal wants to keep his city backward, behind and full of oppression, then that is the statement he just made to the world." As conditions of his bond, Emery cannot consume marijuana, communicate with anyone involved in the Cannabis Culture shops, or be in the province of Quebec except to show up for court dates.

China Denies Being Source of New Synthetic Drugs. Chinese officials have called assertions that China is the source of synthetic opioids linked to the deaths of thousands of drug users "unsubstantiated." Such statements "lack the support of sufficient numbers of actual, confirmed cases," China's National Narcotics Control Commission told DEA's Beijing office in a fax dated Friday. The DEA has said that China is the predominant source of fentanyl, the synthetic opioid many times more powerful than heroin, which has been implicated in thousands of drug overdose deaths.

Chronicle AM: More Obama Commutations, FL Face-Biting Killer Wasn't on Synthetics, More... (11/23/16)

The president continues to exercise his commutation power on behalf of drug war prisoners, the Florida face-biting killer was not on any new psychoactive substances, Montana activists want their medical marijuana program to restart now, not later, and more.

Obama meets with prisoners at the El Reno, Oklahoma, federal detention facility. (whitehouse.gov)
Medical Marijuana

Montana Activists File Suit to Force Early Action on Patient Cards. In the wake of last week's vote to reinstate the state's medical marijuana program, the Montana Cannabis Industry Association has filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Department of Health and Human Services to immediately begin processing and issuing medical marijuana cards. The language of the ballot measure means the state has until next summer to act, but the MCIA doesn't want to dally.

New Psychoactive Substances

Florida Face-Biting Killer Wasn't on Bath Salts, Flakka. Austin Harrouff, the Florida man charged in the face-biting slaying of a neighbor couple was not under the influence of new psychoactive substances, an autopsy report released Wednesday revealed. Early press and law enforcement commentary had suggested Harrouff was high on bath salts (methcathinone) or flakka (alpha-PVP), but the autopsy revealed only prescription medications and a "minimal" amount of THC in his system. "Austin is struggling with severe mental illness and the judicial process will bear all of this out in due time," his attorney, Nellie King said.

Sentencing

Obama Announces More Commutations, Total Now Over a Thousand. President Obama Wednesday announced that he was commuting the sentences of 79 more drug offenders sentenced under draconian drug laws dating back to the 1980s. That brings the total of commutations under Obama to more than one thousand, which is more than the list 11 presidents combined. Thousands more commutations requests filed in response to an Obama administration call in 2014 remain pending as the clock ticks down on Obama's time in office.

International

Cayman Islands Legalizes CBD Cannabis Oil. Gov. Helen Kilpatrick last week signed into law legislation allowing for the use of CBD cannabis oil in the island nation. The oil can be used for the treatment of conditions including epilepsy and cancer and as a pain reliever for arthritis symptoms. The law does not allow for marijuana to be grown in the country, but the legislature last month passed a separate law allowing for the importation of CBD cannabis oil.

Chronicle AM: ME Recount Possible, DEA Bans "Pink," WI Welfare Drug Tests Start, More... (11/14/16)

Cannabis cafes are coming, Maine legalization foes seek a recount, Massachusetts legislators are threatening to "improve" the legalization initiative, the DEA bans "pink," and more.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte wants to get rid of habeas corpus as he wages lethal drug war. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia
Marijuana

Marijuana Victories Will See Cannabis Cafes Coming. The victories for marijuana legalization initiatives in California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada last week will set the stage for social marijuana consumption at licensed venues. Three of the states make provisions for social consumption, while the fourth leaves the issue for legislators. And in Denver, voters approved a local initiative that will allow local businesses to designate "consumption areas" for customers who bring their own weed.

Maine Legalization Foes Seek Recount After Narrow Defeat. Unofficially, the Question 1 legalization initiative won by a mere 5,000 votes out of about 750,000 cast, and that's too close a call for the "no" campaign to just accept. "No" spokesmen are threatening to seek a recount. They have until the end of work Wednesday to collect a hundred signatures in order to seek a recount from the secretary of state's office.

Massachusetts Legislators Turn Eyes on "Improving" Legalization Initiative. Senate President Stan Rosenberg said last Thursday said the Question 4 initiative will need "improvements" to address issues such as marijuana sales taxes, infused edible products, and driving while high. Rosenberg said the legislature could take up the issues shortly after returning in January. But the Question 4 campaign pushed back, saying that legislators should "respect the will of the voters," let regulators do their job crafting regulations, then see if anything needs fixing.

New Psychoactive Substances

DEA Bans Synthetic Opioid Known as "Pink." Using its emergency scheduling powers, the DEA has banned the synthetic opioid U-47700, commonly known as "pink." Effective today, the drug is now a Schedule I controlled substance. The drug has been linked to dozens of confirmed fatalities, and is now banned for 24 months while the DEA decides if it should be permanently placed in Schedule I.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin Welfare Drug Testing Starts Today. As of Monday, people seeking welfare benefits will be subject to drug testing. Republican Gov. Scott Walker painted the move as helping families and employers. "Employers across the state frequently tell me they have good-paying jobs available in high-demand fields, but need their workers to be drug-free," Walker said in a statement. "These important entitlement reforms will help more people find family-supporting jobs, moving them from government dependence to true independence."

International

Philippines President Threatens Drug War Suspension of Habeas Corpus. President Rodrigo Duterte said he is considering suspending habeas corpus because it's just too much work to build cases against individual drug suspects. And he doesn't worry about legality. "I am the president. Of course I have the powers," he said Friday. "I can be ordered by the Supreme Court to stop it, but there are things that they cannot, and maybe, I will not, stop I can go to jail. File all the charges that you can think of. But this country, in my time, will not deteriorate any further." The Philippines constitution says the president may suspend habeas corpus "in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it."

Berlin Set to Move on Marijuana Liberalization. The city's governing coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and the Left Party has agreed to push for partial decriminalization of marijuana. The move would require a waiver from federal authorities to allow experimenting with drug policies that contradict the Federal Intoxicants Law.

Chronicle AM: CA Legalization Ads Roll Out, NFL Bans "Synthetic Marijuana," More... (10/6/16)

Tennessee's two largest cities have semi-decriminalized small-time marijuana possession, California pro-legalization ads roll out, the NFL bans "fake weed," and more.

Marijuana Policy

California Marijuana Legalization Ads Hit the Airwaves Statewide. TV ads in support of marijuana legalization hit the airwaves Monday up and down the state of California. The campaign's ads in support of Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, are running on both broadcast and cable channels. The first ad highlights in a straightforward way how the tough restrictions will keep marijuana out of the hands of young people. It explains how only adults 21 and older will be allowed to purchase at licensed businesses. The initiative bans ads directed at kids, there are strict labeling and child proof packaging and would ban edibles that appeal to children. The second ad also reinforces that marijuana will only be legal for adults over 21 and bans marijuana use in public. The ad also explains that the money in new revenue will fund after school job training and placement initiatives.

Maine ACLU Endorses Legalization Initiative."Legalizing, regulating and taxing the use of marijuana by adults 21 and older will bring a new approach to our marijuana laws, making them more fair, more compassionate and better at improving public health and increasing public safety. For those reasons, the ACLU endorses a 'yes' vote on Question 1 in November, wrote ACLU of Maine executive director Alison Beyea.

Memphis Decriminalizes (Sort of). The Memphis city council Tuesday night voted 7-6 to approve an ordinance that gives police the discretion to issue a fine instead of arresting people possessing less than a half ounce of marijuana. Nashville approved a similar ordinance last month. Full decriminalization would make the penalty for small-time possession only a fine and would not give police officers the ability to choose which offenders get ticketed and which get arrested.

Medical Marijuana

Massachusetts Regulators Propose Expansions in Medical Marijuana Program. The Department of Public Health has submitted a collection of proposed changes to the Public Health Council. The proposals include allowing nurse practitioners to certify patients and allowing dispensaries to post prices online. Allowing nurse practitioners to certify would boost patient numbers and allowing online price posting should encourage competition and drive prices down, the department said.

New Psychoactive Substances

NFL Bans "Synthetic Marijuana". The National Football League has added synthetic cannabinoids ("fake weed") to its list of banned substances in an agreement with the NFL Players Association announced Wednesday. Players whose drug tests reveal more than 2.5 nanograms per milliliter of synthetic cannabinoids will be considered in violation of the league's drug policies and subject to intervention and discipline.

Chronicle AM: OR Top Cops Want Defelonization, SC County Wants to Jail Overdosers, More... (9/27/16)

NORML updates its congressional scorecard, Bay State legalizers cry foul over a misleading voter guide, the number of babies suffering from opioid withdrawals has jumped dramatically, Oregon top cops want to defelonize simple drug possession, and more.

Oregon sheriffs and police chiefs jointly call for defelonizing simple drug possession. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

NORML Releases Updated and Revised 2016 Congressional Scorecard. To mark national Voter Registration Day, NORML has released its updated and revised guide to members of Congress. The guide gives letter grades to our representatives based on the comments and voting records. Only 22 of the 535 senators and congressmen got "A" grades, while 32 members got an "F" grade.

Massachusetts Legalizers Cry Foul Over State-Issued Voter Guide. Campaigners behind the Question 4 legalization initiative say a state-issued guide sent to voters across the state inaccurately describes the fiscal consequences of the measure. The guide says they are "difficult to project due to lack of reliable data" and cites a report from a committee headed by a top opponent of legalization to the effect that taxes and fee revenues from legal marijuana sales "may fall short of even covering the full public and social costs. The Yes on 4 campaign points out that there is "reliable data" from legal marijuana states and that those states have easily covered administrative and other expenses.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Study: Number of Babies Born Suffering Withdrawal Symptoms More Than Doubles in Four Years. Researchers studying neonatal abstinence syndrome, which results from withdrawal from opioids to which fetuses were exposed in utero, report that the incidence of the syndrome has jumped from 2.8 cases per thousand live births in 2009 to 7.3 cases in 2013. At least some of the surge may be a result of drug policies aimed at cracking down on prescription drug use. "The drug policies of the early 2000s were effective in reducing supply -- we have seen a decrease in methamphetamine abuse and there have been reductions in some aspects of prescription drug abuse," said lead study author Dr. Joshua Brown. "However, the indirect results, mainly the increase in heroin abuse, were likely not anticipated and we are just starting to see these." The researchers also noted wide variations by state, from 0.7 cases per thousand in Hawaii to 33.4 cases in West Virginia.

New Psychoactive Substances

Bill to Criminalize More New Synthetics Passes House. A bill sponsored by Rep. Charlie Dent (R-TX) to add several new synthetic cannabinoids and opioids to the Controlled Substances Act passed the House Monday. The measure, HR 3537, now goes to the Senate.

Law Enforcement

Oregon Law Enforcement Calls for Defelonizing Drug Possession. The Oregon Association of Police Chiefs and the Oregon State Sheriff's Association have jointly called for people caught with "user amounts" of illegal drugs to face misdemeanor charges -- not felonies -- and be sent to treatment. Elected officials and prosecutors should "craft a more thoughtful approach to drug possession when it is the only crime committed," the top cops said, because felony charges "include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities."

South Carolina County Ponders Mandatory Jail Time for People Who Overdose. The chairman of the county council in Horry County, where Myrtle Beach is located, has inquired during a council meeting about whether to make people who suffer opioid overdoses spend three days in jail. Chairman Mark Lazarus would also like to see mandatory drug treatment required. He added that jailing people who overdose wouldn't discourage them from getting medical help because they're usually unconscious and someone else calls for emergency assistance.

Drug War Issues

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